Paul Hill, convicted of murdering abortionist John Britton and his bodyguard in 1994, considered himself to be a twentieth-century John Brown. Brown, if you recall, was the self-appointed avenger of God who was fond of quoting Hebrews 9:22: “All things are by the law purged with blood, and without shedding of blood is no remission” (KJV). If it took the blood of Americans to purge the sin of slavery from the land, so be it, Brown argued. For his actions, Brown was regarded as a hero by many in the anti-slavery movement of his time.
Although initially shocked by Brown’s exploits, many Northerners began to speak favorably of the militant abolitionist. “He did not recognize unjust human laws, but resisted them as he was bid. . . .,” said Henry David Thoreau in an address to the citizens of Concord, Massachusetts. “No man in America has ever stood up so persistently and effectively for the dignity of human nature. . . .”
Ralph Waldo Emerson used religious imagery by putting the “slavery issue into moral relief and made ‘the gallows glorious like the cross.’” What were the exploits that “initially shocked” Brown’s supporters but later were overshadowed by his “righteous” intention to rid the land of slavery? “On the evening of 23 May 1856, he and 6 followers, including 4 of his sons, visited the homes of pro-slavery men along Pottawatomie Creek [in Franklin County, Kansas], dragged their unarmed inhabitants into the night, and hacked them to death with long-edged swords.” He and his men were acting as vigilantes. The Pottawatomie Massacre was the first act of savagery that caught the attention of the anti-slavery movement and instilled fear in supporters of slavery. “God is my judge,” Brown said. “It was absolutely necessary as a measure of self-defense, and for the defense of others.”
In 1859, Brown hoped to start an armed slave revolt by seizing a United States Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. After arriving at the arsenal he began training a small group of men for military action. Northern abolitionist groups sent 198 rifles and nearly 1000 pikes in preparation for the raid. The arsenal contained 100,000 muskets and rifles. Brown’s plan was to use these weapons to arm rebellious slaves who would then strike terror in the slaveholders in Virginia. The first person killed by Brown’s men was Hayward Shepherd, an African-American baggage handler on a train that had passed through the area. Two slaves were killed as well as two people from the town, including the mayor. Federal troops eventually arrived under the command of Col. Robert E. Lee. Brown was later tried, convicted, and executed for his act of terrorism.
How has history treated John Brown? William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879), editor of the anti-slavery The Liberator, had a lot to say about Brown’s exploits on the day of his execution. Although he was still “an ‘ultra’ peace man,” he thanked God “when men who believe in the right and duty of wielding carnal weapons are so far advanced that they will take those weapons out of the scale of despotism, and thrown them into the scale of freedom.” Such righteous violence was “an indication of progress, and a positive moral growth; it is one way to get up to the sublime platform of non-resistance.” Brown’s violence was “God’s method of dealing retribution upon the head of the tyrant.” In 1863, businessman George L. Stearns held a “John Brown Party” where he unveiled a “marble bust of John Brown, the antislavery martyr who had died on a scaffold three years earlier after his doomed, heroic effort to free the slaves by leading a twenty-two-man raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia.” The comments by Richard Ellis offer a helpful commentary on the adulation given to John Brown:
The radical abolitionists’ response to John Brown and General Benjamin Butler also attests to the primacy of the hypocrisy within radical abolitionist political thought. Brown was canonized by abolitionists precisely because he embodied the idea of putting hypocrisy first. Brown’s moral zeal and uprightness exposed the hypocrisy of the shuffling and timid compromises made by politicians. Brown’s own acts of cruelty were forgiven, excused, or denied on account of his authenticity and candor.
Brown remains a sainted figure. On Bowdoin College’s website under “Abolitionism” you will find the following: “John Brown led a righteous crusade against slavery, born of religious conviction—and carried out with shocking violence.” Notice the words “righteous crusade” and “born of religious conviction.” Can you imagine such words being used to describe someone who killed an abortionist? Of course not, even though the arguments used for justification by Brown for his antislavery views and actions and Paul Hill for his antiabortion views and actions are nearly identical.
John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry, written by Brendan January and published in 2000 by Children’s Press, is in the “Cornerstones of Freedom Paperback” series. Do the actions of John Brown merit inclusion in a series on “freedom”? The following is on the “Ask Kids” website: “Harboring a fury that was fueled by profound religious devotion, John Brown carried his hatred of slavery into action, creating a legacy of bloodshed and violence that remains at once inspiring and appalling to this day.” Brown had “profound religious devotion” to his cause that was “inspiring” even if it was “appalling.” He was a murderer and a terrorist whose actions led to national bloodshed in a civil war that two world wars did not equal in the number of American deaths—more than 600,000! The “Ask Kids” site includes Brown’s final words to the court with no commentary added:
“I believe to have interfered as I have done, . . . in behalf of His [God’s] despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now, if it be 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.”
Then there’s David S. Reynolds’ biography John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights. Reynolds points out “that not only was Brown ‘right’ on slavery and other racial issues of his day, but that his conduct—in causing the Civil War to begin in 1861 rather than, say, 1881—potentially saved hundreds of thousands of lives that could have been lost in a war fought in a time of much greater population and more deadly weaponry and, at the same time, might well have spared an entire generation of African-Americans the humiliating experience of human bondage.” No one could know this. Maybe the issue of slavery could have been resolved without a war similar to the way England abolished the slave trade. Again Paul Hill and the killer of George Tiller could make similar arguments to justify their actions.
The mural “The Settlement of Kansas” by John Steuart Curry includes a larger-than-life depiction of John Brown holding a Bible in one hand and a rifle in the other and hangs in the Kansas Statehouse. The Civil War dead and wounded are symbolized by the depictions of lifeless soldiers at his feet. There’s even a 500-piece jig-saw puzzle of the painting. Can you imagine the hue and outcry if similar accolades and commemorations were showered on those who killed abortionists for reasons remarkably similar to those of Brown? There are many on the left who extol the revolutionary exploits of Che Guevara and wear “the most famous photograph in the world” proudly on their clothing.
By the time Brown’s body lay “a-mouldering in the grave,” the reverberations of his fanatic actions had shaken North and South, slave and free. Brown got what he wanted: the shed blood of hundreds of thousands of young men in a protracted civil war that led to the expansion of the federal government, continued racial conflict, segregation, and racial quotas. John Brown allowed poor theology to direct his actions, and there are people today who consider him to be a secular saint.
When Paul Hill was working through the logic of finding justification for executing abortionists, there were many who attempted to reason him out of his position. Prominent Christian leaders took public stands against Hill’s actions. Hill believed, like Brown, that he had a divine mandate to be God’s avenger:
“I believe that the Lord has used and will use what I did in a marvelous way. I’m standing for a principal. I’m willing to die for the principal. I consider it a great honor to die, possibly die, for having defended innocent human beings.”
He crossed jurisdictional boundaries. His methods, not his views on abortion, were almost universally condemned by Christians. Of course, there were those who felt the same about John Brown. In 1993, Hill was excommunicated from the church where he was a member, and he was routinely and regularly counseled not to kill in “the name of the Lord.” In fact, I was one of those who told him that he did not have biblical grounds to assassinate abortionists. The excommunication came after appearances on The Phil Donahue Show, Larry King Live, CNN’s Sonya Live, and ABC’s Nightline where Hill made his John Brown-like views known. On March 15, 1993, Hill appeared on the Donahue show where he offered this analogy as justification for killing abortionists: If someone were killing children on a playground, “if you were to come up behind that man and shoot him in the back three times, you would have protected and saved innocent life from undue harm.” Killing an abortionist is no different from killing Hitler, Hill maintained, and John Brown would have agreed. And I suspect that there are many pro-abortionists who might support the actions of Brown and the resultant “Civil War” because they believe in the greater good of such actions. George Tiller believed in the greater good of Roe v. Wade, but where did he and his accommodating church find moral justification for such a belief?
Abortion is legal, a constitutionally protected right. So was slavery, but this did not stop people from denouncing the practice as evil with harshest rhetoric. The terrorist actions of Brown did not delegitimize the antislavery movement. Pro-abortionists want anti-abortionists to change their rhetoric. They want pro-lifers to stop describing abortion as legalized killing. The essence of the debate is the status of the pre-born child. If abortion is not the killing of pre-born babies, then there’s nothing to protest. Pro-abortionists want the exclusive use of the English language and the right to define terms their way.
When a woman enters a “healthcare center,” she does so to kill her pre-born baby. Calling the facility a “healthcare center” does not change that fact. Defending the institution of slavery by describing slaves as “happy and content” does not change the fact that they were still slaves. Describing the gas chambers in the Nazi death camps as “delousing facilities” did nothing to protect the Jews who entered them. Killing took place there. People were murdered by the hundreds of thousands in these “facilities.”
In the January 3, 1995, issue of USA Today, an article appeared with this headline: “In abortion battle, toll mounts.” Toll as in death-toll. Pro-lifers want the world to know that the death toll is nearly 50 million pre-born babies killed in America since 1973. Killing 50 million pre-born babies is wrong and so is killing those who work at abortion mills. There are many legal ways to stop abortion in America. Killing abortionists is not one of them. George Tiller was a member in good standing in a Lutheran church. This is America’s real problem. If the church of Jesus Christ with one voice will not condemn abortion and vote out of office those who defend the bloody practice, then we deserve the leadership that is wrecking our nation. Keep in mind that millions of so-called evangelical Christians voted for this present pro-abortion administration.
2 http://www.civilwarhome.com/johnbrownbio.htm. “Though this act was purportedly a retaliation for the burning of Lawrence [Kansas], most of the settlers killed by Brown’s party had not been involved in any attacks on free–soil settlers.” (Richard J. Ellis, The Dark Side of the Left: Illiberal Egalitarianism in America [Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1998], 36).
4 William Lloyd Garrison, “John Brown and the Principle of Nonresistance,” The Liberator (December 16, 1859). Quoted in Ellis, The Dark Side of the Left, 36
6 Ellis, The Dark Side of the Left, 42.
7 You can add the deaths from the Korean and Vietnam wars, and you still would not equal the deaths in the civil war.
8 Douglas O. Linder, “The Trial of John Brown: A Commentary” (2005).
9 “Excerpts From Condemned Abortion Doctor Killer Paul Hill” (September 2, 2003).
10 Ellis, The Dark Side of the Left, 40.
11 Tom Hess, “Murderer of Florida abortionist executed,” Citizen (November 2003), 6.
Article posted June 2, 2009