U.S. Highway 75 runs from just south of Winnipeg all the way to Dallas, bisecting the continental United States at the eastern emerald edge of the Great Plains. In northwest Iowa, it runs right through little Sioux Center, just two blocks from the house where we lived for a quarter century.
So we decided to take it once upon a time, avoid interstates and follow Highway 75 south to Tulsa, where our son had found a girl he would eventually marry. Easy enough, get on the highway two blocks from our garage, and don't get off for a whole day, all two-lane.
I knew something about the story of John Brown before that trip, knew John Brown was an abolitionist whose personal history remained, 150 years later, something of a puzzle. But I knew little more.
We weren't pressed for time, so I followed the signs when the highway let us know we were approaching some kind of historical marker. We got off 75, followed some country roads, and came to an overgrown spot in eastern Kansas--one of those places marked with a sign that seemed to have been alone in the wilderness for quite some time, well off the beaten track.
What we'd happened upon was the backwater spot where John Brown and his sons and his men carried out cold-blooded murder. Five men, angry Southerners, "Border Ruffians" committed to the cause of slavery in these United States, men who were committed to violence themselves were hacked to death by abolitionists armed with machetes. History says Brown didn't do the killing, but that he was the instigator was indisputable. His commands were the ones that mattered in what became known as "the Pottawatomie murders."
I knew nothing of that story and nothing of John Brown ever having been in Kansas, nothing of "Bleeding Kansas," a series of conflicts many mark as the real beginning of the War between the States.
I knew that Marilyn Robinson's great novel, Gilead, alluded frequently and powerfully to the cause of abolition here in Iowa. What I also knew from talking with her is that she was herself greatly taken with the abolitionists, most of whom, like John Brown, were profoundly religious.
Modernism once determined that religion was a vestige of barbarism that contemporary life was, thankfully, abandoning. What humanity had awakened to was the realization that we had no need for God. Where people worshiped some spiritual being, they did so out obligation to ritual to non-existent ancient mythologies.
But the nature of the conflict in the heart and soul of the story of John Brown remains the heart and soul of the conflicts in this country today, a country, most say, as divided in spirit and temper and character as it has been any time since the Civil War. Religion not only continues to play a role in our lives, it often still determines behavior. A clerk of court chooses jail to freedom because of her religious views. Candidates for office need to parade their religious affiliations as if they were awards for bravery. Today, six years into his second term as President, 54% of Republicans still consider Barack Obama is Muslim. Religion is the base from which many of us--most of us--operate and by which we identify ourselves.
A devout Christian presidential candidate says no Muslim should be President of these United States. Some condemn him. Others--many--run to his side in his support.
How do we balance our own contrary commitments--our commitment to God with our commitment to America? How do we give unto Caesar that which his and etc.? How have we determined such questions in the past? Was John Brown hideously insane or, as he himself determined, someone identifiably chosen by God to destroy the sinful, hideous American institution of slavery? As I said just a few days ago, the man was strengthened by scripture: "in all thy ways acknowledge him and he shall direct they paths" is a verse he quoted often and even used as a testimony.
I'm no historian, but I'm betting that To Purge This Land With Blood: A Biography of John Brown, by Stephen B. Oates, published way back in 1970, remains the gold standard on the life of the most famous American abolitionists. I found Oates's study utterly captivating and relentless in its determination not to leave the records unturned. Aligning sources and marching them out in an orderly fashion is an epic job all by itself in any retelling of the John Brown story, but Oates was working with one of this nation's most incredible narratives when he chose to follow the life of a man whose body, a'moulderin' in the grave, begat the music sung around a thousand Union Army campfires.
The life and times of John Brown is a story I'm glad to know better--righteous anger creating bloody violence. Brown was a radical, a terrorist, a murderer, and a madman who did it all in the name of Jesus because what he was fighting for--an end to slavery--was right there on the paths of righteousness for His name sake. His death, which he deliberately shaped into national martyrdom, probably did more to begin the bloody surgery required to end slavery in these United States. His death mobilized both sides, making Civil War more even inevitable than it already was.
There are no easy answers to the life of John Brown. Nothing is black and white, and that's what make the story so richly human. If you'd like to know more about John Brown, start with Stephen Oates' nearly fifty-year old abundantly researched biography. It's a story from heart of who we are.