Christianity and the Civil War: A Gallery of Firebrands and Visionaries
The “monomaniac” or “saint” who waged a holy war on slavery
By age 55, John Brown had engaged in more than twenty business ventures, such as tanning, land speculating, and sheep herding. Most of them failed, some ending in bankruptcy, two in crime.
Yet this unstable personality would become a feared monomaniac (in the South) and legendary martyr (in the North). His actions would pour kerosene on the smoldering debate over slavery; soon the nation would be engulfed in the inferno.
Born in Connecticut in 1800, Brown passed his boyhood in Hudson, Ohio. John was raised by a devout Calvinist and abolitionist father and a mother afflicted with mental illness. At age 18, he intended to become a Congregational minister. He instead became a wanderer and business failure. He married twice and fathered twenty children; a few were judged insane.
Throughout his life, Brown was an abolitionist. His barn in Pennsylvania was a station on the Underground Railroad. He lived for a time in a black community in New York. During an Ohio church service, following a sermon on slavery, he stood in the sanctuary and declared, “Here, before God and in the presence of these witnesses, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery.”
But he was well past 50 before the idea of freeing slaves possessed him. He became convinced that nothing but bloodshed would free the nation from its sin of slavery. God was leading him to battle.
In August 1855, Brown set out for Kansas in a one-horse wagon filled with guns and ammunition. In Kansas in the 1850s, two parties fought for possession of the new territory’s government; the winner would determine whether slavery would be accepted in Kansas. Conditions bordered on civil war.
Soon after arriving, Brown led a retaliatory party against pro-slavery forces “to cause a restraining fear,” as he put it. His forces murdered five pro-slavery settlers in Pottawatomie, Kansas, hacking them to pieces with sabers.
Brown’s final plan, based on visions he’d had years earlier, was to seize a stronghold in the mountains of Maryland or Virginia, where he would gather slaves and arm them. This would touch off a slave uprising, he felt, and slavery would collapse.
From a hideout in the Maryland hills, Brown recruited twenty-one men and collected weapons. On October 16, 1859, he led his little army across the Potomac River to seize the government arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. (Ironically, the first person killed in his attack was a free black man.) By morning, he and his men were in possession of the armory and the bridges leading to the ferry. A few bewildered slaves were induced or compelled to join him. But for some reason, he didn’t head for the mountains as planned.
Within a day a company of U.S. marines under the command of Col. Robert E. Lee arrived and assaulted the building. Brown fought with amazing coolness and courage—at one point over the body of his dying son—but finally he was overpowered. He lost two sons in the battle.
Brown was sentenced to death and was hanged on December 2, a month and half after the assault. To the end he maintained, “I believe that to have interfered … in behalf of His [God’s] despised poor, was not wrong, but right.”
Some derided Brown as a common assassin. Mrs. Jefferson Davis called him “a pestilent, forceful man” urged on by “insane prejudice.” But many in the North hailed him as a noble martyr. Louisa May Alcott, the author of Little Women, noted in her diary “the execution of Saint John the Just.”
Spellbinding orator and activist
In 1829, 12-year-old slave Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey secretly bought and read Caleb Bingham’s Columbian Orator. From it he learned that words could be weapons, that oratory had power. And it is his eloquent oratory that eventually made this slave boy into one of his era’s foremost leaders, known to history as Frederick Douglass.
Douglass, the son of a slave mother and white father, was separated from his mother when he was an infant. He saw her perhaps five times in his life, and then only briefly and at night.
When he was 8, he was sent by his master to Baltimore to work as a servant, and there his mistress taught him to read and write. At 21 he escaped to New York by borrowing a black sailor’s affidavit of freedom and, to elude slave catchers, by changing his last name. He immediately sent for Anna Murray, a free black of Baltimore, and married her. They had five children in forty-five years of seemingly unhappy marriage (Douglass had one affair, possibly two).
Upon freedom, he also became a licensed preacher in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Within three years he began a career as an abolitionist lecturer. Once he spoke before an audience that included abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison wrote: “There stood one, in physical proportion and stature commanding and exact—in intellect richly endowed—in natural eloquence a prodigy.”
Garrison immediately hired Douglass as a full-time lecturer for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. The publication of his autobiography, Life of Frederick Douglass, in 1845 showed Douglass to be a formidable intellect who could make piercing assessments of slavery.
Increasingly troubled by Garrison’s disdain for violence, party politics, and the Constitution, Douglass began to distance himself from his mentor. His new positions and his eloquence are illustrated in an 1857 address: “The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that … if there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will.…”
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Douglass helped recruit black troops for the Union Army, enrolling two of his sons (one of whom was a surviving member of the 54th Massachusetts’s attack on Fort Wagner, memorialized in the film Glory). Eventually 200,000 blacks were enlisted, and they became a major factor in the triumph of the Union Army.
Like Abraham Lincoln, Douglass saw the war as an act of providence and divine justice. God was intervening to destroy an evil, but the nation must suffer and be tested.
In the postwar years Douglass was appointed by President Hayes to the stripped-down post of marshal of the District of Columbia, and under President James Garfield, he served as minister-resident to the Republic of Haiti.
Two years after the death of his first wife, he married Helen Pitts, a white woman of 45 (Douglass was about 67), for which he was roundly criticized by friends, family, and the nation. Douglass, however, saw the marriage as a blow against racism.
Throughout his life, Douglass gave himself to other causes, like temperance and women’s rights. In fact, on the day he died, in 1895, he had attended a convention of women calling for the right to vote.
Harriet Beecher Stowe
Author of “the book that made this great war”
When President Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1863, he is reported to have said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!”
Uncle Tom’s Cabin may not have caused the Civil War, but it shook both North and South. Susan Bradford wrote, after her state of Florida seceded, “If Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe had died before she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, this would never have happened.… Isn’t it strange how much harm a pack of lies can do?”
Harriet was the seventh of twelve children of Lyman Beecher, the noted revivalist and reformer. In 1832 her father moved the family to the frontier city of Cincinnati, where he became president of Lane Seminary, soon a center for abolitionists. At 25, Harriet married Calvin Ellis Stowe, professor of biblical literature at Lane.
During her child-rearing years, she read to her seven children two hours each evening and for a time, ran a small school in her home. She described herself as “a mere drudge with few ideas beyond babies and housekeeping.”
But a mere drudge she was not. She found time to write, partially to bolster the meager family income. An early literary success (a collection of short stories) at age 32 encouraged her, but she still worried about the conflict between writing and mothering. Her husband, however, urged her on, predicting she could mold “the mind of the West for the coming generation.”
That she did with the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin at age 40. Her only exposure to slavery had been a short visit to Kentucky, but Stowe was deeply disturbed by the Fugitive Slave Act (severe measures passed the year before that mandated the return of runaway slaves without trial). She brooded over how she could respond. Then, during a church Communion service, the scene of the triumphant death of Tom flashed before her.
She soon formed the story that preceded Tom’s death. The novel was serialized in the abolitionist newspaper National Era in 1851 and 1852 in forty installments, each with a cliffhanger ending. When it appeared in book form in 1852, it sold 10,000 copies the first week and 300,000 the first year. It sold 1,000,000 copies before the Civil War.
Its publication also inspired a reaction from the South: critical reviews and the publication of some thirty anti-abolitionist Uncle Tom novels within three years.
By literary standards, the novel’s situations are contrived, the dialogue unreal, and the slaves romanticized. Still, Stowe grasped and communicated the tragedy of slavery. She had the wisdom to pin the blame on the institution, rather than southern men and women, who she felt were merely caught in its claws.
Until her death in July 1896, Stowe averaged nearly a book a year, but Uncle Tom’s Cabin was her legacy. Even one of her harshest critics acknowledged that it was “perhaps the most influential novel ever published … a verbal earthquake, an ink-and-paper tidal wave.”
Henry Ward Beecher
Preacher of God’s love who sent rifles to the anti-slavery cause
Another of Lyman Beecher’s children, also to become a major player in American life, was born in 1813 and started out as a shy and seemingly stupid child.
Fortunately, the athletic, fun-loving, and resourceful Henry Ward blossomed when he studied at Lane Seminary in Cincinnati. He experienced there a conversion in which, in contrast to the dour theology of the day, he understood that God reached out to people “from the fullness of His great heart” and that Christ’s nature was to lift people “out of everything that is low and debasing to superiority.” This positive and optimistic theology guided his preaching all his life.
Soon after seminary he was married (to Eunice White Bullare, with whom he had ten children) and then ordained, becoming the pastor of Second Presbyterian Church of Indianapolis. He slowly mastered the art of preaching and began receiving invitations to pastor prominent churches. Eventually he took Plymouth Church of Brooklyn, a Congregational church, in 1847. Here, as one historian has noted, he began a career “which for conspicuousness and influence has probably not been equaled by that of any other American clergyman.”
Beecher was one of the most striking figures in New York: large girth, broad shoulders, and a lionesque head with flowing locks. He had a rich voice responsive to every shade of emotion. Never was he at a loss for words. People flocked to hear him, averaging 2,500 a week.
He increasingly used his pulpit to denounce civil corruption, support women’s suffrage (the right to vote), and preach against slavery. He counseled disobedience to the Fugitive Slave Law. Though he deprecated John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry as the act of a crazy old man, he was fiery about the need for action against slavery.
Ironically, this preacher of the unbounding love and mercy of God began urging northerners to migrate to Kansas and by force make it free soil (a territory prohibiting slavery). He said that in Bloody Kansas, Sharp’s rifles were a more powerful moral agent than the Bible. He used his pulpit to raise funds to ship rifles—which became known as “Beecher’s Bibles”—to anti-slavery Kansas settlers.
In 1874, Beecher was tried in ecclesiastical and civil courts on the charge of committing adultery, though he was never convicted. His disbelief in a literal hell and his ready acceptance of the doctrine of evolution led to his resignation from the Association of Congregational Ministers in 1882. When he died, five years later, 40,000 people viewed his body as it lay in state.
Julia Ward Howe
She saw “God’s truth marching on”
From her early years, the author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” exhibited interest in things literary. Julia Ward taught herself English, German, French, and Italian, and before marriage she published essays on Goethe.
Her father, a Wall Street banker, was a devout Episcopalian and strict disciplinarian, and until her marriage, Julia was a “zealous Calvinist.” At age 23, the diminutive and auburn-haired Julia married Samuel Gridley Howe, a doctor, moral reformer, and head of the Perkins Institute for the Blind. They had six children.
Her husband was fanatically opposed to married women being active in public life. In the 1850s, Julia published two books of poems, albeit anonymously. Her husband was furious.
Samuel and Julia agreed, however, about one thing: slavery must be abolished. She said John Brown’s methods “worked against slavery for the Lord.” They entertained Brown in their home, and Samuel was one of the “Secret Six” New Englanders who bankrolled Brown’s military exploits in Kansas and at Harper’s Ferry. Upon Brown’s sentencing, Julia said, “His death will be holy and glorious, and the gallows cannot dishonor him!”
Two years later, in the autumn of 1861, she traveled to Washington, D.C. She saw the city teeming with soldiers, orderlies galloping about, ambulances bouncing back and forth, and countless campfires burning. Upon her return, her minister recommended she put “some good words to that tune” of the popular song “John Brown’s Body.” Julia slept unsoundly that night and woke in the gray of twilight morning. The lines of the poem began to form in her head, and she immediately wrote them down. In February 1862, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was published in the Atlantic Monthly (she received $5).
Within months, the words and music were put together, and soon the song caught on—although it never became as popular with the troops as “John Brown’s Body.” Like many Civil War songs, it didn’t achieve its greatest popularity until after the war.
Throughout the war, Julia continued to speak and write against slavery, and after the war she turned her attention to the women’s suffrage movement. In 1907 she became the first female member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. When she died in 1910, the four thousand who attended her memorial service in Boston’s Symphony Hall sang the hymn for which she is still famous.
Mark Galli is associate editor of Leadership Journal and a consulting editor for Christian History.
Copyright © 1992 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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