John Brown.

Supplementary chapter to the life of Rev. John Brown, D.D.; a letter to Rev. John Cairns, D.D online

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Online LibraryJohn BrownSupplementary chapter to the life of Rev. John Brown, D.D.; a letter to Rev. John Cairns, D.D → online text (page 1 of 6)
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23 RUTLAND STREET, 15th August.

MY DEAR FRIEND, When, at the urgent re-
quest of his trustees and family, and in accord-
ance with what I believe was his own wish, you
undertook my father's Memoir, it was in a mea-
sure on the understanding that I would furnish
you with some domestic and personal details.
This I hoped to have done, but was unable.

Though convinced more than ever how littk
my hand is needed, I will now endeavour to ful-
fil my promise. Before doing so, however, you
must permit me to express our deep gratitude
to you for this crowning proof of your regard
for him

" Without whose life we had not been ;"

to whom for many years you habitually wrote
as " My father," and one of whose best bless-
ings, when he was " such an one as Paul the
aged," was to know that you were to him
" mine own son in the gospel."

With regard to the manner in which you

* To the Rev. John Cairns, I>.D., Berwick-on-Tweed.
2 D


have done this last kindness to the dead, I can
say nothing more expressive of our feelings,
and, I am sure, nothing more gratifying to you,
than that the record you have given of my
father's life, and of the series of great public
questions in which he took part, is done in the
way which would have been most pleasing to
himself that which, with his passionate love
of truth and liberty, his relish for concentrated,
just thought and expression, and his love of
being loved, he would have most desired, in
any one speaking of him after he was gone.
He would, I doubt not, say, as one said to
a great painter, on looking at his portrait,
"It is certainly like, but it is much better
looking ;" and you might well reply as did the
painter, " It is the truth, told lovingly " and
all the more true that it is so told. You have,
indeed, been enabled to speak the truth, or as
the Greek has it, a\r)6eviiv ev ayd-Try to truth it

in love.

I have over and over again sat down to try and
do what I promised and wished to give some
faint expression of my father's life ; not of what
he did or said or wrote not even of what he
was as a man of God and a public teacher ; but
what he was in his essential nature what he
would have been had he been anything else


than what he was, or had lived a thousand
years ago.

Sometimes I have this so vividly in my mind
that I think I have only to sit down and write
it off, and do it to the quick. " The idea of
his life," what he was as a whole, what was
his self, all his days, w r ould, to go on with
words which not time or custom can ever wither
or make stale,

" Sweetly creep
Into my study of imagination ;
And every lovely organ of his life
Would come apparelled in more precious habit
More moving delicate, and full of life,
Into the eye and prospect of my soul,
Than when he lived indeed,"

as if the sacredness of death and the bloom
of eternity were on it ; or as you may have seen
in an untroubled lake, the heaven reflected with
its clouds, brighter, purer, more exquisite than
itself; but when you try to put this into words,
to detain yourself over it, it is by this very act
disturbed, broken and bedimmed, and soon
vanishes away, as would the imaged heavens
in the lake, if a pebble were cast into it, or
a breath of wind stirred its face. The very
anxiety to transfer it, as it looked out of the
clear darkness of the past, makes the image
grow 7 dim and disappear.

Every one whose thoughts are not seldom


with the dead, must have felt both these condi-
tions ; how, in certain passive, tranquil states,
there comes up into the darkened chamber of
the mind, its " chamber of imagery" un-
called, as if it blossomed out of space, exact,
absolute, consummate, vivid, speaking, not
darkly as in a glass, but face to face, and
"moving delicate" this "idea of his life;"
and then how an effort to prolong and perpetu-
ate and record all this, troubles the vision and
kills it ! It is as if one should try to paint in a
mirror the reflection of a dear and unseen face ;
the coarse, uncertain, passionate handling and
colour, ineffectual and hopeless, shut out the
very thing itself.

I will therefore give this up as in vain, and
try by some fragmentary sketches, scenes, and
anecdotes, to let you know in some measure
what manner of man my father was. Anecdotes,
if true and alive, are always valuable ; the man
in the concrete, the totus quis comes out in
them ; and I know you too well to think that
you will consider as trivial or out of place any-
thing in which his real nature displayed itself,
and your own sense of humour as a master and
central power of the human soul, playing about
the very essence of the man, will do more than
forgive anything of this kind which may crop


out here and there, like the smile of wild-flowers
in grass, or by the wayside.

My first recollection of my father, my first
impression, not only of his character, but of his
eyes and face and presence, strange as it may
seem, dates from my fifth year. Doubtless I
had looked at him often enough before that, and
had my own childish thoughts about him ; but
this was the time when I got my fixed, compact
idea of him, and the first look of him which I
felt could never be forgotten. I saw him, as it
were, by a flash of lightning, sudden and com-
plete. A child begins by seeing bits of every-
thing ; it knows in part here a little, there a
little ; it makes up its wholes out of its own littles,
and is long of reaching the fulness of a whole ;
and in this we are children all our lives in
much. Children are long of seeing, or at least
of looking at what is above them ; they like
the ground, and its flowers and stones, its " red
sodgers" and lady-birds, and all its queer
things ; their world is about three feet high,
and they are more often stooping than gazing
up. I know I was past ten before I saw, or
cared to see, the ceilings of the rooms in the
manse at Biggar.

On the morning of the 28th May 1816, my
eldest sister Janet and I were sleeping in the


kitchen-bed with Tibbie Meek,* our only ser-
vant. We were all three awakened by a cry of
pain sharp, insufferable, as if one were stung.
Years after we two confided to each other, sit-
ting by the burnside, that we thought that
" great cry " which arose at midnight in Egypt
must have been like it. We all knew w r hose
voice it was, and, in our night-clothes, we ran
into the passage, and into the little parlour
to the left hand, in which was a closet-bed.
We found my father standing before us, erect,
his hands clenched in his black hair, his eyes
full of misery and amazement, his face white as
that of the dead. He frightened us. He saw
this, or else his intense will had mastered his
agony, for, taking his hands from his head, he
said, slowly and gently, " Let us give thanks/'
and turned to a little sofa-f* in the room ; there
lay our mother, dead. She had long been ailing.

* A year ago, I found an elderly country woman, a widow, waiting
forme. Rising up, she said, "D'ye mind me?" I looked at her,
but could get nothing from her face ; hut the voice remained in my
ear, as if coming from "the fields of sleep," and I said by a sort of
instinct, " Tibbie Meek ! " I had not seen her or heard her voice
for more than forty years. She had come to get some medical advice.
Voices are often like the smells of flowers and leaves, the tastes of
wild fruits they touch and awaken memory in a strange way.
" Tibbie" is now living at Thankerton.

f This sofa, which was henceforward sacred in the house, he had
always beside him. He used to tell us he set her down upon it
when he brought her home to the manse.


I remember her sitting in a shawl, an Indian
one with little dark green spots on a light
ground, and watching her growing pale with
what I afterwards knew must have been strong
pain. She had, being feverish, slipped out of
bed, and "grandmother," her mother, seeing
her " change come," had called my father, and
they two saw her open her blue, kind, and true
eyes, "comfortable" to us all "as the day" I
remember them better than those of any one I
saw yesterday and, with one faint look of
recognition to him, close them till the time of
the restitution of all things.

" She had another morn than ours."

Then were seen in full action his keen, pas-
sionate nature, his sense of mental pain, and
his supreme will, instant and unsparing, mak-
ing himself and his terrified household give
thanks in the midst of such a desolation, and
for it. Her warfare was accomplished, her
iniquities were pardoned ; she had already
received from her Lord's hand double for all
her sins : this was his supreme and over-mas-
tering thought, and he gave it utterance.

No man was happier in his wives. My
mother was modest, calm, thrifty, reasonable,
tender, happy-hearted. She was his student-
love, and is even now remembered in that pas-


toral region, for " her sweet gentleness and wife-
like government." Her death and his sorrow
and loss, settled down deep into the heart of the
countryside. He was so young and bright, so
full of fire, so unlike any one else, so devoted
to his work, so chivalrous in his look and man-
ner, so fearless, and yet so sensitive and self-
contained. She was so wise, good and gentle,
gracious and frank.

His subtlety of affection, and his almost cruel
self-command, w r ere shown on the day of the
funeral. It was to Symington, four miles off,
a quiet little churchyard, lying in the shadow
of Tinto ; a place where she herself had wished
to be laid. The funeral was chiefly on horseback.
We, the family, were in coaches. I had been
since the death in a sort of stupid musing and
wonder, not making out what it all meant. I
knew my mother was said to be dead. I saw
she was still, and laid out, and then shut up, and
didn't move ; but I did not know that when she
was carried out in that long black box, and we
all went with her, she alone was never to return.

When we got to the village all the people
were at their doors. One woman, the black-
smith Thomas Spence's wife, had a nursing
baby in her arms, and he leapt up and crowed
with joy at the strange sight, the crowding


horsemen, the coaches and the nodding plumes
of the hearse. This was my brother William,
then nine months old, and Margaret Spence was
his foster-mother. Those with me were over-
come at this sight ; he of all in the world whose,
in some ways, was the greatest loss, the least
conscious, turning it to his own childish glee.

We got to the churchyard and stood round
the open grave. My dear old grandfather was
asked by my father to pray ; he did. I don't
remember his words ; I believe he, through his
tears and sobs, repeated the Divine words, " All
flesh is grass, and all the glory of man as the
flower of the grass ; the grass withereth, and
the flower thereof falleth away, but the word
of the Lord endureth for ever ;" adding, in
his homely and pathetic way, that the flower
would again bloom, never again to fade ; that
what was now sown in dishonour and weakness,
would be raised in glory and power, like unto
His own glorious body. Then to my surprise
arid alarm, the coffin, resting on its bearers, was
placed over that dark hole, and I watched with
curious eye the unrolling of those neat black
bunches of cords, which I have often enough
seen since. My father took the one at the head,
and also another much smaller springing from
the same point as his, which he had caused to


be put there, and unrolling it, put it into my
hand. I twisted it firmly round my fingers,
and awaited the result ; the burial men with
their real ropes lowered the coffin, and when
it rested at the bottom, it was too far down for
me to see it the grave was made very deep, as
he used afterwards to tell us, that it might hold
us all my father first and abruptly let his cord
drop, followed by the rest. This was too much.
I now saw what w^as meant, and held on and fixed
my fist and feet, and I believe my father had
some difficulty in forcing open my small fingers ;
he let the little black cord drop, and I remember,
in my misery and anger, seeing its open end
disappearing in the gloom.

My mother's death was the second epoch in
my father's life ; it marked a change at once
and for life ; and for a man so self-reliant, so
poised upon a centre of his own, it is wonderful
the extent of change it made. He went home,
preached her funeral sermon, every one in the
church in tears, himself outw r ardly unmoved."*
But from that time dates an entire, though
always deepening, alteration in his manner of
preaching, because an entire change in his way of
dealing with God's Word. Not that his abiding

* I have been told that once in the course of the sermon his voice
trembled, and many feared he was about to break do\vn.


religious views and convictions were then ori-
ginated or even altered I doubt not that from
a child he not only knew the Holy Scriptures, but
was "wise unto salvation" but it strengthened
and clarified, quickened and gave permanent
direction to, his sense of God as revealed in His
Word. He took as it were to subsoil ploughing ;
he got a new and adamantine point to the in-
strument with which he bored, and with a fresh
power with his whole might, he sunk it right
down into the living rock, to the virgin gold.
His entire nature had got a shock, and his
blood was drawn inwards, his surface was chil-
led ; but fuel was heaped all the more on the
inner fires, and his zeal, that Oep^ov irpa^^a,
burned with a new ardour ; indeed had he not
found an outlet for his pent-up energy, his brain
must have given way, and his faculties have
either consumed themselves in wild, wasteful
splendour and combustion, or dwindled into

The manse became silent ; we lived and
slept and played under the shadow of that

* There is a story illustrative of this altered manner and matter
of preaching. He had been preaching when very young, at Gala-
shiels, and one wife said to her "neebor," "Jean, what think ye
o' the lad?" " Ifs maist o't tinsel wark" said Jean, neither relish-
ing nor appreciating his fine sentiments and figures. After my
mother's death, he preached in the .same place, and Jean, running
to her friend, took the first word, " It's a 1 gowd noo."


death, and we saw, or rather felt, that he was
another father than before. No more happy
laughter from the two in the parlour, as he was
reading Larry, the Irish postboy's letter in
Miss Edgeworth's tale, or the last Waverley
novel ; no more visitings in a cart with her.
he riding beside us on his white thorough-
bred pony, to Kilbucho, or Rachan Mill, or
Kirklawhill. He went among his people as
usual when they were ill ; he preached better
than ever they were sometimes frightened to
think how wonderfully he preached ; but the
sunshine was over the glad and careless look,
the joy of young life and mutual love. He was
little with us, and, as I said, the house was still,
except when he was mandating his sermons for
Sabbath. This he always did, not only viva
voce, but with as much energy and loudness as
in the pulpit ; we felt his voice was sharper,
and rang keen through the house.

What we lost, the congregation and the world
gained. He gave himself wholly to his work.
As you have yourself said, he changed his entire
system and fashion of preaching ; from being
elegant, rhetorical, and ambitious, he became
concentrated, urgent, moving (being himself
moved), keen, searching, unswerving, authori-
tative to fierceness, full of the terrors of the Lord,


if lie could but persuade men. The truth of
the words of God had shone out upon him
with an immediateness and infinity of mean-
ing and power, which made them, though the
same words he had looked on from childhood,
other and greater and deeper words. He then
left the ordinary commentators, and men who
write about meanings and flutter around the
circumference and corners ; he was bent on the
centre, on touching with his own fingers, on
seeing with his own eyes, the pearl of great price.
Then it was that he began to dig into the
depths, into the primary and auriferous rock of
Scripture, and take nothing at another's hand :
then he took up with the word " apprehend ;"
he had laid hold of the truth, there it was,
with its evidence, in his hand ; and every one
wiio knew him must remember well how r , in
speaking with earnestness of the meaning of
a passage, he, in his ardent, hesitating way,
looked into the palm of his hand as if he actually
saw there the truth he was going to utter. This
word apprehend played a large part in his lec-
tures, as the thing itself did in his processes
of investigation, or, if I might make a word,
indagation. Comprehension, he said, was for
few ; apprehension was for every man who
had hands and a head to rule them, and an


eye to direct them. Out of this arose one
of his deficiencies. He could go largely into
the generalities of a subject, and relished
greatly others doing it, so that they did do it
really and well ; but he was averse to abstract
and wide reasonings. Principles he rejoiced
in : he worked with them as with his choicest
weapons ; they were the polished stones for
his sling, against the Goliaths of presumption,
error, and tyranny in thought or in polity,
civil or ecclesiastical ; but he somehow divined
a principle, or got at it naked and alone, rather
than deduced it and brought it to a point from
an immensity of particulars, and then rendered
it back so as to bind them into one cosmos. One
of my young friends now dead, who afterwards
went to India, used to come and hear him in
Broughton Place with me, and this word appre-
hend caught him, and as he had a great love for
my father, in writing home to me, he never
forgot to ask how " grand old Apprehend" was.
From this time dates my father's possession
and use of the German Exegetics. After my
mother's death I slept with him ; his bed was
in his study, a small room/" with a very small

* On a low chest of drawers in this room there lay for many years
my mother's parasol, by his orders I daresay, for long, the only one
iu Biggar.


grate ; and I remember well his getting those
fat, shapeless, spongy German books, as if one
would sink in them, and be bogged in their
bibulous, unsized paper ; and watching him as
he impatiently cut them up, and dived into
them in his rapid, eclectic way, tasting them, and
dropping for my play such a lot of soft, large,
curled bits from the paper-cutter, leaving the
edges all shaggy. He never came to bed when
I was awake, which was not to be wondered
at ; but I can remember often awaking far
on in the night or morning, and seeing that
keen, beautiful, intense face bending over these
Rosenmullers, and Ernestis, and Storrs, and
Kuinoels the fire out, and the grey dawn
peering through the window ; and when he
heard me move, he would speak to me in the
foolish words of endearment my mother was
wont to use, and come to bed, and take me,
warm as I was, into his cold bosom.

Vitringa in Jesaiam I especially remember,
a noble folio. Even then, with that eager-
ness to communicate what he had himself
found, of which you must often have been
made the subject, he went and told it. He
would try to make me, small man as I was,
"apprehend" what he and Vitringa between
them had made out, of the fifty- third chapter


of his favourite prophet, the princely Isaiah/''
Even then, so far as I can recal, he never took
notes of what he read. He did not need this,
his intellectual force and clearness were so great ;
he was so totus in illo, whatever it was, that
he recorded by a secret of its own, his mind's
results and victories and memoranda, as he
went on ; he did not even mark his books, at
least very seldom ; he marked his mind.

* His reading aloud of everything from John Gilpiu to John
Howe was a fine and high art, or rather gift. Henderson could not
have given

" The dinner waits, and we are tired ;"
Says Gilpin, " So am I,"

better ; and to hear him sounding the depths and cadences of the
Living Temple, " bearing on its front this doleful inscription, ' Here
God once dwelt,'" was like listening to the recitative of Handel. But
Isaiah was his masterpiece ; and I remember quite well his startling
us all when reading at family worship " His name shall be called
Wonderful, the Counsellor, the mighty God," by a peremptory, ex-
plosive sharpness, as of thunder overhead, at the words " the mighty
God," similar to the rendering now given to Handel's music, and
doubtless so meant by him ; and then closing with "the Prince of
Peace," soft and low. No man who wishes to feel Isaiah, as well as
understand him, should be ignorant of Handel's " Messiah." His
prelude to " Comfort ye " its simple theme, cheerful and infinite as
the ripple of the unsearchable sea gives a deepened meaning to the
words. One of my father's great delights in his dying months was
reading the lives of Handel and of Michael Angelo, then newly out.
He felt that the author of "He was despised," and "He shall feed
his flock," and those other wonderful airs, was a man of profound
religious feeling, of which they were the utterance ; and he rejoiced
over the warlike airs and choruses of "Judas Maccabseus." You
have recorded his estimate of the religious nature of him of the
terribile via; he said it was a relief to his mind to know that such a
mighty genius walked humbly with his God.


He was thus every year preaching with more
and more power, because with more and more
knowledge and " pureness ;" and, as you say,
there were probably nowhere in Britain such
lectures delivered at that time to such an audi-
ence, consisting of country people, sound, devout,
well-read in their Bibles and in the native divi-
nity, but quite unused to persistent, deep, critical

Much of this most of it was entirely his
own, self-originated and self-sustained, and done
for its own sake,

" All too happy in the pleasure
Of his own exceeding treasure."

But he often said, with deep feeling, that one
thing put him always on his mettle, the know-
ledge that "yonder in that corner, under the
gallery, sat, Sabbath after Sabbath, a man who
knew his Greek Testament better than I did."
This was his brother-in-law, and one of his
elders, Mr. Robert Johnston, married to his
sister Violet, a merchant and portiorier in Big-
gar, a remarkable man, of whom it is difficult
to say to strangers what is true, without being
accused of exaggeration. A shopkeeper in that
remote little town, he not only intermeddled
fearlessly with all knowledge, but mastered more
than many practised and University men do in
2 E

4^G MK.MOU: MK JOHN ni:o\vN, n.n.

their own linos. Mathematics; astronomy, and
especially what may be called telcnoloyii, or the
doctrine of the moon, and the higher geometry
and physics ; Hebrew, Sanscrit, Greek, and
Latin, to the veriest rigours of prosody and
metre; Spanish and Italian, German, French,
and any odd language that came in his Avav :
all these he knew more or less thoroughly, and
acquired them in the most leisurely, easy, cool
sort of way, as if he grazed and browsed per-
petually in the field of letters, rather than made
formal meals, or gathered for any ulterior pur-
pose, his fruits, his roots, and his nuts he espe-
cially liked mental nuts much less bought them
from any one.

With all this, his knowledge of human, and
especially of I'iggnr human nature, the ins and
outs of its little secret ongoings, the entire
ip of the place, was like a, woman's ; more-
over, every personage great or small, heroic or
comic, in Homer whose poems he made it a
matter of coii.M-iencc to read once every four
years Plautus, Suetonius, Plutarch, Tacitus,
and Lueiau, down through Boccaccio and Bon
Quixote, which he knew by heart and from the
living Spanish, to Joseph Andrews, the Spec-
tator, Goldsmith and Swift, Miss Austen. .Miss

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Online LibraryJohn BrownSupplementary chapter to the life of Rev. John Brown, D.D.; a letter to Rev. John Cairns, D.D → online text (page 1 of 6)