John Brown (theologian)

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John Brown

Rev John Brown of Haddington (1722 – 19 June 1787), was a Scottish divine and author. His works include "The Self-Interpreting Bible", "The Dictionary of the Bible", and "A General History of the Christian Church".


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.[1]

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.

Memorial window to Rev John Brown, St Marys, Haddington by Edward Burne-Jones
Brass plaque to Rev John Brown and family, St Marys, Haddington

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. A memorial stained glass window and brass plaque to his memory lie in St Mary's Collegiate Church, Haddington.


John Brown wrote numerous books, of which the most notable are described here.

Only one dictionary of the Bible (by Thomas Wilson (1563–1622)), by then long out of print, had preceded Brown's The Dictionary of the Bible. It therefore met a need and after the initial edition published in 1769 numerous editions, variously amended, were issued until 1868. It expressed a Calvinist theology, and in it, the author estimated that 2016 would see the Millennium. Many articles in it are long and appear to be tracts or sermons.[2]

A General History of the Christian Church was issued in two volumes in 1771.

The Self Interpreting Bible was Brown's most significant work, and it remained in print (edited by others), until well into the twentieth century. The objective of providing a commentary for ordinary people was very successful. The idea that the Bible was "self-interpreting" involved copious marginal references, especially comparing one scriptural statement with another. Brown also provided a substantial introduction to the Bible, and added an explication and "reflections" for each chapter.

A measure of its popularity is that it was translated into Welsh, and its appearance in Robert Burns's "Epistle to James Tennant",

My shins, my lane, I sit here roastin'
Perusing Bunyan, Brown and Boston,

Some of his original manuscripts are held by East Lothian Council Archives.[3]


John Brown's works[edit]

  • 1758, A Help for the Ignorant
  • 1765, The Christian Journal
  • 1766, An Historical Account of the Rise and Progress of the Secession
  • 1767, Letter on the Constitution, Government, and Discipline of the Christian Church
  • 1768, Sacred Tropology,
  • 1769, A Dictionary of the Bible
  • 1771, A General History of the Christian Church
  • 1778, The Self-interpreting Bible
  • 1780, The Absurdity and Perfidy of All Authoritative Toleration of Gross Heresy, Blasphemy, Idolatry, Popery, in Britain.[4][5]
  • 1780, The Duty of Raising up Spiritual Children to Christ
  • 1782, The Young Christian
  • 1783, Practical Piety exemplified in the Lives of Thirteen Eminent Christians
  • 1784, A Compendious History of the British Churches
  • 1785, Thoughts on the Travelling of the Mail on the Lord's Day[6]


Brown had six sons, from two marriages, of whom four became ministers, and another the provost of Haddington. His sons included:[7]

  • Rev John Brown (1754-1832) minister of Whitekirk
  • Rev Ebenezer Brown (1758-1836) minister of Inverkeithing
  • Rev Thomas Brown (1776-1828) minister of Dalkeith
  • Samuel Brown (1779-1839) merchant in Haddington
  • David Brown (1782-1827) bookseller at 16 South St Andrew St in Edinburgh[8]
  • Rev William Brown MD (1783-1863)

His great-grandson John Brown was known as a physician and author.


  1. ^ Mackenzie, Robert (1918). John Brown of Haddington. London, New York: Hodder and Stoughton. Retrieved 29 September 2018.
  2. ^ Mackenzie, Robert (1964) John Brown of Haddington. The Banner of Truth Trust p120
  3. ^ "MANUSCRIPTS OF THE REVEREND JOHN BROWN OF HADDINGTON". John Gray Centre. Retrieved 26 May 2018.
  4. ^ Kingdom, Oxford Text Archive, Bodleian Libraries, Oxford, OX2 0EW, United. "[OTA]". Retrieved 26 May 2018.
  5. ^ Brown, John; Hutchison, Patrick Dissertation on the nature and genius of the Kingdom of Christ; Fisher, Edward (26 May 1780). "The absurdity and perfidy of all authoritative toleration of gross heresy, blasphemy, idolatry, popery, in Britain : in two letters to a friend, in which the doctrine of the Westminster confession of faith relative to toletration of a false religion, and the power of the civil magistrate about sacred matters; and the nature, origin, ends and obligation of the National covenant and solemn league are candidly represented and defended". Glasgow : Printed by John Bryce. Retrieved 26 May 2018 – via Internet Archive.
  6. ^ Brown, John. Brown's Self-interpreting Family Bible. Green Street Bradford: Edward Slater.
  7. ^ Inscription on plaque to Rev John Brown, St Marys, Haddington
  8. ^ Edinburgh Post Office Directory 1825

Further reading[edit]

  • Robert Mackenzie, John Brown of Haddington 1918 (Paperback 1964 The Banner of Truth Trust)
  • J. Brown Patterson, Memoir of the Rev. John Brown