Biographical / Historical
Dr. Brown was the founder and first Head Master of The Lawrenceville School, which was known at first as the Academy of Maidenhead. Born in Pluckemin, New Jersey, in 1784, he graduated in 1802 from the College of New Jersey, as Princeton was then called, studied medicine, and then turned to the ministry. He studied theology under Dr. John Woodhull, was ordained by the New Brunswick presbytery and made pastor at Maidenhead in 1807. Soon after taking charge of the church, he decided that he could add to the comfort and security of his family and advance the cause of education by starting a school (he had tried growing silkworms with little success). Academic institutions were springing up in this country during the early 19th century. The revival of Puritanism in the 18th century, known as the “Great Awakening,” led to the establishment of grammar schools throughout New Jersey, which was still a royal colony at this time. Until then, the colonial system of education was designed for the colonial gentry and grammar schools existed solely as preparation for college. It was as a Puritan academy that Dr. Brown created Lawrenceville. It remains today the oldest private boarding academy in New Jersey and the third-oldest in the country; only Phillips Academy (1778) and Phillips Exeter Academy (1781) are older.
Officially incorporated in 1808, the School opened for instruction in 1810 with nine boys. The students lived with families in the neighborhood until 1814, when Dr. Brown built Hamill House to accommodate 25 boys. Dr. Brown was described as being of Huguenot descent, a sincere Christian and a good man, yet, a little too fond of the “birch.” He was a trustee of Princeton and one of the incorporators of the Princeton Theological Seminary. In 1816 he became a leading proponent for changing the township name from Maidenhead to Lawrence, in honor of its naval hero, Captain James Lawrence.
His educational theories stressed the dangers of sending sons to college too soon and the complexity of the teacher’s problems. Through it all ran an emphasis on piety, and he described the School as “a little world … (and) a teacher is an observer of all that takes place within
it. Within these narrow limits and in the character and conduct of the small company that surrounds him from day to day, he may see partially exhibited, the talents, designs, passions and machinations of all descriptions of persons who display themselves on the theatre of life.”
In 1829, Dr. Brown resigned his pastorship to devote himself full time to his School — now called the Lawrenceville High School — which had grown to 80 students, many from as far away as Ohio, Texas and Cuba. He introduced instruction in “gymnasium” and “horsemanship and riding carriages” to the curriculum as a way to “improve health and inspire cheerfulness among the pupils,” and raised the age of admission from five to six years. The number of students in each class was set at 10 and the expanded curriculum included Greek, Latin, French, Spanish, German, Italian, English languages, moral and natural philosophy, political economy, mathematics, rhetoric, elocution, geography, history and civil engineering.
In 1833 Dr. Brown’s son, Rezeau, and his wife, Mary, both died. Mrs. Brown held a special place in Lawrenceville’s founding. Dr. Hamill, one of the School’s later Head Masters, said of her, “We cannot leave this part of our theme without recording the important relations to the institution borne by Mrs. Mary Brown. She was its female head for nearly a quarter of a century. Her memory is precious and is sweetly embalmed in this community and in the recollection of every youth that was a pupil in the institution while she sustained any relation to it. She was known only to be beloved and held in the highest esteem. With a well balanced mind which was highly cultivated, she was admirably fitted for her position and exerted an influence which was extensively felt.”
In October of 1834, Dr. Brown sold the School, its buildings and 40 acres to Alexander Hamilton Phillips, the School’s principal and a member of the great New England family that had founded Andover and Exeter, for $8,500. In 1842 he moved to Mount Holly, and subsequently to Trenton, where he devoted his time principally to literary work. Among his publications are Life of Robert Finley, D. D., The Unity of the Human Race, and also an Historical Vindication of the Abrogation of the Plan of Union by the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (Philadelphia, 1855).
Dr. Brown was one of the founders of the American Colonization Society and was one of the original members of the American Bible Society. He died in Trenton on April 19, 1861 and he and his second wife, Jane A. Brown were buried in Mercer Cemetery, across from the train station and Pete Lorenzo's Steakhouse, in Trenton. In 2011, as part of the School's Bicentennial Celebration, the Alumni Association removed Reverend Brown from the defunct Mercer Cemetery and reinterred him in The Lawrence Cemetery, just north of the School.