This fall marks the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, and last weekend descendants of Brown and the other raiders gathered there as part of the NAACP’s 17th annual Jefferson County African American Culture & Heritage Festival.
The raid occurred Oct. 16 through 18, 1859. Brown believed his abolitionist efforts to be God’s work, and he said so in court on Nov. 2, 1859, the day he was convicted of murder and other crimes.
“I have, may it please the court, a few words to say,” Brown said. He then conceded that his “design” was “to free the slaves” but that he “never did intend murder, or treason, or the destruction of property, or to excite or incite slaves to rebellion, or to make insurrection.”
Brown also talked about God’s law and the concepts of right and wrong.
“This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to ‘remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them.’ I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say, I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done, as I have always freely admitted I have done in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now, 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!”
A Nov. 26 letter from John Anthony Copeland Jr., a free black man, reflects the religious influence of his rearing at Oberlin College in Ohio, which was a hotbed of abolitionism. From his cell in Charlestown, Copeland wrote, in part: “Dear Parents, my fate as far as man can seal it is sealed but let this not occasion you any misery for remember the cause in which I was engaged, remember that it was a ‘Holy Cause,’ one in which men who in every point of vew better than I am have suffered and died, remember that if I must die I die in trying to liberate a few of my poor and oppress people from my condition of serveatud which God in his Holy Writ has hurled his most bitter denunciations against and in which men who were by the color of their faces re-moved from the direct injurious affect, have already lost their lives and still more remain to meet the same fate which has been by man decided that I must meet.”
Two Quaker brothers - Edwin and Barclay Coppoc - also participated in the raid. Before sharing his fate at the gallows with his comrades, Edwin wrote to his uncle Joshua that he was grateful to God that Barclay wasn’t facing a hanging. His letter proved to be prescient, as the Civil War began 16 months later.
“My Dear Uncle,” Edwin wrote on Dec. 13, 1859: “I seat myself by the stand to write for the first and last time to thee and thy family. Though far from home and overtaken by misfortune, I have not forgotten you. Your generous hospitality towards me, during my short stay with you last spring, is stamped indelibly upon my heart, and also the generosity bestowed upon my poor brother who now wanders an outcast from his native land. But thank God he is free. I am thankful it is I who have to suffer instead of him.
“The time may come when He will remember me. And the time may come when He may still further remember the cause in which I die. Thank God the principles of the cause in which we were engaged will not die with me and my brave comrades.”