Blow Ye the Trumpet!

“He was a terrorist,” said the man with the sensible beard. “I’m visiting here from Harper’s Ferry, and I can tell you, he is no hero, there.”
James McBride, the author at the lectern, nodded. He had heard it all before. “Well, that’s certainly an interpretation,” he said. Then he politely asked about the B&B the man owned. Harper’s Ferry, the site of the deed that sparked a Civil War, had now become a destination of a different sort.
America has moved on, but John Brown still sticks in its craw like a fishbone.
“He was a terrorist,” most sensible people still say of John Brown, and are done with him. But James McBride, at the University of Minnesota to talk about his book ‘The Good Lord Bird,’ had come to prick our collective conscience once more. But first he had to marvel at the field of white faces he saw before him in the lecture hall.
“This is Garrison Keillor country, right?” he asked, and not in a nice way. “I tell you, I visited Germany once, and I felt like I was walking through a Jewish graveyard. I feel that same way, sort of, tonight.”
I decided I did not like James McBride, but then he started to talk about John Brown, and I knew him for a kindred soul. “I didn’t know much about the guy when I started,” he said. “But after a while I got to like him. He was a warm-hearted human being.”
Not the description most people assign to the maniac who tore a man and his sons from their Kansas farmhouse and murdered them with broadswords. An act of terror, indeed. But to equate this deeply religious man with the religious terrorists of today is to make the mistake of reading history backwards. It is also to misunderstand the nature of his faith. The jihadists of today want to control the way people think and behave. John Brown wanted only one thing: freedom. For every person, regardless of race.
For John Brown was a Puritan. A scion of New England stock, he was an ardent Calvinist who believed that a man and or woman’s business with God was their own. In this he was anti-evangelical, anti-fundamentalist. His own son Owen, whom he dearly loved, was an avowed atheist. They would argue theology around the campfire in Iowa, but it was never a source of discord.
I went up to the table after the lecture to have Mr. McBride sign my copy of his novel. “I’m going to enjoy this book,” I said. “I’m a big fan of John Brown.”
The author slouched back in his chair and looked up at the flannel Minnesotan before him. Although the line was long, we got to chatting. I asked him if he knew what John Brown’s favorite hymn was.
“Blow Ye the Trumpet!” Mr. McBride exclaimed. “Now which version do you know?”
“The shape-note one.” I sang a few bars.
“Yeah, that’s the other one,” Mr. McBride said, with a slight grimace. “You know, I recorded the jazz version.” Then he asked. “Were you raised Presbyterian?”
“No, Lutheran,” I replied.
He looked at me as if to say, ‘you don’t have to tell me twice,’ and smiled.
He was a Baptist from Brooklyn; I, a Lutheran from Lake Wobegon. But it didn’t matter: we both worshipped in the Church of Weird John Brown.

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