Monday, August 11, 2008

Teaching Theology for 140 Years - IX.

With the sudden and unexpected death of Mr. John Swanston, the Burgher Synod was faced with having to appoint a new Professor of theology for the second time in four years. They fixed on one of the most remarkable men of the age - Rev. John Brown of Haddington.

Unlike all of his predecessors, John Brown had never attended any university, indeed, his formal education went no further than a month at the parish school and two sessions at the Burgher Divinity Hall. Yet John Brown was undoubtedly one of the most learned men in Scotland at the time, and certainly the most learned man in the Burgher Synod. He had, on his own, acquired an enormous stock of knowledge, both ancient and modern. He had mastered Latin, Greek and Hebrew, and learned many modern tongues as well. Born of the lower class of rural people, John Brown had risen to prominence through his remarkable gifts. He had studied under Ebenezer Erskine at Stirling. Born in 1722 near Abernethy, he had lost his parents at an early age, and had improved the time spent caring for the sheep by teaching himself Greek. So remarkable was his acquisition of the language that it was suspected by some that he had used magic, and this suspicion was voiced when Brown sought admission to the Burgher Divinity Hall. Ralph Erskine brushed them aside, saying, "I think the lad has a sweet savour of Christ about him."

Appointed Professor in 1767, John Brown began his formal work in 1768. At this time the Synod passed two regulations concerning the Hall. The first was an act of Synod to secure that those accepted for the Hall had been sufficiently trained in Classics and Philosophy and were properly acquainted with the leading truths of the Christian system and with the Standards of the Church. We hope that it was of such a character that it would not have impeded the admission of the man who was now the Hall's Professor! The question as to the level of education of the ministry is one that will remain a vexed one. Ought all ministers to be graduates? We do not think so! But certainly an ignorant ministry is a scandal. Nevertheless, there must be a recognition that the means of education differ from person to person, and that the self-taught John Brown was no whit behind the university-educated John Swanston.

The other action of the Synod was to begin the collection of a Hall library. This was in response to a petition from the students, and no doubt had behind it the expense that students would otherwise be put to in buying books, and the difficulty of transporting those books from their various homes to the Hall. Today the idea of a theological college without a library is unthinkable - and it ought to be! John Brown was probably relieved that students would not be rootling through his library for books to help in their exercises and essays as well!

Annual intake at the Hall varied greatly, one year as high as eighteen new students, one as low as three. Average class sizes were about thirty, which is about the maximum size that single class can be if it is to be taught well.

Like all the Professors, John Brown took great care of his students. Some though he took too much care, for he was known to visit students in their lodgings between six and eight in the morning. Brown was an early riser, and insisted that his students be so too, but different men have different methods, and many students did not see the need to rise so early. A number of expedients were adopted to 'fool' the professor. One man slept under his bed, so that Brown thought he was already out and taking an early-morning walk. Others arranged for their landladies to wake them when they heard Brown's stick on the road. The student would then leap out of bed and sit down at his desk where some theological work lay, so the Professor saw them at study. They would pretend not to notice his presence, and he would deliver a gentle rebuke to the student for failing to change into his day-clothes before he began to study.

Brown did not use a text-book, but framed his own system in a course of lectures. Christian Focus Publications has done the Church a great service by reprinting these, and we have a copy of this excellent work. Every student at the Haddington Hall was expected to copy out this work, so the modern reader ought to be glad that, if he had obtained it at a greater price financially than John Brown's students, he has certainly spent less pains in acquiring the work. He soon ceased to lecture on the system, preferring to examine the students on it. Church history was dealt with in a series of lectures that Brown himself prepared, and he taught in addition pastoral Theology. His opening and closing addresses to the Hall were deeply impressive, for it was said of Brown that "He preached as if Jesus Christ was at his elbow," and what he was in the pulpit, he was also in the Chair. Those who read his Dictionary of Bible Characters, excerpted from his old Bible Dictionary, will see that this carried through even into the writing of a dictionary!

As was the custom, John Brown met twice daily with his students, and although the opening time for these meetings was set, there was no official closing time. The morning meeting was fixed at ten, but rarely finished before one in the afternoon. These were the meetings in which the System was taught, and in which the lectures on Church history were given. The afternoon was the meeting in which students discourses were given and criticized.

In 1786 the Burger Synod passed an Act requiring all theological students to have attended at least three sessions at one of the Universities. That this would have debarred their brilliant professor seems not to have occurred to them.

John Brown died the following year, after twenty years as Professor. He left behind a body of well-trained and educated ministers, to cherish the memory of the man who had taught them what it is to be a Gospel Minister.

Next time, God willing, we shall see who it was that the Synod determined to succeed him.



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