JOHN BROWN OF HADDINGTON
ADDRESS TO STUDENTS OF DIVINITY
Taken from ‘A Compendious View of Natural and Revealed Religion’ written by John Brown in 1782.
Prefaced by a brief biographical sketch and introduction to the address by Pastor Austin Walker (Crawley Reformed Baptist Church).
The following address has been taken from the second edition of John Brown’s systematic theology published in 1796, nine years after his death. This 550-page theology had been first published in 1782 for the students under his care. In 1768, at the age of 46, John Brown had been the unanimous choice of the Associate Burgher Synod for the position of professor of divinity. For the remaining 20 years of his life he put a great deal of time and energy into these additional labours. Since 1751 he had been pastoring a congregation at Haddington, in Scotland. Now, in addition, he had the task of preparing men for the ministry of the gospel. There was no college. The students studied under John Brown at Haddington in sessions which lasted nine weeks, during the summer months of August and September. Students, numbering about thirty each year, at different stages in their five-year preparation, lodged in the homes of church members. These young men became known for their piety, soundness and learning. Much of this was due to the influence and example of their teacher, John Brown.
Readers may gauge for themselves the seriousness with which he took this task from what he said to his students. The address could be seen as a practical application of Paul’s injunction to Timothy, ‘Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you”, 1 Tim. 4:16. The content and the earnestness, simplicity and directness of his words show how clearly he had grasped the awful responsibilities of the gospel ministry. Much of what he said to them he had used to search his own heart and conscience in 1750, before going to Haddington. From the outset of his ministry he displayed a supreme devotion to the task of guarding his heart against all manner of ministerial unfaithfulness. Gathering together apt and striking passages of Scripture, he pleads for real Christianity, the result of becoming a new creature in Christ, the result of the Spirit’s indwelling influence. Joined to this reality there must be an evident
call, and appropriate gifts and fitness for the task. In addition he wanted all his students to have and maintain a deep impression of the nature, extent and importance of ministerial labours. Furthermore he was very aware of remaining sin and the dangers of dealing “treacherously” with the Lord. He always maintained a profound awareness of his own shortcomings. In section 6, the longest section of the address, he earnestly exhorts his students to faithfulness in all their labours.
If this address is typical of his ministrations then John Brown must have been a powerful preacher. He was skilled in driving the truth of the Word of God into the hearts and consciences of his hearers, with a burning passion for the glory of Christ and the spiritual edification of souls – a model of the very things he was seeking to inculcate in his students. However no-one should doubt his tenderness and sensitivity, despite the arousing and sometimes startling questions he puts to his hearers. Knowing the many pressures facing a man of God in the ministry, he concludes his words with encouragements drawn from the fulness of grace in the Lord Jesus Christ.
John Brown was a ‘Westminster’ man. His systematic theology has been described as “one of the most profound, and at the same time perspicuous, views which have been given of the theology of the Westminster Confession.” This should not surprise us when we discover that as a youth he was an eager learner and knew by heart Thomas Vincent’s and John Flavel’s catechisms and the Westminster Assembly’s Larger Catechism. His father was poor and John had little formal education. However he was already learning Latin. Shortly after his eleventh birthday his father died, followed soon by his mother. John himself almost died as a result of repeated fever. Recovering from illness he became a shepherd-boy but still studied Latin – and now Greek and Hebrew!
His thirst for knowledge is demonstrated in a well-known story. Early one morning a bare-foot, fifteen-year-old shepherd-boy appeared in a bookshop in the university town of St Andrews. A shocked shopkeeper heard him ask for a Greek New Testament! He had scraped together the money needed to buy such a book. A professor of Greek happened to be in the bookshop at the time and responded, “If you can read that book you shall have it for nothing”. To the astonishment of all he read a passage and received his prize. John Brown had left the hills of his native Abernethy at midnight, walked the twenty-four miles to St Andrews, and now clutching his precious book walked home again. Later, this maturer self-disciplined man was to add to the Latin, Greek and Hebrew he had already acquired, Arabic, Persian, Syriac, Ethiopic, French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch and German. He kept a sense of proportion however. He once said that, “If there were such a thing as
of learning I should willingly quit with all my acquaintance with languages, and other branches of knowledge, to know experimentally what that meaneth, ‘I am crucified with Christ;
nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.'”
It appears that he first came to live by that faith when he was nineteen. Aroused by sermons on John 6:64, Isaiah 53:4 and 45:22 he testified that now he had come to clear views of the freedom of God’s grace and what it meant to take hold of and plead the promises of the gospel. Becoming increasingly concerned about using his gifts in the service of Christ he found himself opposed, even by his own pastor. Leaving Abernethy he became a pedlar and then a soldier during the 1745 rebellion. Soon afterwards he began to teach as a schoolmaster, and he was finally received into full membership of his church. John Brown belonged to the Secession church. In 1747 a breach had occurred, between the ‘Burghers’ and the ‘Anti-burghers’. John settled with the former. He would not take the ‘burgess oath’ himself, with its religious clause, but he had no objection to church fellowship with those who did. Now he began to prepare himself for the gospel ministry. He studied first under the aged Ebenezer Erskine in Stirling, and then under James Fisher in Glasgow.
Licensed to preach in 1750, the following year, at the age of 34, he was called to the Associate congregation of Haddington, a few miles east of Edinburgh. A testimony was given then as to his person, that he had a “sweet savour of Christ about him”. He was never to leave, continuing his labours almost to his death in June 1787. Men said of him that he preached as though he had read no other book except the Bible. He worked diligently. For most of the year he preached three sermons and delivered a lecture every Sunday. During the week he was occupied in visiting and catechising, as well as spending many hours with his books.
This pastor, preacher and life-time student was also a prolific writer. No less than 29 different works came from his pen, including Â•’A Dictionary of the Holy Bible’ and ‘The Self-Interpreting Bible’. The latter was to prove so popular with following generations of Christians that many editions were produced. This was in addition to his domestic duties as a husband and father. Three of his sons became ministers and his grandson, John Brown of Edinburgh, inherited his grandfather’s abilities as a scholar and earnest preacher. Clearly John Brown was a godly man, gifted in learning and self-disciplined. He was one of the greatest preachers and theologians of Scotland.
The following address has been printed much as it appears in the
1796 edition. Minor changes in punctuation and paragraphing have been made to aid the reader. Four notes have been added, three of which explain obsolete or obscure words. The relevance of the address will soon become clear to the reader, or a minister of many years’ standing. Furthermore Christians not called to preach the gospel may profit, being made to realise the greatness of the task entrusted to the preacher. May it drive them more earnestly to prayer for the success of gospel labours. May the Head of the Church use the earnest, spiritual pleadings and exhortations of John Brown to equip his servants better, in his words, “to promote his honour, and the eternal salvation of your own and your hearers’ souls.”
(Further reading: ‘John Brown of Haddington’, R. Mackenzie, Banner of Truth Trust, 1964.)