By J. Sella Martin

The following is an excerpt from a sermon delivered by J. Sella Martin on December 2, 1859, the day John Brown was executed. Martin was pastor of Joy Street Baptist Church in Boston and former pastor (and first African-American pastor) of Boston's Tremont Temple. On this "Day of Mourning" for Brown, Martin addressed a crowd of nearly 4,000 black and white abolitionist supporters at Tremont Temple.

My friends, his life was just such a "failure" as all great movements have been. ... John Brown has died, but the life of Freedom, from his death, shall flow forth to this nation. . .

I know that there is some quibbling, some querulousness, some fear, in reference to an out-and-out endorsement of his course. Men of peace principles object to it, in consequence of their religious conviction; politicians in the North object to it, because they are afraid that it will injure their party; pro-slavery men in the South object to it, because it has touched their dearest idol; but I am prepared, my friends, (and permit me to say, this is not the language of rage,) I am prepared, in the light of all human history, to approve of the means; in the light of all Christian principle, to approve of the end. (Applause.) I say this is not the language of rage, because I remember that our Fourth-of-July orators sanction the same thing; because I remember that Concord, and Bunker Hill, and every historic battlefield in this country, and the celebration of those events, all go to approve the means that John has used; the only difference being, that in our battles, in America, means have been used for white men and that John Brown used his means for black men (Applause.). . .

Now, I bring this question down to the simple test of the Gospel; and, agreeing with those men who say the sword should not be used, agreeing with them in that principle, and recognizing its binding obligation upon us all, yet I believe in that homeopathic principle which operates by mercury when mercury is in the system, and that that which is supported by the sword should be overthrown by the sword. I look at this question as a peace man. I say, in accordance with the principles of peace, that I do not believe the sword should be unsheathed. I do not believe the dagger should be drawn, until there is in the system to be assailed such terrible evidences of its corruption, that it becomes the dernier resort [last resort]. And my friends, we are not to blame the application of the instrument, we are to blame the disease itself. When a physician cuts out a cancer from my face, I am not to blame the physician for the use of the knife; but the impure blood, the obstructed veins, the disordered system, that have caused the cancer, and rendered the use of the instrument necessary. The physician has but chosen the least of two evils. So John Brown chose the least of two evils. To save the country, he went down to cut off the Virginia cancer (Applause.) . . .

I am ready to say, if he has violated the law, if he has taken an improper course, if he has been the traitor that the South brands him as having been, and the madman that the North says he has been, John Brown is not to be blamed. I say that the system which violates the sacredness of conjugal love, the system that robs the cradle of its innocent treasure—the system that goes into the temple of manhood, and writes upon the altar its hellish hieroglyphics of slavery—the system that takes away every God-given right, and tramples religion under foot—I say that that system is responsible for every single crime committed within the borders where it exists. (Applause.) It is the system, my friends. . .

SOURCE: The Liberator, December 9, 1859. Reprinted in Benjamin Quarles, ed., Blacks on John Brown (Urbana, 1972), 20-31.


1. Does Martin approve of Brown's goals? Of his methods of achieving them?
2. What specific examples does Martin use to justify his position on Brown's methods?
3. What larger moral principle does Martin use to justify his position on Brown's methods?
4. Who or what does Martin argue is responsible for Brown's actions?
5. Are Martin's examples and arguments persuasive? Why or why not?
6. In what ways, and in which specific statements, does this document support or contradict the Douglass quotation?