I recently watched the premiere of “Good Lord Bird” where Ethan Hawke plays slavery abolitionist John Brown. Brown is considered to be a chief instigator of the American Civil War for his leadership of militant raids against supporters of slavery.
Hawke portrays Brown as a bearded, wild-eyed reformer who was motivated by an insatiable religious fervor. Brown was skeptical that slavery could be peacefully abolished and resorted to violent tactics against slave owners.
This skepticism was acknowledged by Frederick Douglas, who remarked after meeting with John Brown that he became “less hopefully for [slavery’s] peaceful abolition.”
The show reminded me of another radical abolitionist from Clinton County named Abraham “Abram” Brooke.
These two reformers share many things in common: they were eccentric, relentless, pious, and stubborn men with disheveled beards who detested slavery.
But Abram Brooke’s Quaker faith made him committed to nonviolent resistance against slavery. While Abram shared Brown’s frustration with the lack of action from many churches, Abram resorted to many nonviolent escapades throughout his life that put him at odds with the law.
Abram moved to Clinton County in 1837 and bought land in Oakland, located in Chester Township along State Route 73. Faith Family Church now sits on the spot where Abram built a large meeting house that he called Liberty Hall.
Wasting no time, Abram founded the Clinton County Anti-Slavery Society and developed a reputation as the fiercest critic of slavery in Southern Ohio.
Abram was well-connected to other abolitionists and invited Frederick Douglas to come speak at Liberty Hall in 1843. More than a thousand people came to hear Douglas speak. Abram later wrote that Douglas had been doing “grand work in this neighborhood” and that “he could not operate in a more fruitful field.”
While Abram frequently convened conventions and meetings on abolition, he also committed himself to heroic action.
His most thrilling escapade was when he witnessed a wagon full of slaves passing through Oakland heading toward Waynesville. The slaveholders ignored the warnings of people in Wilmington who said that Oakland was a “nest of abolitionists.”
After sighting the slaveholders, Abram leapt into action by intercepting them in Lebanon. Abram hired two lawyers to charge them with kidnapping. The judge ruled in favor of the slaveholders and Abraham was run out of town by a proslavery mob that pelted rocks at him and shouted “Kill him, kill him!”
Not long after Abram was run out of Lebanon, he spotted another transport of slaves passing through Oakland. This time he was successful at apprehending the slave owners and he managed to get four slaves to safety. A few days later, Abram woke up in the middle of the night to find a group of men banging on his door with a warrant for his arrest.
Soon enough, Abram was back in the Lebanon courtroom facing charges for stealing enslaved property. Seventeen of his collaborators were also on trial. This time the proslavery mob was back, armed with rocks and eggs.
The jury was not sympathetic to the abolitionists but could not justify charging them with theft since slavery was illegal in Ohio. The court ultimately settled on a charge of disturbing the peace. Abraham spent five days in the Warren County jail where he was only fed bread and water.
However, Abram’s escapade was not in vain. The slaves were not only free, but the Ohio Supreme Court later overturned the ruling. The ruling became a landmark case that established a legal precedent against transporting slaves through Ohio.
Abram was determined to risk everything for what he believed in. Quaker historian Tom Hamm describes the center of Abram’s life as the search for “ultimate purity and the quest to disassociate himself from all sin.” Abram’s convictions against slavery even led him to condemn capitalism. He argued that the substitution of wage labor for slavery was wickedness, and that capitalists stole from workers by reaping a profit from their labor.
Abram went to great lengths to dissociate himself from the systems of slavery and capitalism. As a trained doctor he offered his services free of charge. He refrained from handling money because he said it contributed to a competitive system.
He even established a short-lived commune in Stark County and allegedly one in Oakland.
While Abram Brooke and John Brown were eccentric characters, the impact of their divine callings for justice cannot be understated. There is no question that the two men would have disagreed on methods — Abram was a committed pacifist and Brown was a militant vigilante.
But they risked their lives for a common belief in the sacredness of all human beings.
Stephen Crouch is a member of Wilmington Friends Meeting and a student at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York.