In 1805, the family moved to Hudson, Ohio, where Owen Brown opened a tannery. Brown's father became a supporter of the Oberlin Institute (original name of Oberlin College) in its early stage, although he was ultimately critical of the school's "Perfectionist" leanings, especially renowned in the preaching and teaching of Charles Finney and Asa Mahan. Recent suggestions that the Browns were heavily influenced by dissenting Presbyterians and other forms of neo-Calvinism at this period are incorrect. Although Brown withdrew his membership from the Congregational church in the 1840s and never officially joined another church, both he and his father Owen were fairly conventional, conservative evangelical Calvinists throughout their lives. Brown's conservative personal religion is fairly well documented in the papers of the Rev Clarence Gee, a Brown family expert, now held in the Hudson [Ohio] Library and Historical Society.
As a child, Brown lived briefly in Ohio with Jesse R. Grant, father of future general and U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant.
At the age of 16, John Brown left his family and went to Plainfield, Massachusetts, where he enrolled in a preparatory program. Shortly afterward, he transferred to the Morris Academy in Litchfield, Connecticut. He hoped to become a Congregationalist minister, but money ran out and he suffered from eye inflammations, which forced him to give up the academy and return to Ohio. In Hudson, he worked briefly at his father's tannery before opening a successful tannery of his own outside of town with his adopted brother.
- 1. There has been some speculation that the grandfather was the same John Brown who was a Loyalist during the American Revolution and spent time in jail with the notorious Claudius Smith (1736–1779) allegedly for stealing cattle, which he and Smith used to feed to the starving British troops. However, this runs against the grain of the Brown family history as well as the record of the Humphrey family, to which the Browns were directly related (abolitionist John Brown's maternal grandmother was a Humphrey). Brown himself wrote in his 1857 autobiographical letter that both his and his first wife's grandfather were soldiers in the Continental Army [which he established in his, The Humphreys Family in America (1883)], which notes that abolitionist John Brown's grandfather, Capt John Brown (born November 4, 1728) was elected Captain of the 8th Company, 18th Regiment of Militia in Connecticut Colony in the Spring of 1776. He was commissioned on May 23, 1776 by Governor Trumbull. Capt John Brown's company marched from Connecticut, joining the Continental Army at New York, but Brown died of dysentery while in command, on September 3, 1776 (p.302, n.). His son, Owen Brown, the father of abolitionist John Brown, was a tanner and strict Calvinist who hated slavery and taught his trade to his son.
- 2. Ulysses S Grant, Memoirs and Selected Letters, (The Library of America, 1990)