The information for this short bio of John Brown was taken from Puritan Reformed Spirituality, by Joel Beeke and Meet The Puritans, also by Joel Beeke.
John Brown was born in 1722 in the village of Carpow, near Abernethy, Scotland. He was born and raised in poverty and obscurity. His parents were poor and could not afford an education for their son, though his father (a weaver by trade) did teach him how to read. Through family worship and devotions every morning and evening he learned the basics of Christianity.
Beeke says: “When Brown was eight years old, he pushed through a large Sabbath crowd outside the church at Abernethy and discovered that the Lord’s Supper was going to be administered. Since non-communicants were excluded from such services, he was forced to leave, but not before he heard a minister who spoke highly of Christ. Brown later wrote, ‘This in a sweet and delightful manner captivated my young affections, and has since made me think that children should never be kept out of the church on such occasions.'” Brown did not have a formal education. He did study Latin though and enjoyed memorizing the Catechisms published by “Vincent, Flavel, and the Westminster Assembly.” His mother believed that her son would one day “stand among Scotland’s preachers.”
When Brown was only eleven years old, his father died and two years later his mother also died. At age thirteen he was an orphan and stayed with various families and was separated from his two brothers and sister. He later would write, “I was left a poor orphan, and had nothing to depend on but the providence of God…I must say that the Lord hath been ‘the father of the fatherless, and the orphan’s stay.'”
Although Brown himself almost died after his mother’s passing he recovered fully and was irresistibly attracted to the gospel. He read the major religious books of the period and acquired a working knowledge of Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Syrian, Persian, Ethiopian, and major European languages, including French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, and German. “He studied long into the night, regularly sleeping no more that four hours. Much later he confessed the danger of such unhealthy habits.”
Brown did eventually (in his twenties) study under Ebenezer and Ralph Erskine. He also studied under James Fisher who is remembered for his Exposition of the Shorter Catechism, published in 1753. When Brown presented himself as a student at Stirling, the Presbytery question his credentials because Brown was self-taught. Ralph Erskine came to his defense saying, “I think the lad has a sweet savor of Christ about him.” Of course he had already distinguished himself as a scholar.
Two small caveats I enjoyed reading about Brown concerned a job he had for a short period. Beeke says: “For several years, Brown was a peddler, shouldering a pack and traveling into neighboring counties to sell odds and ends at cottage doors. He did not have great success in this line. The books in people’s homes and lengthy discussions would often divert him from selling merchandise.” The second incident occurred when Brown went to a bookshop in St. Andrews and asked for a Greek New Testament. “As the story goes, a professor in the university was struck with Brown, whose shabby clothes announced his deep poverty, asking for such a book. The professor declared that if Brown could read it, the professor would purchase the volume for him. Thus Brown obtained the New Testament at not cost.”
John Brown was the pastor of the church in Haddington for thirty-six years. He suffered much in his lifetime. His wife died and six of his eight children. He was often misunderstood, but always had a firm confidence in God’s providence. He did eventually remarry. His wife said that he was in his element when he was in his study surrounded by his books.
He lived to be sixty-five years old. He wrote nearly forty books including his massive study notes in his Self Interpreting Bible, published in 1778 and a two volume Bible Dictionary. He also wrote a systematic theology from his notes.
John Brown died on June 19, 1787. He had a brilliant mind and a passion for Jesus Christ. God shaped and used this man born in abject poverty and obscurity and used him for His Glory. Below you will see a quote from Brown’s systematic theology.
Excerpt from page 212: Notice the experiential understanding of the heart as Brown explains why the soul is naturally drawn towards legalism.
“All men by nature, and even believers, in so far as they are unrenewed, desire to be under the covenant of works, and to obtain happiness by their own righteousness, or the condition of it. 1. It is natural to men, and hence men of every form or religion, station, office, education, or manner of life, agree in it (Rom. 9:31,32, 10:3; Jonah 1:16; Matt. 19:16; John 6:28; Acts 2:37; Luke 15:19). 2. Our own working or suffering, in order to obtain happiness from God, is exceedingly suited to the pride of our corrupt nature, and makes us to look on God as our debtor (Rom. 10:3, 7:9,13; John 5:45; Isa. 58:3). It is like pangs of death to quit our hold of the law (Rom. 7:4,9; Gal. 2:19). 3. Men’s ignorance of the extensive and high demands of the broken law, and of their own utter inability to keep it, — or their care to abridge their apprehensions of them, and to enlarge their conceit of their own ability, mightily promote their desire to be under it (Rom. 7:9-13, 10:3; Gal. 4:21). 4. Men have naturally a peculiar enmity against God and his gracious method of redemption, — against Jesus Christ and his whole mediation, particularly his sacrificing work; and hence love to oppose the honor of it be cleaving to legal methods of obtaining happiness (Rom. 8:7; John 15:24; Rom. 10:3; 9:32; 5:21; Gal. 2:21; 5:2,4).”