An Eccentric Divine, Rev. Billy Brown (1789-1849), Ancestor No. 16

I possess a lot of information about this man – random tidbits, some from histories of the various counties through which he passed, and some from histories of the Methodist Conferences with which he was connected. The primary source, however, was this:

BIlly headline

… an article from the Chicago Tribune, April 28, 1878 – three long columns on the Religious page, written by a Mr. Gary from Cleveland as “Special Correspondent to the Tribune.”

For this post, I’m attempting to compile personal descriptions and anecdotes about Rev. Brown in order to present a distinct sense of who he was and what he was like.

The italicized sections are direct quotes from the 19th Century, all from folks who heard tell of him, studied him, or actually knew him. Fortunately for me, it seems that folks went out of their way to remember him in words. (Some of the items have been gently edited for clarity and/or brevity.)

First off, the facts. 

Rev. Brown was my 5th Great-grandfather on my mother’s side. Sgt. Joseph Brown (Ancestor #3) was one of his sons, and his great-granddaughter was Lula Earl Ralston (the esteemed Ancestor #1).

Brown was born in 1789 somewhere in New York State – some family tree sources say Long Island, but I’ve never been able to determine which of the multitude of William Browns in New York might be the correct one.

Mr. Brown was admitted on trial in the Philadelphia “Conference” (the Methodist version of the diocese) in 1809, and appointed to Herkimer, New York. He was officially admitted to the Genesee Conference and ordained deacon in 1812. His eldership ordination was in 1814.

Rev. Brown married Ruby Miller around 1813. The first four of their ten children were born there in northwestern New York; the rest in northeastern Ohio.

Billy left the Conference and New York in 1823, As we’d say today, he wanted to go freelance.

“[H]e was not really bound down by any set creed. He was too original a genius for that. He called himself a Methodist, but he [didn’t belong] to any Conference. In this way he was perfectly free to go where he pleased and pursue his own methods. He used to travel in an old one-horse wagon and with a slow mare joined to it by means of a harness…

The family settled in Montville in Geauga County, Ohio. He took possession of a large tract of land and continued his preaching tours, except during farming-intensive seasons of the year. He also constructed a sawmill on the banks of a stream that passed through his farm.

Of His Appearance and General Manner

In personal appearance he was rather under the medium size, of light complexion, light beard, and long hair.

An educated man… he could give the whole anatomy of man, better than any surgeon he knew.

[Brown] asked me where I was going, and I told him I was on my way to hear the great Billy Brown… ‘Why do you call him the Great Billy Brown?’ asked the stranger. ‘Because I hear he is really a great man,’ I answered.  ‘Ah, nonsense,’ he retorted. ‘I have seen him many times and he is not a bit larger than I, and you don’t call me a great man, do you?’

Getting up enthusiasm for a series of meetings he would often start out into the dense wilderness during the day, and striking a deer trail would run upon it for hours, shouting at the top of his voice… sometimes followed in single file by his admirers and co-laborers.

Of His Biblical Scholarship

He possessed a great knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, and loved to search and expound difficult and obscure passages that other people would pass over with indifference.

His studies of Scripture gave him power in description of the size, length, breadth, height and depth of heaven. Its jasper walls and streets of gold were the marvelous wonders of his tongue.

He was very fond of giving minute descriptions of the Savior, and in these, he invariably made the picture of the Master very closely resemble himself. He used to … remark that the Savior’s hair, so far as the length and color was concerned, resembled his own very closely.

Of His Speaking and Preaching Style

A rare preacher. In dead earnest he pled for the repentance of men.

Quite celebrated… generally calling out large audiences to hear him, more, perhaps on account of his eccentricities and ludicrous manners than from any rhetorical eloquence.

[Brown] was very odd in his actions and gestures, eccentric in his ideas and illustrations, was much sought after by some, and greatly disliked by others.

Old residents describe him talking of hell, his arms beating wildly, with fists clinched, and his tongue licking from corner to corner of his mouth, lopping out almost to his ears…

His general custom, while preaching, was to stand behind a chair and fly, as it were, from one side of the house to the other, carrying the chair with him, stopping at short intervals, and bending low down over the chair, but never losing the thread of his argument.
He never failed to create a religious revival. He painted the joys of the redeemed and the horrors of the damned in the most glowing colors, and it was in this more than in anything else that his power lay.

And a personal favorite, the attempt to mimic Rev. Brown in print:

“Brethren-ahh, there is an impassable gulf-ahh between heaven and hell-ahh. I see it-ahh, with a long pole-ahh across it-ahh; people-ahh a-trying to cross over-ahh. Unbelievers and scoffers-ahh get on the pole-ahh and it begins to wiggle-ahh and a-wiggle-ahh, and there is a great black dog-ahh way down below-ahh, and they tumble off-ahh down to the black dog-ahh, and he gives them the itch-ahh, and they scratch and they scratch-ahh for all etaaarnity-ahh.”

Rev. Billy Brown died in Montville on November 12, 1849, almost three years to the day after his wife Ruby passed.

He often told his friends that his prayer to God always had been that he might die a sudden death, and so, when he was instantly killed one night while alone in his mill, it was thought by his friends that his prayer was answered.



  1. I have just run across this piece and am fascinated. I, too, am a descendant of Wiliam “Billy” Brown. His grand daughter by his son, William H. Brown, Jr., Mary was my paternal great grandmother. I have searched for information regarding him for so long. I would love to talk with you. I have a few photos I am interested in knowing or trying to learn the background for at some point. I had contacted the Geauga Public Library but was unable to gather much information. Hope to hear from you.

  2. I suspect that Billy Brown could have been my 3rd GGF. Would like to find descendants to compare DNA with.

    • I am definitely descended from Billy – and I’ve done DNA testing thru Family Tree DNA. Also loaded those results onto a site called gedmatch. Brad Watson (Kit #56668).

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