The Rev. John Brown of Virginia (1728-1803): His life and selected sermons
The Rev. John Brown's story makes a useful addition to the history of American public address. As a mainstream Colonial evangelical Calvinist who was deeply influenced by the Great Awakening, he held a Presbyterian ministry of forty-two years in the Valley of Virginia (1753-1795). He operated schools, helped establish two presbyteries and a synod, and raised a remarkable family.
Brown never published, but his surviving "Memorandum Book," contains approximately sixteen of his sermons, most of them in the somewhat illegible, abbreviated notes typical of Colonial ministers. Painstaking scrutiny of the notes reveals the first four sermons in the book to consist of two occasional pieces (a fast sermon and a fragmentary lecture sermon) and two standard Sunday calls to salvation. Each piece follows a typical pattern of explication and application of scripture and generally avoids mention of immediate circumstances. The style is plain, but some features of Donne-like eloquence appear.
Conclusions drawn from Brown's biography and the presentation of four of his sermons include the finding of his having been subject to the fallacy of "historicism," the claiming to understand God's will in events. Evidence of Brown's warmth and wit, however, serves to counter stereotypes of dour Calvinists. He seems, moreover, to have reflected Scotch-Irish assimilation in America; the Southern traditions identified by Richard Weaver; the unifying nature of Colonial Calvinism; the Presbyterian stumbling block of ministerial education; and the American frontiersman's various strengths and weaknesses. His limitations in leadership appear to have been his greatest liability.
Brown's was a career rich in historical, rhetorical, and spiritual implications. Studying it reaps the rewards of understanding that Harry S. Stout notes only the unpublished, non-esoteric texts of Colonial ministers can provide.
0337: American history