“John Brown was a deeply religious man who took gospel teachings to heart,” says Michael Levi. “[He] saw unsustainable, unacceptable violations of justice, of humanity, of decency, of every gospel teaching in the institution of slavery, and devoted his life to ending it in a way that few White people did at the time.”
His radical path, however, included an armed rebellion, to which end he led a raid on a federal armory at Harpers Ferry in 1859 that resulted in seven deaths. That would seem to make him an unlikely figure for Friends to admire—and yet, as Levi explains, Lucretia Mott was able to recognize Brown as a “moral hero.”
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So there does seem to be a little bit of a contradiction in that I am a big fan of John Brown. I am also a pacifist, and John Brown was pretty much the opposite of a pacifist. He quite intentionally was looking to spark armed rebellion. And so I think a very obvious question is: how can I– who believe that there is that of God in everyone and that our task in the world is to answer that of God– how can I admire a very violent man as much as I do?
Admiring John Brown as a Pacifist
My name is Michael Levi. I live in Silver Spring, Maryland, and I am a member of Adelphi Friends Meeting.
John Brown was a White abolitionist who fought slavery through armed struggle, both as leader of a guerrilla band and on an attack on the Federal Armory at Harpers Ferry. He was a very religious man: he knew the Bible well, he took it very seriously, and he came to the conclusion that the institution of slavery in the United States was contrary to everything he believed in, and so he became an abolitionist.
Meaning Over Method
The reality here is that what I admire about John Brown is his conviction, his passion, his commitment, and his faith. I don’t admire his methods, but John Brown was a deeply religious man who took gospel teachings to heart; saw unsustainable, unacceptable violations of justice, of humanity, of decency, of every gospel teaching in the institution of slavery, and devoted his life to ending it in a way that few White people did at the time. I mean, he was not unique but he’s in a small group. And he did so not as a White savior: he did not see himself as the Messiah come to free the enslaved, but he very much saw himself as an ally with a certain amount of power that he could use in solidarity with, not on behalf of, enslaved peoples in the United States, and I find that admirable.
Lucretia Mott on John Brown
Lucretia Mott, one of the most impressive women in Quaker History– and there are many impressive women in the story of the Religious Society of Friends– she was a contemporary of John Brown’s; she knew him, and she spoke about John Brown. She said something along the lines of: “It is not John Brown the military hero who we celebrate. It is John Brown the moral hero who we celebrate.”
So she was very aware that the military part of what John Brown did was contrary to her deeply felt beliefs, but she also saw that moral clarity and his taking his faith as far as he could– as far as he knew how– and she felt that made him a hero. So the way I see it, if I’ve kind of semi-independently come to the same position as Lucretia Mott, I’m doing ok.
- 1) How do we engage with historical figures whose actions both uplift and contradict Quaker beliefs?
- 2) In today’s activist climate, can Quakers reconcile violent actions and moral imperatives? If so, how? If not, why not?
The views expressed in this video are of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Friends Journal or its collaborators.