Brownlow North: A Zealous Preacher[Knox Hyndman is Lecturer in Church History at the Reformed Theological College and Minister of Newtownards Reformed Presbyterian Church, Co. Down, Northern Ireland.]
Preachers of the Gospel are dealing with truths which always ought to grip their hearts. They are ministering to people who are of infinite worth. Their purpose is to glorify God. Zeal then is surely essential in every preacher of the Gospel. It was a characteristic of the Saviour Who in His ministry fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah, ‘ He wrapped Himself in zeal as a cloak’.
What then is zeal ? The simplest definition is that it is strong feeling, and intense enthusiasm. Throughout the history of the Church it has been seen in many preachers of the Gospel. One such man was the eighteenth century evangelist Brownlow North.
Early life and conversion
Brownlow North was born in January, 1810. He was a man with several significant ancestors. His father Charles Augustus had been rector of Alverstroke in Hampshire. His grandfather had been a bishop in the Church of England. He also numbered among his relatives the Prime Minister Lord North, who served under George III.
It is not surprising then that Brownlow North’s early life followed the course of a member of the upper class. As a youth he was sent to Eton where he became known as ‘Gentleman Jack’. Life was one long round of self-indulgence. He grew up as a constant smoker, a heavy drinker and a notorious gambler and admitted, ‘My greatest idea of pleasure was to shoot grouse and catch salmon.’
Physically he was extremely strong and a very able horseman. He was also gifted with enormous levels of stamina and could walk the hills for miles without apparently getting weary. His appearance was striking. Though less than average height, plump and with a deep chest and broad shoulders, he had an aristocratic bearing. However, such were his facial features that one contemporary commented unkindly, following North’s conversion, ‘If he is to do any good he will require a reformed face as well as reformed life.’
After going on the ‘Grand Tour’ and experiencing disappointment when he was denied the title of Earl of Gilford, which it was assumed he would inherit, Brownlow North crossed to Ireland and travelled to Galway on the west coast. There he met Grace Ann Coffey, the daughter of the local rector, Rev Thomas Coffey. They were married while Brownlow North was still only nineteen . The couple subsequently had three sons.
After a foray into Europe where he enlisted in the army of Don Pedro, North returned home and settled in Scotland. It was 1835 and from that time on, with some interludes and a brief time in London, Scotland remained his adopted home. His pattern of life remained the same as it had always been. He threw himself into the life of a country gentleman and adopted as his motto ‘every day and all day’.
Though Brownlow North’s life seemed to be utterly profligate, we must remember that his mother continued to pray for her wayward son. She had taught him from childhood the great truths of the Gospel and occasionally during this period of careless living, he did seem to have serious thoughts and concerns about his spiritual state.
Once he was staying at Huntly for shooting and while there attended a dinner at the home of the godly Duchess of Gordon. She later recounted how, during the meal, North suddenly turned to her and asked, ‘Duchess, what should a man do who has often prayed to God and never been answered?’ The Duchess recounted her response, ‘I lifted my heart to God to teach me what to say, then answered, "You ask and receive not because you ask amiss that ye may consume it on your lusts."
Not long after that and following the near death of one of his sons, North received a tract from the Duchess. Suddenly he announced that he was going to Oxford to study for the Church. He tried to reform his life, but years afterward was to say, ‘The house was swept and garnished but empty.’ He did however spend two years in study at Oxford in Magdalen College and had the prospect of a curacy in Buckinghamshire. When the Bishop learned something of the kind of life North had been living before his arrival in Oxford, however, he confronted him with these facts. North had to admit that he was not in fact a suitable candidate for ordination.
By the following year, 1845, he was back in Scotland and back to his old ways – cards, gambling, shooting grouse and fishing. Reform had ended. Religion had apparently been dismissed as an unfortunate interlude in a life of pleasure. In fact he displayed a certain brazenness in his attitude. On occasions he made a point of driving past the church when people were going to worship and was careful to show that he had in his cart a fishing rod and lunch basket. Yet he was kind, generous and gentlemanly in his attitude. It is said that he wouldn’t stay in a room with men whose conversation was marked by infidelity and blasphemy.
In 1854 Brownlow North was on the Dallas Moors in Aberdeenshire. He was almost forty-four. In the second week in November he was sitting in the billiard room after dinner, playing cards and smoking his cigar. Suddenly he was seized with violent pains which were so severe that he was sure he was about to die. ‘My first thought then was, Now what will my forty-four years of following the devices of my own heart profit me? In a few minutes I shall be in hell.’ In later years he was to say, ‘I believe it was a turning point with me. I believe that if I had at that time resisted the Holy Spirit it would have been once too often.’ Next day he told his friends that he had given his heart to Christ. The whole direction of his life changed dramatically. He began to attend the Free Church in Elgin where Rev Donald Gordon was minister.
His conversion, however, was followed by great spiritual struggles. One of his greatest struggles was with the temptation to atheism. Even when engaged in prayer he felt as if the devil was at his elbow whispering in his ear, ‘There is no God.’ At such times North would walk in the garden and say aloud, ‘God is, there is a God.’ At last he came out of these struggles settled in his faith and convictions. On the first page of the New Testament which he began to use on first January 1855, he wrote, ‘Brownlow North, a man whose sins crucified the Son of God.’
This is the man who, in God’s purpose was to become a great evangelist of nineteenth century Scotland. Perhaps indeed he was the greatest evangelist of that century. Though from the beginning of his Christian life he had a great desire to commend the Saviour to men and women, public preaching was far from his mind. His first efforts were in personal witnessing, though he was concerned that people would eye him suspiciously. After all, in that district of Elgin, they knew the kind of life he had lived. Was it not presumptuous, then, for someone like him to offer Gospel tracts to anyone? He was amazed when his first offer of a tract was accepted, though he still found personal witnessing difficult right to the end of his life.
In the sovereign purpose of God, however, opportunities to speak to groups of people came to him without his seeking them. A young Christian girl on her death bed asked him to pray for her father. The father was later converted and news spread, so that whenever Brownlow North returned to the girl’s room, he found that the neighbours had gathered to hear him. Then others asked him to come and speak in their homes. He did not find this easy to do. ‘When at first I began to visit and speak for Christ I did not like it. There were nasty smells in people’s houses and I hated to go. I thought, "I can’t make myself like it but I can make myself do it", and as I went, I grew to like it and now I am as happy as the day is long.’ This work was greatly blessed. and numbers coming to hear him speaking grew to fifty, then sixty and then two hundred, meeting in a granary. Brownlow North was launched into his life’s work, a work characterised by true zeal.
1] True zeal grows from the awareness of the privilege of preaching
Brownlow North was at first a hesitant preacher. He was concerned that if he began to preach he would be trespassing into a sphere which belonged only to those ordained to preach. Indeed after his initial experiences in preaching, he prayed that if he was wrong in what he was doing, then the Lord would close these doors which had unexpectedly opened to him. When in fact numbers increased and more invitations came to him, he concluded that it was the Lord’s will that he should continue. One contemporary described his experience. ‘He was led on gradually, reluctantly and unexpectedly to become a preacher of the everlasting Gospel in truth and verity.’
He first preached in a church building in Dallas, the area where he had lived so recklessly. The minister had been called away and the people urged North to preach next day, otherwise there would be no service. He only agreed on condition that the service was led by an elder of the congregation who ought to read Scriptures. This consciousness of the great matter of preaching remained with him. It was, he believed, no light thing to enter a pulpit and proclaim the Word of God. On several occasions he addressed congregations in the same way, ‘Don’t think that I am intruding into the office of the holy ministry. I am not an authorised preacher, but I’ll tell you what I am. I am a man who has been to the brink of the bottomless pit and has looked in. I’m here to call you back and warn you of your danger. I am here as the chief of sinners saved by grace and to tell you that the grace which has saved me can surely save you. In this he resembled the Apostle who testified to the unexpected privilege of being called to preach, ‘I thank Christ Jesus our Lord who has given me strength that he considered me faithful, appointing me to his service.
Preachers today still need that sense of gratitude. It is so easy to feel the burden and responsibility of preaching that we forget the privilege. Remembering that privilege should make us more zealous.
Brownlow North said to one of his friends who asked him what he intended to do now that he was saved, ‘I have done all the harm I could in Scotland and now I intend to remain there and do all the good I can.’ He particularly felt himself to be a debtor to his former associates. He could say, ‘I am debtor both to Greeks and barbarians, both to wise and unwise. I am ready to preach the Gospel.’
Some observers were initially of the opinion that after his conversion North should have lived in seclusion for a few years. They believed that the biblical injunction to lay hands on no man suddenly applied in his case. Yet others were in no doubt that he was called of God to preach. They discerned in him the gifts necessary, but perhaps were persuaded more by the obvious blessing which from the beginning rested on his work. Typical of these was Sir George Sinclair, who commented, ‘Retaining as I still do my objection to lay preaching in general, what am I that I could withstand God, when in such an exceptional case as that of Mr North, He is pleased to grant such unequivocal and uninterrupted tokens of His countenance and presence?’
Brownlow North saw himself as an unworthy preacher, but was glad to be in this work. To a friend he wrote, ‘There is nothing like working for God. He is so good and His property is always to have mercy and forgive.’
His position as evangelist was recognised formally by the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland in 1859. An Overture came before the Assembly that year signed by sixty eight ministers and thirty eight elders. The Motion was heartily approved and the Moderator, William Cunningham, concluded, ‘The Church must lay herself open to consider exceptional cases, to mark God’s hand and to make a fair use and application of what He has been doing.’
2] True zeal is accompanied by a spirit of humility
Brownlow North was honest with himself. When one of his tracts was printed in the ‘Sterling Messenger’, he asked, ‘Would I rejoice as much if it were somebody else’s tract? Oh to be unselfish and single eyed. Pray for me’
Though his preaching was greatly blessed by God, North retained a teachable attitude. One of his friends exhorted him to preach in a more orderly way. He accepted the counsel and tried, but couldn’t do it. After five minutes he dried up. He then told the congregation that his train of thought had passed away. ‘But one subject has not passed away and that is that many of you are sinners and ready to perish and I know the way you may be saved and it is the true way because it is God’s way.
His humility was apparent too in the delight he had when others were blessed. Moody and Sankey visited the British Isles and great crowds flocked to hear them. For a while their ministry was much more prominent than that of Brownlow North and may have eclipsed his. He, however, commented, ‘Their success is a miracle, perfectly superhuman. God is working, I most firmly believe, mightily.’
3] True zeal is displayed in the earnest manner of preaching
It was this characteristic more than any other which impressed itself on the people who heard North preaching. He has been described as a man thoroughly in earnest. Phrases like, ‘an agony of earnestness’ and ‘red hot earnestness’ were used about him in the secular press. His biographer, Kenneth Moody Stuart, traces the cause of this earnestness to its source: ‘For hours before ascending the platform or pulpit he was weighed down with a sense of the greatness of the responsibility of addressing sinners in the Name of the Saviour. No-one can say that in the discharge of his duties he was ever light hearted.’
A newspaper in Stirling wrote, ‘The intense earnestness in his manner, indicative of the deepest feeling of compassion for the perishing, was obviously the grand secret of this tremendous moral power. Truths may enter many a startled ear because they are pronounced with burning lips as a message from the majesty of heaven, the reception or rejection of which might there and then decide the eternity of those hearing.’
When he was preaching in Plymouth to a large crowd, someone said, ‘You must feel it a great responsibility to address so many.’ His answer is telling. ‘I feel it,’ he said, ‘a great responsibility to address half a dozen.’
Sermon applications were pointed and direct, and he called for a response immediately from those who heard. In the sermon ‘Wilt Thou go with this Man?’ he pleaded with his hearers to receive Christ then as Saviour. ‘O will you take Him take Him, take Him ? This may be the last offer you may have of Him. Will you let Him go? Oh don’t.’
An Edinburgh journalist wrote after going to hear him preach, ‘There is something contagious in a man who is terribly in earnest,’ and then commented on ‘the strange sight of a godless man of sport and fashion transformed into a fiery weeping messenger of the Cross.’ Brownlow North believed that his one talent was to awaken the unconcerned. It was impossible to listen and be indifferent.
4] True zeal is combined with scriptural faithfulness
Some men can be zealous but at the same time may lack clear biblical content in their preaching. They can be doctrinally imprecise. Brownlow North was not like that. He was a diligent student of Scripture. ‘I devote three hours every morning before leaving my room to reading the Bible and to meditation and prayer, and during the day I think of Divine truth as much as possible.’ His theology was learned from that study. It was said of him that ‘The Bible and the human heart were his theological library.’
North’s theological convictions were those of the Reformers. He was a Calvinist, though he had come to his conviction, not through a reading of the works of the Reformers, but through his own study of Scripture. He believed in the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture, a doctrine which was forged in the struggles in his own life. In his six short rules for Christians, number two reads: ‘Never neglect daily Bible reading and when you read remember that God is speaking to you and that you are to believe and act on what He says. I believe that all backsliding begins with neglect of these two rules.’
In preaching he concentrated on the central doctrines of the faith. He stressed constantly the doctrine of God. His own experience had undoubtedly an impact here. In ‘The Rich Man and Lazarus’ he writes, ‘I was without God and felt it and everything was valueless except Him. At last I had Scriptural warrant for believing that though He never would have been found of me if I had not first been found of Him that for Christ’s sake He had forgiven my sins and I had got God.’
Brownlow North knew of course that men have an intuitive consciousness of the existence of an almighty and holy God. He preached that blindness to him was both willing and sinful ignorance. ‘I believe that Hebrews 11 verse 6 is the first verse in the whole Bible that a man or woman requires to get into the heart.’
He emphasised, too, the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. This was timely because in the mid-nineteenth century the theory of annihilation was appearing. North’s first tract was ‘You are immortal. You have been born and you will have to leave this world but you can never cease to exist. You must live for ever.’
He felt too that the doctrine of justification by faith was in danger in Scotland. Moderatism had diluted it and people were largely ignorant of it. He discerned that people had unknowingly begun to look into themselves for evidences of grace and feelings of devotion as grounds of justification, rather than looking simply at the Cross. ‘He led many away from most unhealthy and fruitless introspection to a simple looking to the crucified Saviour.’ The observation is surely accurate that ‘Brownlow North was a great doctrinal preacher. His power lay in the solemn and forcible statement of doctrine.’
5] True zeal is evidence of the anointing of the Spirit on the preaching
From the beginning, Brownlow North’s work was blessed with conversions. In preaching he used simple, natural and biblical language. He had a good imagination and showed originality in the way he presented the truth. Sermons were carefully studied and prepared, but not written out nor committed to memory. There was evidently an unction on his preaching. Not only were large numbers converted but there was lasting fruit.
Brownlow North was of course preaching during a time of revival, a time when the Spirit was poured out in great power. He preached about fifty times in Ireland in that great revival year 1859, and there were many conversions. An Irish minister at the time gives a flavour of those days. ‘It were worth living ten thousand ages in obscurity and reproach to be permitted to creep forth at that time and engage in the glorious work.’
Though not always at the same level, still blessing continued on his preaching right to the end of his life. A colleague wrote, ‘We may certainly regard it as a mark of God’s kindness to our honoured friend that in 1874-75 he was permitted to reap another harvest of rich blessing before being called to rest.’ Brownlow North died in November, 1875. The inscription on his headstone recognises a zealous preacher of the Gospel who remains a challenge to all preachers today: "At the age of forty four years he was turned from an ungodly life to serve the Lord; thereafter he preached the Gospel with singular power and was greatly honoured in winning souls to Jesus."
Brownlow North, Great Gulf Fixed, (Banner of Truth, 1960)
J Pollock, A Fistful of heroes: Great Reformers and Evangelists, (Christian Focus, 1998)
Kenneth Moody-Stuart, Brownlow North, Records and Recollections, (Hodder and Stoughton, 1878)
Taken with permission from the excellent Reformed Theological Journal, Volume 19, November 2003, 98 Lisburn Road, Belfast, BT9 6AG. Email: RTJ@RPC.ORG www.RPC.ORG
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