Thursday, August 19, 2010

Harper's Ferry: May the angels of the Lord camp around you

Earlier this week, Lori and I visited Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, a peaceful and beautiful place where the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers join.

Harper's Ferry looks like it is out of one of those sublime 19th century landscape paintings, with rocky gorges, forests and rivers with smooth rocks and shimmery pools.

Yet it is also a place where great violence took place long ago.

You may recall from your American history books that it was here that John Brown, an ardent abolitionist, attempted to start a slave uprising in 1859.

Brown came to Harper's Ferry because it was where the federal government mass-produced rifles and other arms and kept them stored. Harper's Ferry was the first "military industrial complex," as a National Park Service sign explains.

What makes Harper's Ferry beautiful is also why it became a 19th century armament center -- the rivers powered wheels that turned the lathes that produced the guns. And so it was that John Brown wanted to seize the guns and distribute them among the slaves.

He and his band took control of Harper's Ferry for a few hours, but their control did not last long. Robert E. Lee, then still a federal officer, led a squad of Marines who captured Brown, killed several of his followers and re-took control of Harper's Ferry.

Brown was hung two weeks later, becoming a martyr to African American slaves of the South and abolitionists of the North. His aborted raid, however, sparked enormous fear among Southern politicians and plantation owners and helped fuel the already hot political drive toward succession, ultimately igniting the Civil War 18 months later.

The war was not kind to Harper's Ferry or to the people sheltered there. Escaped slaves by
thousand found refuge with the Union Army in Harper's Ferry. But in 1862, the Confederates took the town, and captured thousands of blacks, taking them into slavery.

The town was damaged badly, and the damage is still there to see. The original St. John's Episcopal Church was destroyed, and all that remains today are the stone outer walls (see photo above).

Harper's Ferry is a place of contrasts. It's violent history is inescapable. But the peacefulness of the rivers and mountains is also inescapable.

Today Harper's Ferry sits astride the Appalachian Trail, and we walked several of the footpaths in the area including along the old C&O Canal. Harper's Ferry now thrives on tourism, not gun manufacturing. We stayed in a nearby American Youth Hostel, and I highly recommend you read Lori's description of where we stayed by clicking HERE.

The rivers and surrounding mountains remain unspoiled, though there are many reminders of the unspeakable violence long ago and the industrial revolution that brought the town its prominence. Yet Harper's Ferry also exudes a certain serenity as if it has come to terms with its past and is waiting for the rest of us to catch up. New life is built atop the rubble.

St. John's Episcopal Church was
rebuilt in a wooden clapboard church about a mile from the old ruined church. St. John's has found a very special ministry as a station for hikers on the Appalachian Trail.

A big water jug sits outside the church, and hikers are invited to refill their canteens and come inside to cool off.

The church wrote a prayer for hikers, putting it on cards to take with them. Here is the prayer, I rather like it:

Prayer for Appalacian Trail Hikers
May the angels of the Lord camp around you,
And may you commit your way to the Lord.

May you walk in integrity,
Sure as the feet of deer in high places

May you know in your heart
That all the paths of the Lord are mercy and truth.

May you be led beside still waters,
As well as along rocky paths.

May the Lord make your mountain stand strong,
And be your rock and your fortress.
May he strengthen your heart,
And teach you his paths.

May God be your salvation and glory,
And may you find water when you are thirsty.

May you finish your journey in peace,
And live in the habitation where his honor dwells.

The Rev. Georgia C. DuBose and the congregation of
St. John's Episcopal Church
898 Washington Street
Harper's Ferry, West Virginia
House of the AT Water Ministry
(Prayer phrases taken from the Psalms of David)

Photos by Lori Korleski Richardson

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