Whether in foul weather or fair, a bicyclist would sometimes suddenly emerge from an opening in the neighboring woods. The bicyclist would then ride pell-mell on a dirt path across a meadow toward a divinity school, located in the northern suburbs of Chicago. If the weather were foul, mud could be seen splattering the bicyclist’s brownish-green Swiss pantaloons. His old bicycle had no mud guard.
There he was, Harold O.J. Brown, a lover of the outdoors (especially the Alps of Germany and Switzerland), peddling as fast as he could to reach a classroom building where forty or fifty students were awaiting him. The students would be patient, should he be a little late. After all, they would soon have the treat of listening to Professor Brown, one of the leading evangelical theologians of his generation, teach them systematic theology. This is the man who died Sunday after a long bout with cancer.
Brown was an intriguing lecturer. He could awe with displays of vast erudition regarding theology, ethics, journalism, politics, and church history. He could entertain by spouting Latin verse or by bursting into the hearty singing of an old German song. He could charm with flashes of wit and colorful anecdotes. But students especially appreciated Brown’s care and concern for them as persons. He wanted them to be educated (“civilized” with a wide-ranging culture), articulate, and activist Christians. He would generously go out of his way to help them. In 1989, students voted Professor Brown, their esteemed teacher, “Faculty Member of the Year” at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School .
Joe (as his friends called him) and Grace, his wife, often had students living in their home. There they could talk together in a more hospitable setting. Or Joe would meet regularly with a group of students at Buffo’s, a favorite pizza parlor. Or Joe and Grace would lead tours of students to visit Reformation sites in Europe. Many a young person later gave personal testimony that they had been greatly influenced by the Christian modeling of this couple.
Born on July 6, 1933, Harold O.J. Brown was a Floridian. He received most of his formal education, however, at Harvard: A.B., Harvard College (1953); B.D., Harvard Divinity School (1957); Th.M., Harvard Divinity School (1959); Ph.D., Reformation ecclesiology, Harvard University (1967). He was a teaching fellow at Harvard (1961¯1965) and rowed on championship crews. He pursued studies at Marburg and postdoctoral work at the University of Vienna (1965¯1966). He was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship among other honors.
In 1958, Brown was ordained into the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches. He served as an assistant pastor of the Second Congregational Church, Beverley, Massachusetts, between 1958 and 1961; and as pastor of students at Part Street Church, Boston, from 1961¯1965. Between 1983 and 1987, he ministered in the Evangelical-Reformed Church, Klosters, Switzerland.
Although Brown taught in Germany and India for brief stints (1970¯1971), his principal educational bases (1971¯2007) were Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois; Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, North Carolina; and the Summer Institute in Human Rights, Strasbourg, France. During these years, he published notable books such as Death Before Birth , The Reconstruction of the Republic , and Heresies . For a time, he also edited The Religion and Society Report and served on the editorial staff of Christianity Today .
With former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, Brown founded the Christian Action Council, one of the prominent evangelical pro-life action groups. Dr. Koop, Dr. Francis Schaeffer, and Brown took the lead in helping many evangelicals understand the high Christian stakes in protecting the lives of the unborn. Often working behind the scenes, Professor Brown did yeoman service in encouraging many evangelical Protestants to re-enter the public life of the nation as Christian activists. Professor Brown was also an esteemed participant in Evangelicals and Catholics Together.
Harold O.J. Brown¯Joe, as I knew him¯leaves behind Grace, his faithful and gifted Christian wife, and two children, Cynthia Anne and Peter. He also leaves behind countless friends and associates who will miss him greatly. To offer just one example, historian Doug Sweeney, one of Joe’s colleagues, writes: “Joe Brown was one of the greatest evangelical theologians of his time, and yet he always put people before his scholarship.”
Despite great sadness, Joe’s Christian friends know they do not mourn as those who have no hope. For Joe died as he had lived, a faithful follower of the resurrected Jesus Christ, whom he loved and served as Lord and Savior.
John D. Woodbridge is research professor of church history and the history of Christian thought at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.