- “To Bear our Righteous Testimonies against All Evil”: Virginia Quakers’ Response to John Brown
“John Brown,” declared W. E. B. Du Bois in 1909, “was right.” Brown’s raid stood as “a great white light—an unwavering, unflickering brightness, blinding by its all-seeing brilliance, making the whole world simply a light and a darkness—a right and a wrong.” A hundred years later, if David Reynolds is any indication, many historians agree with Du Bois. Brown, writes Reynolds, was “the selfless herald of emancipation,” whose violence represented a righteous retaliation for the brutality slaveholders had for three hundred years visited on their human property, and whose “eloquence” and calls for racial social justice revealed a “breadth of vision” lacking among the perpetrators of modern-day violence such as Ted Kaczynski, Osama bin Laden, and Scott Roeder. Likewise, minister and scholar Louis DeCaro argues that Brown is “a Protestant saint,” whose detractors—including the historians who have questioned his methods—share “the contempt of American racial scorn—the resentment that a white man would go to the point of killing other whites on behalf of black freedom.” DeCaro correctly points out that denunciations of Brown often reflected white racial prejudice, but it is also too sweeping and simplistic. Not all of Brown’s critics—even in the nineteenth century—shared such racist assumptions, as the experience of Quakers reveals.1
Quakers—members of the Society of Friends—had embraced antislavery doctrines in the Revolutionary era and by the 1780s had ended slaveholding within their ranks, removing (or disowning) any member who failed to abide by the rule. Thereafter, they launched a campaign of moral suasion—employing legislative petitions, spiritual testimony, economic boycotts, and the power of example—to convince slaveholders of the moral and economic damage wrought by slavery to individuals and the nation. Quakers stood at the forefront of the gradualist antislavery movement before 1830, and their activist members remained persistent opponents of slavery and advocates of racial justice even when abolitionists embracing immediatism displaced them as the nation’s leading antislavery activists. Friends largely eschewed the tactics of radical abolitionists and even disowned some members who cooperated with the new abolitionist groups. More conservative Friends argued that the strident and moralistic language of the abolitionists heightened the intransigence of slaveholders, while “coercive” attempts to end slavery sparked violence and worsened the lot of the enslaved. [End Page 1] The increased willingness of some frustrated abolitionists to embrace violent tactics in the 1850s in the face of a resurgent Slave Power particularly worried Friends, for along with their antislavery principles they embraced pacifism. Indeed, their opposition to slavery grew out of their pacifism and their belief that all people possessed a divine spark, an “inward light,” that mandated the rejection of violence. Thus, when Brown attacked Harper’s Ferry in October 1859, Friends denounced his actions, even while sympathizing with his goals. The Quaker poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier summarized Friends’ conflicted attitudes in “Brown of Osawatomie.” Whittier incorporated into his poem a newspaper report that Brown kissed an African American child as his guards led him from his jail on the day of his execution. “That kiss, from all its guilty means,” Whittier opined, “redeemed the good intent / And round the grisly fighter’s hair / The Martyr’s aureole bent!” But Whittier also hoped that with Brown’s end would “perish . . . the folly / That seeks through evil, good.”2
For the thousand or so Friends who resided in northern Virginia in 1860, the dilemma of John Brown lay even deeper. Like northern Friends, they sympathized with Brown’s aims but rejected his means. Unlike northern Friends, however, they lived “in the Lion’s mouth,” among slaveholders—as they had since the 1730s—and feared the repercussions of Brown’s violence. Minister Samuel Janney, on a religious journey to Philadelphia in late October 1859, wrote nervously to his wife to confirm the safety of his family and the Quaker community of Loudoun County, just to east of Harper’s Ferry. “I fear” Janney wrote, that Brown’s raid “will produce excitement & alarm through the state and may do much harm.” Friends had reason to...