JOHN BROWN, an ingenious English writer, descended from the Browns of Colstown near Haddington in Scotland, was born in Northumberland, Nov. 5, 1715, at Rothbury, of which place his father was curate, but removed almost immediately after to the vicarage of Wigton in Cumberland, where, at a grammar-school, he received the first part of his education; and was thence removed, May 8, 1732, to St. John's college in Cambridge. He remained here, till in 1735 he took the degree of B.A. then returned to Wigton, and soon after went into orders. His first settlement was in Carlisle, being chosen a minor canon and lecturer in the cathedral there. This situation he afterwards resigned, on being reproved for omitting the Athanasian creed, which it is said was merely accidental. His pride, however, was hurt, and next Sunday he read the creed, out of course, and immediately after resigned. In 1739 he took a M.A. degree at Cambridge. In the rebellion of 1745, he acted as a volunteer at the siege of Carlisle, and behaved himself with great intrepidity; and, after the defeat of the rebels, when some of them were tried at Carlisle in 1746, he preached two excellent sermons in the cathedral, "on the mutual connection between religious truth and civil freedom; and between superstition, tyranny, irreligion, and licentiousness." These are to be found in the volume of his sermons.
Thus distinguished, he fell under the notice of Dr Osbaldeston; who, when raised to the see of Carlisle, made him one of his chaplains: he had before obtained for him from the chapter of Carlisle the living of Moreland in Westmoreland. It is probably about this time that he wrote his poem entitled "Honour;" to shew, that true honour can only be founded in virtue: it was inscribed to lord Lonsdale. His next poetical production, though not immediately published, was his "Essay on Satire," in three parts, afterwards addressed to Dr. Warburton, who introduced him to Mr. Allen of Prior Park near Bath. While at Mr. Allen's he preached at Bath, April 22, 1750, a sermon for promoting the subscription towards the general hospital in that city, entitled "On the pursuit of false pleasure, and the mischiefs of immoderate gaming;" and there was prefixed to it, when published, the following advertisement: "in justice t the magistrates of the city of Bath, it is thought proper to inform the reader, that the public gaming-tables were by them suppressed there, soon after the preaching of this sermon." The year after, appeared the "Essay on Satire," prefixed to the second volume of Pope's Works by Warburton; with which it still continues to be printed, as well as in Dodsley's collection.
Brown now began to make no small figure as a writer; and in 1751, published his "Essays on Shaftesbury's Characteristics," 8vo, a work written with elegance and spirit, and so applauded as to be printed a fifth time in 1764. This was suggested to him by Warburton, and to Warburton by Pope, who told Warburton that to his knowledge the Characteristics had done more harm to revealed religion in England than all the works of infidelity put together. He is imagined to have had a principal hand in another book, published also the same year, and called "An essay on musical expression;" though the avowed author was Mr. Charles Avison. (See AVISON.) In 1754 he printed a sermon, "On the use and abuse of externals in religion: preached before the bishop of Carlisle, at the consecration of St. James's church in Whitehaven, and soon after he was promoted to Great Horkesley in Essex; a living conferred upon him by the late earl of Hardwicke. His next appearance was as a dramatic writer. In 1755, his tragedy "Barbarossa," was produced upon the stage, and afterwards his "Athelstan" in 1756. These tragedies were acted with considerable success, under the management of Garrick; and the former long remained what is called a stock-piece, notwithstanding many critical objections offered to it in the publications of the time.
Our author had taken his doctor of divinity's degree in 1755. In 1757, came out his famous work, "An Estimate of the manners and principles of the times," 8vo; of which seven editions were printed in little more than a year, and it was perhaps as extravagantly applauded, and as extravagantly censured, as any book that was ever written. The design of it was to show, that "a vain, luxurious, and selfish effeminacy, in the higher ranks of life, marked the character of the age; and to point out the effects and sources of this effeminacy." And it must be owned, that, in the prosecution of it, the author has given abundant proofs of great discernment and solidity of judgment, a deep insight into human nature, an extensive knowledge of the world; and that he has marked the peculiar features of the times with great justness and accuracy. The great objection was, that a spirit of self-importance, dogmaticalness, and oftentimes arrogance, mixed itself in what he says; and this certainly did more towards sharpening the pens of his numerous adversaries, and raised more disgust and offence at him, than the matter objected to in his work, for it may be added that those who wrote against him were not men of the first rank in literature, and could have done little against him without the aid of those personalities which arise from the temper of an author. In 1758 he published a second volume of the Estimate, &c. and, afterwards, "An explanatory defence of it, &c."
Between the first and second volume of the Estimate, he republished Dr. Walker's "Diary of the Siege of Londonderry;" with a preface, pointing out the useful purposes to which the perusal of it might be applied. He was, about this time, presented by the bishop of Carlisle, Dr. Osbaldeston, to the vicarage of St. Nicholas in Newcastle upon Tyne, resigning Great Horkesley in Essex; and was made one of the chaplains in ordinary to his present majesty. These were all the preferments our author ever received; and, as this was supposed to be no small mortification to a man of Dr. Browns high spirit, so it was probably this high spirit which was the cause of it; for such was his temper that he never could preserve his friends long, and he had before this time quarrelled with Warburton and lord Hardvicke. In 1760 he published an additional dialogue of the dead, between "Pericles and Aristides," being a sequel to a dialogue of lord Lyttelton's between "Pericles and Cosmo." This is supposed by some to have been designed as a vindication of Mr. Pitt's political character, against some hints of disapprobation by lord Lyttelton; while others have not excluded a private motive of resentment. It is said that lord Lyttelton in a numerous and mixed company neglected to take notice of our author in so respectful a manner as he thought he deserved; and in revenge, weak enough certainly, he composed the dialogue. His next publication was "The Cure of Saul," a sacred ode; which was followed the same year by a "Dissertation on the rise, union, and power, the progressions, separations, an corruptions of poetry and music," 4to. This is a pleasing performance, displays great ingenuity, and, though not without mistakes, very instructing as well as amusing. "Observations" were printed upon it by an anonymous writer, and Dr. Brown defended himself in "Remarks." He published in 8vo, 1764, the "History of the rise and progress of Poetry through its several species:" being the substance of the above work concerning poetry only, for the benefit of classical readers not knowing in music. The same year, he printed a volume of "Sermons," most of which had been printed separately; and in 1765, "Thoughts on Civil Liberty, Licentiousness, and Faction;" a piece, drawn up with great parade, and assuming a scientific form, with an intention to censure the opposers of administration at that time. A sermon on the "Female character and education," preached the 16th of May, 1765, before the guardians of the asylum for deserted female orphans.
His last publication, in 1766, was a "Letter to the rev. Dr. Lowth," occasioned by his late letter to the right rev. author of the "Divine Legation of Moses." Dr. Lowth had pointed at Dr. Brown, as one of the extravagant flatterers and creatures of Warburton; and Dr. Brown defended himself against the imputation, as an attack upon his moral character. To do him justice, he had a spirit too strong and independent, to bend to that literary subjection which the author of the Divine Legation expected from his followers. He insisted upon the prerogative of his own opinion; to assent and dissent, whenever he saw cause, in the most unreserved manner: and this was to Dr. Brown, as it was to many others, the cause of misunderstanding with Warburton. Besides the works mentioned, he published a poem on "Liberty," and some anonymous pamphlets. At the end of his later writings, he advertised an intention of publishing "Principles of Christian Legislation," but was prevented by death. He ordered, however, by his will, that the work should be published after his decease; but it was left too imperfect for that purpose. The last memorable circumstance of his life was his intended expedition to Russia. While Dr. Dumaresque resided in Russia, 1765, whither, having been chaplain to our factory at St. Petersburg from 1747 to 1762, he had been invited the year before by the empress, to assist in the regulation of several schools she was about to establish; a correspondent in England suggested the idea to him of communicating the affair to Dr. Brown, as a proper person to consult with, because he had published some sermons upon education. This brought on a correspondence between Dr. Dumaresque and Dr. Brown; the result of which, being communicated to the prime minister at St. Petersburg, was followed by an invitation from the empress to Dr. Brown also. Dr. Brown, acquainting the Russian court with his design of complying with the empress's invitation, received an answer from the minister, signifying how pleased her imperial majesty was with his intention, and informing him, that she had ordered to be remitted to him, by her minister in London, £1000 in order to defray the expences of his journey. All the letters which passed, the plans which were drawn by Dr. Brown, and, in short, every thing relating to this affair, may be seen at large under his article in the "Biographia Britannica," as communicated to the author of it by Dr. Dumaresque.
In consequence of the above proceedings, while he was ardently preparing for his journey, and almost on the point of setting out for St. Petersburg, the gout and rheumatism, to which he was subject, returned upon him with violence, and put a stop to the affair for the present, to his no small disappointment. This disappointment concurring with his ill state of health, was followed by a dejection of spirits, which terminated in his putting an end to his life, at his lodgings in pall-mall, Sept. 23, 1766, in his 51st year. He cut the jugular vein with a razor, and died immediately. He had, it seems, a constitutional tendency to insanity, and from his early life had been subject at times to disorders in the brain, at least to melancholy in its excess; of which he used to complain to his friends, and to "express his fears, that one time or another some ready mischief might present itself to him, at a time when he was wholly deprived of his reason."
Dr. Brown was a man of uncommon ingenuity, but unfortunately tinctured with an undue degree of self-opinion, and perhaps the bias of his mind to insanity will assign this best cause, as well as form the best excuse for this. He genius was extensive; for, besides his being so elegant a prose writer in various kinds of composition, he was a poet, a musician, and a painter. His learning does not, however, appear to have been equal to his genius. His invention was, indeed, inexhaustible; and hence he was led to form magnificent plans, the execution of which required a greater depth of erudition than he was possessed of. In divinity, properly so called, as including an extensive knowledge of the controverted points of theology, and a critical acquaintance with the Scriptures, he was not deeply conversant. All we can gather from his sermons is, that his ideas were liberal, and that he did not lay much stress on the disputed doctrines of Christianity. His temper, we are told, was suspicious, and sometimes threw him into disagreeable altercations with his friends; but this arose, in a great measure, if not entirely, from the constitutional disorder described above, a very suspicious turn of mind being one of the surest prognostics of lunacy. He has been charged with shifting about too speedily, with a view to preferment; and it was thought, that his "Thoughts on Civil Liberty, Licentiousness, and Faction," seemed to have something of this appearance. He, however, in that performance endeavoured to remove the objection, by observing, that, if he had indirectly censured those whom he had formerly applauded, he never was attached to men, but measures; and that, if he had questioned the conduct of those only who were then out of power, he had heretofore questioned their conduct with the same freedom, when in the fulness of their power. Upon the whole, Dr. Brown's defects, which chiefly arose from a too sanguine temperament of constitution, were compensated by many excellencies and virtues. With respect to his writings, they are all of them elegant. Even those which are of a more temporary nature may continue to be read with pleasure, as containing a variety of curious observations; and in his Estimate are many of those unanswerable truths that can never be unseasonable or unprofitable.