Iain H. Murray (2012), Archibald G. Brown, Banner of Truth, Hardback, 432pp.
In the second half of the nineteenth C. H. Spurgeon so towered above English Calvinistic Baptists that other giants seemed to be much smaller, with one outcome being that quickly they were forgotten by subsequent generations. This was the case despite the great achievements connected to some of those men. One was Archibald G. Brown. Perhaps the only words by Brown that people today have read was the fine eulogy he paid to Spurgeon at his graveside. Yet the fact that Brown was given this privileged role should alert readers to his importance.
A brief summary of his life will reveal why he was a spiritual giant. Brown was a Londoner whose family had connections to Spurgeon’s congregation. Born in 1844, he was converted as a teenager and immediately began to make a strong public witness for Christ, including a willingness to preach even at a moment’s notice. At the age of eighteen he became a student in Spurgeon’s Pastors College. It was not the usual practice to let such a young person begin such studies, but Spurgeon recognised the striking abilities possessed by Brown.
It was the intention of the College to ensure that the students also engaged in practical evangelism and church planting. So Brown was given the responsibility of preaching to a small group who met in Bromley, and the outcome was that a small church was founded there in the following year (1863), and Brown ministered to them until 1866. Spurgeon had involved himself in helping Brown in this work.
On leaving the College, Brown was called in 1867 to a Baptist Church in Stepney, which had been planted by another of Spurgeon’s students. Spurgeon had recommended Brown to them by saying he knew a man he would walk four miles to hear. Brown preached his first sermon there in January 1867. The congregation, which had seventy-six members, began to grow, with over seventy young men converted during one sermon preached in the following month. By the close of 1868, several hundred gathered to hear Brown preach, with hundreds unable to get in. Stepney was a very deprived area, yet Brown worked hard in contacting the many people who lived there, most in appalling conditions. In 1872, Brown pointed out that 500 of the 650 members who had joined the church since he arrived had not come from a church background. A prominent emphasis in the congregation’s life was prayer (there were three weekly prayer meetings). The church continued to grow and eventually a new building holding 3000 had to be erected and was called the East London Tabernacle.
Although Brown was a dynamic preacher, he also built up a congregation that recognised the importance of getting involved in spreading the gospel. The author mentions that at one stage it had seventy Sunday School teachers, a thousand people who went to visit homes every Sunday afternoon, and others who were involved with helping various forms of need. Brown insisted that the essential purpose of all these activities was to speak about Jesus to those they came in contact with. Male and female church workers visited the community regularly. The congregation provided material help for many of the large numbers of needy people living in the area.
As the years passed, it was inevitable that the work of such a large congregation would wear Brown down physically and he retired from his position as pastor in 1897. After a break of a few months, he resumed preaching at another Baptist congregation, this one being in West Norwood in south London, a very different kind of location from the poverty of east London, as well as being a church in decline. Although it was suggested to Brown that the gospel message that had been so effective in east London would not be successful in south London, he proved them wrong and soon the building, which held 1100, had large congregations. Over 500 were added to the church by 1900, and 1300 had joined by 1907, the year that Brown resigned from the pastorate.
The reason why Brown resigned was that he was called to help at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, the former church of C. H. Spurgeon, which was going through difficulties. While one can understand why the congregation wanted him, it is debatable whether he was wise to do so at his age because he became responsible for the many activities connected to the Tabernacle. Yet despite various difficulties in the congregation, Brown’s preaching was blessed, with over 450 joining the church by 1910, the year in which Brown was compelled by health problems to resign.
In his remaining years, in addition to preaching in England, Brown travelled abroad, preaching in places as diverse as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Jamaica. Having arranged to preach in South Africa in 1914, he was not able to return to England until 1919, after the First World War was over. He returned to a much-changed country. His final years were spent in Northamptonshire, where he died in April 1922.
Although Brown had a spiritually prosperous ministry, he knew great personal difficulties, with each of his four wives dying before him. His first wife Annie had been instrumental in his conversion. From his family, three of his daughters worked with missionary organisations in China and one of his sons (Douglas) was a preacher who was involved in revivals among the fisherfolk in the 1920s.
Regarding his doctrinal outlook, Brown was a convinced Calvinist and never moved from his beliefs throughout a long ministry. Like his friend Spurgeon, his Calvinism did not deny him great gospel success. Brown was not afraid of standing up for his Master and when, during the 1880s, the theological liberalism that was spreading throughout British Protestantism affected the Baptists, Brown was one of Spurgeon’s closest and ablest supporters in the Downgrade Controversy.
But above all, Brown was a preacher. Concerning gospel proclamation, he said, ‘The gospel is a fact, therefore tell it simply; it is a joyful fact, therefore tell it cheerfully; it is an entrusted fact, therefore tell it faithfully; it is a fact of infinite moment, therefore tell it earnestly; it is a fact about a Person, therefore preach Christ.’ Because he did so, thousands throughout the world heard him gladly.
As we struggle today to build community churches, here is a record of how one church took seriously its calling to take the gospel to its community. We may suspect that it was easier back then, but I doubt if it was. The church as a whole had lost touch with the lower classes, but Brown and his congregation rediscovered how to do it. They did not adopt any unusual practices but focussed on prayer, preaching the gospel, witnessing to Jesus and providing material help to the needy. It worked!
The choice of subtitle of the book – Spurgeon’s Successor – is a bit strange. Although Brown spent three years at Metropolitan Tabernacle, he was hardly Spurgeon’s successor. Brown and Spurgeon shared a lot of things, but I doubt if either of them would have classified Brown by such a description. Having said that, the book is well worth reading.
This book review appeared in the Record of the Free Church of Scotland (November, 2012).