Guest Post by Mark Nenadov
John Newton Brown (1803-1868) was an American Baptist leader. As a pastor and theologian, he authored the well-known moderately Calvinistic confession, the New Hampshire Baptist Confession of Faith. His church covenant, or some variation thereof, is being used in many Baptist congregations to this very day.
Throughout his life, Brown pastored various congregations in New York, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Virginia. He produced a number of theological treatises, including a debate book in 1853 in which he defended the Christian Sabbath. He also did some work as an editor, editing the Encyclopaedia of Religious Knowledge and the works of John Bunyan.
It is, however, John Newton Brown the poet who captivates me most. Not only was he a poet, he was an excellent poet and it’s shameful that so few know him as such.
I would like to introduce you to Emily, and Other Poems, a book of poetry which Brown published in 1840. The book opens with an inscription to a Pastor. It could very well be a manifesto for Christian poets:
“[My Pastor] first taught me the two important lessons—that poetic talent, like every other gift of God, imposes upon its possessor a responsibility to cultivate and employ it, in obedience to His will, for the benefit of mankind;—and that, as the world will always continue to read Poetry, so the more of Christian Poetry in the world, the better”.
Are we Christians, at least those who are gifted in the area of poetry, cultivating this gift? In John Newton Brown, we have a wonderful encouragement in that regard. Christians who are Presbyterian and Reformed by conviction have no less pronounced 19th/20th century inspiration in the likes of pastors and theologians who were also poets to some degree, such as Gerhardus Vos and B.B. Warfield
Here are some things I’ve come to appreciate about the poetry in this book:
1. It shows incredible emotion depth and rawness. As you read the book, immediately you’ll notice that weighty subjects are not avoided. Death is repeatedly confronted. He even has a poem meditating on the viewing of a skeleton. This book is filled with elegies and tributes to deceased people, including his sister Emily, his parents, his daughter, and others.
For instance, of his sister Emily he writes:
“I bless, O, I bless Him from whom I received
Such a sister—my senior in years—
And when of my father and mother bereaved,
My guide in this valley of tears.
And though thou art silent and cold in the dust.
And Affection weeps over thee now,
I strike the loud lyre o’er the grave of the just,
For such, my dear sister, wast thou.”
Brown shows how a Christian poet can focus on death without becoming overly gloomy or morbid.
2. It is thoroughly theological and Biblical. Brown’s poetry is Bible-saturated and theologically-sound. He writes with the precision of a theologian. He delights in the Bible and exalts Jesus “the Lamb of God! The antitype divine”. You get the sense that that the poet is, at his core, an evangelist, pleading with sinners to turn to Christ!
3. It is pastoral. Brown’s poetry is deeply pastoral, pouring out sweat and tears over the people he loves and cares for. The abundance of acrostic poems addressed specifically to individuals evidences the personal care of a pastor who knows his people.
Brown’s poetry attempts to lead the reader into a closer walk with God. It exhibits the tender (and yet firm) aspect of a good pastor, or in his poems to his daughters, a loving father.
He is clearly not afraid to be frank and blunt in some cases, such as the poem “Hints To A Young Preacher“:
“Your air is too dogmatic;
Your tones are too emphatic;
Your style has too much splendor;
Your voice has nothing tender;
Your gestures are too frequent far,
And quite ungraceful many area.”
4. And yet the poetry is not overly didactic—it revels in esthetic beauty. Brown avoids a dry approach wherein poetry becomes a mere conduit for propositions. He unveils verses which reflect on the beauty of nature and his local surroundings. There is no rash or strained desire to make everything explicitly religious, and yet a deep Christian piety seeps through everything he writes.
The writing has the leisurely feel of one of Brown’s Sabbath morning walks in New York state, during which he wrote the poem “The Happy Family”.
Though Brown is often quick to instruct his reader and make the most of his teaching platform, he also seems to enjoy poetry for poetry’s sake, and in another poem, he gets lost in the wonder of the Niagara Falls:
“And I have seen thee, wonder of the world!
Unequaled cataract! my country’s pride!
With all thy weight of waters downward hurled,
As if in earth’s deep bowels thou wouldst hide
Superior, Huron, Erie’s blended tide!”
5. It achieves technical excellence. Brown’s poetry is great poetry, achieving high standards of form and esthetic value. Beside a high level of excellence in the poetry itself, Brown also shows a broad knowledge of classic literature and mastery in translation, rendering some historic Latin verses and even providing alternate renderings. His mixture of artistic talent and scholarly precision is quite remarkable and unique!
6. Though generally traditional and formal, it is also quite creative and flexible. Brown freely and naturally moves between tasteful variations in style. He generally follows traditional rhyming schemes, but is also highly experimental, eager to try acrostics and experimentation with indentation, and short poems.
7. It thoughtfully engages the world, current events, and history. Besides being infused with a sense of wonder, Brown critically engages with the thought of his day. In his poems, he interacts with the likes of Edward Gibbon, Chalmers, and even Don Juan, all through the framework of a Christian world-view. He also delves into world events, such as the fall of Turkey. Brown models how Christian artists do not necessarily need to be reclusive or mystical, but can engage with the world around them. And they can do that without turning their poetry into a mere conduit for propositions.
Christian poets have a lot to learn from John Newton Brown. I highly recommend checking out Brown’s poetry. I hope renewed interest in this neglected work of art will also inspire poets for many years to come!
To that end, since the book is out of print and only available in somewhat hard to read scans, I’ve recently transcribed it into a textual PDF file, which is available for free on Archive.org. It’s only a draft and more proofreading is needed, so there may be some minor errors. You can download it here.
You can also find a fair amount of John Newton Brown poems over at Calvinist poets.