‘Bibles and Rifles’ to End Slavery in Kansas Territory
When the clash over slavery between North and South erupted into the bloodshed of the U.S. Civil War, its violence mirrored what had been going on in the Kansas Territory the preceding decade. “Bleeding Kansas” was ravaged in the 1850s by deadly attacks from both pro- and anti-slavery forces, fighting each other to determine whether the territory would enter the Union as a slave or free state. John Brown, whose raid on the U.S. Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, (West) Virginia, startled the nation in 1859, came from the turmoil of Bleeding Kansas.
Many of the Kansas pro-slavery immigrants came from neighboring Missouri, a slave state. To counter their influence, abolitionist organizations in the North supported anti-slavery Kansas immigrants, especially those coming from New England. Henry Ward Beecher, a popular preacher and leading abolitionist, raised funds to help the Kansas immigrants (his sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote the abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852).
Henry Beecher supplied the Kansas immigrants with Bibles, but he also furnished a second item he considered essential: advanced Sharps rifles. As he explained, “There are times when self-defence is a religious duty.” In fact, these precision rifles came to be called “Beecher’s Bibles.”
In the spring of 1856 Beecher wrote a letter to Charles B. Lines, leader of an anti-slavery group in New Haven, Connecticut, planning to immigrate to Kansas. The group called itself the “Connecticut Kansas Colony” but it was also referred to as the “Beecher Bible and Rifle Colony.” (Lines wrote a series of letters that the Kansas State Historical Society has posted online.)
Beecher’s letter to Lines, offering words of encouragement—as well as Bibles and rifles—was published by the Barre Gazette (Barre, Massachusetts) on April 11, 1856:
Bibles and Rifles.
Letter from Rev. H. W. Beecher to C. B. Lines, Esq.
Brooklyn, Friday, March 28, 1856.
C. B. Lines, Esq., New Haven, Ct.
Dear Sir: Allow me to address you, and through you, the gentlemen of your company, on the eve of your departure for Kansas. I hope and believe that you will find a settlement there to be a means of great personal prosperity. You are not like the early settlers of New Haven, going upon a doubtful enterprise, to a poor soil, in a severe climate, the ocean on one side and the wilderness of a continent on every other side. You will not go far from us. In our day we measure by time rather than distance, by hours, not miles. You will not be as far from your old homes as one Sabbath is from another. And yet you go upon an errand not one whit less Christian and less heroic than that of our common ancestors, who founded New Haven. You are pioneers of towns and cities. You are the seeds of Christianity—the germs of civilization. You will put down your feet in a wilderness—in a year it will be a populous place. And where the morning sun now rouses up herds of wild buffalo, couched deep in grass, in your own life time it will bring forth the cry of multitudes and the noise of a city.
Nevertheless such perils have been coiled about the young State of Kansas, that it is an act of courage to settle there, if a man goes with the true spirit of American institutions. To go there determined to transplant to its soil that Tree of Liberty which under God has in older States borne and shook down from its boughs all the fruits of an unparalleled prosperity, requires heroic courage. It is a pleasure and honor to us to be in any way connected with such an enterprise, by furnishing to the emigrant material or moral aid. I have personally felt a double interest in your company, because it springs from New Haven, my father’s birthplace and home of my ancestors. A friend and parishioner (A. Studwell, Esq.) desires me to present to you twenty-five copies of the Bible. This is the charter of all charters, the Constitution of all Constitutions, the source and spring of Christian manliness. This book will lie at the foundation of your State. It will teach you to value your rights, and inspire you to defend them. The donor has caused to be inscribed upon them: “Be ye steadfast and unmovable.”
It is a shame that in America, amidst our free institutions, anything else should be needed but moral instrumentalities. But you do need more. You will be surrounded by men who have already committed the wickedest wrongs and the most atrocious crimes. They will scruple at nothing by which slavery may be fastened upon the young State. To send forth companies of men, with their families, amid those who have been bred to regard helplessness as a lawful prey to strength, would be a piece of unjustifiable cruelty. I send to you, therefore, as I promised, the arms required for twenty-five men. I have not the least fear that a hundred men, bred under New England influences, will be too eager or too warlike. You have been taught to create wealth, and not rob it; to rely upon intelligence and rectitude for defence. And you will not be in any danger of erring on the side of violence. But you are sent for the defence of great rights. You have no liberty to betray them by cowardice. There are times when self-defence is a religious duty. If that duty was ever imperative, it is now, and in Kansas. I do not say that you have barely the right to defend yourselves and your liberties. I say that it is a duty from which you cannot shrink without leaving your honor, your manhood, your Christian fidelity behind you. But this invincible courage will be a shield to you. You will not need to use arms when it is known that you have them, and are determined to employ them in extremities. It is the very essence of that spirit which Slavery breeds to be arrogant toward the weak and cowardly before the strong. If you are willing to lose your lives you will save them. If on the other hand you are helpless, the miscreants of Slavery would sweep you from Kansas like grass on the prairies before autumnal fires. If you are known to be fearless men, prepared for emergencies, Slavery, like a lion, will come up, and gazing into the eyes of courageous men will stop, cower, and creep away to ambush.
I trust that the perils which a few months ago hung like a cloud over that fair State, are lifting and passing away. May you find an unobstructed peace. Then let these arms hang above your doors, as the old Revolutionary muskets do in many a New England dwelling. May your children, in another generation, look upon them with pride, and say, “Our father’s courage saved this fair region from blood and Slavery. We will not forget you.” Every morning breeze shall catch the blessings of our prayers, and roll them westward to your prairie homes. May your sons be large-hearted as the heavens above their heads. May your daughters fill the land as the flowers do the prairies, only sweeter and fairer than they.
I am, in the bonds of the Gospel, and in firm faith of Liberty, truly yours,
H. W. Beecher
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