John Brown of Haddington: The Scot Who Thirsted for God’s Truth

5 min

The sheep grazed quietly as the sun slowly sank behind the Scottish hills. The sixteen-year-old shepherd boy named John gazed at the sunset. His eyes brightened as he thought about the mission that lay before him that night. He would leave his flock in the care of a friend so he could embark on his mission. The lad slipped his hand into his homespun knapsack and felt his hard-earned money. With his funds that had been carefully saved up for a long time, soon he would set out on his long overnight hike. 

By sunrise, John had reached the coastal town of St. Andrews. A university town, its many inhabitants included doctors, lawyers, and other great men. The year was 1738, and the French Enlightenment had infected Scotland. New ideas, new methods, and new philosophies had replaced the old truths of the Reformation. Reason had pushed out revelation. Human knowledge had exalted itself over divine truth. Into this university town walked John, a barefooted lad from the hills. He seemed out of place in this scholarly town. University students, just his age, passed him by on their way to class. They politely hid their smiles as they viewed the ragged attire and bare feet of their peer. His old, sun-faded bonnet contrasted sharply with their scholastic caps. His unshod feet and worn clothes revealed his poverty. John ignored their notice and boldly asked where the best bookshop in St. Andrews was. Then, given directions, he proceeded to South Street, where one of the best bookshops in all of Scotland was located. 

Inside the shop that morning happened to be several university professors. The shepherd boy confidently approached the counter and asked if the owner had a Greek New Testament for sale. Glancing at John’s bare feet, the bookseller replied in wonder, “What would you do with that book?” John earnestly answered, “I’ll try to read it, sir.” Silence suddenly filled the shop. A dignified man then stepped up to the counter. John was unaware that this man was the professor of Greek at the University of St. Andrews. The professor asked the bookseller to hand him a Greek New Testament from the shelf. Next, the professor placed the book on the counter and said with a smile to John, “Boy, if you can read that book, you shall have it for nothing.”

Eagerly, John picked up the prize! With trembling hands, he opened the Book of God. All eyes were fixed upon him as he began to read. The professor’s eyes widened in astonishment as the barefoot boy flawlessly read an extended passage from the sacred volume. The professor paid the bookseller. John did not linger to receive the praise or the questions of the bystanders. Cradling the treasured volume under his arm, John walked out and headed home, eastward toward the hills of Abernethy.

Little did the bookseller, the scholars, and the professor know that they had just met a determined young man who one day would shake the tenets of rationalism to their foundation! The simple shepherd boy would become a man of Scripture who would not be swayed by any means to abandon the old faith once delivered to the saints. 

That shepherd, John Brown of Haddington, became one of the most beloved pastors Scotland ever produced. His prolific pen authored over fifty books, tracts, and pamphlets. Included in these writings were major works on church history, a catechism for children, a Bible dictionary, a book on the danger of religious toleration in government, a book on the proper use of Bible prophecy, a dissertation on the imputed righteousness of Christ, a series of biographies, and his famous Self-Interpreting Bible—a cross-referenced Bible that used other passages to explain difficult texts. 

John began to preach in the rural, hillside villages of Scotland. Soon a storm of opposition arose. The preachers who leaned toward the new rationalism of the universities despised a man many years younger than they were who simply preached Biblical truth. Hurtful stories began to circulate regarding the young preacher. Some suggested that he had learned Greek by witchcraft—that the devil himself had taught the boy to read Greek up in the hills! How else could a simple shepherd learn the complex language of the New Testament?

For many years, this charge of witchcraft hovered over the head of the young minister. Patiently, John Brown explained later how he had learned Greek. He had borrowed a Greek testament from a kindly pastor in a rural church. Taking the precious text with him to the hills, he had compared the English version Bible with the strange characters he saw on the page of the borrowed Greek version. He had opened first to Matthew Chapter 1 and noticed that it was full of proper names. 

He could find the word Ἀβραάμ in the Greek text, and it looked enough like Abraham in the English text so that he could make the connection of the two names. Learning the Greek letters of this one name, he quickly was able to identify three letters of the Greek alphabet. Figuring out that μ m, ρ = r, and α a, he could then identify names such as Θαμάρ Tamar. This realization gave him a new letter to work with. Slowly and painstakingly, name by name, he worked through the passage until he had learned the entire Greek alphabet. 

Having figured out the Greek alphabet, next Brown needed to learn the Greek vocabulary. Using similar methods, he worked through familiar passages, learning Greek words by their English version translations. Relying upon the small amount of Latin the ambitious reader had picked up already, Brown began to sketch out his own rough grammar, comparing Greek endings he saw that were similar to the Latin case endings. Over time, with much effort, he was able to identify the cases of nouns, the tenses of verbs, and a sense of the verbal moods.

Gaining knowledge increased his thirst to learn more, and this thirst never ceased his entire life. Brown eventually learned Hebrew as well, although in a more orderly and orthodox manner. John Brown’s earnest piety and Godly zeal soon dispelled the rumors that had shadowed his youth, and the preacher became welcome in country churches throughout his native hills.

In 1753, at the age of thirty-one, John Brown married Janet Thomson, the daughter of a Godly merchant in his church. Brown’s biographer noted that Janet “brought fidelity and piety” to the Brown home. She turned the stone parsonage at Haddington into a warm. happy home—a center of hospitality, encouragement, and edification. Often, in his study surrounded by his children, John Brown wrote his many works, prepared his sermons, shepherded his flock, and raised his family. Seven children survived to adulthood, and his sons and daughters all lived productive, Godly lives. Three sons followed their father into the ministry. One became a medical missionary. Today, the descendants of John Brown of Haddington number in the thousands. One of their most precious possessions is the leather bound Greek New Testament read by their patriarch when he was a shepherd boy.

Shunning the intellectual fountains of human wisdom, John Brown had found the source of truth in the revealed Word of God. From the pure fountain of life he had tasted eternal truth. Scotland experienced a revival in the 1740s–50s that was due, in no small way, to the labors of John Brown, a faithful pastor who was willing to combat the rationalism and modernism of the Enlightenment with the revealed truth of the eternal Word of God.

Sources and Further Reference:
MacKenzie, Robert. John Brown of Haddington. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1964.

This article is from our Matters of Life & Death teaching series.

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