In this world you have no abiding place

In my last entry I briefly touched on John Brown’s letters from prison before haring off and ignoring them entirely to deal with the interrogation of John Brown that took place after his capture. Sorry about that. Sometimes, I am a sloppy writer when I blog and my digressions get the better of me.

At any rate, Brown had a month to occupy between his sentencing on the 2nd of November and his hanging on the 2nd of December. He passed the time by responding to the letters he received, and by writing to his family. Understandably worried that they would be the targets of reprisals after his actions at Harpers Ferry, the remaining Brown family moved around quite a bit, apparently. And all the while, he wrote to them.

John Brown’s religious faith, as well as his calm and acceptance of his fate shine through in the letters he sends his family. He is, quite frankly, a cool customer, as evidenced by this post-script attached to his first letter. The letter is dated the 31st of October, but apparently he held onto it a few days before mailing it.

Nov. 3d 1859

P.S. Yesterday Nov 2d I was sentenced to be hanged on 2 Decem next. Do not grieve on my account. I am still quite cheerful.

God bless you all Your Ever J Brown

I admit it, I blinked when I read it. “Oh by the way, they’re going to hang me in a month, but I’m all right with it.” It’s no wonder the man became legend.

Brown’s letters are filled with Christian references along with references to his own impending death. From November 8th:

I am, besides, quite cheerful, having (as I trust) “the peace of God, which passeth all understanding,” to “rule in my heart,” and the testimony (in some degree) of a good conscience that I have not lived altogether in vain. I can trust God with both the time and the manner of my death, believing, as I now do, that for me at this time to seal my testimony for God and humanity with my blood will do vastly more toward advancing the cause I have earnestly endeavored to promote, than all I have done in my life before. I beg of you all meekly and quietly to submit to this, not feeling yourselves in the least degraded on the account. Remember, dear wife and children all, that Jesus of Nazareth suffered a most excruciating death on the cross as a felon, under the most aggravating circumstances.

In the same letter, John Brown tells his wife not to come to him in Charles Town, and gives his reasoning for the instruction:

First, it would use up all the scanty means she has, or is at all likely to have, to make herself and children comfortable hereafter. . . .Again, the little comfort it might afford us to meet again would be dearly bought by the pains of a final separation. We must part; and I feel assured for us to meet under such dreadful circumstances would only add to our distress. If she comes on here, she must be only a gazing-stock throughout the whole journey, to be remarked upon in every look, word, and action, and by all sorts of creatures, and by all sorts of papers, throughout the whole country. Again, it is my most decided judgment that in quietly and submissively staying at home vastly more of generous sympathy will reach her, without such dreadful sacrifice of feeling as she must put up with if she comes on. The visits of one or two female friends that have come on her have produced great excitement, which is very annoying; and they cannot possibly do me any good. Oh, Mary! do not come, but patiently wait for the meeting of those who love God and their fellow-men, where no separation must follow.

Brown follows up by entreating his family to write to him and inquiring as to whether they received ten dollars that he’d sent them, possibly with his last letter. He closes, finally, with this post-script:

P.S.-I cannot remember a night so dark as to have hindered the coming day, nor a storm so furious and dreadful as to prevent the return of warm sunshine and a cloudless sky. But, beloved ones do remember that this is not your rest,-that in this world you have no abiding place or continuing city. To God and his infinite mercy I always commend you.

Apparently his wife was not completely dissuaded from coming to visit him by his instructions in this letter, something that is entirely understandable given the circumstances. On November 16th he wrote to his family again, thanking friends, discussing the kind of education he would like his daughters to receive, and finally once again addressing Mary’s desire to join him in Charles Town:

If you feel sure that you can endure the trials and the shock, which will be unavoidable (if you come), I should be most glad to see you once more; but when I think of your being insulted on the road, and perhaps while here, and of only seeing your wretchedness made complete, I shrink from it. Your composure and fortitude of mind may be quite equal to it all; but I am in dreadful doubt of it. If you do come, defer your journey till about the 27th or 28t of this month. The scenes which you will have to pass through on coming here will be anything but those you now pass, with tender, kind-hearted friends, and kind faces to meet you everywhere. Do consider the matter well before you make the plunge. I think I had better say no more on this most painful subject.

The italics, incidentally, are all John Brown’s. He had an odd style of emphasis on words that one does not necessarily expect. I get the impression that his communications style was fairly emphatic when he was trying to make a point.

And yet he still tried desperately to remain engaged with the day to day affairs of his family, even in prison, even on the brink of death. On the 21st of November he wrote to them again. In the opening paragraph he addresses the news of activities for which he is afraid his supporters (and he) will be blamed, and once again comments on Mary’s desire to join him:

There is now here a source of disquietude to me,-namely, the fires which are almost of daily and nightly occurrence in this immediate neighborhood. While I well know that no one of them is the work of our friends, I know at the same time that by more or less of the inhabitants we shall be charged with them,-the same as with the ominous and threatening letters to Governor Wise. In the existing state of public feeling I can easily see a further objection to your coming here at present; but I did not intend saying another word to you on that subject

Then in the next paragraph, he chastises her for the lack of mundane news in her letters to him:

Why will you not say to me whether you had any crops mature this season? If so, what ones? Although I may nevermore intermeddle with your worldly affairs, I have not yet lost all interest in them. A little history of your failures I should very much prize; and I would gratify you and other mends some way were it in my power. I am still quite cheerful, and by no means cast down. I “remember that the time is short.”

The final paragraph relates the details of the deaths of their sons Watson and Owen at Harpers Ferry, and he closes with his usual affection.

He writes again on the 26th of November, with news of various amounts of money which supporters have sent that he, in turn, is passing on to his family for their support. He also gives news of himself:

It is out of my power to reply to all the kind, & encouraging letters I get; Wish I could do so. I have been so much relieved from my lameness for the last Three or Four days as to be able to sit up to read; & write pretty much all day: as well as part of the Night; & I do assure you & all other friends that I am quite busy; & none the less happy on that account. The time passes quite pleasantly; & the near approach of my great change is not the occasion of any particular dread. I trust that God who has sustained me so long; will not forsake me when I most feel my need of Fatherly aid; & support.

And finally, he closes with this line, made poignant by the nearness of his death and his previous arguments against visits from Mary:

I will close this by saying that if you now feel that you are equal to the undertaking do exactly as you FEEL disposed to do about coming to see me before I suffer. I am entirely willing.

John Brown’s last letter to his family is dated the 30th of November, and please excuse me if I quote from it extensively:

My Dearly Beloved Wife, Sons and Daughters, Everyone–

As I now begin what is probably the last letter I shall ever write to any of you, I conclude to write to all at same time. . . .

I recently received a letter from my wife, from near Philadelphia, dated November 22, by which it would seem that she was about giving up the idea of seeing me again. I had written her to come on if she felt equal to the undertaking, but I do not know that she will get my letter in time. It was on her own account chiefly that I asked her to stay back. At first I had a most strong desire to see her again, but there appeared to be very serious objections; and should we never meet in this life, I trust that she will in the end be satisfied it was for the best at least, if not most for her comfort. . . .

I am waiting the hour of my public murder with great composure of mind and cheerfulness, feeling the strong assurance that in no other possible way could I be used to so much advantage to the cause of good and of humanity, and that nothing that either I or all my family have sacrificed or suffered will be lost. . . . Do not feel ashamed on my account, nor for one moment despair of the cause or grow weary of well doing. I bless God I never felt stronger confidence in the certain and near approach of a bright morning and a glorious day than I have felt, and do now feel, since my confinement here. I am endeavoring to return, like a poor prodigal as I am, to my Father, against whom I have always sinned, in the hope that he may kindly and forgivingly meet me, though a very great way off.

Oh! my dear wife and children, would to God you could know how I have been travailing in birth for you all, that no one of you may fail of the grace of God. . . .

Be sure to owe no man anything, but to love one another. John Rogers wrote to his children, “Abhor that arrant whore of Rome.” John Brown writes to his children to abhor, with undying hatred also, that sum of all villainies–Slavery. Remember, he that is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he that ruleth in spirit than he that taketh a city. Remember, also, that they, being wise, shall shine, and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars forever and ever.

And now, dearly beloved family, to God and the work of His Grace I commend you all.

Your affectionate husband and father,
John Brown

Mary finally joined him in time for his last meal on December 1st, but was not allowed to stay the night with him. On December 2nd, at noon, he mounted the scaffold.

Link: John Brown’s letters to his family from prison.

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