The life and work of Brownlow North
A report on the annual church history lecture at Cowley Hill Free Church, Borehamwood
We felt a great sense of expectancy as we made our way to the chapel on Cowley Hill, on Saturday 9 April, for the twelfth annual history lecture.
We all knew that while the sun might be shining on the fields and towns of south Hertfordshire, we were gathering under dark and cloudy skies as far as the spiritual and moral state of our nation is concerned.
We took our seats, praying that the Lord would enable our valued speaker, Pastor Geoffrey Thomas from Aberystwyth, to give us something that would inform our minds, challenge our attitudes, and encourage our hearts. His lecture on ‘Brownlow North and transforming grace’ was to prove that the Lord had answered our petitions.
Great-nephew of Lord North
Brownlow North was born on 6 January 1810 at Chelsea, in the town house of his grandfather, a bishop in the Church of England. His father was Rector of Alverstoke in Hampshire and Prebendary of Winchester. Brownlow was also a great-nephew of Lord North, one of George III’s prime ministers.
Various well meaning endeavours by his parents to give young Brownlow a sound education proved unavailing, not merely because he was self-willed and unteachable, but because he had thrown himself at the feet of the great goddess, Pleasure.
When his godly mother moved to Cheltenham, Brownlow joined her and soon became part of the dancing and riding set. It is recorded that, in a single winter, he proposed marriage to eligible young ladies no less than 19 times, and was accepted by all of them!
One can appreciate the difficulties this behaviour caused his mother. Eventually, Brownlow decided he would follow his father and grandfather into the Anglican ministry, although he lacked true motive to engage in such work. He went up to Oxford, obtained a degree and sought ordination.
The Bishop of Lincoln, with whom he had the important interview, had been forewarned of Brownlow’s excesses. Brownlow had the honesty to reply — when the bishop asked him ‘Mr North, if I were in your position and you in mine, would you ordain me?’ — with, ‘My Lord, I would not’.
When the family moved to Scotland, Brownlow was able to add to his old loves of dancing and riding, the country sports of hunting and shooting. ‘Every day and all day’ was his motto, and if he could not be out on the moors shooting grouse, he would betake himself to the local river, where he would spend hours fishing for salmon, often on the Lord’s Day.
It was a sad path he was to tread for many a long year. It was not until Brownlow North was 45 years old that the Holy Spirit began his gracious work of conversion in him. The great transformation began when Brownlow suddenly fell ill and was convinced he was about to die.
For the first time in his life it could be said of him, as it was of Saul of Tarsus in Damascus, ‘Behold, he prayeth’. He left off trying to slake his thirst at the world’s broken cisterns, as the need to find God’s mercy came before everything else in his life.
The amazing change in Brownlow could hardly escape the notice of those who knew him. Some declared him mad; others prophesied that it was just a temporary change and he would soon be back to normal.
But there were others, like his godly mother and aunt, who rejoiced, as they realised that the Lord was at last beginning to answer their many prayers, over so many years, for Brownlow’s awakening.
And Brownlow himself was encouraged by his mother saying to him when he visited her in Christmas 1854, ‘Brownlow, God is not only able to save you, but to make you more conspicuous for good than ever you were for evil’.
Brownlow did not come immediately to peace and joy through believing. He who was to be an evangelist to thousands must first learn the sinfulness of the human heart and learn that ‘by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in [God’s] sight’ (Romans 3:20).
But when the Holy Spirit is accomplishing the great work of effectual calling, he does not abandon the awakened sinner half-way down the road to Christ. It was through Romans 3:21-22 that he now taught Brownlow that Christ had been made the sinner’s righteousness, and that justification was by faith alone.
‘With that passage’, wrote Brownlow, ‘came light into my soul. Striking my book with my hand, and springing from my chair, I cried, “If that Scripture is true, I am a saved man! That is what I want; that is what God offers me; that is what I will have!”’
Fisher of men
The Lord, whose super-abounding grace had just transformed a ‘rake’ into a Christian, now began to transform the Sabbath-breaking fisherman into a ‘fisher of men’. Brownlow began witnessing to others by handing out tracts, although to the end of his days he never found tracting easy.
Then he began to visit the sick, lonely and isolated folk living around him in Elgin, often supplying them with amenities paid for from his own pocket. A visit to a dying Christian girl resulted in her relatives and neighbours gathering to hear him and to the establishment of regular cottage meeting.
And when Brownlow North took over the open air preaching from a young man who was struggling, the auditory was riveted by the preacher they had never seen or heard before. Finally, he accompanied the town missionary on visits to people in hospital.
But the Lord had a much wider and more public ministry in store for the next 20 years of Brownlow’s earthly life. It was in Edinburgh and Glasgow — Scotland’s two largest cities — that the doors were opened for him to preach to thousands.
Presbyterians, Independents and Baptists all welcomed him to their pulpits. Often only the largest church buildings would suffice to contain the crowds who flocked to hear this faithful gospel preacher, and, even then, many folk had to be turned away because the churches were already full.
The leaders of the Free Church of Scotland, still enjoying the spiritual blessings which followed the Disruption of 1843, were among the foremost in encouraging Brownlow North in his evangelistic ministry.
All this culminated in the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland in 1859 — a year of grace never to be forgotten in evangelical history — formally recognising Brownlow as a lay evangelist, at what must have been a truly moving ceremony.
From then on, until his home-call in 1875, Brownlow North was enabled to exercise a powerful gospel ministry in many parts of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, and it is impossible to ascertain just how many elect souls were arrested, awakened, convicted and brought to Christ through his instrumentality.
His intense seriousness, his compassion for the lost, his clear, balanced Calvinistic theology combined with an ability to address ordinary folk made him one of the most effective evangelists of the nineteenth century.
Blessed with a strong constitution and abundant energy, he was enabled to maintain his ministry until just ten days before 9 November 1875, when he was called to his eternal reward, while staying at Tullichewan Castle.
The funeral was a private one, never to be forgotten by those who attended, and his mortal remains were laid to rest beside those of his daughter-in-law, in the Deanery Cemetery in Edinburgh.
This fine lecture was one of the most interesting we have been favoured with at Borehamwood in recent years. But it was also one of the most challenging.
What is our attitude towards the godless multitudes who surround us on all sides, in Britain today? Do we have something of that compassion for them that Brownlow North clearly possessed, and that was found in its perfection in the Lord Jesus Christ?
‘But when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd’. And does our professed compassion for the lost make us feel that we are short of the kind of spiritual labourers that reap spiritual harvest fields?
Are not Reformed evangelists like Brownlow North conspicuous by their absence today? Above all, this lecture was encouraging, for it reminded us just what can be accomplished when God arises to have mercy upon Zion.
We need to heed our blessed Lord’s directive — ‘Pray ye, therefore, the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth labourers into his harvest’ (Matthew 9:36-38).
P. D. Johnson