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Hugh Stowell Brown: Gospel Preacher, Friend of the Poor

At the same time that John Wilson was preaching the gospel and caring for the poor in Woolwich, United Kingdom, another Baptist minister named Hugh Stowell Brown was doing the same in Liverpool.
From the time Brown first came to Liverpool in 1847 as a young man of 24 until his death 40 years later, he led the cause of gospel preaching and Christian social action in what was then the second city of the British Empire and the world’s first global city.

Brown was not English, but a proud Manxman, born in the Isle of Man’s capital, Douglas, the son of a low church Anglican minister.

Brown’s father was never convinced of the value of infant baptism. When his son went to study to be a Church of England minister, his conscience wouldn’t allow him to continue. He abandoned his training and became a Baptist.

He went across the water to England, passing through Liverpool on the way, to work as a civil engineer.

He was part of the early work of the ordnance survey and all maps of York are based on his work as a young man.

He then worked as a railway engineer in Wolverton and was baptized at Stony Stratford Baptist Church.

When Brown first went to Myrtle Street Baptist Church in Liverpool, he was there to take morning and evening services during a pastoral vacancy, but the young man appealed to the congregation and they invited him to stay.

Before long they asked him to be their minister. He had a place to study at Bristol Baptist College but never attended.

With minimal training and experience, he became minister of one of the largest churches in Liverpool.

Through Brown’s 40 years at Myrtle Street, the church grew every year and saw hundreds of baptisms. The church building was enlarged twice and grew in reputation.

What made Myrtle Street attractive was Brown’s preaching, which was lively, biblical and down to earth, full of topical references and practical suggestions for living the life of faith.

Liverpool was a town of great poverty, especially after the wave of Irish immigration that followed famines there.

Brown realized that the poor were not well represented in the church and discovered that this was mainly because they felt they could not attend church without wearing their “Sunday best,” and they had no suitable clothing.

Brown started a series of “lectures for the working men of Liverpool” in a public hall on Sunday afternoon and had many of the hallmarks of a church service.

Yet, because the meetings were not in church, there was no expectation of dressing well.

Brown noted with great pleasure how many people turned up in their working clothes.

The success of the lectures led to Brown’s reputation spreading, enabling him to travel across Britain to preach and later in America and Canada.

He was known as a friend of the poor and he founded a workman’s bank where those without wealth could have access to banking facilities so they could save their money and budget properly.

Brown worked for the abstinence movement among people afflicted by drunkenness and founded a society to help the widows of seafarers. In 1878, he became president of the Baptist Union.

His writings reveal a man of good humor, though he also seems to have had a streak of arrogance.

Also, because of the grinding poverty of his childhood, he never felt he had quite enough money although by 1880 he was the highest paid Baptist minister in the country.

Myrtle Street Baptist Church didn’t just grow in number; it was active in church planting.

Brown worked with those who travelled a great distance to come to his church to plant Baptist churches where they lived.

Myrtle Street became the mother church of Baptist churches across Liverpool and in Birkenhead, Wallasey, St. Helens, Warrington and further afield.

By the time of Brown’s death in 1886, what most pleased him was the growth of God’s church through multiplication.

He also had a road named after him. Stowell Street was named in his honor when it was built alongside Myrtle Street Chapel.

It seems that Hugh Stowell Brown was never consulted about the street designation, as he wrote, “a very small mean street … is called Stowell Street – I think with reference to me.”

Small and mean it may be, but it bears witness to a man whose life touched the lives of many with compassion and gospel truth.

Wayne Clarke is minister at New North Road Baptist Church in Huddersfield. Previously, he was minister at Dovedale Baptist Church in Liverpool for 18 years, a church planted from Myrtle Street Chapel. A longer version of this article first appeared in The Baptist Times, the online newspaper of the Baptist Union of Great Britain. It is used with permission. His writings can be found on his website, and you can follow him on Twitter @WayneAClarke.