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October 19, 2006

Violence for the Golden Rule

I mentioned earlier that I'd visited a second memorable historic site in my vacation last month. Again, it is memorable for being troubling: the home and farm, now a museum, of abolitionist John Brown.

John Brown's house, North Elba, NY
John Brown's house, North Elba, NY.

Display at John Brown House
Display at John Brown House.

John Brown moved to North Elba to help a group of black families who were trying to establish farms in a place that today supports very few farms. He wasn't home very often, as he was usually fighting his battles elsewhere, but his wife and daughters lived there and he and many of his family members are buried there.

Brown met his end in Virgina after he, his sons, and a small group of men seized the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, planning to arm slaves and free them. Despite a promising start - only a watchman guarded the armory - they were quickly at war with the surrounding countryside and arrested after various battles on the third day of their seizure. Brown was wounded, captured, and tried a month later. Found guilty on counts of murder, conspiracy, and treason (against Virginia), he was hung on December 2nd, 1859.

Brown's speech before his sentencing is widely quoted, but I find it strange in many ways. First, Brown denies that what he has done - while he did it - fits the description applied by the court in its judgment:

I have, may it please the court, a few words to say. In the first place, I deny everything but what I have all along admitted -- the design on my part to free the slaves. I intended certainly to have made a clean thing of that matter, as I did last winter when I went into Missouri and there took slaves without the snapping of a gun on either side, moved them through the country, and finally left them in Canada. I designed to have done the same thing again on a larger scale. That was all I intended. I never did intend murder, or treason, or the destruction of property, or to excite or incite slaves to rebellion, or to make insurrection.

That isn't exactly an unusual defense for a political prisoner, though it stands out against the background of Brown's prior work as a veteran soldier - an armed soldier - for abolition.

I have another objection; and that is, it is unjust that I should suffer such a penalty. Had I interfered in the manner which I admit, and which I admit has been fairly proved (for I admire the truthfulness and candor of the greater portion of the witnesses who have testified in this case)--had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends--either father, mother, brother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class--and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.

This part recognizes the frequent difference in treatment between those who fight for those in power and those who fight for the powerless, and may be the strongest part of Brown's speech.

Next Brown talks about his religious motivation for attempting to arm the slaves:

This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to "remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them." I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done--as I have always freely admitted I have done--in behalf of His despised poor was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments--I submit; so let it be done!

This paragraph brings us to a common reason for violence done in the Lord's name. The world is not as God says it should be, so it's up to people like John Brown to make it that way, martyring themselves in the process if needed. The guide at the house emphasized Brown's religious motivations, talking about his encounters at the age of 12 that conflicted severely with what he'd learned in church.

Bible at John Brown House
Bible at John Brown House.

But do Brown's lofty ends justify the means? His reading of "do unto others" seems to imagine a future world, not his present one, and Brown seems clearly more interested in justice as an end than any sense of justice that might apply to the means he chose to arrive there. While I don't think Brown's strongly Calvinist background is a simple explanation for his choice of violent means, he certainly applied the Golden Rule very differently than Quakers would be likely to do in similar circumstances.

His vision of the future - while correctly predicting the Civil War to come - carries a similar perspective of redemption through violence, even greater violence than he had hoped to apply:

I, John Brown, am quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.

Despite their different approaches, Quakers were very interested in Brown, and I'll have more on that in another entry soon.

October 9, 2006

In hoc signo vinces...

I took the last week of September off as a much-needed vacation in the Adirondacks. We mostly went for the scenery, especially the beautiful fall leaves, but we also stopped at some historical sites. Two of those, including one I didn't expect at all, proved memorable.

The unexpected site was in Oswego, New York, a place I'd never been before. We followed signs for Fort Ontario to get to the Lake Ontario waterfront. Between the parking lot and a cemetery was a cross:

Cross on Lake Ontario shore
Cross on Lake Ontario shore.

The sign on the cross provided a little more explanation for its presence:

Explanation for cross
Explanation for cross, reproducing a 1756 French victory cross.

(I think that "signe" should be "signo", and the "vincet" is typically "vinces", as in Constantine's classic In hoc signo vinces dreams, which led to Constantine's acceptance of Christianity and eventually its establishment in the declining Roman Empire.)

The original cross was raised in 1756, by the country of my father's ancestors, near the beginning of a war that also drove the Quakers out of government in Pennsylvania. In Pennsylvania, the French had built Fort Duquesne, which they would lose, like Oswego, in 1758. Pennsylvania shifted decisively from Penn's original vision during this war, culminating with the outrages of the Paxton Boys.

Quakers moved to the sidelines during this war, leaving the erection of victory crosses after a battle to others, arousing suspicion with their lack of support for the war, a suspicion that continued in later wars. While not all Quakers may have left the Pennsylvania Assembly over the war (as Margaret Hope Bacon contends in a note to Friends for 350 Years), this period saw their grip on political power shattered, never to return.

The other place we visited raises harder questions about religion and peace, and I'll write about it soon.

October 3, 2006

Nayler's shift

I've written a few times of James Nayler's blasphemy trial being a moment - along with the Restoration of the Stuart kings - that led to changes from early Quakerism. I hadn't noticed, however, a passage in Christopher Hill's The World Turned Upside Down that describes that change within James Nayler himself after his conviction and punishment:

Nayler himself in the depth of his humiliation rejected the support of 'many wild spirits, Ranters and such like', who refused to accept the hostile verdict of Friends. You have belied the Lord, Nayler told these Ranters in 1659, and said that 'sin and righteousness is all one to God', whom many Ranters openly deny. Their 'light answers' and 'mockings' 'have made heavy the burden of the meek and lowly, against whom you have sported.'

Nayler's experience, and still more his repentance, helped to restore a sense of sin to the Quaker movement. Nayler had believed that it was possible for a man to achieve Christ's perfection and perform Christ's works: his entry into Bristol was made in that spirit. But after his terrible punishment he was convinced that he had been in error, that 'the motions of sin did still work from the old ground and root'. So he rebuked his Ranter defenders:

do not say, All things are lawful, all things are pure, etc.; and so sit down and say you are redeemed and have right to all; but first pass through all things, one after another, as the light learneth you; and with a true measure see if you be from under the power of any. When you have proved this throughout all things, and found your freedom, then you may say, All things are lawful, and know what is expedient, and what edifies yourselves and others and the rest to reign over, without bondage thereto.

Nayler had the right to say that, arrived at through his great suffering and shame. ('I found it alone, being forsaken. I have fellowship there with them who lived in dens and desolate places in the earth.') But those phrases, 'what is expedient', 'what edifies', closed the door on much that had been courageous and life-giving to the Quaker movement. (251-2)

Hill goes on to talk about the changes in the larger movement after Nayler, but it seems worthwhile to me to pause for a moment and think about Nayler's reflections on his own historic arc, from seeking and acting out perfection to a more doubtful position.

'With a true measure see if you be from under the power of any' is a difficult challenge, one easier to test for an individual among a group.

(Hill's book is unfortunately out of print but still available through libraries and used bookstores. Fortunately, Quaker Heritage Press is halfway through publishing a collection of Nayler's works.)

A stable definition of Quakerism

Just before I left for vacation, Marshall Massey gave me something to contemplate:

As I see it, the world surrounding Quakerism changed, from the time of the Puritan upheavals to the Toleration Act 1689, and what Quakers did had to change accordingly. But this did not mean that Quakerism itself changed.

It would be convenient to discuss Quakerism as something stable, something that can be described once and reliably repeated. It is possible to develop a definition of Quakerism that holds from the beginning of Fox's ministry to the end of his life, and perhaps even to the present. William Penn gave it a try in 1696 in Primitive Christianity Revived:

That which the people call'd Quakers lay down, as a Main Fundamental in Religion, is this, That God, through Christ, hath placed a Principle in every Man, to inform him of his Duty, and to enable him to do it; and that those that Live up to this Principle, are the People of God, and those that Live in Disobedience to it, are not God's People, whatever name they may bear, or Profession they may make of Religion. This is their Ancient, First, and Standing Testimony: With this they began, and this they bore, and do bear to the World. (Chapter 1)

Penn's definition does seem to hold from the origins of Quakerism, and holds for most Quakers today, though I'm sure there are exceptions. (Penn argued that his definition held from the origins of Christianity, a much broader conversation.)

That said, Penn's definition leaves out a tremendous collection of valuable aspects that are clearly Quaker as well, and includes many others. Penn's definition taken alone might well include many of the Spiritual Franciscans, the Familists, the Grindletonians, and a wide variety of other groups and individuals past and present.

It's possible to look for other definitions that define more of Quakerism, but as I'll write next time, many of Quakerism's distinctive features, including Meeting discipline and the Peace Testimony, developed after Quakerism had been around for a while. These affected more than "what Quakers did".