Freedom, Fanaticism, Retrenchment: John Brown and the Southern Baptist Convention

Two events drew my attention and stood in severe contrast last week. One was coming across the 2020 Showtime mini-series, “The Good Lord Bird,” about pre-Civil War abolitionist John Brown and his star-crossed effort in 1859 to spark a slave revolt that he convinced himself would spread from Harpers Ferry, Virginia throughout the Southern states and effectively bring an end to slavery in America.

The second was news out of the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) annual meeting last week in New Orleans, at which delegates voted on an amendment to the organization’s constitution that would bring it in line with the tradition’s “statement of faith” that specifically says, “the office of pastor is limited to men.”

What brings these two occurrences together is the radical disparity in the main protagonists’ views on faith and freedom, unbound.

On the surface, Brown would seem to have much in common with the SBC, the country’s largest Protestant denomination.

Like the beliefs, doctrines and expressions of faith within the politically and theologically conservative group, Brown’s life was drenched in a biblical world view of deep devotion to what he understood to be the word of God as revealed in the scriptures and the life of Jesus Christ.

Unlike John Brown’s passion to convey rights to a historically oppressed group, the SBC is taking away a right that had been won only after a long history of denying women a voice in the pulpit—and most everywhere else in American life

The difference is that when Brown examined those scriptures, he came away with an absolute spiritual imperative regarding human freedom.

His reading of not only biblical texts as a God-fearing Christian but also his country’s impassioned founding documents compelled him to think of freedom in expansive terms, extending it to heretofore oppressed populations whom his religious convictions told him deserved equal treatment with all other children of a loving God.

Notably, that also included women.

In Brown’s proposed “Provisional Constitution and Ordinances for the People of the United States,” which he wrote in early 1858 while a guest at Frederick Douglass’s home in Rochester, New York, the full rights of citizenship, including the right to vote, hold office, and bear arms, was extended not only to previously enslaved people, but also to women of whatever color.

Which makes it all the more shameful that it took another 62 years for women to finally win the vote under the 19th amendment. (But that’s another blog post—thank you, Susan B. Anthony.)

Brown was also far ahead of his time in some, though certainly not all, domestic and cultural matters. On one hand, he sired 20 children by two wives, often leaving his family alone for long stretches while he traveled widely to support his cause.

But according to his most comprehensive biography, he insisted that his sons share housekeeping duties on even terms with his daughters, and his farming was based on an ethos of harmony with nature and open fellowship with his Native American neighbors.

All of which makes last week’s curtailment of women’s freedom by the Southern Baptist Convention, these 154 years after Brown’s death, appear all the more pinched and pathetic.

In an era when women have risen to top leadership positions in virtually every strata of society across much of the globe, the SBC is muddling through a desperate attempt to roll back time. It is by any measure an effort to reinsert the genie of male dominance into a bottle that has deservedly been broken into a thousand pieces over the now thousands of years that have elapsed since the biblical authors roamed and wrote of a radically different world than we know today.



Ethan Hawke’s John Brown is the role of a lifetime, Hawke having crawled so deeply into Brown’s character and fierce, roaring conviction in his cause that the television itself seemed to cower under his wrath. The seven-part series is based on a semi-fictionalized account of events leading up to the Harpers Ferry raid by novelist James McBride.

McBride left the basic saga intact but then framed the tale from the perspective of a young black slave who came into Brown’s orbit and through some almost slapstick misapprehensions, had to impersonate a female through most all the remaining tale. (The book and movie are not without some effective comic relief to balance the dead-seriousness of Brown’s quest.)

Planning for the raid originally called for a force of 4,500 men, but the final count totaled 21, just five of them black. Still, the band did overrun the armory as planned, it being protected by exactly one armed guard, and then managed to round up some 30 hostages from the town and surrounding farms (whom they treated kindly).

The 100,000 seized weapons went wanting, however, as a large contingent of federal troops led by then-Colonel Robert E. Lee soon surrounded the compound, sought the group’s surrender, engaged in a gun battle, and then rushed the building where Brown’s men had barricaded themselves. They killed two of his sons in the process before violently disarming Brown and taking him into custody.

Some six weeks later, Brown had been tried, found guilty, and then hanged. Upon his sentencing, he had told the court:

“Had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of their friends…and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference…every man in this court would have deemed it worthy of reward rather than punishment.”

Then, sounding all the more like a New Testament clone of Jesus at the Last Supper, he added:

“If it is 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.”



No account of Brown should discount his penchant for the violence he saw as necessary to finally end the inherent evils of slavery. His 1856 massacre of five pro-slavery men who had been terrorizing abolitionist forces in Kansas was ghastly in the extreme, dragging them out of their homes in the dead of night and ordering his men to slash them to pieces.

In the last written words he bequeathed to posterity after his death he had written:

“I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with Blood. I had…vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed, it might be done.”

This separates him from the Jesus in whose name he gave his life, along with the bulk of the 20th century civil rights movement anchored heavily in the churches of black America. But the situation in 1850s America begs many questions. (Not that 2020s America doesn’t…)

Heroes abounded, of course—those who readily grasped the abhorrent nature of slavery and resolved to do something about it. But countless others, otherwise upstanding citizens who did good works and followed what they convinced themselves was the word of God, abided slavery simply as  a reality of life, just the way things are. (Insert minimally anguished shoulder shrug here…)

So how long would it have taken, how many more innocent lives ended or ruined, if the battle to end slavery had remained limited to changing hearts and minds via persuasion rather than force?

John Brown applied such force with utter, religiously infused passion for a righteous cause, something Abraham Lincoln came to only years later.

And more personally: What does it mean to be a hero? What cause would I die for? What am I doing, what more might I do, to call out and resist the treacheries of my own time, treachery and oppression never being in short supply?

Food for thought on this Independence Day weekend.


Watching Ethan Hawke so vividly portray a man who knew full well exactly what he would die for, what he would set in motion and see his own sons die for, was bracing in the extreme. He shows us a fanaticism bent on resisting a known and ongoing evil, rooting it out in the name of posterity, freedom, justice, and all that is most dignified and expansive about humanity.

Then one scrolls through the news to find that “Texas pastor Juan Sanchez believes Southern Baptists can walk and chew gum at the same time.”

How do they do this?

Sanchez answers, “We can say only men are to be pastors as qualified by Scripture. And women have a vital place in the life of the church…We can honor women in ways that are appropriate without confusing the biblical categories.”

One such “honored woman” had a rueful observation on walking into a conference panel discussion on the subject of barring women as pastors—and all the panelists were men.

“I turned around and walked out,” she told a reporter.

Unlike John Brown’s passion to convey rights to a historically oppressed population, the SBC is taking away a right that had been won only after a long history of denying women a voice in the pulpit. Rather than celebrating that embrace of the modern world, it is viewing its own history of women pastors serving some 190 congregations around the country for the past 30+ years as an abomination, a miscarriage in the eyes of God.

In doing so, it is more reflective of the 1st century than the 21st, when women were to be seen only when summoned and heard hardly at all.

Not that the SBC is the only religious denomination harboring such views. (I’m looking at you, Catholics and Mormons…) But the SBC is unlike them in now rolling back a right they had long abided in a nod to modernity decades ago. It suggests that the “war on women” meme making the rounds in liberal political circles the past decade or so and ridiculed as absurd by many conservatives may be frighteningly more accurate than not.

“There is a mistaken idea that he (Brown) was trying to save black folks,” Hawke told “The New Yorker” magazine in a 2020 profile. “He was trying to save us. Seen through the eyes of a serious Christian, black people didn’t need saving. The affluent white communities were the ones living in sin.”

And so it is with the Southern Baptist Convention today, in need of its own John Brown moment. (O.K., sans the violence…)

Someone willing to speak not-all-that-hard truths that disenfranchising any human being robs the entire race of the gifts bestowed upon the human pageant by a God of surely much greater vision and generosity than anything dreamt up by various scribes and desert wanderers of antiquity, when slavery was state and religion-sanctioned, women were silent, and true freedom was a province of only the very few—and the male.



John Brown mural by John Steuart Curry, see Robert Spencer’s comment below for more information.


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John Brown and slave images from historical archives

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Megachurch by Flickmor, New York City

7 comments to Freedom, Fanaticism, Retrenchment: John Brown and the Southern Baptist Convention

  • Mary Graves  says:

    I am very disappointed that the one Baptist woman panelist who turned and walked out! She was the one person who could have spoken for all women about why women should be allowed to be pastors! But no, she did not use her voice for that. She threw away that critical moment.
    Women managers in corporations often think walking out of a big meeting is such a powerful thing to do. But it shows extreme weakness and hurts all women. I wish they would stay and use their voices to project rational ideas.
    In that moment, while intending to send a message of objection she instead sent a message of being too weak to handle the controversy within the church.

    I just read “Chancellor, odyssey of Angela Merkle.”
    She was a former chemist and learned to break down all problems into their simplest parts. And then resolve it together with the opponent.
    She and Obama were great friends because he could see this in her and was soothed by it. Men listened and respected Merkle and gave compromises with ease.
    Perhaps anyone who wants to be a pastor in the Baptist church should be required to take and pass a course on rationally managing conflict…Especially within the church.
    Thx for listening

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Mary, I do agree with you that it MIGHT have been more effective for the woman in question to engage the panelists rather than walk out (she was not a panelist, however—only a delegate at the convention), but a few points I’d raise for your consideration.

      1) I certainly feel her pain and exasperation at the ludicrousness, the tone deafness, of the convention conducting a panel on women in the pastorate without any women panelists. This alone shows the Convention managers’ complete lack of understanding and self-reflection on what the problem actually is. So I’m not sure I’d hold her feet too close to the fire for concluding, “Achhh, to heck with it!”

      2) She was not the “one” person who could have made her voice heard and spoken for all women. Many woman pastors (because there ARE many, but soon won’t be!) spoke out forcefully and eloquently during the convention in making the case for women as pastors, and the grave error the convention was about to commit in voting to deny them their livelihoods and forcing their home churches to choose between employing them or remaining as members of the national organization.

      3) I think courses on rationally managing conflict are a fine idea for any organization (any human, actually), but I couldn’t help but notice you didn’t at all mention the profound irrationality of the men on that panel! They not only didn’t see the elephant in the room regarding the gender makeup of their own panel, but are also part of an apparatus that is propagating the wholly irrational view that women are not suited for leadership in the church. What about those MEN? Their failure to see, appreciate and repair the deeply rooted misogyny of that policy should alarm everyone in the church and beyond who cares not only about women in this world, but as Ethan Hawke alluded to above, men as well, who are denied the full flowering of women’s abundant gifts in ministry and every other endeavor they feel called to pursue.

      Thanks to you also for reading and grappling with these important issues, and if you’d like to take a minute to offer any interesting tidbit from your ancestor John Brown, I’m all ears!

  • mary  says:

    And maybe if she was sweet and obsequious and non-threatening enough those guys that hold all the power (and have for CENTURIES) might think they thought of equality all on their own! (because having a penis clearly gives one a bigger brain and leadership qualities).

    Sarcasm is a low blow, I know, but delivered unapologetically for the truths held within. The idea that it is up to the victims of oppression to do all the work of righting these grievous wrongs is yet another wrong! That women/blacks/gays might be listened to and seen as equal if they don’t make anyone feel bad (oh no, can’t have that!) and the people in power might magnanimously decide to share (as long as they don’t feel intimidated or have to cede any ground/money/power/privilege)….no history book in the world supports anything remotely approaching that premise.

    It brings to mind that wonderful, oh so apt, quote from the movie Network, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”
    And no ethical, moral person should.

  • David Moriah  says:

    I have often thought John Brown has been a misunderstood and under-appreciated American hero, despite his willingness to wield the sword in the name of the Prince of Peace, an irony that you aptly mention. And the SBC is an embarrassment to any true follower of Jesus. A pox on their house! And sorry to nitpick, but the force led by Lee to capture Brown at Harper’s Ferry was not the Confederate army but the US federal army. At the time the Confederacy had not been established and Lee was in the employ of the US government. Carry on, my friend. Let freedom ring!

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Oh please do nitpick, my friend—I need fact-checkers who come cheap! :-) I must say I meandered around that line a while, wasn’t sure why, but I should have heeded my meandering ways and considered what it might be hinting at. Thanks, and I will correct the error momentarily…

      As for Mr. Brown, ahh yes, the internal contradictions of all human beings, writ so very large on great persons at the center of world-changing events! Reading a book about that phenomenon now, hope to do something with it here.

      Thanks for checking in again among all the other possibilities of a Sunday afternoon in this blessed life. Cheers to you!

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    John Brown’s life hasn’t exactly starved for want. However, truth wasn’t often on the menu. Although I haven’t had the opportunity to watch “The Good Lord Bird” (no Showtime), it seems from your comments that Ethan Hawke’s John Brown has been costumed in more factual attire. If you want a MAGA slant to your John Brown story, catch Michael Curtiz’s 1940 film “Santa Fe Trail”. The plot unfolds like a “Twilight Zone” episode. Young West Point cadets George Armstrong Custer (Ronald Reagan) and Jeb Stuart (Errol Flynn) are sent to Kansas to save the territory from the clutches of the villainous lunatic John Brown (Raymond Massey). Needless to say, abolishing slavery wasn’t high on its priority list. Retaking Harper’s Ferry was a far more worthy endeavor. However, if one is seeking to find a single, defining image of John Brown, hop a plane to LaGuardia and hit the Met, John Stuart Curry’s monumental oil and egg tempura painting of John Brown resides there. His canvas says it all. Brown’s arms are raised like Jesus’ last moments on the cross. His beard and hair fly madly about. His eyes evoke chills. His scream to end slavery overwhelms the bloodied Kansas prairie. He wields a rifle in his right hand and a bible in his left. Behind him swirls a tornado, an omen of the events that will soon tear the country apart. This masterpiece vividly encapsulates what John Brown was all about, this man whom Herman Melville called the “meteor of the War.” Now, a word or two about the Southern Baptist Church. For some time now the SBC has welcomed misogyny, prejudice, and xenophobia like the Second Coming. Its platform had become so extreme that some twenty-years ago Jimmy Carter walked away from the SBC, his home away from home for some seventy years. He even taught Sunday school there. Tragically, today, the message the SBC sends out has found refuge among millions of Americans. It’s unnerving how easily these so-called Christians have turned their backs on Jesus’s teachings. They have razed the Sermon on the Mount and adopted Mein Kampf.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Robert, your description of the John Steuart Curry painting sounds exactly like Hawke’s portrayal in the series—I’m guessing he spent a goodly amount of time staring at it before undertaking that role! BTW, the series is a Showtime production but it’s now available on Amazon Prime, so assuming you can access that, it gets five stars from this corner…

      Meanwhile, you inspired me to look up that painting, and turns out it was based on a much larger mural project commissioned by the state of Kansas, and which is still intact, in all its wild glory, in the Capitol rotunda. Comparing the painting with the mural shows them to be quite similar but not identical. The mural is downloadable, the painting isn’t (but is viewable here: …so I’m going to place the mural image up above here under the music video just to show other and future readers what you’re referring to. It’s a gem, which I appreciate you bringing to our attention.

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