Violence in the Name of God is Nothing New
The terrorists who crashed into the World Trade Center and Pentagon were
convinced they were messengers from God engaged in a holy war. Such
fanaticism is not unique to Islam. Virtually all religions have spawned
violent zealots willing to die—and kill—for their beliefs.
Brown, for example, believed that God had appointed him "a special agent
of death" to "break the jaws of the wicked" and eliminate the "wicked
curse of slavery."
Born in Connecticut in 1800 and raised on the
Ohio frontier, Brown grew up in an intensely reverent Christian
household. His parents were ardent opponents of slavery, and young John
inherited both their fervent religious beliefs and their antislavery
convictions. A confirmed Calvinist, he was convinced that a righteous
and angry God demanded strict obedience and exacted stern punishment.
struggled all his life to find a successful calling. He worked as a
tanner, shepherd, and farmer, served as an itinerant minister,
speculated in real estate, and traded in cattle, but never prospered
enough to end his chronic indebtedness. Burdened by frustration at his
business failures, Brown increasingly identified his suffering with that
of the slaves. He developed an intense desire to punish slaveholders
for their wickedness.
In 1837, when Brown learned that an
antislavery editor had been killed by a mob in Illinois, he stood up in
his Ohio church and declared: "Here before God, in the presence of these
witnesses, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery." By
mid-century, Brown had come to view himself as a latter-day Moses. God
had dispatched him to free the slaves and lead them to the promised
It was on the plains of Kansas that John Brown initiated
his campaign. Slavery had been prohibited from Kansas and Nebraska, but
in 1854 Congress passed a law allowing the settlers of each territory to
vote on the issue. Throughout 1854 and 1855 Kansas became a
battleground between pro- and anti-slavery settlers. Brown called on
volunteers to join him in a "secret mission." On the night of May 23,
1856, he rode with four of his sons and three others into a pro-slavery
village along Pottawatomie Creek in southeastern Kansas. These
self-appointed vigilantes of virtue dragged five men from their cabins
and hacked them to death with broadswords in front of their screaming
What came to be called the Pottawatomie Massacre
ignited guerrilla warfare in Kansas. On August 30, Missouri "border
ruffians" raided the anti-slavery settlement at Osawatomie. They looted
and burned houses, and shot John Brown's son Frederick through the
heart. The elder Brown, who barely escaped, looked back at the burning
village being devastated by "Satan's legions" and muttered, "God sees
it." He then swore to his surviving sons and followers: "I have only a
short time to live—only one death to die, and I will die fighting for
In October 1859 fugitive John Brown sent shock
waves across the United States when he and twenty followers, including
five blacks, seized the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia. He
intended to arm slaves in the area and spark a slave insurrection
throughout the South. But his plans were foiled when townsfolk
discovered the raiders and alerted the militia. Brown and his men holed
up in the fire engine house, where they were surrounded.
Robert E. Lee and his aide, Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart, arrived with a
force of marines that stormed the engine house. A young officer found
Brown kneeling with his rifle cocked. Before the pious patriarch could
fire, the marine thrust his sword forward, striking Brown's belt buckle
with such force that it bent the blade back on itself. He then used the
hilt to beat Brown unconscious. The siege was over. Brown's men had
killed four people and wounded nine. Of their own group, ten died
(including two of Brown's sons) and seven were captured.
wounded Brown was convicted of treason on October 31. At his sentencing
he delivered an emotional speech: "Now, if it is deemed necessary that I
should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice . . .
I say, let it be done." On December 2, 1859, Brown donned black pants, a
black coat, and a black hat, climbed into a wagon and sat on a coffin
as he rode to the gallows. He died "with unflinching firmness,"
believing that slavery would be ended only through "very much
Although Brown had failed in his effort to start a
slave revolt, he had become a martyr for the antislavery cause in the
North. As the editor of a Pittsburgh newspaper proclaimed, "While
millions of prayers went up for the old martyr yesterday, so millions of
curses were uttered against the hellish system which so mercilessly and
ferociously cried out for his blood." Brown's desperate actions
panicked the slaveholding South. Militia companies were called out to
patrol the streets in every major city and town.
Was John Brown a
bloodthirsty madman or a principled militant doing God's bidding?
Opinions continue to differ about the murderous idealist. Conclusions
regarding his enigmatic personality remain hidden in the folds of
history, heaven, and hell.
Today, religious belief
remains a powerful catalyst for violence in the name of justice. John
Brown has many modern counterparts who attack the innocent in order to
remedy the alleged evils of society. Like Brown, these pious terrorists
assault the complexities of injustice with the terrible certitude of
violence. A nation of laws cannot endorse such murderous idealism.
Abraham Lincoln spoke for many when he observed after Brown's execution:
"We cannot object [to his hanging] even though he agreed with us in
thinking slavery wrong. That cannot excuse violence, bloodshed, and
-- David Shi is a historian, writer and president of Furman University.