Leaving a Legacy
The following recollections are from three of the many ministers who praised Dr. Brown.
Dr. Louie D. Newton, pastor of Atlanta’s Druid Hills Baptist Church for four decades
Among the speakers at the Fred Brown Chapel’s dedication service, Dr. Newton eloquently stated in his opening comments, “… we are thinking about a man, about a life, about a spirit, about an influence that was as majestic as the hills, quiet and powerful as a river, glorious as a sunset on a May evening.” He then shared some of his soul-stirring memories of Dr. Brown. Recalling when he first met him in 1919, Dr. Newton said, “I knew that I had looked at a great man.” From then on, Dr. Newton “loved him more and more.” When Dr. Brown spoke at Druid Hills, “… he stood and the people knew that something was about to be said that they would never forget. He looked out over the congregation and said, ‘When peace like a river, …’”In speaking at a fellow minister’s funeral, Dr. Brown quoted Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar,” beginning “Sunset and evening star and one clear call for me …,” reflecting his love for great literature. (Dave Ward recalls as a teenager attending a revival Dr. Brown preached in North Carolina. That night, Dr. Brown quoted Shakespeare. When Dave told his English teacher the next day, she attended the revival that night.)
Perhaps the most touching story Dr. Newton told was about when, in 1931, he insisted on driving Dr. Brown home from Georgia late one night so that his friend could preach a funeral in Knoxville the next morning. Exhausted from three days of SBC work, Dr. Brown fell asleep almost immediately with his head on Dr. Newton’s shoulder and with a hot water bottle at his feet because the Hupmobile’s heater wasn’t working. In the midst of a sleet storm, Dr. Newton stopped at a lighted shack in hopes of getting some coffee. The “dive’s” owner, a gambler and a drunkard, immediately recognized Dr. Newton, who had preached his mother’s funeral. After scurrying his gambling buddies out the back door, he prepared ham, eggs, whole wheat bread, and coffee for his visitors who were huddled by a small stove. As they ate, the man announced, “I think the Lord sent you here tonight.” Putting down his tin cup with coffee dregs in the bottom, Dr. Brown said, “Dear friend, do you know what you just said?” In describing this encounter, Dr. Newton added,
… the greatest sermon I ever heard Fred Brown preach was in that shack that night after midnight with the sleet beating down on the old flat, tin roof. He talked with him until that man … cried out, ‘Oh Lord, have mercy on my soul!’ Then Fred Brown started singing, ‘Oh happy day that fixed my choice on Thee, my savior and my God.’
Describing their departure from the new convert that cold wintry night, Dr. Newton said, “… as far as we could see the little light back there, we could still see him waving to us.” They reached Knoxville; and “just at the early streak of dawn,” Dr. Newton boarded a train to return to Georgia. A month later, Dr. Newton received a call from the man’s wife, saying her husband had died and had left a note requesting that he and Dr. Brown preach his funeral. The woman added,
I want to tell you something, Preacher. If I ever had any reason to doubt the religion of the Lord, Jesus Christ, you knocked it all out of me when you and that preacher from Tennessee led my husband to Christ that stormy night.
Dr. Newton completed his narrative by noting,
I have heard him standing before the Southern Baptist Convention and moving those people as the wheat fields are moved by the passing breeze and have seen the tremendous influence he had as pastor of this great church; but still it was Fred Brown, in that midnight hour on a wintry night, who knew how to tell a gambler and a drunkard the way home! What is our denomination? …. It is Fred Brown going until he didn’t have any strength left, talking with governors, pleading with bankers, and preaching to gamblers.
Rev. O.E. Turner, First Baptist’s associate pastor for 16 years during Dr. Brown’s tenure
With deep admiration, Rev. Turner described getting to know Dr. Brown:
… as we walked down the street together, we had not gone three blocks until I had the feeling I had known him for years. … His love for people, his sincerity, and the warmth of his friendship made it easy to know him. And to know him was to love him. … If I have ever accomplished any good, …, I am deeply and everlastingly indebted to him for it. …. His consuming devotion to his church and to his denomination, his belief in the Bible as the incontestable Word of God, the conviction and fervor with which he preached it made his influence felt for good in the lives of many thousands of people.
Dr. Charles Trentham: Senior Pastor of First Baptist, Knoxville (1953-1974)
When Charles Trentham was a boy growing up in Knoxville, his parents ran a lunch counter on Main Street one-half block from First Baptist, which, in his words, “pointed its spire heavenward reminding us of our origin and our destiny.” Helping his parents after school, Charles routinely overheard customers discussing Dr. Brown, including his sermons’ influence, “how greatly admired and dearly loved he was, but most of all how much he loved people.” (Dr. Trentham told an amusing story involving Mrs. Brown, who along with her husband, ardently supported prohibition and would not patronize establishments serving beer. One day she stopped by the lunch counter and asked, “Do you serve beer in here?” Not realizing who she was, Charles Trentham’s father replied, “No, mam, but you can get it in the restaurant across the street.”)
Although Charles Trentham did not attend First Baptist growing up, Dr. Brown—whose “name was spoken in reverence”—served as his role model and influenced his call to the ministry. At Dr. Brown’s funeral, Dr. Trentham described Dr. Brown as “supremely a shepherd of souls.” Dr. Trentham added, “I shall never move beyond his strong, constructive influence. All of us here join with his children to rise and call him blessed.”
On May 1, 1946, after serving FBC for a quarter century, Dr. Brown retired because of failing health. Knowing when to step aside, he did so with dignity and grace. In a lengthy letter informing the church family of his retirement “after months of prayerful consideration,” he expressed his conviction:
… the larger interest of the church, which all of us love, can best be conserved and promoted by a pastor who has the physical strength for sustained, rigorous, hard work. … When the program and progress of the church are threatened or hindered, all personal considerations must be pushed into the background. Looking into the face of Christ there must be but one thought with all of us—the church of Jesus Christ!
With his typical humility, he lamented, “God forgive me that I have not done it better.” He also reflected on First Baptist’s past and future: “The abundant blessings of God have been upon the witness and testimony of the First Baptist Church. … This church, with the New Testament in Her hand, will continue to declare the sufficiency of Christ for every human need.” In his retirement sermon, he declared, “My farewell word to my congregation is ‘Hats off to the past; coats off to the future.’”
Upon his retirement, many tributes were paid to Dr. Brown. For example, one of his Wake Forest professors wrote to him saying,
You have not sought to gain a name for yourself by eloquence (though you have your share of that) nor by a semblance of great profundity of thought. You have been content to preach the simple gospel, the power of God, and the wisdom of God.
Dr. Brown was also named First Baptist’s Pastor Emeritus in a resolution, stating in part,
… earnestly, spiritually, understandingly, and with complete abandon, he has given himself to the work of the church …. Meeting its demands…from the power of his great loving heart long after a tired body required rest. … No words can express the feelings which flood our beings at this time. Twenty-five, faithful fruitful years with us! Unnumbered experiences of joy and sorrow shared; soul-stirring experiences as men, women, and children have found salvation as he has led them to the Christ; experiences of deep fellowship … shared in worship—in giving—in communion; the full happiness of sympathetic companionship with one always pointing toward the Master. These things and the thousands of intimate helpful services he has given to each one of us make words grossly inadequate to express our love and gratitude.
Dr. and Mrs. Brown remained in Knoxville, where he served as a supply pastor, preached revivals, and continued supporting the denomination he loved.
After an extended illness, Dr. Brown passed away in 1960 and was laid to rest in Knoxville. A resolution issued by the City Council and signed by Knoxville Mayor John Duncan included the following:
The City of Knoxville is a much better place because Dr. Fred Brown was here. His contribution to the spiritual and civic well-being of this community is immeasurable in its effectiveness. He was a humble man who spent his life in preaching a simple message of love to a people needing salvation.
Five years later, the Fred Brown Chapel was dedicated. The dedication service’s printed program stated, “To this great heart of the mountains, we affectionately dedicate this chapel as a quiet haven of rest where weary people can get their souls back by remembering things that are more enduring than the mountains.” (The $95,000 for the chapel was received not through an organized funding campaign, but “spontaneously out of [individuals’] heart of love.”)
Three decades later, Michael Card,* another of Dr. Brown’s grandsons, recorded “For F.F.B.”—a song memorializing his grandfather and included on his album Poiema. The tribute begins with a recording of Dr. Brown preaching:
‘Verily, verily I say unto thee except a corn of wheat falling to the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.’ I hold a grain of wheat in my hand. It is small and hard and narrow and self-contained. And yet at its heart, there sleeps the mystery of life; and that is a parable.
Then, Michael sings of his grandfather, beginning with the following lyrics:
Just a simple preacher from the Carolina hills
Born in just the perfect place and time,
A gentle loving mountain man
With warm and sparkling eyes
And a face that wrinkled from a constant smile.
Oh, Granddad, I wish you could be here to tell me what to do
The song continues with acknowledgment of Dr. Brown’s selflessness and with Michael’s spiritual connection with his grandfather. At the end of the recording, Dr. Brown’s voice is heard again: “I have no hope except that I believe that Christ died for my sins according to scriptures. I expect to swing out into eternity on that.”
Thus, within the church on Main Street and far beyond, the legacy of “this great heart of the mountains” lives on.
*Michael Card has recorded over 37 albums, authored over 27 books, hosted a radio program, and written for numerous magazines. He has had over 19 #1 hits, including “El Shaddai,” “Love Crucified Arose,” “Immanuel,” and “Joseph’s Song.” His many accolades include three Gospel Music Association Dove Awards. “For F.F.B.” can be accessed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yV6lMbvIjRI and on iTunes. Information for this article was gathered from First Baptist’s archives unless otherwise noted.