Wednesday, November 14, 2007

'This One Thing I Do.' John Brown of Broughton Place. - IV

In 1800 the custom of the Scottish Dissenting Churches was for one minister to be the denomination's professor of theology. Self-evidently, if the ministry was to be at all properly educated, this man had to be someone remarkable. John Brown of Haddington had filled this role for the Burgher Secession Church in his day, and his successor was the no less remarkable Dr. George Lawson of Selkirk. We have already authored a series on this man, and those interested will find it linked in the sidebar.
Lawson was a Puritan in his heart. He knew the English Bible by heart, and large portions of the Greek and Hebrew as well. His knowledge and reading was of remarkable extent, but most wonderful of all was the fact that this towering genius could speak with the simplicity of a Selkirk farm-hand. Those who doubt this statement are invited to read his sermons on Ruth and Esther. He was a man who befriended his students, as theological professors ought to. A vein of Scottish humour ran through Lawson, and his influence on the students, due to his character as much as the content of his instruction, was enormous. John Brown always spoke of him with almost unbounded love and veneration. "To have enjoyed the advantage of the tuition and friendship of this truly great and good man, I count one of the principal blessings and honours of my life," John Brown said in later life of his old teacher.
The Divinity course taught at Selkirk stretched over five years, being taught by one man in the six or eight weeks of the long school vacation. It was almost completely limited to Systematic theology (those interested in the form that this instruction took are invited to examine John Brown of Haddington's 'Systematic Theology', published by Christian Focus). That threw a great deal of responsibility upon the student for planning his own study, and the fact that so many great scholars came out of the Secession ministry is a testimony to the habits of piety.
During the sessions at Selkirk some fifty students swelled the population of the little market town. Our picture shows the courthouse and marketplace that would have been familiar to John Brown some two centuries ago. In addition to lectures the students would walk together in the wild hills around Selkirk, and on one occasion John Brown was almost drowned whilst swimming in the Etterick at Selkirk.
The young students were required to preach discourses before the professor, and John Brown's were said to be "as full of good Scripture matter as a leaf of his grandfather's dictionary."
But the pastor is not only a preacher, and Dr. Lawson knew that. So another part of the training at Selkirk was that he took students around with him in his pastoral visiting.
And during term-time, at Elie, John Brown was associated with a theological society of his fellow students located in the vicinity. They met once a month to assist themselves in their studies that ran alongside their work as teachers. Essays were prepared for the society and criticised by fellow-members. Sermons were studied, and books discussed. No doubt this also did much to counteract the effects of the nature of the actual course.
In 1803 John Brown left Elie to take up a private tutor's post in Glasgow, where he remained until his theological course ended in 1804.
A great reader of poetry and philosophy, at one point in his course John Brown unhappily developed a taste for the flamboyant and metaphysical in preaching, imagining that this would win him acclaim. After one of his ‘class sermons’ he was severely criticised by the other students and by a visiting minister. In an interview with ‘the Doctor’ in his study that night Brown confessed that he had deserved all the criticism.
“Yes,” Dr. Lawson agreed, “I fear you have, and if I had gone into criticism I might have been more severe; but, John, we have both good reason to look well to our work, for if you come short in anything, every one will say, how much better you would have turned out if you had studied under your grandfather.”
Happily the excesses that Lawson had criticised were corrected by Brown, and he learned that preaching is about communication, not impressing the learned.
So, in August 1804, John Brown left the Selkirk Hall to complete his trials for license to preach, God willing, we shall see him as a young preacher next time.



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