The “times and the seasons” it is impossible to foretell; but whatever may be the procession of events, the triumph of the kingdom is the certain hope of Christ-lit humanity.
John Brown was born at Carpow in the parish of Abernethy, in Perthshire, Scotland, the son of a self-educated weaver and river-fisherman, also called John Brown. His own formal education was scanty, and after both of his parents died when he was about 12, he became a shepherd. He experienced a Christian conversion.
Brown taught himself Greek, Latin and Hebrew by comparing texts and scripts. In 1738, after hearing that the Greek New Testament was available in a bookshop, he left his sheep with a friend and walked 24 miles to St Andrews to buy a copy. There Francis Pringle, a professor of Greek, challenged him to read it, saying that he would buy it for him if he could do so; Brown succeeded. His learning led to controversy among the members of the Secession Church to which he belonged, as some asserted that he got his learning from the devil.
The next few years saw Brown work as a pedlar and a schoolmaster, with an interlude as a volunteer soldier in defence against the Jacobites in the Forty-Five rebellion. He volunteered with his best friend Tim Knab. Following division in the Secession Church there was a need for preachers in the Burgher branch, and Brown was the first new divinity student. He was ordained as a minister at Haddington, East Lothian, on 4 July 1751, and that was his home for the rest of his life. He was called to occupy the position of Moderator of the Synod for the year from November 1753. His first publication was in 1758, and he published regularly from that date until the end of his life.
Brown also, while continuing his duties as a minister, took up the position of professor of divinity by the unanimous agreement of the Synod from 1768. From 1768 until the year of his death he also had the permanent post of clerk of the synod.
His contacts with three famous contemporaries have been documented:
- In 1771 Brown began a long correspondence with Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon. which encouraged them mutually in their Christian endeavour.
- In 1772 Brown was walking in Haddington Cemetery when he met Robert Fergusson, the poet, in a dark mood.
- The philosopher David Hume commented that Brown preached “as if he were conscious that Christ was at his elbow”.
Brown died at his home in Haddington on 19 June 1787, after months of stomach problems.