My brother from another century
Wayne Clarke introduces his biography of Hugh Stowell Brown, a Victorian-era Baptist minister who pioneered social reform among Liverpool’s urban poor and became Baptist Union President
My book A Ready Man is published this week by Instant Apostle. It’s the biography of the 19th-century Baptist minister Hugh Stowell Brown. The book has been a labour of love, written over two sabbaticals. Getting to know a brother minister from the past has been a reflective process for me as a minister and as a follower of Christ. Hugh Stowell Brown may have been born a century and a half before me but the challenges of his ministry were not so different from my own and the lessons he learned have been instructive for me as well.
My interest in Hugh Stowell Brown began when I moved to be minister at Dovedale Baptist Church in the suburbs of Liverpool in 1994. Dovedale had been planted at the turn of the 20th century by Myrtle Street Baptist Church, a city centre church which had grown and flourished under the ministry of Hugh Stowell Brown. Brown (1823-1886) had led that church for nearly 40 years. He led the church to growth and pioneered a policy of church planting which saw new Baptist churches formed in St Helens, Warrington, Widnes and Earlestown as well as within the expanding city of Liverpool.
I became fascinated with this pioneering man. I discovered that in his day Brown’s chief claim to fame was his Sunday afternoon lectures. As his church filled up with well-off families, many of them travelling a distance to hear him preach, the poor people who lived in the streets around his church didn’t attend. They didn’t much fancy going to this grand building. And more than that they only had rough working clothes, not the Sunday best that they thought they would need to go to hear such a famous preacher.
So Brown started a series of Sunday afternoon ‘lectures’ in a local hall. The talks were sermons by another name, but they were taken out of church. They addressed the practical issues of the day, topics still familiar to us like criminality and housing needs and making good use of your money. Each one was down-to-earth and practical and wise and Biblical. And people came, in their working clothes. They came in their thousands. You had to get there an hour early to get a seat.
I felt I was getting to know Hugh Stowell Brown personally. I lived with him through his bereavements and his frustrations. I fought alongside him as he defended the victims of poverty and poor housing. I cheered him on as he was welcomed as Baptist Union president in 1878. Hugh became my brother from another century.
I was fascinated to find out more about Hugh Stowell Brown’s friendship with C H Spurgeon, the ‘Prince of Preachers’. Brown, the older man, was something of a mentor to Spurgeon, and when Spurgeon opened his new Metropolitan Tabernacle in 1861, the first service of baptism was accompanied by a sermon on believers’ baptism by Hugh Stowell Brown.
The title of my book, A Ready Man, comes from his lifetime. A friend said that he was a ‘ready man’ because he got to know the concerns of the ordinary people around him. The phrase comes from a saying of Francis Bacon who wrote “reading makes a full man, conference, a ready man”. In other words, you can learn plenty from books, but you can only respond to the real needs of people by getting to know them. And this was something Hugh was very good at doing. Hugh Stowell Brown was a very well-read man, but he believed in practical learning more than book learning. When he became Baptist Union president his address to the annual conference was on the need to train ministers by apprenticeship more than by college learning.
When, in 2007, I found Brown’s statue broken and bedraggled in a council farmyard, I knew it had to be restored. After his death the statue had been paid for by public subscription and put up in front of Myrtle Street Church. But when the church was demolished the statue was moved and then taken down and left to decay. After I found it, it took eight years to get the statue back where it belonged on the streets of Liverpool, just around the corner from the site of his church. And there it is now, a silent witness to Hugh Stowell Brown’s faithful work.
Researching and writing and publishing the book took 12 years, with some bursts of activity and long periods of not having time to do anything on it. During sabbaticals I was able to research primary documents at Liverpool Records Office, the Angus Library in Oxford and the John Smyth Library at IBTS in Amsterdam. I had to learn where to stop. I went down one long alleyway looking into the life of Hugh’s son-in-law, a fascinating man, an MP who served in Gladstone’s government. But there was no room for any of that in the book, so it had to be left to one side.
Eventually the material was written, and I was pleased to get an offer from Instant Apostle, a new Christian publisher, to turn my writings into a book. My long journey is now coming to its conclusion with the publication of the book this week. My hope and prayer for the book is that my friend and brother Hugh Stowell Brown will continue to speak, that his prophetic voice will be heard into this century with truth and compassion.
The Revd Wayne Clarke is the pastor of Trinity Baptist Church, Gorton, Manchester. Find him on Twitter: @WayneAClarke
A Ready Man, Hugh Stowell Brown, preacher, activist, friend of the poor by Wayne Clarke (ISBN 978-1912726080) is published by Instant Apostle on 19 September 2019