REV. MATTHEW BROWN, D.D., LL.D. Among the most distinguished educators and most eminent divines in western Pennsylvania was this revered gentleman, whose praises are still heard in our homes, schools, colleges and churches. To the long chain of respectable and pious ancestors he added a golden link. In the family history the luster of the fair record which is found on its pages was increased by the life of this great and good man, whom thousands honored as a minister, a teacher a benefactor and a friend.
His paternal grandfather, who, though of Scottish descent, was a native of Ireland, came to this country in 1720 and settled in the eastern part of Pennsylvania, where he died, leaving five sons, all of whom were distinguished as devout and exemplary Christians. One of these sons was named Matthew, and he was the father of the subject of this sketch. He was born in 1732 and resided some years in the vicinity of Carlisle, Penn., when he moved to White Deer Valley, Northumberland county, of which he was an early settler. He was a ruling elder in the Reformed Presbyterian Church, and was distinguished for his integrity, talents, uprightness and wit. In the Revolutionary war he took an active part, and was a member of the "Flying Camp." While in the army he died at the age of forty-six years. He left eight children, the youngest of whom was Dr. Matthew Brown, who was born in 1776, two years before his father's death. Upon the demise of his father, young Matthew and his brother Thomas were adopted by their father's brother, Mr. William Brown, who was well known, and for many years exerted an extensive influence in both the religious and political world. As a commissioner of Dauphin county, in which for a long time he had resided, he assisted in laying out the town of Harrisburg, now the capital of Pennsylvania. Being an intelligent, public spirited man, he was elected to various positions of honor and trust, and served frequently in the Legislature of Pennsylvania. As a member of that body in 1776, he was the first man to propose the gradual emancipation of the slaves within the commonwealth, a measure which, though not then favorably received, was afterward adopted. He was also a member of the convention which formed the constitution of the State in 1790, and his name appears among the signers of that instrument. At one time he was sent as a commissioner to Ireland and Scotland on behalf of the Covenanters, to procure for them a supply of ministers, one of whom preached for some time in a church erected on his place.
While with this uncle, prominent alike in Church and State affairs, Dr. Brown received his early training and education. He then entered Dickinson College, at Carlisle, where he was graduated in May, 1794, during the presidency of Dr. Nisbet. After his graduation he taught a classical school in Northumberland county, where he became intimately acquainted with the prominent men of the profession. About the year 1796 he began the study of theology, his instructors being Rev. James Snodgrass, Dr. Nisbet and Dr. John King and was licensed to preach by the Presbytery of Carlisle, on October 3, 1799. Two years after he accepted a call from the united congregations of Mifflin and Lost Creek, within the bounds of the Presbytery of Huntingdon. Having labored faithfully here for several years, he accepted a call from the First Presbyterian Church of Washington, Penn., of which he was installed the first pastor October 16, 1805. At the same time he was elected principal of Washington Academy, which during the next year, 1806, grew into a college, the charter of which he was the principal agent in procuring. Of this now institution, Washington College, he was elected the first president, December 13, 1806, and as such served with remarkable success ten years, retaining at the same time his pastoral connection with the church. With unceasing diligence he performed his double duties as pastor and president, which taxed his faculties and powers to the utmost, but the result of his labors were soon manifested in the growing prosperity of the church and in the extended reputation of the college. Among those who were graduated while he was president, many rose to stations of eminence in the different professions, and some acquired considerable distinction in the political world. In December, 1816, he resigned the presidency of the college, but for six years he continued as pastor of the church to which he was bound by many solemn and tender ties. In the meantime his reputation as president of Washington College had attracted much attention, and turned toward him the eyes of many in different places. Among other invitations received by him was a call to the presidency of Centre College, at Danville, Ky., and the trustees of Dickinson College also desired him to fill a similar position. As pastor of the church in Washington he remained until 1822, when he resigned this charge, having accepted the presidency of Jefferson College, at Canonsburg.
At this period an incident occurred an incident, perhaps, unprecedented in college history. It was the night before the college commencement day, and at a late hour, that the trustees of Jefferson College elected Dr. Brown to fill the presidential chair which had shortly before become vacant. For various reasons it was necessary that the president-elect should immediately enter upon the duties of his office. So, early the next morning, while he was yet in bed, a committee waited upon him, and, having urged him to accept the position, managed to have him brought, before breakfast, to Canonsburg, where he took the oath of office, and at 9 o'clock presided over the commencement exercises, conferred the degrees upon the graduates, and then delivered his Baccalaureate address. Thus was the last Wednesday of September, 1822, a memorable day in Canonsburg, marking, as it does, the crisis and dawn of the true glory of Jefferson College. To the students and friends of this college the event was one of great joy, and was hailed as an omen of prosperity. It was an event from which untold blessings and benefits have descended, not only upon the college and its hundreds of students, but upon thousands of the human race to whom through them Dr. Brown became, under God, by his pre-eminent capacities for government and instruction, and by his piety and prayers, a benefactor of the highest order to which humanity can attain.
Under the administration of Dr. Brown, a period of twenty-three years, the college advanced rapidly in its glorious career. Never was there, perhaps, a more popular or a more successful president. He was peculiarly gifted with qualities of head and heart that secured the respect and affection of the students, both while under his care and in after life. To him the pious students were warmly attached, and by the wildest and most reckless he was respected and venerated. In him special eccentricities and the reaction of mirth and depression were joined with a vigorous intellect, clear judgment, quick discernment, good sense, ardent piety and untiring energy. In him opposites blended most remarkably. His nature, indeed, was marked by all those characteristics which make a great leader and commander. Being of a nervous temperament, and quick in thought and action, his impetuosity sometimes led him into mistakes, but he always managed to get everything right again without losing the respect of others or his own authority. He certainly was the most remarkable man, in his day, for the possession of qualities apparently the most compatible, but strangely and happily balancing each other. Though an eccentric man, never was eccentricity more completely governed by good sense and sound judgment. His very personal and mental peculiarities contributed greatly to his usefulness, and the success of the college over which he so long and efficiently presided. While at times he was impulsive and variable in temper, he never lost his dignity, and the reigns of government never hung loosely in his hands. But whatever were his peculiarities and eccentricities, he was a man of God, whose personal piety was of the highest order. The religion of Christ was his meat and drink, in which he found all his springs of hope and power, light and rest. No matter from what book he was giving instruction, the students felt that they were sitting under a religious teacher. As evidence of this, of the 770 students who were graduated under him, 350 became ministers of the Gospel. Frequently, during his presidency, there were great revivals of religion, which were attributed, under God, to his faithful, earnest preaching, and to his conversations and prayers with the students in their rooms. He was pre-eminently a man of prayer. Often would the students hear him in the arbor of his garden, in the summer nights, when he thought all human ears were closed, praying for hours, beginning his entreaties with sighs and tears, and ending his devotions with the song of triumph. The distinguishing trait in his Christian life was that it was a life of communion with God. Of him it might truly be said, "He prayed without ceasing." To the members of the family his wife would often say: "Mr. Brown spent the whole night in prayer." This was the secret of the wonderful outpouring of God's Spirit again and again upon the college. People are astonished at the multitudes of ministers and missionaries who have gone forth from Jefferson College. Here is the secret. There was a wrestling Jacob in the presidential chair who said to the God of Israel, "I will not let Thee go, except Thou bless me." The fact that he was a man who was constantly praying held the students in awe, and threw around him a sacred atmosphere, and to his prayers is to be attributed much of his usefulness when alive, and his permanent influence when dead.
Another prominent feature in the character of Dr. Brown was his unwavering and profound conviction of the truths of the Bible. So confident was he that the Bible would take care of itself that he feared not the newest and most popular forms of infidelity, nor had he any apprehensions lest the camp of Israel would be disturbed by the discovery of ancient manuscripts and historical records. With him for their teacher, the students, no matter what had been their early training, learned to respect the Gospel without knowing how opposition was disarmed and infidelity silenced. In the history of the Jefferson College class of 1830, written thirty years after the members were graduated, Rev. Dr. J. J. Marks, the author, thus refers to their president, Dr. Brown:
In him we all recognized the Christian, but still a man of like passions with ourselves; honest, impulsive and variable in temper, all the hues of his character, and the many sides of his mind were fully displayed. We felt that here was a man, who, though far in advance of us, was ready to help us, for our infirmities were his, and we saw the scars of yet unhealed wounds of battle, and we learned in a thousand ways that he never forgot the weaknesses of youth, nor the conflicts of manhood. In manner he was eminently courtly and urbane, with that ease and tact which is only gained by associating with the world, and conversing with refined and cultivated minds. He walked among men after the manner of Socrates, talking with all, learning from all, showing sympathy with the poorest, listening with the rapt interest of a boy to the stories of their adventures and journeys. He had an epicurean pleasure in rare characters, for they amused him and gratified his taste for the - humorous and the graphic. His own conversational talent was of the highest order, humorous, sprightly and descriptive, thus making his words instructive and fascinating. In his conversation he threw open the treasures of years, gathered from reading, observation and converse with the great and good. I have heard many talkers, but none that excelled Dr. Brown, none that equaled him in depth of tone and moral value of a conversation. His face was a wonderful spectacle and a deep study. We have watched him in the class room and in the chapel for hours with unwearied interest, for the whole world seemed to be in his face. We not only listened to him, but we studied him. We had reason to be grateful for the nice adjustment of his religious character and teachings. Deeply anxious for our spiritual welfare, he led us to the Savior whom he loved. Surely the students who received from him the religious impressions which ripened into penitence and faith, must look back to those years with an interest which can never fade. The remembrance of his wisdom and integrity is among the most precious heritages of the soul.
For several years after he moved to Canonsburg he preached alternate Sabbaths with Dr. McMillan in the Chartiers Church, of which the latter minister was the pastor, but in 1880 a congregation was organized in the town in connection with the college, which enjoyed his pastoral and pulpit labors until the year 1845 when, on account of feeble health, he resigned the presidency of Jefferson College.
Of the power and influence of Dr. Brown many pages might be written, but want of space limits us in writing this sketch. While he was president of Jefferson College, an additional building was erected, and through his efforts most of the necessary funds for this purpose were raised. In respect to his whole career as president of Jefferson College, it can be truly said that it was an auspicious day for that institution when he was chosen to stand at its head. The people of Washington were not insensible to the loss they had sustained by the removal of Dr. Brown to Canonsburg. Accordingly, about six years after he had left Washington, he received a united call from the congregation and college to return to his former position there as pastor and president. But though greatly attached to the church which he had served for seventeen years, and though the college which had sprung into existence under his hand made a strong appeal to his sympathies, he finally decided to remain at Canonsburg, much to the gratification of the people of that place, and all the friends of Jefferson College. For a number of years after his retirement from the college and church at Canonsburg, he embraced every favorable opportunity of preaching the Gospel to his fellowmen, in which work he took great delight. Notwithstanding his growing infirmities he continued to preach until near the close of his life. On July 29, 1853, he died at the age of seventy-seven years. The funeral services were held at Canonsburg, but the body was laid to rest beside his loved ones in Washington. In both towns there was every demonstration of respect and sorrow. Stores were closed and many a face was wet with tears. In person Dr. Brown was tall and slender, with a thin and narrow face which usually bore a bright and animated expression. His movements were rapid, and his manner of walking, and the way he handled his cane would attract the attention of a stranger. His mind was of a high order, and was especially adapted to abstract metaphysical inquiries. He had a keen sense of the ludicrous, and his sayings at times were full of wit. His heart was generous and open, and with a spirit of benevolence his delight was in making others happy, and in giving liberally of his means to the poor and needy. In social circles he was the master spirit, being gifted with fine conversational powers and having in store a large fund of knowledge. As a minister he was one of the most effective preachers in the country. As a Christian he was a man of liberal views and feelings. Though a Presbyterian in principle and practice, his Christian sympathies were as wide as the world. His moral courage was great, possessing as he did a spirit which would not have faltered at the sight of Nebuchadnezzar's furnace, and yet his faith in religion was often like that of a little child. As a scholar he ranked among the first, and was honored with the degrees of Doctor of Divinity and Doctor of Laws.
Before closing, a few words must be added regarding his domestic relations; he was twice married first in 1804 to Miss Mary Blaine, of Cumberland county, Penn., who died in 1818, leaving two children: one of them was the Rev. Dr. Alexander Blaine Brown, who two years after his father's resignation succeeded him as president of Jefferson College. The other was Elizabeth, the estimable and talented wife of Rev. D. H. Riddle, D. D., who also became president of the same institution. In 1825 Dr. Brown was married to Mary W. Ferguson, widow of Rev. Mr. Backus Wilbur. She died in 1838, leaving one daughter, Susan Mary, the wife of Mr. Henry M. Alexander, a prominent lawyer in New York City, one of the well-known Princeton family of Alexanders, and son of the first professor in the Princeton Theological Seminary. This daughter inherits her father's talents and many excellent traits. She is an earnest worker in the church, devotes much time in laboring for the good of others, and gives freely of her means to charitable objects.
Text taken from page 84 of:
Beers, J. H. and Co., Commemorative Biographical Record of Washington County, Pennsylvania (Chicago: J. H. Beers & Co., 1893).
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