Brown, Obadiah Bruen

From GW Encyclopedia

Portrait of Rev. Obadiah Bruen Brown. Artist unknown. This painted portrait was donated to The George Washington University by a descendant of Brown, Russell E. Train, in 2010. It currently hangs in the Office of the President.

Born in 1779 in Newark, New Jersey, Obadiah Bruen Brown was the second son of Eleazar Brown and Mary Bruen Brown. He was descended from John Browne on his father’s side, and from Obadiah Bruen on his mother’s side, both founders of the town of Newark in 1666.

Brown was largely self-educated until the age of 17 when he moved to Scotch Plains, New Jersey to study under Reverend William Van Horne, a prominent Baptist minister. Brown converted from Presbyterianism to the Baptist denomination, and by age 19 was working as a schoolteacher in Scotch Plains. He later preached in Salem, New Jersey. In 1807 he was ordained into the Baptist ministry and called to be the first pastor of the First Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.

In addition to his ministry at the First Baptist Church, Brown held a clerkship at the Post Office Department – rising to become Chief of the Contract Division – and was elected the eighth chaplain of the House of Representatives – all in 1807. He would later be elected as chaplain of the Senate in 1809, and would again be chaplain of the House of Representatives in 1814.

On August 31, 1808, Brown married a young widow, Elizabeth Riley Jackson (1779-1853). Elizabeth had one son, John, from her previous marriage, and together Obadiah and Elizabeth had four children: Thomas Bruen (1809-1838), Mary Elizabeth (1810-1836), William Van Horne (1812-1862) – named for Obadiah’s Baptist mentor – and George Whitfield I (1816-1834). Thomas Bruen Brown would later earn an undergraduate and two graduate degrees from Columbian College.

Brown quickly rose to prominence in Washington, D.C. In 1810 President Madison and his Cabinet attended a Fourth of July celebration at his church. The Browns took in boarders, including many distinguished senators and members of Congress. The Brown home was also a gathering place for political, educational, journalistic, and religious leaders following the British attack on Washington in 1814 and the burning of many public buildings such as the Capitol and the White House. It was later a regular gathering place for influential Jacksonians.

In 1820, Brown served as a delegate to the Second Triennial Meeting of the Baptist General Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Convention resolved to establish a theological seminary and later a college in the District of Columbia. A committee of five – including Brown and Reverend Luther Rice – was appointed to procure an act of incorporation from Congress. They achieved this on February 9, 1821, when legislation granting a charter for Columbian College passed the Congress and was signed by President James Monroe.

The forty six acres of land on which the first Columbian College campus was built was deeded to Brown for transfer to the Baptist Convention in 1820. The property was conveyed by deed to the College Trustees on November 30, 1821. Brown was one of three fund-raisers for Columbian College’s first building fund, and one of its largest contributors. He also served as the first chairman of the Board of Trustees, and was present at the first commencement of Columbian College which boasted such notable guests as President Monroe and the Marquis de Lafayette. Reverend William Staughton was Columbian College’s first president, and Brown often filled in for Staughton when the latter was frequently away on business.

In addition to his involvement with Columbian College in the early 1820s, Brown served as a director of the Bank of the Metropolis, located on the northeast corner of 15th and F Streets across from the Treasury. Founded on January 11, 1814, the bank was a predecessor institution to today’s Bank of America.

Despite Reverend Brown’s many secular occupations, he retained an active role in the Baptist Church. In 1807 he was elected moderator of the Baltimore Baptist Association. He was an officer in the American Colonization Society and advocated for Baptist missionary work in Africa. In 1824, he helped organize and served as president of the Baptist General Tract Society. The following year he became an editor of a Baptist publication, the Luminary, and he was the first president of what became the American Baptist Publication Society. Throughout it all, he faithfully served as pastor of the First Baptist Church without compensation, and gave generously of his own money to the construction of the church’s 10th Street location, now the site of Ford’s Theater.

Brown’s engagement in the political life of Washington, D.C., had both positive and negative results. He is generally credited as a leading advocate for the separation of church and state, and was a principal author of a celebrated House report delivered by Congressman Richard M. Johnson of Kentucky in 1829 against a proposal to close post offices on Sundays. Despite this triumph, Brown also faced embarrassing charges in 1833 that he had entered into improper financial dealings with mail contractors as Chief Clerk of the Post Office Department. As a result, he was demoted to a lesser position within the department.

Obadiah Bruen Brown died May 2, 1853 at age 73. He is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery along with his wife Elizabeth, son William and several grandchildren.

Document Information

Image Credit: Photograph of painted portrait of Obadiah Bruen Brown courtesy of GW Today, Division of External Relations, George Washington University. Artist unknown.
Sources: "Chaplains of the House." Office of the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives. n.d. Web. 9 Dec. 2010.
Freedman, Danny. "A Reverend's Return." GW Today, 6 Dec. 2010. Web. 9 Dec. 2010.
Guide to the Obadiah Bruen Brown Family papers, Special Collections Research Center, Gelman Library, George Washington University, Washington, D.C.
Kayser, Elmer Louis. Bricks Without Straw: The Evolution of George Washington University. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1970. Print.
"Senate Chaplains." U.S. Senate Art and History. n.d. Web. 9 Dec. 2010.
Train, Russell E. The Train Family. Washington, D.C.: Privately Published, 2000. Print.
Date Added to Encyclopedia: December 9, 2010
Prepared by: Ashley Locke

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