John Brown, the Transcendentalists & the Passion for Social & Political Change

William Dalsimer

Sunday, December 4, 2005


O, my quiet mind,

take me to a place where I may rest.

Calm me so that I may hear that which matters.

Here may we find strength to live through our days,

days that bring questions larger than we can answer;

days that bring dilemmas we cannot solve.

Here may we find forgiveness

for that which we wish we had not done,

And for that which we have left undone, unfinished, or broken.

Here may we find courage to see our life

in the context of the world,

So that we may know what we need to do,

and what we cannot do;

Courage to speak when speaking is called for;

Courage to be silent when words are useless or gating;

And courage to act when we feel frightened or powerless.

Here may we find hope with which to try again,

and to face whatever flows before us.

May we grow together in our gathering.

Let us be silent together.

On a fall day in October 1857 John Brown lead a group of 21 well armed men, both white and black, in a raid on the Federal Arsenal in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. His purpose was to secure the rifles and arms stored within the Arsenal, to arm slaves who he believed would spontaneously rise up against their masters and join his army of liberation. Then, from their camps in the Smokey Mountains, they would fight a guerilla war throughout the South. He thought that his raid would spark the fires of battle, as he had come to believe that slavery could be ended only by armed conflict.

From a military point of view, the attack on Harpers Ferry was a colossal failure which ended in the deaths of 14 men, including two of John Brown’s own sons. The gravely wounded Brown, along with a few surviving members of his band, were arrested.

Justice was swift in coming. Just ten (10) days later he was tried in a Virginia State Court on charges of treason, inciting slaves to rebellion and murder. After three days, the jury found Brown guilty on all three counts and the court sentenced him to death. On December 2, 1859, 146 years ago, the radical, violent Abolitionist John Brown, age 59, was hung.

In May 1856, some three years before the failed raid on Harper’s Ferry, in a small settlement in the newly opened Nebraska-Kansas territories, along with his sons Frederick, Salmon, Oliver, and Owen and three other followers, “Old Man Brown”, committed heinous acts of frontier justice when in one bloody night he dragged five pro-slavery settlers from their cabins and supervised as his band summarily and brutally killed them. This incident became widely known as the Pottawatomie Massacres. John Brown was no Ferdinand.

A group of eastern intellectuals, grouped around the Boston area and identified as Transcendentalists, and mostly Unitarians, with knowledge of the Pottawatomie Massacres, became Brown’s most ardent supporters. Before the failed Harper’s Ferry raid, the Transcendentalists offered Brown both a forum for his ideas and fund raising opportunities on his travels through New England. They also provided Brown with limited financial support for his activities. As the Unitarian minister Thomas Wentworth Higgens put it at the time, they were “willing to invest money in treason.” More importantly, after the raid on Harper’s Ferry, during his brief trial and the mere seven weeks of incarceration before his execution they spoke and wrote of him, waxed poetic, extolling his virtues, his cause and the justification for his military actions. They overcame a rising tide of negative commentary about Brown, putting a more than positive spin on the man and his questionable acts.

As David Reynolds points out in his new biography, “John Brown, Abolitionist”:

“Had the Transcendentalists not sanctified the arch-abolitionist John Brown, he may have very well remained an obscure tangential figure-a forgettable oddball. And had that happened, the suddenly intense polarization between North and South that followed Harpers Ferry might not have occurred.”

Thanks to men such as Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker and women such as Julia Ward Howe, John Brown took his seat in the Pantheon of American greats and we all learned the song John Brown’s Body and the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

Thoreau in a widely distributed address to the citizens of Concord said:

“Some eighteen hundred years ago Christ was crucified; this morning, perchance, Captain Brown was hung. These are the two ends of a chain which is not without its links. He is not Old Brown any longer; he is an angel of light.”

Emerson, a former Unitarian minister and the most famous speaker and intellectual of his day, the “Sage of Concord”, in a speech on Courage delivered in Boston on November 8,1859 referring to the incarcerated Brown, said , “That new saint, than whom none purer or more brave was ever led by love of men into conflict and death,-the new saint awaiting his martyrdom, and who, if he shall suffer, will make the gallows glorious like the cross.”

Transcendentalists were a loose and self defined group which came together in the mid 1830’s. This group included such luminaries as the then present or former Unitarian ministers Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, Thomas Wentworth Higgins as well as Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Bronson and Louisa May Alcott, Julia Ward Howe, and William Henry Channing -writers, poets, social reformers, feminists, ministers, naturalists, utopian dreamers. Although like-minded, it is said that no two of them thought alike. They sought to explore the spiritual within the human body and the innate worth of the individual in the search for truth and right, the beautiful and the natural.

Transcendentalism rejected the narrow definition which the term “Christian” implied when referring to God but offered no creed. They sought a philosophy with a broad moral and aesthetic appeal – a union of the physical and spiritual world. They tended to deemphasize the growing materialism of their times. They protested a lack of religious

feeling and enthusiasm among the mainstream Unitarians who they accused of relying on an exaggerated rationalism. They rejected everything formalistic, authoritarian or doctrinaire in religion. And while many individuals who identified themselves as Transcendentalists may have held progressive social and political views, they were not by and large focused on social and political issues but rather issues of a more literary, artistic and spiritual nature.

I was raised a Unitarian in the 40’s and 50’s. My early heroes where figures such as Gandhi and his beliefs and acts of passive resistance, Thoreau and his notions of Civil (and I stress “civil” ) Disobedience, Albert Schweitzer and his concepts of the “reverence for life”, the Dalai Lama, Siddhartha-the Buddha in their concept of mindfulness in an ever speeding world, Jesus, the carpenters son and his lessons of love and compassion and yes, even Ferdinand, the peaceful bull. The idea that my Unitarian forbearers supported a cold-blooded killer, a man who committed indefensible acts even in pursuit of a most noble cause troubled me. That the Transcendentalists “sanctified” John Brown, yea even deified him, (metaphorically speaking), and eventually magnified him to Christ-like proportions just didn’t fit into my religious, spiritual, philosophical Unitarian roots.

I would have expected these Transcendentalists, comprised of many renegade Unitarians to have embraced a more peaceful route to end slavery as espoused by such luminaries as William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglas and Harriet Beecher Stowe. And further, what was any Unitarian doing sanctifying any individual, particularly a murderer. Their efforts to create a utopian community, Brook Farm, while a short lived failure, was a communal effort to create a society of peaceful togetherness.  In his book, Reynold’s suggests that to understand Brown and why the Transcendentalists embraced him, it is necessary to understand the historical and political climate of the times.

There were ominous, and for Brown and others, dangerously powerful and depressing movements in the United States which advanced and encouraged the spread of slavery. Increasingly, it appeared that the nation was sliding towards one of permanent slavery and that our nation’s laws and governmental institutions were lined up in support of this evil.

First, the Fugitive Slave Law passed by Congress in 1850 for the first time empowered bounty hunters to track escaped slaves throughout the entire United States and all its territories and return them to their rightful owners.

Second, the opening of the Nebraska-Kansas territory to settlement resulted in a rush of two groups of settlers: those who supported slavery and those “free staters” opposed to the extension of slavery into the new territories. The march westward was full of violence between those two sides. In a concession to Southern congressman, by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, the territory was split into two parts- Kansas and Nebraska and the people in each territory were to decide for themselves whether their territory would be free or slave. “Bloody Kansas” became a battle ground for those forces. Into this violent maelstrom rode John Brown who in 1856 added five more to the body count.

And finally, in March 1857, the same month Brown went on a fund raising mission to Concord, the Supreme Court decided the Dred Scott case which ruled that Blacks, slaves as well as free, could never become American citizens entitled to the rights and protections of the Constitution.

These three historical events convinced Brown that the forces of darkness and evil were winning the battle for slavery; that his 4 million enslaved black brothers needed his help; that the only way to serve freedom in the face of the rising tide of slavery was by virtue of armed military force. He believed that God had chosen him for this work and guided him in his life’s work to free the slaves.

The Transcendentalists support for Brown found its roots not only in the historical climate of the times but more importantly in the personal, religious and moral qualities Brown showed or which were attributed to him, Brown was a deeply religious man. He was raised in a strict Calvinist family in Torrington, Ct. and remained a Calvinist throughout his life. Brown believed in the concept of original sin, the depravity of mankind and ultimate salvation through God’s love and intervention. He did not tolerate drinking, smoking or cursing within his family or among the band of men he gathered around him on his military missions. He prayed regularly and was given to religious discourses.

Brown was a strict disciplinarian. He believed that to spare the rod was to spoil the child and he enforced a strong discipline and work ethic in his family. Brown was an egalitarian and he encouraged his 20 sons and daughters to do one another’s work without reference to gender. Brown lived his principles and shared his table and his home with the Blacks of his community in North Elba, New York and with the men and women he transported on his section of the underground railroad. He held no aversion to Blacks, unlike all too many high-minded, well educated people in the abolitionist movement.

Brown lived modestly, at times poorly. He shunned the growing materialism of his times. He was a hard-working, physically strong and active doer-a rugged individualist who often criticized the talk, talk, talk of the Eastern anti-slavery establishment.

Brown was the embodiment of the spiritual-minded individual – a soldier on the field of battle actually fighting for the principles he so strongly held and for which he was prepared to give his life.

Brown was dignified and noble. Both during and after his trial, in the three months he was incarcerated he was the most important piece of news throughout the country, featured in every newspaper and magazine, the subject of sermons and lectures, the talk at every dinning table and tavern. He maintained his strength and dignity, his passion to end slavery and belief in the righteousness of his acts all the way to the gallows.

Emerson said he was, “The rarest of heros, a pure idealist” and Thoreau called Brown “a transcendentalist, above all a man of ideas and principles … a man of faith and of religious principle, and not a politician or Indian; … a man who did not wait till he was personally interfered with or thwarted in some harmless business before he gave his life to the cause of the oppressed … He was a superior man.

As Reynolds put it, “Having patterned himself after (Oliver) Cromwell, John Brown appealed to the New England intellectuals, who had been dreaming that someone like Cromwell would arise and make holy war against social corruption.”

While I can appreciate the ominous historical and political currents of the times, in my opinion, and viewed from the perspective of the 21st century neither these trends nor the religious, spiritual, noble and selfless qualities attributed to Brown by the Transcendentalists were sufficient cause for his metaphorical deification and sanctification.

As Matthew Gatherinwater a UU seminarian stated:

…once we begin to abrogate not only the law, but the sanctity of life itself, for the sake of individual morality, where shall we end? It does no good to say that Brown (or any other zealous terrorist) was intent upon removing a great injustice if he deprives some people of life in order to improve the lives of others. Violating one’s own principles in order to preserve them is the nonsensical temptation of the well-meaning doctrinaire.

“One may sympathize with Brown’s principles while loathing his sense of proportion”

and Gatheringwater continued:

“The connection between Transcendentalism and Brown may tell us something about the role of religion in public life today. In my opinion and in Gatheringwater’s opinion ‘God told me to do it’ or ‘I’m doing the work of God’ is not, an adequate defense for breaking the law or violating the sanctity of life.”

Those driven by religious certainty, to kill to create a freer, better, more enlightened democratic society are misguided. And those who support them, as my Transcendentalist forbearers supported John Brown, are just plain wrong. As Unitarians we are all called upon to be principled, to act in ways that support our beliefs and principles, while recognizing the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We are urged to seek justice, equity and compassion in human relations. I would hope that this can be accomplished by rejecting violence in all its forms and for whatsoever reason. Unlike the example of John Brown, in our efforts to live within and uphold our principles may we always seek to honor the sanctity of life. I for one will continue to embrace my heroes and their beliefs-Gandhi and the path of passive resistance in the face of oppression, Thoreau and his call for civil disobedience in the face of injustice, Buddha and the Dalai Lama and their teaching of mindfulness in this world, Jesus and his lessons of love and compassion and of course Ferdinand and his unquestionable rejection violence.

Let us go in peace.

This entry was posted in Sermons. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.