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John Brown, Religion and Violent Abolition: 'Choose You This Day Whom You Will Serve'

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See 'The Abolitionists' starting Jan. 8 on PBS featuring the intertwined stories of Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Angelina Grimké, Harriet Beecher Stowe and John Brown.

"Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins." That was how the secret fundraiser, close confidant, and principle hagiographer of John Brown summed up Brown's "old fashioned theology." Proven out, the Harvard-educated Franklin Sanborn argued, by the nation's "fierce but salutary civil war," such prophetic morsels testified to Brown's centrality in the fight against slavery.

Abolitionism was fundamentally entangled with the Enlightenment ideas underpinning American independence. Written in and bleached out of our nation's founding documents, anti-slavery thought could soon count some of the most curious fellow travelers of any reform movement in U.S. history. This extremely fringe movement would eventually encompass (and even enshrine) a stunning degree of violence, civil disobedience and outright illegality. But amid all the various narratives of American abolitionism, the dovetailing influences of violence and religion account for much of the fire and divisiveness among passionate supporters. John Brown, who took the fight to slavery in Kansas and Virginia and paid with his life, wedded the two in accordance with his visions of God and nation.

If William Lloyd Garrison distilled the high-minded outrage over the immorality and illegality of slavery, John Brown channeled Garrison's radicalism into physical form. Increasingly over the 1840s and 1850s, Brown expressed a willingness to back up his words with deeds. Still, it took Brown many years to find a venue for those beliefs, that moment when chance would meet opportunity. Indeed, after years of pronouncements and plans to help Southern bondsmen, it was not until a meeting with Frederick Douglass in 1847 where Brown first articulated a sacred and violent abolitionism. As Douglass recalled, "[Brown] pointed out to me the ranges which stretch away from the borders of New York into the Southern states. 'These mountains,' he said, 'are the basis of my plan. God has given the strengths of the hills to freedom; they were placed here for the emancipation of the negro race.'"

God had plans for Brown and for the nation, but they still took another decade to begin taking shape. When Brown moved to upstate New York (his final resting place), he provided his most sustained and compelling exegesis on religion. Brown's son, John Jr., had abandoned the church, and this 1853 letter tried to draw out the distinction, one Brown described as the most profound of the Bible, between the devoted and the merely professed. Brown called particular attention to Joshua 24:15: "Choose you this day whom you will serve." In many ways, it was the type of question Garrison might pose to the readers of The Liberator as inspiration to refrain from voting or attending church, but Brown asked the question with broadswords on the Kansan prairie. You were either a "milk and water" abolitionist like Garrison, or you were willing to fight. Brown's letter to his son, a several-thousand word litany of Bible passages, was meant "to bring forcibly to the young man's mind the Calvinistic theology, point by point -- its terrors as well as its promises." In other words, what all humans faced was a choice between sides, between John Browns and William Lloyd Garrisons.

Once the fight had begun in earnest, with the brutal murders of May 1856, Brown made firmer plans (and chased countless Brahmin pennies) for a strike at the South itself. "I have always been delighted with the doctrine that all men are created equal," Brown told Sanborn at their first meeting in January 1857, "and to my mind it is like the Saviour's command, 'Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,' ... That is the doctrine, sir; and rather than have that fail in the world, or in these States, 't would be better for a whole generation to die a violent death" (620).

This strange concoction of righteous violence, religious fervor and patriotic principles, each strand inextricable from the others, defines John Brown. "Love thy neighbor as thyself" were not mere words to Brown, they represented a directive from God. The choice between he and Garrison, a choice Brown made for the nation, was what one was going to do about it.