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John Brown of Haddington

Category Articles
Date March 9, 2006

The Life of John Brown, with select writings, was edited by William Brown, and has been published by the Banner of Truth Trust. It was originally published in 1856 as the Memoir and Select Remains of the Reverend John Brown, and this book is composed of: (1) a short memoir of a Scottish shepherd who became a minister, an author of many useful books, and a professor of Systematic Theology; (2) some of his letters; (3) meditations and (4) his advice to his children.

John Brown of Haddington (1722-1787) had a most remarkable life. Orphaned at a young age, he experienced much of the providential care of the Lord. From his youth, though he had little opportunity for education, he had a great interest in learning. He taught himself Hebrew, Greek and Latin. Being called by grace, and later to the work of the ministry of the gospel, he gave himself wholeheartedly to it. He became a tutor of systematic theology, and expected his students also to give themselves wholeheartedly to the work of serving Christ. He was faithful to His divine Master as a ruling elder as well as a teaching elder.

He followed holiness, without which no man can see the Lord, and longed, as his advice to his children shows, that they would do the same. He advised them to “adhere constantly, cordially and honestly to the Covenanted principles of the Church of Scotland, and to that testimony which hath been lifted up for them. I fear a generation is rising up which will endeavour silently to let slip these matters, as if they were ashamed to hold them fast, or even to speak against them. May the Lord forbid that any of you should ever enter into this confederacy against Jesus Christ and His cause!”

He suffered many sore trials, some affecting his reputation. When, without formal tuition, he became proficient in biblical Hebrew and Greek, as well as in Latin, some detractors claimed that he had been taught by the devil. Even after his death he continued to be falsely accused; some editions of his Self-Interpreting Bible commentary were published with Doddridge’s paraphrase of the New Testament instead of Brown’s notes. C H Spurgeon obviously possessed one of these spurious editions and in his Commenting and Commentaries, he mistakenly accuses Brown of plagiarism.

The Life of John Brown contains much that is interesting. From it we learn how extensive was his work as an author. As well as printed sermons, he has works on systematic theology, church history, typology, biblical reference works and biography, besides catechisms and miscellaneous pamphlets. Many will find the description of a communion season in Haddington in the eighteenth century very interesting, and there is a reference to “the Breach” in the Secession Church. A large part of the Memoir is taken up with Brown’s private devotional writings and the sayings of his last days, when through illness he was largely confined to his house.

Among his comments on preaching is this: “God in our nature, and doing all for us, and being all to us – free grace reigning through His imputed righteousness, God’s free grant of Christ and His salvation, and of Himself in Christ – and the believer’s appropriation founded on that grant, and the comfort and holiness of heart and life flowing from that, have been my most delightful themes”.

His remarks on personal religion are most interesting. Among them are the following. “I heard a sermon on Isaiah 53:4, ‘Surely He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows’, which enlightened and melted my soul in a manner I had not formerly experienced; and I was made, a poor lost sinner, the chief of sinners, to essay [attempt] appropriating the Lord Jesus as having done all for me, and as wholly made over to me in the gospel, as the free gift of God and my all-sufficient Saviour – answerable to all my folly, ignorance, guilt, filthiness, wants, slavery and misery. This sermon had the most powerful pleasant influence on my soul of any that ever I heard.”

“Though I have not been left to commit gross crimes, yet He and I know the outrageous wickedness of my heart, such wickedness as would have provoked any but a God of infinite love to have cast me into hell; yet, lo, instead of casting me there, He takes me into His bosom and says to me, ‘I have loved thee with an everlasting love, and with loving kindness have I drawn thee’; ‘I will heal their backslidings; I will love them freely’.”

After 34 years as a minister he wrote: “Nothing will do for me but an uncommon stretch of the almighty grace”. At the same time he wrote of the resistance of the carnal mind to the will of God; it was unyielding until “the almighty influence of free grace put it out of my power to oppose it”. After 40 years he wrote: “I know not whether to be more amazed at His kindness, or my rebellious treachery and ingratitude. God has been doing all He can to save, smile on and favour me, and I have been acting to my uttermost in opposing and dishonouring Him.”

During his last illness he spoke much about the hope of glory: “If angels and men knew the raging of my heart, what would they think of redeeming love, which hath pitched on me!” “O what a miracle to see me, the arrant rebel, sitting on the throne with Jesus! And I hope I shall be there. What cannot Jesus do!” “For a poor man, a dying man, a man that hath much to do, there is no friend like Christ.” “What kind strugglings! What kind smilings! What kind overlooking of my outrageous wickedness! He hath shown Himself to be God and not man in dealing with me.” “Anything I know about religion is this: that I have found weakness and wickedness about myself; grace, mercy and loving kindness about Jesus”. “O what Christ must be in Himself, when He sweetens heaven, sweetens Scriptures, sweetens ordinances, sweetens earth and even trials!”

On account of these and many similar sayings, I truly consider it a great mercy that this book was ever put into my hands. However, my delight is not unalloyed. I think many who love John Brown will, in places, disagree with William Brown, the editor, who was the youngest son of the subject of this book. Though he speaks very highly of his father, the differing characters of father and son are observable. For example, William was very scathing of the services preparatory to the sacrament of the Lord’s supper, esteeming them tiresome to ministers. But his father does not seem to have shared William’s weariness; he accounted the preaching of the gospel his greatest joy. William also found trying the predilection of his father’s age for confessional standards. His father, on the other hand had such a deep sense of the importance of the systematic arrangement of biblical truth – which is what our confessional standards are – that he wrote a systematic theology, which he called: A Compendious View of Natural and Revealed Religion.

This review is found in the March Free Presbyterian magazine and reprinted here by kind


The Life of John Brown (ISBN 085151 8575) retails for $16.00 (US), £8.00 (UK and ROW) and can be purchased from the Banner of Truth book catalogue

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