Wednesday, December 12, 2007

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

We have referred to the excellencies of John Brown's little book on True Religion. Honesty requires us to say that it also displayed a glaring fault - John Brown's definition of faith bordered on the Sandemanian. Like Thomas Chalmers, he viewed saving faith as an intellectual assent. True, this assent would, he said, lead to right affections and right actions towards God, but faith in the view of Brown, at least in 1818, was simply believing the Bible to be true. Trust in Christ was, in his opinion, a result of true faith, but not a part of it.
Since he saw trust as always joined to true faith, Brown's Sandemanianism, like Thomas Chalmers', carried a great deal of its own antidote. While John Cairns', Brown's biographer (who agreed with the present writer that John Brown's definition of faith was defective), speculated that Brown might have been influenced by Sandemanm himself, or by Maclean, Andrew Fuller's antagonist, it seems, particularly in light of the dedication of Brown's little work on True Religion, that Thomas Chalmers' identical beliefs are in fact the origin of Brown's. We shall see that Brown carried some of Chalmers' other views to their logical conclusion, as Chalmers did not, but that will be reserved, God willing, for a future installment.
John Brown was, as we have said, a great supporter of missionary societies. Though he was himself a Presbyterian, he supported the work of the Baptist Missionary Society in India in addition to the London Missionary Society and the Edinburgh Missionary Society. In May 1821 he preached the annual sermon for the London Missionary Society in Whitefield's Tabernacle in London. The sermon was soon after published under the title On the Duty of Pecuniary Contribution for Religious Purposes. This title concealed a well-reasoned case for systematic giving on the part of Christians to support the work of the Church, particularly abroad. Since we do not ask for contributions, nor would we to do this work, we can safely agree with Brown in urging Christians to give. It is strange that, when we fail to give to the Church, we seem so often to put the money into a bag with holes in it. Now we have many people encouraging investment because of the returns. We should humbly like to draw your attention to the returns from investing in the Church at home and overseas. Money and land will all be burned up, and on the great final Day you shall have nothing to show for it. But the work of the Church of God is eternal, and it shall abide for ever, for it is the immortal souls of God's elect.
Brown also visited England in 1819 as part of a deputation from the Scottish Missionary Society. In London William Wilberforce proved one of the greatest friends to the work. As a Christian man, he knew that freeedom of the body would only avail men in this life, not the next. So social concern was joined with support of missions and Christian witness by Wilberforce. Creeds and deeds were united in him. We can only say, 'go thou and do likewise'.

God willing, next time we shall see Brown in his more abundant labours.


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

Brown's next publication was a small volume of sermons on The Character, Duty and Danger of Those who Forget God, displaying the passion of John Brown's ministry. Also published in 1818 was a book called On Religion and the Means of its Attainment. With a dedication to Thomas Chalmers, the book set out John Brown's religious views and attempted to describe true religion without the use of overly technical language.
Unlike too many modern evangelicals, John Brown did not throw out the word 'religion' or give it a negative meaning. We find such language more compatible with the dialectical theology of Karl Barth than with historic evangelicalism. The Bible no-where uses the word 'religion' to mean a merely formal system of worship, and neither should we. Rather, as John Brown points out in his excellent little book, the distinction is between false religions and the true. Thus the book has been reprinted under the title True Religion and How to get it, an excellent title that reflects the book's contents.
What is religion? Today a lot of evangelicals will contrast religion and relationship, and so it may come as a surprise to find that John Brown defines true religion as consisting in a right relationship to God. True religion, he said, has three parts. First of all we must have right ideas of God. We must know who God is before we can ever have any relationship with Him. Second, these true ideas about God, His majesty, glory, goodness and power, will lead to right feelings about God. Brown was neither cold and emotionless or emotionally obsessed. No, with Joseph Hart (whom we are very fond of quoting), he believed that:
True religion's more than notion;
Something must be known and felt.

But then these true feelings must lead to true actions, otherwise they are not really true feelings at all, but false and counterfeit. 'If you love me, keep my commandments' is Scripture. The Christian follows Christ and obeys the Gospel out of love - and that is just what John Brown meant. Thus these three things are involved in true religion. It is not merely orthodox notions in the head, warm fuzzy feelings in the heart, or doing good to people. Rather it is a right relation to God as His creature that leads to right feelings of love to God and right actions, namely the good works which God has prepared for his people to walk in.
Of course John Brown's book, published nearly 190 years ago, is now a little dated, but it still stands head and shoulders above every fluffy production of modern popular evangelicalism. Brethren, it is time for us to remember from whence we have fallen, and to return to the principles of true religion as set out by John Brown. Creeds leading to deeds!

God willing, next time we shall continue with John Brown's career.


Tuesday, December 11, 2007

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

Two years passed before John Brown was able to publish anything else, and then the work was really just a reprint of two articles he had originally written for the denominational magazine on The Plans and Publications of Robert Owen of New Lanark.
New Lanark is a World Heritage site today, and a tourist attraction. In the early nineteenth century it was the location of a remarkable social experiment. The cotton mills, founded in 1786 by David Dale, had been taken over in 1800 by Robert Owen. Owen was a socialist and something of a utopian. At the mills he put many of his ideas into practice, introducing education for the children of New Lanark. Unfortunately Owen was not a Christian, but held some bizarre views of man and of God. In Owen's opinion man was the victim of circumstances, his character was not formed by him, but by those circumstance, and therefore that a man's character is neither blameworthy nor praiseworthy. Men, he said, were basically neutral, and could be moulded into good men by the proper education and environment. Owen made self-interest the primary motive for human activity and public good the great principle of morality.
John Brown took up these two points in his articles. First of all he noted that those who made self-interest the great mainspring of human activity forgot that we are not purely rational creatures. They failed to factor in the effects of our appetites and passions. For example, it is really in our self interest not to drink alcohol to excess, because so over-indulging damages the body. But people still DO drink to excess because they enjoy the sensation of drunkenness.
'The Public good' is really too vague a concept to supply a cast-iron basis for morality. We observe the truth of this statement. Who decides what the public good is, after all? Whereas a transcendent morality founded on the Word of God is another matter. THERE the unchanging character of god Himself is the basis of morality, and justice may be done, whilst great crimes have been concealed and gone unpunished in the name of 'the public good'.
Owen's view of human character, Brown went on to observe, was extremely simplistic. Men are not merely plastic in the hands of fate, they have wills and desires. Education, Owen's great panacea for all the ills of the world, was good, but it could only show the way, not lead a man to walk in that way.
Was he then opposed to all Owen was doing? Certainly not! The abuse of the labouring poor was a scandal, and Owen's work at New Lanark to establish better conditions for them was excellent. But his success was not really based on his own eccentric views but on morality and political economy informed by the Bible.
After 1817 Owen became increasingly revolutionary and Socialist, his teachings overthrowing property, the family and the Christian religion. He was able to put these views into effect in the community of New Harmony, Indiana, in 1826. After two years the experiment failed utterly. Human nature defeated Owen. Despite everything, men refused to act as Owen's theories said they should. His only lasting monument was the Co-Operative movement. In his later years he drifted into Spiritism, claiming that he could communicate with great minds of the past by means of electricity.

God willing, next time we shall see how John Brown's more theological writings fared.


Wednesday, December 05, 2007

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

John Brown was just entering on his wider career as an author when tragedy struck his family. His beloved wife was seized with an illness that brought her in lingering agony to the grave. She died in his presence, confessing a sure and certain faith in Christ, but Brown was a Christian, not a stoic. Our Lord, as we have said before, wept over the grave of Lazarus, even though he was about to raise him up, and so why should not a Christian husband shed tears over the grave of his young wife, who is not to be raised up until they join in the general resurrection from the dead?
Brown was carried down into the depths of depression. His wife had been so close to him that it was like losing a part of himself, and he was left with a sense of utter desolation. With huge effort he preached a funeral sermon on the words addressed to the Prophet Ezekiel when God took away his wife, a sermon that moved all the congregation to tears. They were amazed that the preacher himself did not weep - but no doubt he did so in private. Over her grave in Symington Churchyard he raised a tablet that read:
This tablet records the singular worth of Jane Nimmo Brown, wife of John Brown, minister of the Associate Congregation, Biggar, and the deep but not hopeless sorrows of her bereaved husband.

Though he was soon back at his work, the wound he recieved from this loss was not soon healed. Yet he knew that it was of the Lord, and therefore he knew it was for the best at last:
Too wise to be mistaken, he,
Too good to be unkind.

Mrs. Jane Nimmo Brown was not a perfect human being, no-one is, but she was a gift from the Lord to her husband, as a good wife must be. She had managed the manse at Biggar with all the skill of the Proverbs 31 wife, and she had been the best friend and confidante of her husband. In many ways the work of the pastor's wife is a difficult one. She is not trained as he is, she has not passed many examinations, and she has not chosen the path with the deliberate steps of her husband. Yet she is expected to enter into the work beside him, to take ladies' meetings, to act as counsellor to ladies in the congregation - and to be a housewife at the same time!
John Brown was carried deeper by this tragedy, but his faith in God remained unshaken. Indeed, it was strengthened. And God still had much for him to do, as we shall see, God willing, next time.