The Language of Conscience: John Beeson and John Brown
Why do some people take literally the admonitions of our faiths, both religious and secular? We are all advised to “do unto others.” We are taught, from early childhood, that “all men are created equal.” Yet, not all of us abide by these “faiths of our fathers.” The men and women who do live according to these precepts often discomfit and unsettle, calling for close attention to matters many would leave unexamined.
Indeed, those who craft from these lessons a call to conscience often face outright hostility and violence from those among us who would prefer to leave many questions unasked. In the ferment of mid-nineteenth-century America, a small group of men and women strove to put the “faiths of their fathers” to a higher purpose by calling attention to the plight of the powerless and the dispossessed. These men and women unsettled and angered their contemporaries with their pointed reminders of the tenets of Christianity and the American creed.
John Beeson was one such man, a man of deep religiosity, an English Methodist who came to the United States in the 1830s. Beeson advocated powerfully for others at the nexus of Christian reform and a powerful republicanism. Native peoples, he asserted, were endowed by the Creator with the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” He drew on both the Bible and the Declaration of Independence, on Christian imagery and the Constitution, to fashion a powerful indictment of the ways in which his fellow men and women treated the native peoples and others.
Beeson’s use of language and patterns of thought are reminiscent of those of John Brown, who waged an unceasing battle of his own, albeit against slavery. The murder of Elijah P. Lovejoy, an antislavery editor in 1837, occasioned Brown’s public proclamation that he would “consecrate [his] life to the destruction of slavery.” Asked at the end of his life what inspired him to act as he did, Brown replied that the Golden Rule applied to all who would help others gain their liberty.
There are, naturally, profound differences between the two men: Beeson was an English-born Methodist who took up the pen, not the sword. It is difficult to draw comparisons between two men so different in life circumstance, temperament, and arena of action. Yet, it is precisely those differences that make the similarities in the formulation of their arguments so intriguing. Both Beeson and Brown sought to appeal to the consciences of their listeners and readers; both were indefatigable speakers and authors, traveling to rally audiences and to raise money for their respective causes.
I welcome the participation of students interested in any aspect of this project: the development of abolitionist thought, the movement to advocate for Native Americans, or the study of early Nineteenth Century religious and political culture. I am particularly interested in understanding the religious landscape of antebellum America.