But Mr. Brown was not only distinguished as a minister of the gospel, and a teacher of divinity, he is celebrated also as an author. A strong desire to contribute towards the moral and religious improvement of mankind, and that he might, in some measure, be useful to the church of Christ, when he rested from his labours, weighed down every consideration of either profit or applause connected with his writings; indeed the pecuniary reward of all his labours, in this way, was but a matter of small account, never exceeding forty pounds. It was reserved, however, for his booksellers to reap a much more bountiful harvest; several of his works having already appeared in upwards of thirty, and some even in forty editions.
His first attempt as an author was his large work on the Catechism, which appeared in the year 1758; the next was a lesser work, also on the Catechism; and the rest of his works succeeded one another as circumstances seemed to render them necessary. (A modern edition is available from Reformation Heritage Books) That the doctrines he taught might appear with all the solidity and perspicuity in his power, he was at the extraordinary pains of writing his manuscripts thrice, and occasionally four times over, before they went to press; and frequently, after all this trouble in correcting, adding, and retrenching them, to request some one of his brethren to examine, and give his candid opinion concerning them.
But on none of his works has he bestowed so much labour as on his Dictionary of the Bible; a book of such diversified information, extensive research, and generally acknowledged utility, that it is doubtful if any work, of equal size, has hitherto appeared better calculated for assisting in the study of the Holy Scriptures, although now from the increased amount of information on scientific, historical, and other subjects, it necessarily is imperfect as compared with what he doubtless would have made it, had he possessed the opportunities of our day.
Professor of Divinity
On the death of the Rev. J. Swanston of Kinross (1768), the professor of divinity for the Burgher branch of the Secession, Mr. Brown was elected to fill the vacant office; nor were they at all disappointed in their choice. The ability and attention with which he fulfilled the various duties of that important charge, met with universal approbation. He found it was absolutely necessary to support the dignity of a teacher amongst his students, but could not help discovering, at the same time, the affection and anxious solicitude of a father for his children, which, on their parts, was rewarded with confidence, love, and obedience.
He treated them with the greatest impartiality; or, if piety, talents, application, or exemplary conduct, in any case inclined him to a preference, he was careful that it should never be observed. To promote their best interests, he was unwearied in his labours of love. That he might satisfy himself that the young men were improving their time, he used to visit them at their lodgings early in the morning, to see that they were properly engaged.
The ordinary course of attendance on the divinity lectures was five sessions, of two months each. In his View of Natural and Revealed Religion, and the Cases of Conscience subjoined to his Practical Piety, we have a connected view of the substance of all these lectures. His General History of the Church, as well as that of the British Churches, were originally intended for the use of his students. He ever considered personal piety the most essential qualification for successfully discharging the various and important duties of the ministerial office; and accordingly pressed on his students the pre-eminent interest they themselves had in the doctrines they were to preach to others; assuring them, that divinity was to be studied in a very different way from that of a system of philosophy; and that, without heart-religion, they must necessarily continue unprofitable students of theology.
He urged, moreover, by all means to make themselves thoroughly acquainted with the oracles of God in the original languages; and, next to these, with the writings of Turretine, Owen, Boston, Fisher’s Marrow of Modern Divinity, the Erskines, and Hervey’s Theron and Aspasio, with his Defence against Wesley. The serious and solemn manner in which, on particular occasions, he was in the habit of addressing his students, but especially on parting at the end of the sessions, seldom failed in melting both the speaker and hearer into tears and of leaving the best impressions on their young minds; and the many able and acceptable ministers, in Great Britain and Ireland, who had been trained up under his tuition, afford the most convincing proof of his success in this department of his manifold labours.
The pastor of a large congregation has but little time to spare from the duties of his office, compared with one engaged with a less numerous charge. In this respect Mr. Brown found himself in his proper element at Haddington. There, without trenching on the duties of his office, he could devote a very considerable portion of his time to study; and this privilege he improved to the best advantage.
In the summer months his constant rule was to rise between four and five, and during the winter by six. From these early hours, till eight in the evening, excepting the time allotted to bodily refreshment, family worship, or when called away on the duties of office, he continued to prosecute his studies with unremitting application. To a mind so ardent in the acquisition of knowledge, with a judgment so clear, a retentive memory, and exertions so intense, it was by no means surprising that he became greatly superior to most men engaged in discharging the same sacred duties.
In acquiring the knowledge of languages, ancient or modern, he possessed a facility altogether his own. Without an instructor, unless for one month to start him in the Latin, as formerly mentioned, he soon got so far acquainted with that language as to relish its beauties; and, left to his own resources, though frequently but indifferently provided with the proper books, he soon became critically acquainted with the Greek, and especially the Hebrew. Of the living languages, he could read and translate the Arabic, Syriac, Persic, and Ethiopic, the French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, and German.
With him natural history, civil law, natural and moral philosophy, were particular objects of research; but divinity, and the history of human affairs, sacred or civil, were his favourite studies; and his success in these departments of knowledge are visible in his various works.Among the writers on divinity with whom he was versant, we find that Turretine, Pietet, Mastrecht, and Owen, with Boston, Erskine, and Hervey, were the chief; which shows that he accounted sound divinity and accurate sentiment a far better recommendation of his author, than the flowing fancy, the brilliant style, or the harmonious period.
Though stimulated by a sense of duty, and strongly excited by inclination, to the study of divinity, such was his anxiety to become a universal scholar, that he made himself acquainted with the whole round of the sciences. In his reading, especially important works, he was in the habit of compendizing his author as he went along. In this way he abridged the whole of Blackstone’s Commentaries, the ancient Universal History, and a number of other important works. This, however, is a method concerning which the learned hold different opinions. To lay aside the book, and abridge entirely from memory, and that in the writer’s own language, without regarding the style of the author, will make the substance of the work more his own; which, with other reasons that might be named, seems to render it the more eligible method.
When the religious clause of the burgess’ oath came under discussion in the Associate synod, it appeared that the members entertained very different views of the subject ; the mournful consequence of which was a complete separation of the opposing parties into two distinct synods ; the one denominated the Burgher, the other the Antiburgher synod. Though not as yet officially connected with the Secession Church, yet as a conscientious member, Mr. Brown could not allow the question to pass without duly deliberating for himself and determining the path of duty ; the result of his deliberation was, that though not fully satisfied with regard to the lawfulness of the oath, he did not consider it a matter of sufficient magnitude to break up all Christian communion and fellowship ; but rather held it as a proper subject for the exercise of mutual forbearance. He consequently ranked with the adherents of the Burgher synod; of which body he continued a zealous and respected member till his death.
Licensed to preach.
During the vacations of his school, Mr. Brown attended the classes of philosophy and divinity under the superintendence of the Rev. Ebenezer Erskine and James Fisher ; till having gone through the several courses, he passed trials before the presbytery of Edinburgh, and was licensed by that reverend body at Dalkeith, in 1751, to preach the gospel in their connexion. On this sacred service, he entered deeply impressed with the awful responsibility of his office ; nor could he help being seriously affected with a coincidence, which one might think sufficient to shut the mouth of every calumniator ; namely, that about the same time, if not on the same night, on which he was licensed, and sent forth, in acknowledged innocence, a commissioned messenger of Christ, the author and principal propagator of those malicious imputations, from which he had suffered so much (see this post), was excommunicated by his own supporters.—His probationary labours were of short duration, two calls having been got up almost simultaneously for discharging the duties of the pastoral office ; the one from Haddington, the county town of East Lothian ; the other from Stow, situated on the southern border of the shire of Edinburgh. The presbytery left him the choice of the two situations ; and Mr. Brown accepted of Haddington, partly in consideration of several disappointments that congregation had sustained, and partly also because it was the smallest, and likely to afford him the more leisure to prosecute his studies. In gratitude to the people ofStow, for the predilection they had shown for him, and as a small compensation for their disappointment, he preached for them several Sabbaths, and continued to examine them every year till they were supplied with a pastor of their own.
“Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang tall the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:36-40 KJV).
“These two commandments include the substance of the whole moral law, which is fundamental to all true religion. They include the whole natural law, which was originally written in the heart of man; the obligation of which can never be dissolved, and which all the revelations of God are founded on, and designed to enforce.”