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Fire From the Midst of You

Fire From the Midst of You: A Religious Life of John Brown

Louis A. DeCaro
Copyright Date: 2002
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 349
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    Fire From the Midst of You
    Book Description:

    John Brown is usually remembered as a terrorist whose unbridled hatred of slavery drove him to the ill-fated raid on Harper's Ferry, Virginia, in 1859. Tried and executed for seizing the arsenal and attempting to spur a liberation movement among the slaves, Brown was the ultimate cause celebre for a country on the brink of civil war.Fire from the Midst of You situates Brown within the religious and social context of a nation steeped in racism, showing his roots in Puritan abolitionism. DeCaro explores Brown's unusual family heritage as well as his business and personal losses, retracing his path to the Southern gallows. In contrast to the popular image of Brown as a violent fanatic, DeCaro contextualizes Brown's actions, emphasizing the intensely religious nature of the antebellum U.S. in which he lived. He articulates the nature of Brown's radical faith and shows that, when viewed in the context of his times, he was not the religious fanatic that many have understood him to be. DeCaro calls Brown a Protestant saint - an imperfect believer seeking to realize his own perceived calling in divine providence.In line with the post-millennial theology of his day, Brown understood God as working through mankind and the church to renew and revive sinful humanity. He read the Bible not only as God's word, but as God's word to John Brown. DeCaro traces Brown's life and development to show how by forging faith as a radical weapon, Brown forced the entire nation to a point of crisis. Fire from the Midst of You defies the standard narrative with a new reading of John Brown. Here is the man that the preeminent Black scholar W.E.B. Du Bois called a "mighty warning" and the one Malcolm X called a real white liberal.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-4406-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  4. 1 Introduction: Reconfiguring Sainthood
    (pp. 1-8)

    Following the lead of biographers and journalists, John Brown has often been portrayed in fiction and film as a white religious fanatic who was obsessed with the violent destruction of slavery. He is especially remembered for his failed raid at Harper’s Ferry [West] Virginia, where he lead a small band of white and black men in seizing a government armory in October 1859. Born in 1800, he spent most of his fifty-nine years in pursuit of business success, though failing for the most part to achieve his goals. In the decade prior to the Civil War, abolitionists intensified their attempts...

  5. I A Power above Ourselves

    • 1 “And They Had No Comforter”: John Brown and the “Everlasting Negro” Question
      (pp. 11-19)

      In February 1859, the year of the Harper’s Ferry raid, Jeremiah R. Brown, half-brother of John Brown, visited New Orleans, Louisiana. During his stay he saw notice of a slave auction to be held that weekend, and so found his way to the City Hotel. As slave flesh goes, this was an exceptional sale—featuring “Valuable Slaves, All from one Cotton Plantation in Carolina,” representing ten distinct families. The eldest among those to be auctioned were apparently family heads, including field hands Nathan, age 57, Bellar, age 45, Charley, age 39, and Mathan, age 37. The youngest were Willson, age...

    • 2 John Brown’s Heritage
      (pp. 20-29)

      Given his controversial role in history, it is no surprise that John Brown’s ancestral connection to the Mayflower Pilgrims of 1620 has been a point of contention among scholars for nearly a century. However, his descent from the Plymouth Rock Pilgrims is not as important as the fact that the “belief of Mayflower descent was well grounded in the Brown family—that the claim did not arise with John Brown, [n]or was [it] made to order for him.”² Despite his strong identification with the Pilgrim founders of white America, John Brown was more a Puritan than a Pilgrim—the two...

    • 3 Revival, Resistance, and Abolition in the Time of John Brown
      (pp. 30-42)

      Among the Brown family descendants a story survived into the twentieth century concerning Oliver Brown, one of John Brown’s brothers. After donating a parcel of land for a new Congregational Church, Oliver fell into a conflict with the pastor, who would not allow him to use the church for anti-slavery meetings. The use of the church was part of their original agreement, and the fiery Oliver Brown was determined to have justice. After making demonstrations against the congregation’s broken agreement and prejudice, Brown removed the pulpit, dragged it out into the yard, and set it on fire as neighbors looked...

  6. II A Good Cause and a Sovereign God

    • 4 The Early Years: Autobiography and History
      (pp. 45-56)

      In its day, the Torrington homestead where John Brown was born was “a typical New England house of the eighteenth century,” with a country road running nearby, and a fence made of stones gathered from the fields and heightened by overlaid logs. In front of the house was the entrance to a New England-style cellar, and on the side of the house was a well. The house was built in 1776, the same year that Captain John Brown of the colonial army died from dysentery while serving in the struggle for independence. In 1799 his son Owen, a hopeful twenty-eight-year-old...

    • 5 Millennial Hopes, Abolitionist Awakenings
      (pp. 57-67)

      By the 1840s, Hudson began to be considered a center of abolitionist sentiment even though it was actually a community divided over the anti-slavery issue. After a student activist from Western Reserve College narrowly escaped being tarred and feathered for presenting an antislavery lecture, he was trailed back to the town by a racist mob. Failing to lay hold of him, they satisfied their contempt by returning with a sign which they posted along the road leading to town that pictured a grinning black man and read: “Dis be de rode to Husson.” The sign was left standing, and in...

    • 6 “This Path of Life”: From Ohio to Pennsylvania
      (pp. 68-80)

      The first few years of married life in Hudson were prosperous for John and Dianthe Brown. The tannery business and farming went well, and between 1821 and 1824, John Jr., Jason, and Owen Brown were born. With a growing family, the log house was no longer sufficient, and was replaced by a large frame home in 1824. The same year, John became a member of the new Masonic Lodge No. 68, probably at the urging of his uncle Gideon Mills, who was Worshipful Master. However, his father Owen had misgivings about joining any society other than the church, though friends...

  7. III Providence and Principle

    • 7 Citizen Brown’s Calvinist Community
      (pp. 83-94)

      Even before Dianthe’s death, John Brown had become quite active in various aspects of community building. His most notable role was as postmaster in Randolph township, an appointment he received by commission from the administration of John Quincy Adams in January 1828. Though it yielded little remuneration, Brown made the most of the opportunity, taking on the twenty-two mile mail route himself as a subcontractor, then subletting portions to others. Later reformulation of township lines changed Randolph to Richmond township, but did not erase his contributions in the eyes of his fellow citizens. Brown brought quality livestock into northwestern Pennsylvania...

    • 8 The Pursuit of Success and the Disappointments of Providence
      (pp. 95-107)

      By 1835, business had declined to the point that John Brown chose to leave Pennsylvania and return to Ohio. He wanted badly to be like Harm Jan Huidekoper, the Unitarian abolitionist whom Boyd Stutler calls “a Meadville tycoon.” Ultimately Brown would come to depend upon men whose stature he once desired for himself, men like Huidekoper or Gerrit Smith, who bankrolled abolitionists and gave land grants to free blacks. Throughout his frustrating business history, a decline into financial misfortune, failure, and embarrassment, his “spirit was constantly struggling with the problems of the National life.” Brown was not only “a born...

    • 9 Of Vows and Tears
      (pp. 108-120)

      According to John Jr., his father repelled a scolding visit from some of the deacons in the church, sending them on their way “with new views of Christian duty.” The incident probably prompted serious conversation around the large fireplace that night, especially among Brown’s teenage sons who were old enough to understand the issue of racism and their father’s strong feelings against slavery. Though John Jr. apparently exaggerated the outcome of the incident, it did help the younger Browns to realize the gross contradiction existing between biblical faith and white religion when it came to racism. “This was my first...

  8. IV In Times of Difficulty

    • 10 Belted Knights and Practical Shepherds
      (pp. 123-135)

      Salmon Brown long remembered an incident from early childhood, probably at the family home in Richfield, Ohio. While a large brass kettle of water was heating in the kitchen, he and his brother playfully traced lines on a steam-clouded window. But Salmon became rowdy and blurted out an offensive word. Their father heard Salmon’s “smutty” language from the next room and came rushing in with such ferocity that the little boy became frightened. When Brown demanded that he repeat the word, Salmon was so afraid that he said every bad word except the one his father had heard. Thinking Salmon...

    • 11 “We Are Tossing Up and Down”
      (pp. 136-145)

      For one who believed in the depravity of man, John Brown seemed a bit naïve in his first effort to resolve the problem of reforming the wool industry. Perhaps because his own interaction with wool manufacturers had been so positive, Brown mistook their appreciation of his fine wool for a willingness to cooperate for the greater good of wool men. Using the network of wool growers he had cultivated in his work with Perkins, he convened a meeting of wool growers at the office of the Middlesex Company in Lowell, Massachusetts on July 1, 1846. With the reins of the...

    • 12 The Practical Shepherd in Springfield
      (pp. 146-160)

      When John Brown moved to Springfield in 1846, it was a traditional community on the brink of change. The established social order was not yet challenged by the influx of immigrants and minorities, and many features like traditional celebrations and volunteer fire companies suggested an older Springfield. But there was a new Springfield too, the commercial center of Hampden County connected by railroad to cities like Boston, Albany, and Hartford. The population was rapidly increasing, including Irish and French Canadians, both Roman Catholic groups. The small free black community was also a new presence, largely centered in two neighborhoods in...

  9. V Big Difficulties and Firm Footholds

    • 13 A Cold and Snowy Canaan Land
      (pp. 163-176)

      Nearing fifty years of age, John Brown might be seen walking the streets of Springfield alone, distracted by thoughts of slavery—his thick hair combed back from his forehead and his blue, deep-set eyes fixed downward as he strolled with his hands clasped behind his back. Or he might be seen walking and talking intently with his friend Thomas Thomas. They had become warm associates over his three-year stay in Springfield. However different, they shared a common faith and Thomas undoubtedly found John Brown’s hatred of slavery unusually sharp for one who had never known it himself. Both men also...

    • 14 “So We Go”: Failed Ventures and Disappointing Outcomes
      (pp. 177-188)

      In the summer of 1849, Richard Dana Jr. and two companions went hiking in the Adirondacks. Wandering for a whole day, they found themselves lost until coming upon a path and finally “a log-house and half-cleared farm.” With their faces and arms marked and swollen by insect bites, the frustrated tourists were weary, sore, and extremely hungry. Over two decades later Dana, a Boston attorney and author ofTwo Years Before the Mast, would remember this day. Using his journal notes from 1849, he wrote a piece forThe Atlantic Monthlyrecalling how he and his weary companions were taken...

    • 15 “All the Encouragement in My Power”
      (pp. 189-202)

      “Mr. Brown believed American slavery to be wrong, and that no man made laws would make it right,” remembered one who knew John Brown in North Elba. He also “believed that in all ages of the world God had created certain men to perform special work in some direction far in advance of the rest of their countrymen,” even at the cost of their lives. “He believed that among his earthly missions was to free the American slaves. … and itmust be performed. He was very strict in his religious duties and he regardedthis as sacred.” When the...

  10. VI Enduring Hardness

    • 16 Ohio and Beyond
      (pp. 205-215)

      The demise of P&B was a great disappointment to Brown, but probably more for personal reasons, both pride and the lost cause of the wool growers. A man of great means with other enterprises unscathed, partner Perkins incurred the real financial loss, as Brown put it, “with philosophic calm.” Not that Brown emerged from the failure with money, or that the potential for further loss did not overshadow him. But when he wrote to John Jr. that he and Perkins were having “trouble” with lawsuits amounting to $40,000, he was not writing in desperate dependence upon Providence as he had...

    • 17 “Kansas the Outpost”: An Overview
      (pp. 216-222)

      The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 opened up lands west of Missouri, repealing the old Missouri Compromise by allowing the possible expansion of slavery into western territories. In theory, democracy was to guide the process of attaining statehood, allowing the settlers to decide by vote whether they would enter the Union in free or slave states. In practice, the road to statehood for Kansas was a long, violent conflict between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces. Northern groups immediately began to raise funds and finance emigration of free-state settlers to Kansas. Pro-slavery forces, especially in Missouri, viewed this aggressiveness with fear and loathing,...

    • 18 Pottawatomie and the Fatherless
      (pp. 223-236)

      The first of Owen Brown’s children in Kansas was his daughter, Florilla, who went west with her husband, Samuel Adair, to serve as missionaries in the territory. Both graduates of Oberlin, the Adairs were abolitionists too. After serving over a decade in the pastorate, Samuel and Florilla came to Osawatomie, a new settlement about fifty miles southwest of Kansas City, in early 1855. From the onset the Adairs had found the “frontier Missourians” repulsive, noting how they extorted money from Northern emigrants. “They are generally among the most wicked and wretched of the human race that we meet with,” Adair...

  11. VII I Will Raise a Storm

    • 19 “The Language of Providence”
      (pp. 239-251)

      Frederick Brown was murdered in August 1856, and his father refused to avenge the crime. Brown and Martin White, Frederick’s killer, had argued vehemently in 1856 over the taxing of Osawatomie by the pro-slavery territorial government. White, allegedly a minister, loathed blacks and turned against the free-state side in opposition to Kansas becoming “a free Negro State.” White later justified killing Frederick by falsely charging that the Browns had raided his homestead and shot into a house full of women and children. But White probably killed Frederick out of sheer malice while acting as guide for Buford’s army. When John...

    • 20 “This Spark of Fire”
      (pp. 252-263)

      John Brown was changing, but it was not merely the maturity of years that showed. Others saw the change, like William Phillips, author of a popular free-state book,The Conquest of Kansas(1856). After having met Brown twice previously, Phillips met him again in Kansas for the last time in 1859. Despite his obvious physical change—stooped shoulders and a worn look accented by graying hair and a long white beard, Brown himself seemed different to the writer. “There was in the expression of his face something even more dignified than usual,” Phillips recalled. “His eye was brighter, and the...

    • 21 “My Public Murder”
      (pp. 264-278)

      The twenty-one-man “Provisional Army of the United States” seized Harper’s Ferry late Sunday night, October 16, 1859. The element of surprise enabled Brown to seize key positions as well as the armory, though it was essential that the raiders strike and withdraw quickly if they were to initiate Brown’s mountain-based program. The raiders likewise enjoyed initial success in attracting slaves from Virginia and Maryland. Despite the short-term nature of recruitment in the vicinity, there were between twenty and thirty slaves directly involved at the height of the takeover in the early morning hours of October 17. But Brown lingered far...

  12. Epilogue: A Saint’s Rest
    (pp. 279-284)

    John Brown’s body was controversial too. To no surprise, some of his enemies in the South did not even want his remains sent home. A doctor in Virginia wrote to Governor Wise suggesting it be withheld for dissection in order to further degrade Brown. This would discourage “many another scoundrel” rather than tempt them “to vanity” by a triumphal funeral procession “through the Eastern states.” Another doctor wrote to Governor Wise offering to embalm the body for “half the profits,” and donate the balance of his fee to “the good Old Dominion, for the expense she has been put to...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 285-334)
  14. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 335-344)
  15. Index
    (pp. 345-348)
  16. About the Author
    (pp. 349-349)