Robert Raymond Brown (1910–1994)

The Right Reverend Robert Raymond Brown was the ninth bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas. He became nationally known in 1957 for his role in the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock (Pulaski County). Brown drafted a pastoral letter that stated the Episcopal Church’s unequivocal position in favor of desegregation and support for racial equality. His efforts with a number of clergy, Christian and Jewish, resulted in a city-wide Day of Prayer on October 12, 1957. Brown was also the author of five books, including Bigger Than Little Rock, which recounted his role in the desegregation conflict.

Robert Raymond Brown was born on June 16, 1910, in Garden City, Kansas. He was one of two sons of dentist Joseph Leslie Brown and Madeline Swan Wells Brown. His brother, Joseph Lewis Brown, also became an Episcopal clergyman. In 1917, Brown’s father enlisted in the Dental Corps of the U.S. Army. He was stationed at Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas, throughout World War I. The family remained in San Antonio when the war ended, and he opened his own civilian practice.

Robert R. Brown graduated from Texas Military Institute in San Antonio. He received a BA from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, in 1933, followed by a brief high school coaching career. He received his Bachelor of Divinity degree from Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria in 1937. He was ordained to the diaconate on June 20, 1937, and ordained to the priesthood in December of the same year. While in seminary, he met Katherine Warwick Rust of Fairfax, Virginia. They were married on November 3, 1937, and had three children: Anne Warwick Brown, Katherine Willoughby Brown, and Robert Laidlaw “Bob” Brown.

Brown served Texas parishes in Harlingen, Houston, and Waco. In 1947, he accepted a call to St. Paul’s Church in Richmond, Virginia, where he served for eight years. While in Richmond, he was a member of the National Council of the General Church and was editor of The Southern Churchman. From 1945 to 1950, Brown was a trustee of the American Church Institute for Negroes, which worked to support Episcopal schools and colleges for African Americans in southern states.

Brown was consecrated Bishop Coadjutor of Arkansas in Trinity Cathedral in Little Rock on October 5, 1955, meaning that he would become the next diocesan bishop upon the death or retirement of the Right Reverend R. Bland Mitchell. He assisted Bishop Mitchell by overseeing mission parishes, supervising candidates for holy orders, sharing parish visits for confirmations, and other duties as needed because of Mitchell’s failing health. Brown was installed as the ninth bishop of Arkansas on October 5, 1956, at Trinity Cathedral. He held this position until his retirement on November 1, 1970. During his term as bishop, St. Martin’s Student Center was established in Fayetteville (Washington County), and several new parishes and missions were organized.

In 1957, Brown became involved in the crisis caused by public reaction to the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock. His book Bigger Than Little Rock, published in 1958, recounts his participation and considers the role churches should play in social justice issues. Brown said that he was reluctant at first to get involved in the city’s discussion on desegregation because he was a newcomer to Arkansas and might be discounted as an outsider. However, when he learned of the violence at Central High School on September 23, 1957, he knew it was time for the Episcopal Church to speak out. He met on that day with the Ministerial Alliance Association, a group of both white and black clergy, and later that day with the Clericus, made up of local Episcopal clergy. After the Clericus meeting, he wrote a pastoral letter to all local Episcopalians emphasizing the support of integration by the Episcopal Church and released it to the public. In Bigger Than Little Rock, he wrote, “To remain silent was to condone the sin, and to appear neutral was to commit a real Christian heresy.” He also said that failing to make a “judgment upon such violence was to give consent to its tyranny.” He became well known throughout the country for his involvement in the crisis and received a barrage of negative and positive letters and telegrams from throughout Arkansas and around the world.

Brown continued to be instrumental in trying to promote reconciliation in the city. He hosted a conference for clergy that resulted in a citywide Day of Prayer on Columbus Day, Saturday, October 12, 1957. Although it was difficult to get an accurate count, it was estimated that between 8,000 and 10,000 persons attended these services held in multiple churches and synagogues. Brown said that there “appeared to be a marked lessening of tension after Columbus Day.” Brown continued to be a civil rights advocate throughout his life.

Brown wrote four books during his episcopate: Friendly Enemies, Miracle of the Cross, Alive Again, and Bigger Than Little Rock. He wrote a final book in retirement, And One Was a Soldier. Brown, who was having health problems, announced his retirement as of November 1, 1970. He and his wife moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he served a newly organized congregation. They later moved into their home called High Mitre, in Cashiers, North Carolina.

Brown died in Little Rock on February 5, 1994. Although originally buried in Mount Holly Cemetery in Little Rock, his cremation ashes and those of his wife were moved from Mount Holly Cemetery to Cashiers on August 16, 2002. The grave monument remains in place at Mount Holly.

For additional information:
Brown, Robert R. Bigger than Little Rock. Greenwich, CT: Seabury Press, 1958.

Craig, Jared. “The Good Bishop: Robert R. Brown.” The Road from Hell is Paved with Little Rocks. Virtual Exhibit of the Center for Arkansas History and Culture, University of Arkansas at Little Rock. https://ualrexhibits.org/desegregation/response-from-the-religious-community/bishop-brown/ (accessed January 13, 2021).

McDonald, Margaret Simms. White Already to Harvest: The Episcopal Church in Arkansas, 1838–1971. Sewanee, TN: University Press, 1975.

“Robert Raymond Brown.” An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church. https://episcopalchurch.org/library/glossary/brown-robert-raymond (accessed January 13, 2021).

Mary Janet “Bean” Murray
Little Rock, Arkansas

Last Updated: 01/13/2021

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