JOHN BROWN was born at Rothbury, in Northumberland, on the 5th of November, 1715. He received the first part of his education at the grammar school of Wigton, in Cumberland, and in 1732 he entered St. John's College, Cambridge, where he remained, with great reputation, until 1735, in which year he graduated B.A. Having taken orders, he settled as a minor canon and lecturer in Carlisle, where he acted a very distinguished part, in favour of government, on the siege of that place by the rebels in 1745. Six years previously he had graduated M.A.; and, in 1746, he published two sermons on the subject of the rebellion, which procured him the favour of the Whig prelates; and Dr. Osbaldiston, Bishop of Carlisle, solicited and obtained for him the living of Morland in Westmorland. About the same time he resigned his minor canonship, in consequence of his, one day, omitting the Athanasian creed, which, though accidental, was the occasion of a reproof from the chapter, which Brown resented by taking the above step.
Shortly afterwards he became known to the public as a tolerable poet, by the production of a poem entitled, Honour, and another called an Essay on Satire, inscribed to Warburton, to whose edition of Pope's works it has been prefixed. In 1750, becoming acquainted with Mr. Allen, of Prior Park, near Bath, he preached in that city two sermons against gaming, which are said to have induced the magistrates to order the suppression of all public gaming-tables. In 1751, he at once established his reputation as a writer, by the publication of his celebrated Essays on the Characteristics of the Earl of Shaftesbury; a work which, whilst it refuted many of that nobleman's positions, was remarkable for the elegance and spirit of its style, and its total freedom from controversial bitterness. It was answered by Mr. Bulkeley, and an anonymous writer; but in a manner that retarded neither the reputation nor sale of the Essays, which, in a few years, reached a fifth edition. In 1754, he published a sermon On the Use and Abuse of Externals in Religion; and in the following year he became D.D., and produced, at Drury Lane Theatre, his tragedy of Barbarossa, which was received with applause, and still retains possession of the stage. In 1756, he was less successful in his tragedy of Athelstan; and it is to be observed, that he did not give his name publicly to either of these performances.
A distinguished era of his life may be said to have commenced in 1757, when he published his celebrated Estimate of the Manners and Principles of the Times. Seven editions were printed in the course of a year: upon the higher ranks of life, whom he represented as sunk in luxury, effeminacy, and frivolity, it is said to have made a considerable impression; and few publications were, at the time, more universally read or talked of. It met, however, with many answerers and antagonists, but had the support of no less a writer than Voltaire. "This work," he says, "roused the sensibility of the English nation, and produced the following consequences: — they attacked, almost at one and the same time, all the sea-coasts of France, and her possessions in Asia, Africa, and America." In 1758, Brown published a second volume of The Estimate, which did not add to his reputation, and created him many enemies, from the tone of vanity and arrogance pervading it, and which now began to form too conspicuous a feature in his character. The storm raised against him, both by critics and friends, induced him to retire into the country, where he wrote an Explanatory Defence of the Estimate; but the subject had ceased to excite its former interest, and its revival was received with comparative apathy. A display of his high and sensitive spirit had also alienated from him many of his patrons, and his church preferment closed with a presentation to the vicarage of St. Nicholas, in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, when he resigned a living in Essex, that he had previously obtained from Lord-chancellor Hardwicke, which his pride now hindered him from retaining. He seems, however, to have been appointed one of the chaplains in ordinary to his majesty, and would probably have met with further advancement, but for the death of Dr. Osbaldiston, soon after his translation to the see of London.
From 1760 to 1765 he published, successively, an Additional Dialogue of the Dead between Pericles and Cosmo (a vindication of Pitt); The Cure of Saul, a sacred ode; Dissertation on the Rise, Union, &c. of Poetry and Music; History of the Rise and Progress of Poetry; and Thoughts on Civil Liberty, Licentiousness, and Faction. In this last piece he threw out some ideas upon national education, which called forth the animadversions of Dr. Priestley; but, being communicated to Dr. Damaresq, who was then in Russia, for the purpose of advising the empress as to the establishment of certain schools in her dominions, our author was addressed on the subject, and invited to a correspondence. He accordingly drew up a paper, containing a scheme not only of education, but of legislation, which so pleased the empress, that she gave him an invitation to her court. Ill health, however, and the advice of his friends, dissuaded him from the journey, for the expenses of which he had been assigned £1,000; his enemies accused him of appropriating the whole. but it seems that he had only drawn £200, of which he returned above half. The mortification he felt at the stop put to his designs in Russia considerably agitated his spirits, and as he was subject to frenzy, probably deranged his mind. He fell into an irrecoverable state of dejection and melancholy, and on the 23d of September, 1766, put a period to his existence with a razor, as he lay in his bed.
In addition to the works beforementioned, Dr. Brown wrote several sermons, and A Letter to Dr. Lowth, in answer to one in which that divine charged him with an obsequious admiration of Warburton. He also left, in manuscript, an unfinished work on The Principles of Christian Legislation, the publication of which he directed by his will.
If Dr. Brown is to be estimated by the temporary popularity of his works, and the able antagonists they raised up against him, he must undoubtedly rank high among the authors of the preceding century. He certainly possessed, in an eminent degree, what may be called speculative talent: his sermons are powerful and instructive; his poems not destitute of sublimity and imagination; and his essays on poetry and music evince a scientific genius of no mean order. In the early part of his career he advocated liberal opinions, and his conduct was in accordance with his principles; but these seem to have undergone a considerable change in his late years, when his works betrayed a strong bias towards authority.