Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Brown, John (1722-1787)

BROWN, JOHN (1722–1787), of Haddington, author of the 'Self-interpreting Bible,' was born in 1722 at Carpow, parish of Abernethy, Perthshire. His father was a poor weaver, who could only afford to send him to school for a few 'quarters.' During one month of this time he studied Latin. Even at this early period he learnt eagerly, getting up by heart 'Vincent's and Havel's Catechisms, and the Assembly's Larger Catechism.' When he was eleven his father died. His mother did not long survive. He himself was brought so low by 'four fevers on end' that his recovery was despaired of. During these trials the lad thought much on religious matters. After his recovery, he began to work as a herd-boy, and his contact with a wider and stranger world 'seemed to cause,' he tells us, 'not a little practical apostasy from all my former attainments. Even secret prayer was not always regularly performed, but I foolishly pleased myself by making up the number one day which had been deficient another.' A new attack of fever in 1741 reawakened his conscience, and on his recovery he 'was providentially determined, during the noontide while the sheep which I herded rested themselves in the fold, to go and hear a sermon, at the distance of two miles, running both to and from it.'

During his life as a herd-boy he studied eagerly. He acquired a good knowledge of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. His difficulties in regard to the second of those were very great, for he could not for some time get a grammar. Notwithstanding this, he managed by the exercise of patient ingenuity to learn the letters on a method he afterwards described in detail (paper of 6 Aug. 1745 quoted in Biography), He scraped together the price of a Greek testament, and a well-known story describes how he procured it. A companion agreed to take charge of his sheep for a little, so setting out at midnight, he reached St. Andrews, twenty-four miles distant, in the morning. The bookseller questioned the shepherd-boy, and one of the university professors happened to hear the conversation. 'Boy,' said he, pointing to a passage, 'read this, and you shall have the book for nothing.' Brown read the passage,, got the volume, and walked home again with it (Memoir, p. 29; Dr. John Brown's Letter to John Cairns, D.D., p. 73).

The herd-boy and his learning now became the subject of talk in the place. Some 'seceding students' accounted for the wonder by explaining that Brown had got his knowledge from Satan. The hypothesis was widely accepted, nor was it till some years had passed away that he was able by his blameless and diligent life to 'live it down.' He afterwards took occasion to note that just when he was 'licensed' his 'primary calumniator' was excommunicated for immoral conduct.

Brown now became a travelling 'chapman' or pedlar. When the rebellion of 1745 broke out, he joined the ranks of the government soldiers. He served throughout the affair, being for some time one of the garrison of Edinburgh Castle. When the war was over, he again took up his pack for a time, but soon found more congenial occupation as a schoolmaster. He taught at Gairney Bridge, near Kinross, and at the Spittal, Penicuik, near Edinburgh. He been teaching in 1747, known as the year in which the 'breach' occurred in the secession church, to which he belonged. Two bodies were formed, called the Burghers and the Anti-burghers, of whom the first maintained that it was, and the second that it was not, lawful to take the burgess oath in the Scottish towns (for full account see McKerrow's History, chap, vi.) Brown adhered to the more liberal view, and now began to prepare himself for the ministry, he studied theology and philosophy in connection with the Associate Burgher Synod under Ebenezer Erskine of Stirling, and James Fisher of Glasgow. In 1750 he was licensed to preach the gospel, and next year was unanimously called to the associate congregation of Haddington. His congregation was small and poor, but though afterwards invited to be pastor to the Dutch church, New York, he never left it. His ministerial duties were very hard, for during most of the year he delivered three sermons and a lecture every Sunday, whilst visiting and catechising occupied many a weekday. Still he found time to do much other work. In 1758 he published 'An Help for the Ignorant. Being an Essay towards an Easy Explication of the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechism, composed for the young ones of his own congregation.' This 'easy explication' was a volume of about 400 pages. In it he had taken occasion to affirm that Christ's righteousness, though in itself infinitely valuable, is only imparted to believers according to their need, and not so as to render them infinitely righteous. In the following year 'A brief Dissertation concerning the Righteousness of Christ' expounded the same view. He had branded the doctrine he opposed as 'antinomian and familistic blasphemy,' but notwithstanding it was defended by various anti-burgher divines, who retorted on him the charges of 'heresy,' 'blasphemy,' and 'familism,' accused him of 'gross and palpable misrepresentation,' lamented the 'poisonous fruit,' and dwelt on the 'glaring absurdity' of his doctrine (see Doctrine of the Unity and Uniformity of Christ's Surety righteousness viewed and vindicated, &c. By Rev. John Dalziel (Edin. 1760), pp. 72–4). This bitter controversy did not prevent Brown from doing acts of practical kindness to various anti-burgher brethren. He continued to write diligently, and his name became more widely known. In 1768 he was appointed professor in divinity to the Associate burgher Synod. A great deal of work, but no salary, was attached to this office; the students studied under Brown at Haddington during a session of nine weeks each year (McKerrow's History, p. 787). In 1778 his best-known work, the 'Self-interpreting Bible,' was published at Edinburgh in two volumes. Its design, he explains in the preface, is to present the labours of the best commentators ' in a manner that might best comport with the ability and leisure of the poorer and labouring part of mankind, and especially to render the oracles of God their own interpreter.' Thus the work contains history, chronology, geography, summaries, explanatory notes, and reflections—in short, everything that the ordinary reader might be supposed to want. It is a library in one volume. Brown is always ready to give what he believes to be the only possible explanation of each verse, and to draw its only possible practical lesson therefrom. The style throughout is clear and vigorous. The book at once acquired a popularity which among a large class it has never lost. It has been read widely among the English-speaking nations, as well as in Wales and the Scottish highlands. How well known it and Brown's other works were in Scotland some characteristic lines of Burns bear witness:—

For now I'm grown sae cursed douce,
I pray an' ponder butt the house;
My shins, my lane, I there sit roastin'
Perusing Bunyan, Brown, an' Boston.

(Letter to James Tail of Glenconner, lines 19–22.)

His numerous other works strengthened his reputation, but none brought him any profit. One of his publishers, 'of his own good will,' presented him with about 40l., but this he lent and lost to another. His salary from his church was for a long time only 40l. per annum, and it was never more than 50l. Only a very small sum came to him from other sources. The stern self-denial that was a frequent feature in the early Scottish household enabled him to bring up a large family, and meet all the calls of necessity and duty on this income. 'Notwithstanding my eager desire for books, I chose rather to want them, and much more other things, than run into debt,' he says. At least one-tenth of his small means was set apart for works of charity.

Throughout his 1ife Brown was an eager student, and his attainments were considerable. He knew most of the European and several oriental languages. He was well read in history and divinity; his acquaintance with the Bible was of the most minute description. Although he says that 'few plays or romances are safely read, as they tickle the imagination, and are apt to infect with their defilement,' so that 'even the most pure, as Young, Thomson, Addison, Richardson, bewitch the soul, and are apt to indispose for holy meditation and other religious exercises,' and although he eagerly opposed the relaxation of the penal statutes against Roman catholics, he was, in regard to many things, not at all a narrow-minded man. His creed was to him a matter of such intense conviction, that nothing seemed allowable that tended in any way to oppose it or distract attention from its solemn doctrines. His preaching was earnest, simple, and direct, as if I had never read a book but the Bible.' His delivery was 'sing-song,' yet 'this in him was singularly melting to serious minds.' A widely current story affirms that David Hume heard him preach, and the 'sceptic' was so impressed that he said, 'That old man speaks as if the Son of God stood at his elbow.' The anecdote, though undoubtedly mythical, shows the popular impression as to his preaching.

Brown's labours finally ruined his health, which during the last years of his life was very poor. He continued his work to very near the end. He died at Haddington on 19 June 1787, and was interred in the church-yard there, where there is a monument to his memory. He was twice married: first to Janet Thomson, Musselburgh, second to Violet Croumbie, Stenton, East Lothian. He had issue by both marriages. Several of his descendants have made themselves names in science and literature. Brown's other works have been divided into the following classes: —

  1. Of the Holy Scriptures: 'A Dictionary of the Rible' (1769); 'A brief Concordance to the Holy Scriptures' (1783); 'The Psalms of David in metre, with Notes' (1775).
  2. Of Scripture subjects: 'Sacred Tropology' (1768); 'An Evangelical and a Practical View of the Types and Figures of the Old Testament Dispensation' (1781); 'The Harmony of Scripture Prophecies' (1784).
  3. Systematic divinity: 'A compendious View of Natural and Revealed Religion' (1782).
  4. Church history: 'An Historical Account of the Rise and Progress of the Secession' (1706); 'A general History of the Christian Church,' 2 vols. (1771); 'A compendious History of the British Churches' (1784).
  5. Biography: 'The Christian, the Student, and Pastor exemplified in the lives of nine eminent Ministers' (1781); 'The Young Christian, or the Pleasantness of Earlv Piety' (1782); 'Practical Piety exemplified in the lives of thirteen eminent Christians' (1783).
  6. Catechisms: 'Two short Catechisms, mutually conected' (1764); 'The Christian Journal' (1764).
  7. Sermons: 'Religious Steadfastness recommended' (1769); 'The fearful Shame and Contempt of those professed Christians who neglect to raise up spiritual Children in Christ' (1780); 'Necessity and Advantage of Prayer in choice of Pastors' (1783).
  8. Miscellaneous pamphlets: 'Letters on the Constitution, Government, and Discipline of the Christian Church' (1767); 'The Oracles of Christ and the Abomination of Antichrist compared, a brief View of the Errors, Impieties, and Inhumanities of Popery' (1779); 'The Absurdity and Perfidy of all authoritative Toleration of gross Heresy, Blasphemy, Idolatry, and Popery in Great Britain' (1780); 'The Re-exhibition of the Testimony vindicated, in opposition to the unfair account of it given by the Rev. Adam Gib' (1780—Gib was a prominent anti-burgher clergyman who in this year had written 'An Account of the Burgher Re-exhibition of the Secession Testimony'); 'Thoughts on the Travelling of the Mail on the Lord's Day' (1785— as to this, see Cox's Lit. of Sabbath Question, ii. 248, Edin. 1865).
  9. Posthumous works: 'Select Remains' (1789); 'Posthumous Works' (1797); 'Apology for the more frequent Administration of the Lord's Supper' (1804).

[Various short lives of Brown are prefixed to several of his works; the most authentic is the Memoir by his son, the Rev. William Brown, M.D., prefixed to an edition of the Select Remains (Edin. 1856). Some additional facts, together with an engraving from a family portrait, are given in Cooke's edition of Brown's Bible (Glasgow, 1855). Some of the more authentic of the many anecdotes about Brown are collected in Dr. John Brown's Letter to the Rev. J. Cairns, D.D. (2nd ed. Edin. 1861); see also McKerrow's History of the Secession Church (Glasgow, 1841).]

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