The Example of Brownlow North
I have been constrained to consider the crucial importance of humility in the life of the Christian leader. My friend James has been urging on me the value of meditating on the life of Brownlow North, a major evangelist in northern England, Scotland, and Ireland during 1858 and afterwards1. North was the great torchbearer of the revival, mainly because he set himself the goal to practice constant humility. One way he did this was in his preaching. He self-consciously laboured to speak from a heart knowledge that he was chief of sinners.
North began his ministry with the burden of a dreadful reputation. Who would listen to a man whose character was infamous? When he first attempted to enter the ministry, someone sent the church authorities information detailing all of North’s public sins. In shame he withdrew. But then Christ did a powerful work of conversion in his life. He came once again to the church, this time to preach. Before he preached, he received another letter detailing all of his sins. He was denounced in it as ‘such a vile sinner.’ North took the letter into the pulpit and read it for all to hear. He said, ‘I am the man described here.’ He then used the letter’s indictment of his character to exalt pure sovereign grace. He exulted,
It is a correct picture of the degraded sinner I once was; and oh how wonderful must the grace be that could quicken and raise me up from such a death in trespasses in sins, and make me what I appear before you tonight, a vessel of mercy, one who knows that all his past sins have been cleansed away through the atoning blood of the Lamb of God.1
The very thing that Satan hoped to use to destroy North became a powerful evangelistic weapon in his daring hands. He did not go from place to place reading this letter, but he frequently ‘took his hearers into his confidence’ concerning the man he had been. His deep grief over his past, and his use of his own example as a demonstration of the awesome power of grace, were used to bring many people to Christ.
Perhaps you don’t drift the way that I do, but I constantly forget the deep hole of depravity from which the Lord’s mighty love rescued me. Drifting does not take any effort at all; just stop cultivating the knowledge of Christ, and the evil current of secularism does the rest. All passion for the lost seems increasingly a fading memory. Jesus weeping over Jerusalem, Paul willing to be cursed for the sake of his countrymen, those things become very remote to the point of being unreal. But North kept the memory line open to what he once was all the days of his life. This recollection was not at all crippling. His mourning over his sins, both past and present, enabled him to keep climbing down from his pedestal and walking with humble fear and trembling before the Lord and before people. Tens of thousands of people were stunned by North’s preaching of Christ; many were converted.
When invited by the General Assembly to address it he gave a number of rebukes. 1. The Presbyterian Church is essentially a prayerless church, and 2. Its elders are nonentities as Christians and leaders, without real soul care.
I have prayed for you that God will make you a new Brownlow North. That you would feel a grace obligation to fulfil the Great Commission and to disciple praying men who feel the reality of hell and long for the appearing of Jesus, and who give themselves to the people of God without reservation in their love for them. I pray that you will conquer by prayer, privately and publicly as you daringly disciple men, calling them to give up a divided will to will only God’s will. I also want to encourage you to pray much, to put it in your schedule, and plan to pray twice as much as you think you have time for. Christ is on the move . . .
- See K Moody Stewart, The Life of Brownlow North (London: Banner of Truth, 1961) [Out of print].
- ibid., pp. 46-7.
The late C. John Miller taught practical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary and was founder pastor of New Life Presbyterian Church. The above extract is taken from a book of his correspondence edited by his daughter, The Heart of a Servant Leader: Letters from Jack Miller (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2004), pp.69-77 (Notes added).
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