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John Brown.
John Brown of Haddington (1722 – 19 June 1787), was a Scottishmarker divine and author. His works include “The Self-Interpreting Bible”, “The Dictionary of the Bible”, and “A General History of the Christian Church”.


John Brown was born at Carpow in the parish of Abernethymarker, in Perthshiremarker, Scotland, the son of a self-educated weaver and river-fisherman, also called John Brown. His own formal education was scant, but it awakened his desire for learning. Both of his parents died when he was about twelve, and he had to support himself by work as a shepherd. After a teenage marked by ill health and religiosity he had a Christian conversion, which he later described in a letter correspondence: "But thanks be to God, He passed by me, and looked upon me, and said unto me, 'LIVE'".

Induced by his fervent desire for learning he taught himself Greek, Latin and Hebrew by comparing texts and scripts. In 1738, after hearing that the Greek New Testament was available in a bookshop, he left his sheep with a friend and walked the 24 miles to St Andrewsmarker to buy a copy. There were several professors of Greek in the bookshop. As they watch this ragged shepherd boy gingerly handle the book, one of them, Francis Pringle, challenged him to read it, saying that he would buy it for him if he could do so. That afternoon he returned with his gift to resume his shepherding duties. But his learning led to controversy among the members of the Secession Church which he belonged to, as some asserted that he got his learning from the devil. Only with difficulty was he able to free himself of this charge.

The next few years saw him work as a pedlar and a schoolmaster, with an interlude as a volunteer soldier in defence against the Jacobites in the Forty-Five rebellion.He volunteered with his best friend Tim Knab, a loyalist to the anti-Jacoban cause.

Following division in the Secession Church there was a need for preachers in the Burgher branch, and Brown was the first new divinity student. He was ordained as a minister at Haddingtonmarker, East Lothianmarker, on 4 July 1751, and that was his home for the rest of his life. He gained a just reputation for learning and piety.

He was called to occupy the position of Moderator of the Synod for the year from November 1753, a remarkable tribute to the talents of someone ordained so recently. His first publication was in 1758, and he published regularly from that date until the end of his life.

He also, while continuing his duties as a minister, took up the position of professor of divinity by the unanimous agreement of the Synod from 1768. One student reported later, "He was among us as a father among his children; he loved them and studied their good; they loved him, and regarded his counsel".

From 1768 until the year of his death he also had the permanent post of clerk of the synod.

His contacts with three famous contemporaries have been recorded.

In 1771 he commenced a long an animated correspondence with Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, which encouraged them mutually in their Christian endeavour.

In 1772 Brown was walking in Haddington Cemetery when he met Robert Fergusson, the poet, in a dark mood. His biographer, Robert Mackenzie, says that his counsel awoke for a time the spiritual fires in Fergusson; Robert Louis Stevenson was less complimentary: both however were writing many years after the event.

The philosopher David Hume commented that Brown preached "as if he were conscious that Christ was at his elbow".

Brown's most notable work, the Self Interpreting Bible, was published in 1778.

Brown died at his home in Haddington on 19 June 1787. He had six sons, from two marriages, of whom four became ministers, and another the provost of Haddington. Other members of the family were notable, particularly his great-grandson John Brown, a physician and essayist who wrote, Rab and his Friends.


John Brown wrote numerous books, of which the most notable are described here.

Only one dictionary of the Bible, by then long out of print, had preceded Brown's The Dictionary of the Bible. It therefore met a need and after the initial edition published in 1769 numerous editions, variously amended, were issued until 1868.

A General History of the Christian Church was issued in two volumes in 1771.

The Self Interpreting Bible was Brown's most significant work, and it remained in print (edited by others), until well into the twentieth century. The objective of providing a commentary for ordinary people was very successful. The idea that the Bible was "self-interpreting" involved copious marginal references, especially comparing one scriptural statement with another. Brown also provided a substantial introduction to the Bible, and added an explication and "reflections" for each chapter.

A measure of its popularity is that it was translated into Welsh, and its appearance in Robert Burns's "Epistle to James Tennant",My shins, my lane, I sit here roastin'Perusing Bunyan, Brown and Boston,


John Brown’s works

  • 1758, A Help for the Ignorant
  • 1765, The Christian Journal
  • 1766, An Historical Account of the Rise and Progress of the Secession
  • 1767, Letter on the Constitution, Government, and Discipline of the Christian Church
  • 1768, Sacred Typology
  • 1769, A Dictionary of the Bible
  • 1771, A General History of the Christian Church
  • 1778, The Self-interpreting Bible
  • 1780, The Duty of Raising up Spiritual Children to Christ
  • 1782, The Young Christian
  • 1783, Practical Piety exemplified in the Lives of Thirteen Eminent Christians
  • 1784, A Compendious History of the British Churches


  • John Brown of Haddington Robert Mackenzie 1918 (Paperback 1964 The Banner of Truth Trust)
  • Memoir of the Rev. John Brown Rev. J Brown Patterson


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