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

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John Brown is usually remembered as a terrorist whose unbridled hatred of slavery drove him to the ill-fated raid on Harper's Ferry, [West] Virginia, in 1859. Tried and executed for seizing the armory 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 a 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 United States 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 is 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 sparked the nation's greatest 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."

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
DeCaro sets out to establish Brown’s legacy as one grounded in an alternative evangelical tradition that decried pacifism, developed a doctrine of holy war, and called any church that did not actively work for abolition anti-Christian. He places Brown in his religious milieu, reforming the legacy of this religious extremist.
Publishers Weekly
John Brown's 1859 raid on Harper's Ferry is a contested event in American history: was Brown a brave abolitionist sacrificing his life for the lives of Southern slaves? Or was he a ruffian and outlaw? In this illuminating study, pastor and author DeCaro (best known for his two books on Malcolm X) sets Brown in the context of American religious history, arguing that Brown was no less than "a Protestant saint." Brown, the son of an abolitionist, was a deeply religious man who eschewed "vain and frivolous conversation" for Bible-reading. He was not alone, DeCaro shows, in understanding abolitionism through a religious lens. American Protestant thought pushed many Christians to activism. The post-millennial theology of the day insisted that Jesus would return to Earth only after a 1,000-year reign of peace; this theology of optimism encouraged many Christians to get involved in reform campaigns like abolitionism, as they tried to help make the world a better place and hasten Jesus' return. In this context, DeCaro suggests, the raid at Harper's Ferry looks less like extremist violence and more like heroic self-sacrifice; Brown's death looks less like a madman's suicide and more like a martyrdom. DeCaro's portrayal of John Brown is hardly path-breaking. Scholars have long understood the connections between post-millennialism and abolitionism, and many writers, from W.E.B. Du Bois to Russell Banks, have previously suggested that Brown's politics were bound up with his faith. Nonetheless, this useful book-length study is a welcome addition to the literature on John Brown. (Dec.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
When abolitionist martyr John Brown led an armed raid on Harper's Ferry, VA, in October 1859, he helped set the stage for the American Civil War. Yet as pastor and educator DeCaro points out, Brown himself felt that all life was precious, claiming that he would fight no war "unless it was a war of liberty." DeCaro (Malcolm and the Cross) sets out to establish Brown's legacy as one grounded in an alternative evangelical tradition that decried pacifism, developed a doctrine of holy war, and called any church that did not actively work for abolition anti-Christian. He places Brown in his religious milieu, reforming the legacy of this religious extremist into "a [Protestant] saint in his own way a sincere believer, however imperfect, also believing himself carried along by God's grace and mercy." Combining a moral and ethical abhorrence of slavery with a genuine religious fervor, he is the modern embodiment of that most reviled social pariah, the uncompromising fanatic. More ambitious than a popular history but not quite a scholarly treatise, DeCaro's plainly written book may find an audience among readers with a deep interest in history and religion. Recommended for larger public and academic libraries.-Sandra Collins, Duquesne Univ. Lib., Pittsburgh Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
From the Publisher
“A welcome addition to the literature on John Brown's life and legacy. One of the book's strongest features is its detailed description of Brown's longstanding contacts and friendships with black Americans. But DeCaro—s most important achievement is to have explored in greater depth and more sympathetically than any previous scholar the precise nature of the religious convictions that shaped Brown's career as a freedom fighter.”
-Gerald W. McFarland,author of A Scattered People: An American Family Moves West

“A welcome addition to the literature of John Brown.”

-Publishers Weekly

“Traces the religious and political trajectory of John Brown not as the fanatic bent on waging war against the United States, but as a religious revolutionary, like Malcolm X, following a biblical command that places justice before peace. Louis DeCaro’s fresh interpretation of Brown and his time does more than rescue a maligned figure in U.S. history from an army of scholarly foes. He offers a deeply nuanced character profile of Brown and his family, a charismatic abolitionist who took his Bible seriously, and shook his country the better to shake slavery out of it. No future study of John Brown can ignore this book.”
-William Loren Katz,author of Eyewitness: A Living Documentary of the African American Contribution to American History

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780814719220
  • Publisher: New York University Press
  • Publication date: 10/1/2005
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 349
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.70 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Louis A. DeCaro, Jr. is a religious educator and pastor who lives in New Jersey. He is the author of On the Side of My People: A Religious Life of Malcolm X and its sequel, Malcolm and the Cross: The Nation of Islam, Malcolm X, and Christianity, both available from NYU Press.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Reconfiguring Sainthood 1
I A Power above Ourselves 9
1 "And They Had No Comforter": John Brown and the "Everlasting Negro" Question 11
2 John Brown's Heritage 20
3 Revival, Resistance, and Abolition in the Time of John Brown 30
II A Good Cause and a Sovereign God 43
4 The Early Years: Autobiography and History 45
5 Millennial Hopes, Abolitionist Awakenings 57
6 "This Path of Life": From Ohio to Pennsylvania 68
III Providence and Principle 81
7 Citizen Brown's Calvinist Community 83
8 The Pursuit of Success and the Disappointments of Providence 95
9 Of Vows and Tears 108
IV In Times of Difficulty 121
10 Belted Knights and Practical Shepherds 123
11 "We Are Tossing Up and Down" 136
12 The Practical Shepherd in Springfield 146
V Big Difficulties and Firm Footholds 161
13 A Cold and Snowy Canaan Land 163
14 "So We Go": Failed Ventures and Disappointing Outcomes 177
15 "All the Encouragement in My Power" 189
VI Enduring Hardness 203
16 Ohio and Beyond 205
17 "Kansas the Outpost": An Overview 216
18 Pottawatomie and the Fatherless 223
VII I Will Raise a Storm 237
19 "The Language of Providence" 239
20 "This Spark of Fire" 252
21 "My Public Murder" 264
Epilogue: A Saint's Rest 279
Notes 285
Selected Bibliography 335
Index 345
About the Author 349
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