Originally created 08/17/97

Little Johnny sets 'em on fire



CHARLESTON, S.C. -- He is perhaps the hottest traveling preacher in the Lowcountry.

Women swoon and faint under the power of his fiery sermons. Churches from as far away as New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and New York jostle for his speaking dates.

He's booked solid and keeps fan mail on a clipboard hanging from his bedroom wall. Not bad for a 10-year-old boy from Georgetown County who likes to bounce on the living room furniture and climb the trees outside his family's double-wide trailer.

Johnny Brown, better known on the revival circuit as "Little Master Johnny Brown" or just "Little Johnny," takes it all in stride.

"Well," the baby-faced fifth-grader says, "I feel like if it hadn't been for the Lord, I wouldn't be here because the Lord's the one that anointed me to preach the Gospel."

As his popularity grows, so does the buzz around him. Some say he's a prophet who can see into the future. Others say he's just a well-meaning little boy with an overly aggressive mother who's pushing him into preaching.

As far as the Rev. Isaac Holt is concerned, the kid is the real deal.

He's known Johnny for several years and has had him in to run revivals at his church, Royal Baptist, in North Charleston.

The way Estelle Brown tells it, it all started back when the youngest of her three sons was a preschooler, maybe 4 years old. The two of them were attending a Saturday service at St. Paul AME, their home church in rural Georgetown.

Out of the blue, the youngster piped up, "Mama, the Lord told me to get up and say something."

The youngster left the pew. Mrs. Brown tried to lock him between her knees, but he crawled under a pew and wriggled away. Next thing she knew, he was up at the pulpit, asking the minister if he could speak.

"Have at it," the bemused preacher told him.

In his high-pitched voice, Johnny began singing the old hymn "Down at the Cross."

The church was on fire. Johnny did the same thing in other church services.

Word of the gospel-singing preschooler spread. One day he made an announcement: "The Lord told me to preach."

Mrs. Brown snapped at the boy, telling him to stop playing with grown-ups' affairs. As far as she was concerned, the matter was closed.

Then one day, she came in from her 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. shift at the AVX Corp. plant in Myrtle Beach and found him beaming at her. Little Johnny said he would be preaching a revival.

Turned out the preacher at a nearby AME church had asked him to do a two-night revival for the youth department. Mrs. Brown told the man Johnny wasn't a preacher and he shouldn't trifle with a young boy so. But the minister wouldn't back off.

For his first sermon, Johnny tackled the omnipresence of God - how he's everywhere at all times. Heavy stuff for a 4-year-old, but he approached it in typical preschooler fashion.

His sermon title: "God Don't Wear No Pajamas!"

It's a rainy Friday night, but inside Shiloh AME Church in downtown Charleston, Little Johnny is setting the place ablaze. He's in the pulpit in a sharp purple suit, preaching an easy-to-follow message about keeping the faith. He is bouncing, swaying, sweating, his mouth close on the microphone.

Everybody in the place is on their feet, clapping, shouting, waving their hands.

Johnny sinks back into the preacher's chair, finished.

Back home in Georgetown, Johnny's life is tidy and simple. He has his own room with a computer, a bookshelf and desk. Instead of Michael Jordan or Deon Sanders posters on the walls, he has a framed portrait of a river baptism scene and pictures of children praying.

The Brown family is tightknit. They usually travel with Johnny to speaking trips. Johnny's father, John A. Brown, is a truck driver and travels a lot. He attends whenever he can. Mrs. Brown has quit working to supervise Johnny's speaking schedule and to ferry him to and from engagements.

Johnny is an earnest, surprisingly shy boy who makes the honor roll at tiny Andrews Christian Academy.

And Johnny firmly believes God called him to preach.