Cover image for "Fire from the midst of you" : a religious life of John Brown
"Fire from the midst of you" : a religious life of John Brown
DeCaro, Louis A., 1957-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : New York University Press, [2002]

Physical Description:
xiii, 349 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Format :


Call Number
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Item Holds
E451 .D43 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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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, Virginia, in 1859. Tried and executed for seizing the arsenal 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 the 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 U.S. 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 was 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 forced the entire nation to a point of 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."

Author Notes

Louis A. DeCaro, Jr., is a religious educator and pastor who lives in New Jersey with his wife

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

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.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

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 (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

In this well-researched and enjoyable biography, DeCaro not only explores Brown's religious commitment, but also his large family, business ventures, and career as an antislavery warrior in Kansas and Virginia. Rejecting portrayals of John Brown as a religious fanatic, the author shows Brown to be a devoted Christian who truly believed that God placed him on earth to wage war against slavery. According to DeCaro, Brown's strict Calvinism and willingness to use force differentiated him from most other abolitionists. Brown's religious beliefs also led to his commitment to racial egalitarianism and an unusually close relationship with African American leaders in North Elba, New York, and Springfield, Massachusetts. DeCaro successfully argues that scholars must take Brown and his religious views seriously, rather than dismissing him as a crank or zealot. But John Brown's belief system often gets lost in the details of his fascinating life. Though DeCaro depicts Brown as increasingly alienated from institutional religion, he does not describe how Brown's thought evolved from his contact with Frederick Douglass or other black leaders, or during his experiences in Hudson, Ohio; Springfield; and Kansas. ^BSumming Up: Recommended. All levels/collections. C. Faulkner SUNY College at Geneseo

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. ix
1 Introduction: Reconfiguring Sainthoodp. 1
I A Power above Ourselvesp. 9
1 "And They Had No Comforter": John Brown and the "Everlasting Negro" Questionp. 11
2 John Brown's Heritagep. 20
3 Revival, Resistance, and Abolition in the Time of John Brownp. 30
II A Good Cause and a Sovereign Godp. 43
4 The Early Years: Autobiography and Historyp. 45
5 Millennial Hopes, Abolitionist Awakeningsp. 57
6 "This Path of Life": From Ohio to Pennsylvaniap. 68
III Providence and Principlep. 81
7 Citizen Brown's Calvinist Communityp. 83
8 The Pursuit of Success and the Disappointments of Providencep. 95
9 Of Vows and Tearsp. 108
IV In Times of Difficultyp. 121
10 Belted Knights and Practical Shepherdsp. 123
11 "We Are Tossing Up and Down"p. 136
12 The Practical Shepherd in Springfieldp. 146
V Big Difficulties and Firm Footholdsp. 161
13 A Cold and Snowy Canaan Landp. 163
14 "So We Go": Failed Ventures and Disappointing Outcomesp. 177
15 "All the Encouragement in My Power"p. 189
VI Enduring Hardnessp. 203
16 Ohio and Beyondp. 205
17 "Kansas the Outpost": An Overviewp. 216
18 Pottawatomie and the Fatherlessp. 223
VII I Will Raise a Stormp. 237
19 "The Language of Providence"p. 239
20 "This Spark of Fire"p. 252
21 "My Public Murder"p. 264
Epilogue: A Saint's Restp. 279
Notesp. 285
Selected Bibliographyp. 335
Indexp. 345
About the Authorp. 349