Master's Theses



Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


The political praxis of American abolitionist John Brown (1800-1859) furnishes an example of practical liberation theology. This work advances an experimental historiographic model, termed theological history, which combines the central insights of Christian liberation theology and Marxist historical materialism to draw both historical and theological conclusions about its subject, John Brown.

The foundational work of Gustavo Gutierrez and James Cone suggests that history and praxis are central to liberation theology, and that Marxist epistemology and ontology are necessary for historical conclusions drawn from liberation theology to be valid. This work extends this contention, arguing for an even greater fusion of these traditions in both theory and practice. Theological history is an attempt to develop the theoretical side of this argument.

Using the method of theological history, this work examines the primary sources for the major activities of John Brown, the Pottawatomie Massacre and the Provisional Constitution drawn up in preparation for the raid on Harpers Ferry, in the context of theology and Marxist political economy. Three major historical conclusions are drawn: 1.) Brown’s experiences in business, combined with his understanding of Christian scripture and theology, led him in later life to repudiate reformism, capitalism, and individuality and embrace revolution, utopian socialism, and communalism; 2.) The Pottawatomie Massacre was influenced primarily by Brown’s understanding of Puritan Edwardsian theology, which led him to believe that he was acting as “the hands of God” to violently destroy the Slave Power that he believed controlled the United States; 3.) The Provisional Constitution and later Declaration of Liberty of the Slave Population of America were Brown’s attempts to outline his vision for an ideal post-slavery society, including the strand of socialism mentioned above, the legal enshrinement of Brown’s version of Christian morality, and a radical egalitarianism of class, race, and gender.

Attempts by detractors and later historians to cast Brown as mentally ill or insane are historically and scientifically untenable, but they reveal the role that psychiatric discourse plays in pathologizing dissent and revolution and testify to Brown’s relevance for contemporary liberation movements. His most frequently-cited diagnosis, “monomania,” is in reality a psychiatric fiction that served a political rather than medical purpose. Ending on theological conclusions rather than purely historical, this paper shows that Brown’s activities at Pottawatomie and Harpers Ferry demonstrate what liberation theology can look like in practice.


Dr. David Bovee

Date of Award

Spring 2023

Document Type



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