Night & Day: The Tale of Two Ancestors

September 24, 2000


Night and Day: The Tale of 2 Ancestors

If you happen to be a visitor this morning, I should tell you that sermons from this pulpit are at times unconventional, and this morning is one of those times. Once in a while it can be both useful and interesting to remember the past, so for the next few minutes you are invited to relive a couple of moments in the civic and religious history of this country. I propose to tell the story of two Congregationalists, one of whom is a skeleton in our church closet, the other a hero whose picture we would be proud to hang in our church foyer. Each had a connection with Kansas, each in his own way became famous. One had a song written about him which most of you know, the other wrote one of the best-selling novels of all time. Both were passionate idealists, but the difference in how they expressed that idealism was as opposite as night from day, and the difference is instructive. Let’s meet them.
The first man, born in Connecticut 200 years ago, was said to be a descendant of a Congregational ancestor of ours named Peter Brown who had arrived nearly two centuries before on the Mayflower. Given the familiar name of John, the boy was only 12 years old when his father sent him to drive cattle more than a hundred miles to feed American troops during the War of 1812. One day on that trip, as he watched a black slave boy his age beaten savagely with a shovel, he developed such a passionate hatred of slavery that his anger would eventually become an obsession.. At the age of18 he began preparing himself to be a Congregational minister, but he was sidetracked by two marriages, 20 children, and a series of failed business ventures until an act of Congress convinced him that he had a mandate from God to end slavery by whatever means were necessary.
In 1854 the Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed those two future states to decide by popular vote whether to allow slavery. When pro-slavery fanatics from Missouri poured over the border into Kansas Territory to pack the polls, abolitionists in New England (including some well-known Congregationalists) began grubstaking anti-slavery families who were headed west and would eventually establish the town of Lawrence. As things heated up, the famous Congregational minister, Henry Ward Beecher, sent a shipment marked BIBLES to the anti-slavery faction. Such a pious gift seemed rather futile to them in the face of threats against their lives until they pried open the crates and whooped in joy at the sight of splendid new Sharps rifles which they promptly nicknamed “Beecher’s Bibles.”
With Kansas bleeding from the national conflict, into our state came John Brown, ready to do whatever it took to keep Kansas from embracing slavery. He settled near Osawatomie and in several small, bloody battles between pro- and anti-slavery factions became known as “Old Osawatomie Brown.” When he heard that some pro-slavery settlers had killed a free-state settler, he led an expedition to Pottawatomie Creek where his men killed 5 of the pro-slavers in cold blood. When he crossed into Missouri to liberate a dozen slaves in that state, his men killed the slaveholder, and by now — although the abolitionists tried to put the best possible face on his tactics — many other Americans were calling him a murderous fanatic.
In the hope of getting thousands of slaves to arm themselves and make war on their masters Brown moved back east with some of his followers to a rented farm near the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, and on the evening of October 16th, l859, he attacked the fort, took some 60 civilians hostage, and prepared to hand out weapons to slaves who would revolt against their masters. They failed to show as he had hoped, but outraged townspeople and militia quickly retaliated and bullets whistled around the fort all night as hooting civilians fortified themselves with alcohol and used a couple of Brown’s dead abolitionist raiders for target practice.
Within two days U. S. Marines arrived, led by an army colonel named Robert E. Lee. They stormed the fort, killed severeal of Brown’s men and took others prisoner, including Brown himself, who was put on trial, convicted of treason, and hanged. Before his execution he wrote that “The crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.” His prophecy came true. The civil war began soon after, with Union troops singing on their way to battle that although “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave, His soul goes marching on.” The gaunt, bearded fanatic’s cause was just, but his methods were criminal — fueled by a literalistic reading of the Old Testament which convinced him that God had sanctioned the killing of men, women and children in holy war. For the boy who once wanted to become a Congregational minister, the fight to end slavery was a holy cause that justified both murder and high treason. It was not the first and would not be the last time that a misinformed reading of a holy book would be used to rationalize atrocities. Ireland, Algeria, Iraq and Iran, Afghanistan, Israel and Palestine, Timor in Indonesia, and a few more places including, at times, the United States, all bear witness to that sad fact.
But religion always has another face, and you are invited now to meet another Congregationalist who shared John Brown’s deep passion for social reform, but unlike Brown actually became a minister and used strikingly different ways of achieving his goals. In his pulpit at Central Congregational Church in Topeka, over a hundred years ago, he was a powerful advocate of the rights of women, working people and minorities, establishing for that last group the first black kindergarten west of the Mississippi. His reforming soon made him famous in Topeka but no one could have dreamed that his response to a challenge by his church would eventually put his name on the lips of millions of people around the world.
According to one version of this story, when his congregation insisted he give two sermons each Sunday, one in the morning and one at night, he protested that he had poured his energies out in the morning sermon and that the evening service was so poorly attended anyway that it seemed a waste of time to create a second sermon. But church members insisted, so he sat down to think about what he could do on Sunday nights that would attract more people. He decided to prepare a weekly story and read one chapter each Sunday evening, each installment ending in cliff-hanger suspense in hope of luring people back the next week.
Among the characters he created was the Rev. Henry Maxwell, minister of a church that sounds very much like this one: intelligent and successful members, blessed with a nice building and basically happy with their lives. The novel opens with Rev. Maxwell hard at work on his Sunday sermon, a sermon he has based on a Scripture texts that call on Christians to “follow in the steps of Jesus.” He is annoyed when he has to answer a sudden ring of the doorbell but he responds, only to find a shabby-looking young man on his porch who explains courteously, but urgently, that he has a wife and children but can’t find work and does the minister know of anyone in town who might need someone. The minister says tersely that he knows of no one and that he is very busy at the moment. He wishes the man good luck, shuts the door, and returns to his study.
Just before resuming work on the sermon he glances out a window and sees his visitor walking slowly away, head down, dejection written in his whole body. The sight vaguely bothers him for a moment, but he has important work waiting and quickly loses himself again in sermon-making for a church that expects excellence in their prestigious pulpit. He has finished by the time his wife returns to tell him that she has just had an odd experience — that at the kindergarten where she helps out, a shabby young man had stopped, sat down on a nearby bench, and watched the children play for a while. He looked as if he had lost all hope, she said, but he neither spoke nor bothered anyone and after a little while wandered off. He is, of course, the same man who had interrupted her husband, and when she guesses his age in the early 30’s an informed Christian reader is expected to remember that Jesus was crucified at that age, and perhaps to remember also how he once said that whenever and wherever we meet someone in need, we have met him — an idea that before long will change the lives not only of Rev. Maxwell and his parishioners, but everyone else in their town.
Another Sunday comes round in a couple of days, and once again the congregation gathers for worship. The songs this day have been chosen to match the sermon text, with words about following Jesus, about walking in his steps. As Rev. Maxwell develops those ideas with his customary skill the audience thinks how pleasant it is to have such a steady, intelligent man in their pulpit. All in all, it has been a typical, orderly Sunday…..until suddenly there is an interruption. The same unemployed, beaten-down young man who had appeared at the minister’s house steps forward from where he has sat under the balcony during the sermon, and very quietly begins speaking to the surprised congregation. He wonders if they can tell him what it means, this “following Jesus” they have just heard about, this ““walking in his steps.” He says it seems to him that a lot of trouble in the world wouldn’t be there if people asked themselves what Jesus would do, and then really tried to do that. He speaks softly but with great urgency, and despite his intrusion and his being out of uniform in that prominent church, the audience listens with rapt attention until he finishes and leaves. Without noticing the startling effect the speech has had on their minister the people form little clusters in their fellowship hall to buzz about the extraordinary disturbance.
The Rev. Maxwell has a whole week to think about it, and the truth is he thinks of little else, so that on the following Sunday it is obvious to everyone that he is not his usual self and is laboring under some powerful emotion. His delivery is not as polished and self-controlled as usual, but the depth of passion behind his sometimes ragged and uneven delivery makes him in an odd way even more eloquent than ever. They begin to understand why when he closes his message by asking hesitantly but with obvious hope if they would be willing to try something truly radical, something so extraordinary that although they have all paid lipservice to it they may feel he has lost his mind to suggest they actually put it into practice. As members look at each other uneasily he explains. “I wonder how many of you would accept a challenge. How many of you would promise for the space of one year, before any significant act or decision, to ask yourself ‘What would Jesus do?’ and then to the best of your knowledge be governed by your answer.”
Still uneasy in conscience from the stranger’s questions of the Sunday before, and moved by love and respect for their minister, a surprising number make the promise, and all the rest of the novel is given over to telling how they are changed, how their whole city is eventually changed by what happens when the newspaper editor and the prominent businessman and the town’s richest woman and others in that church start making decisions in response to the recurrent question: What would Jesus do ? They pay a high price at first, but this is a Christian romance novel and although there are some painful setbacks they not only slowly transform their own town but as the novel ends word of their success has spread and an even bigger church in a much larger city has decided to make the same commitment, so that you are left to ponder the author’s dream that the idea may spread everywhere.
When the Topeka Congregational minister, Charles Sheldon, published his Sunday night stories nearly a hundred years ago they quickly became one of the best-selling books of all time. If you ask whether it’s a great novel, the answer, by any decent literary standards is: Absolutely not. I think your critical judgment would almost certainly find it too often melodramatic, full of improbable coincidences and sudden conversions which are hard to swallow, however much one may wish to believe in them.
Yet a strange thing may happen to you, especially if you have stubbornly held onto a deep substratum of Christian idealism: you may very well read the book with conflicting emotions — smiling on the one hand at how contrived and unrealistic the novel’s premise seems in a world like ours, but touched almost against your will at other times by thoughts of how beautifully different the world might be if millions of professing Christians were to act each day on the basis of intelligent and compassionate decisions about what Jesus would do.