by Pastor Dan Miller
Editor’s Note: This article was reprinted with permission from Dan Miller’s book Spiritual Reflections. It appears here verbatim.
One evening in 1738, a shepherd boy embarked on an unusual adventure. Leaving his flock secured for the night on the hills above Abernethy, in Perthshire, Scotland, sixteen-year-old John Brown (1722-1787) set out by foot on a twenty-four mile trek to the storied University town of St. Andrews.
Two-hundred years earlier a young man named Patrick Hamilton (1503-1528) lectured as a post-graduate student at St. Andrews. Recently returned from studies at the prestigious University of Paris, Hamilton’s heart had been set aflame by his studies in the Greek New Testament. Through these studies, he was convinced that forgiveness of sin and a right standing with God could be found through faith alone in the sacrificial death and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. He lectured with passion, bearing witness to his fellow Scotsmen of the saving power of the gospel apart from the established church.
The religious authorities at St. Andrews were deeply troubled by such notions, expressed as they were by so fervent and gifted a teacher. Although he taught only what he read in the New Testament, and testified only to what had happened in consequence of these teachings in his own spiritual awakening, Patrick Hamilton was charged with heresy and sentenced to death.
Only twenty-five years of age, his young wife with child, Hamilton was tethered to a stake at St. Andrews. As he awaited the fire of the executioner, he raised this impassioned lament: “How long, O Lord, how long shall darkness overwhelm this realm? How long wilt thou suffer this tyranny of men? Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” With his dying words Hamilton pleaded to God for the day when the Scottish people would be free to read the Bible, to follow its light, and to proclaim its truth.
As the stench of Hamilton’s charred flesh rode the winds off the North Sea and wafted over St. Andrews, a revolution was ignited. Others would be executed at St. Andrews for their passion to proclaim the New Testament teachings for which Hamilton gave his life. But God eventually heeded Hamilton’s lament. Dramatic political changes swept over Scotland during the next three decades, resulting in the free distribution of New Testaments throughout the realm.
None of this history was lost on the shepherd boy from the hills of Perthshire as he made his all-night, barefooted trek to St. Andrews. Like his fellow Scotsman and spiritual hero, Patrick Hamilton, an inextinguishable fire burned in John Brown’s heart.
Upon reaching the city in the early morning hours, John entered Alexander McCulloch’s book shop—in that day a popular haunt of well-dressed scholars. Clad in homespun clothes, unkempt from his all-night journey, and quite apparently uneducated, John’s presence at the counter troubled the suspicious clerk who inquired what on earth the boy could possibly want. To the clerk’s astonishment John announced he would like to purchase a Greek New Testament!
As providence would have it, a certain Mr. Pringle, professor of Greek at St. Andrews, was in the shop at the time. Overhearing the lad’s request he blurted out, “Boy, if you can read that book, you shall have it for nothing.”
The clerk handed John a leather bound volume. John focused his eyes on the page opened before him and, to the astonishment of all, read the text and earned his treasure. Unbeknownst to the astounded Greek professor, the shepherd boy in Mr. McCulloch’s shop that day was a prodigy who had taught himself to read Greek and would go on to become a revered pastor, author, linguist, and professor of ministerial students. (John also taught himself Hebrew and Latin and later learned Arabic, Syriac, Persian, Ethiopic, and several European languages as well! So intellectually capable was this young man, his rural pastor accused him of witchcraft!).
By that same afternoon, sixteen-year-old John Brown was back among his sheep, having walked virtually non-stop for forty-eight miles since the previous evening. Like Patrick Hamilton before him, John Brown understood that the Word of God is “more precious than gold” and “sweeter than honey from the comb” (Psalm 19:10).
An old cigarette commercial had people show a worn shoe sole and claim: “I’d walk a mile for a Camel.” The enjoyment of smoking that brand of cigarette was supposedly indicated by the lengths to which one would walk for the experience. John Brown walked forty-eight barefooted miles for a New Testament. And Patrick Hamilton stood barefooted at a stake to earn with his life just such an opportunity for that shepherd boy.
Religious fanatics? Perhaps. Then again, maybe there is more in that old book than you realize. You do not have to walk very far to find out. Nor will you need to learn a new language. An open mind and a humble heart that wants to know God are the only prerequisites. It can’t hurt either to attend a church or Bible study where others can point you to the sweet gold of God’s Word.
As for shepherd-boy John, he went on to become a peddler, then a soldier, then a schoolmaster. In 1751 he became the pastor of the Associate congregation in Haddington (East Lothian) where he preached God’s truth, wrote some thirty books, and tirelessly trained ministerial students for his Synod until his death in 1787.
In other words, John Brown never grew tired of his arduous quest for biblical truth. His barefooted journey to St. Andrews was not a one-time quest but a way of life—a life in search of the sweet gold of God’s Word.
|Dan Miller has served as senior pastor of Eden Baptist Church (Savage, MN) since 1989. He graduated from Pillsbury Baptist Bible College (Owatonna, MN) with a B.S. degree in 1984. His graduate degrees include an M.A. in History from Minnesota State University, Mankato, and M.Div. and Th.M. degrees from Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He is nearing completion of D.Min. studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, IL). Dan is married to Beth, and the Lord has blessed them with four children.