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The term Brownisme, or Brownists was not an common generic designation for certain early Separatists after 1600. The designations Brownists, Independents, and Separatists were often used somewhat interchangeably by Church agents for those nonconformists with conventicles, who had broken their ties with the Church of England.

The term more specifically applied to the writings and teachings of Robert Browne, and his followers. And to a somewhat lesser extent the writings of Robert Harrison (154?-1585?), a college friend, and companion of Browne until 1583 when they had a theological seperation in the joint administration of their congregation while in Middleburgh, Holland.

Robert Browne (1550?-1633) was a major Elizabethan Separatist of the period. He was born in Tolethorpe, Rutlandshire, of a wealthy and a very prominent landed Northamptonshire family, of the gentry class with family ties to the nobility. Browne attended Cambridge University 1570-73. He received a B.A. (1572) from Corpus Christi College (Cambridge).

It was while Browne was at Corpus Christi College (Cambridge), that he probably first came into contact with Robert Harrison(154?-1585?) a fellow student. Harrison came from Norwich. He had matriculated as a pensioner of St John's College, Cambridge in October 1564. Harrison transferred to Corpus Christi College, (Cambridge) and there received a B.A.(1567) and M.A. (1572).

Both Browne, and Harrison may have been influenced by the current neo-Calvinist lectures on the New Testament by a prominent professor, and theologian of Cambridge University. Thomas Cartwright (1535-1603). Cambridge University during this period had a pro-puritan leaning in its philosophy, and a new spirit for Evangelical reforms. Unfortunately for Dr. Cartwright, and the Cambridge University administration, the Church of England and Queen Elizabeth I decided to clean house of some of the political, and dissident overtones coming from Cambridge.

Biblical scholars since before Wycliffe, and the Lollards some have raised the theological dichotomy between the early Gospels, and the Church as a national institution since the Romans. Cartwight and his supporters were simply raising an old theological issue of some conflict for a state church. The Lutheran Reformation left the issue to the state, but the Scandinavian Lutheran Churches were state episcopal churches. The Crown, and the Church of England was comfortable with its episcopal state church administration format with the Crown as its head. The Marian Exiles, the Calvinists, the Independents, and the Presbyterian, and various Separatist groups would simply prefer a new non-state structure for England, preferably under their own respective control.

Browne history after leaving Cambridge is a little unclear. He may have returned home, may have located around the greater London doing some preaching area after leaving Cambridge. During 1575?-78 he may have been teaching at a grammar school in Southwark (London) area. He was also known for his dissident preaching about London, and in the Parish of Islington (London), near Finsbury Park, North London.

Browne was starting to develop his own dissident views of the State Church and his criticism of its bishops, and the episcopal administration. Browne may have initially preferred a teaching career, rather than taking his ordination which was not an uncommon practice during this period. The Church was often seen as an honourable profession in may upper class families with chances for possible advancement socially.

During 1578, Browne returned home to Tolethorpe but he grew weary for a time, and returned to Cambridge University for additional research. and study. It was during this period, when Browne came in contact with The Rev. Richard Greenham (1535?-1594?), a moderate Puritan divine. Greenham was the rector of Dry Drayton Parish (Cambridge) (1570?-91), and on the staff at St. Mary's Cathedral (Cambridge). Browne may have been encouraged to seek to complete his ordination requirements with the assistance of Greenham's influence. Browne may have been encouraged into serving at a local parish church after ordination.

Browne was offered a position of Lecturer at St Benet's Church, adjacent to Corpus Christi College at Cambridge University, possibly through the good offices of The Reverend Greenham. Browne seems to have been too much of a firebrand for the local congregation. His tenure there was somewhat short lived. Browne may have come to gradually question some of the current Puritan views, and areas of reforms from within the Church. He may have started to consider other options outside of the boundaries of the current established Church administration for other answers. It is not unreasonable to assume that Browne may have sought out other dissident, or nonconformist voices, and views to answer some of his own theological concerns.

Robert Browne soon became a self styled preacher in and about Cambridge. His brother had obtained preaching licenses for them both from the local Bishop, but Browne burned his in protest. By 1579, he was openly criticizing aspects of the Church, its administration in Cambridge. He was arrested and jailed probably for preaching without a current valid preaching license, or dissident views.

Browne was soon released, probably without any charges. The Browne family was an old, and prominent, well connected politically, and with prominent kinsmen. Browne's recent release from jail may well have come down through the Cecil family, possibly in the person of William Cecil, Baron Burghley (1520-1598). The Lord High Treasurer (1572-1598) of England, and member of the Privy Council. Through the Browne's family relations with Lord Burghley, who held pro-protestant leaning himself, Browne would often find special assistance available when some special need might arise. There are some indications that the Baron Burghley may have taken a personal interest in the welfare of his young kinsman during his own life.

During the period from 1579-80, Browne became ill possibly from the Plague which was abroad in the land. After his initial illness and his later convalescence periods, Robert Browne would travelled to the Norwich area for research, and to meet some individuals.

There is some information to suggest that Browne may have sought out a former clergyman turned Separatist, a Thomas Wosley (d. 1612?). Wosley may have had some early dissident influence on Browne's and Harrison's nonconformist thinking before 1582. Wosley continued his own Separatist activities in the East Anglia area which usually found him in or out jail during the remainder of his life. Wosley may have some additional distinction of influence on yet another prominent Separatist of the period, Robert Barrow, the future Barrowist divine.

Robert Harrison not unlike Browne, he had also tried his hand at being a schoolmaster. Harrison had given the Church of England a pass. Harrison's own dissident views would soon leave him without a job. Through Harrison's own personal relationships in Norwich community, he was able to secure for himself the position of Head of the Great Hospital of St. Giles, Norwich from 157?-1582, an important position.

Browne was becoming a Separatist in principle, we rejected the established Church of England as non-scriptural, and the Puritan efforts of reform from within the Church as mote. He began to look outside the traditional norms, and had become interested in the Radical Reformation religious sects, and their various tenets sometimes labelled as Anabaptist. Browne would find various aspects of these tenets of interest, and may have helped him in his own views on the Bible, and to formulate his own religious views. There may have been some cross fertilization between the early Separatists views, and some of the growing Anabaptist influence within England after 1560.

There is some indications that Browne may have been drawn on the large immigrant community of Dutch wool worker population living in the Norwich area, and especially those with possible Anabaptist leanings. This may have been a major draw for Barrow in developing his new theological tenets, and for building a church membership.

1581 was a busy year for Browne, who was now lodging with his old college friend Robert Harrison (154?-1585?). Browne and Harrison discussed establishing their own Separatist congregation in early 1581. Norwich at this period was a major city, and with a large foreign community of Dutch workers in the new local craft industries. Browne was a good preacher, and many may have come to hear his new spiritual message. Browne saw Norwich as a good prospect, and Harrison's knowledge of the area would also be a major benefit.

The local Church clergy of Norwich had already complained to the local Bishop about Browne's unlicensed preaching, and his influences on their own congregations attendance. In April 1581, Browne was engaged in preaching in the Bury St. Edmund, Suffolk area probably without a license. He was arrested and imprisoned by order of Bishop Freake of Norwich for his unlicensed preaching. He was again jailed, and shortly released probably without charges through family connections. This only upset the local clergy more.

The new congregation was started with Browne being elected as pastor, and Harrison as the Teacher. The congregation structure was based on a new system which became known as Congregationalism. Individual independent congregation, voted on, and elected its primary officers designated as Minister, Elders, and Teacher, some congregations might include additional officers, as needed. The Minister functioned as the chief office, and pastor. The Elders acted as the primary officers to the daily congregation needs, and to assist with the other administrative functions. The Teacher functions as the chief Biblical officer in the formal Biblical interpretations of the congregation. The Minister and the Elders also functioned a arbitrators of disagreements, and the enforcement of the proper standards with in congregation. Some congregations varied in the level of authority which they gave to their elected officers. Votes made by the entire congregation were not uncommon to fire their elected officers, or to replace them. Some congregations having elected it officers often gave over its general authority to its elected officers, which sometimes led to problems.

The new congregation became a sore point for the local clergy of the Church of England, who were losing members to Browne and Harrison. Recent activity from the local church authorities may have prompted a decision by the congregation to move their Norwich congregation to Middelburgh, Zeeland, Holland. Browne and Harrison with most of their congregation in tow moved between May and August 1582. The residue of their original Norwich congregation may have continued to reside in Norwich into the 17th Century.

Thomas Cartwright (1535-1603),puritan theologian, a former Cambridge don, and preacher of neo-Calvinism had established his own congregation at Middelburgh, Zeeland (Holland) which may have helped influenced Browne's choice of locations. Unfortunately for Cartwright, Browne was not of an agreeable disposition towards this new Calvinist neighbors, and attacked Cartwright and his views in writing. Browne would gradually rejected many of his earlier puritan religious tenets.

Members of the Browne and Harrison congregation had suffered from illness by their voyage to Holland. Not long after establishing their new congregation at Middleburgh, some theological disagreements began to developed within the congregation over its current leadership. Some issues also developed between the Browne and Harrison and their respective families.

Browne's major tracts: A Book which sheweth the Life and Manners of all true Christians (1582); A Treatise upon 23. of Matthew and, Treatise of Reformation Without Tarrying for Anie (1582) the latter his major theological work was published in Holland. The books were quickly banned by the authorities. Browne called for immediate reforms to be enacted within the Church of England.

Harrison had also written two shorter monographs expounding on some of this own religious view in 1583. Barrow took exception to some of Harrison's recent theological views. Harrison for his part was simply not been cut from the same radical bolt of cloth as Browne had become. Theological disagreements soon developed between the two leaders.

During 1583, the writings of Browne and Harrison were being sold in England. By mid-1583 a Proclamation was issued against the buying, selling or possession of the works of Robert Browne, and Robert Harrison. Two individuals, John Copping (d.1583) and Elias Thacker (d. 1583) were former members of Browne's Norwich congregation. They were both arrested, tried, and hanged for selling Browne's and Harrison's seditious writings that same year. Browne the writer was free at large in Holland while others were being arrested and hung for just selling their books in England.

Harrison came to represent the major religious views within the congregation. Browne soon found himself voted out of his own congregation during 1583. The remaining Middelburgh congregation under Robert Harrison may have continued in place until the time of Harrison's death, ca. 1585, or later. Information on the congregation after 1585 is uncertain.

Browne with a small band of faithful followers sailed to Scotland. He may have hoped to established himself at Edinburgh in Canongate (Burgh) just outside the city walls near the Holyrood Abbey. Barrow was soon called before the local city church authorities to explain his religious writings, and his theology views. Brown soon found himself under local house arrest by the Church authorities and jailed. Being in Scotland, Browne had little access to outside intervention, and was looking at an undetermined length of confinement.

Luckily for Browne, there was come outside intervention from the local Civil authorities, or police. At this point in time the Civil Authorities were not well disposed toward the local Church authorities. Rather than to leave Browne to the tender mercies of the Church Authorities, the Civil Authorities may have decided to free Browne as an possible affront to the Church agents. Browne may have been simply released on the condition that he just leave Edinburgh, and not to return after being released.

Browne would then travel about Scotland with his small entourage looking for new potential converts to his own dissident message for a new congregation. Calvinist Scotland was not overly receptive to Browne's new religious message. Browne graced a few more Scottish jails and prisons during his travels there in search of converts. Possibly from some feelings of despair or regrets over the lack of response to this message, the periods of jail time, or his poor health considerations may have drawn Browne back to England, and to his family home.

Browne returned back to England during the summer of 1584, sick in body and spirit. The Bishop of London and the Archbishop of Canterbury wanted to question Browne concerning the distribution of his dissident writings, i.e. the Proclamation of 1583. He was held, questioned, jailed and than released for lack of adequate evidence against him. He may still have had some political cover at the time. As soon as Browne's health had improved had started to write and publish again. He was soon arrested and jailed again possible for his writings. He was released again probably by family assistance.

Unable to confine Browne, the Church still anxious to keep a watchful eye on Browne, and his movements while he was back in England. In 1586, Browne was allowed to be transferred to Stamford, the ancestral family seat, where he would slowly recovered from his health issues. By early spring of 1586, he had recovered enough to begin to preach probably without a preaching license again. He was arrested, and brought up on charges to appear before Bishop Howard of Peterborough for his illegal preaching activities, and his dissident writings. Browne would ignored the summons, and failed to appear before Bishop Howard as directed. For these reasons, Bishop Howard would have Browne excommunicated from the Church of England, a very grave action for Browne.

The threat of a pending excommunication had major social and political consequences to Browne, and his family. Just the threat of excommunication may have been the catalysis for Browne to re-evaluate his current relationship with Bishop Howard, and the Church of England. After probably some major politics, a compromise was finally proposed to Browne to mend his ways. Browne had a simple choice to make, compromise or excommunication. Browne may have preferred his own personal freedom in England, and the honour of the family name which may have been more important to him than just giving some half-hearten recanting to the Church authorities of his own theological principles. The real reasons behind his actions may never be known.

Browne was able to facilitate a reconciliation agreement with the Church of England probably through the good offices of his family, his kinsman, and possibly with assistance from Lord Burghley. The Church probably considered Browne now as a full member of the Church of England was probably considered good public relations. Any recanting of his writings might have an impact on his followers.

Browne was probably placed on some form of probation to conform to the current rules and statutes of the Church of England. He was to maintain his regular communicant status to his assigned parish church with regular attendance, required, etc. He probably made some type of official recanting of this previous beliefs and writings in front of a committee, or hearing. Any unauthorized preaching was probably sanctioned against, or any writings without prior approval.

In return for this fulfilling these requirements Browne was offered the position of Head Master of St. Olaves Grammar School (1586-91) in Southwark. Browne had returned to his former profession in Southwark. There are some indications to suggest that Browne may have had some backsliding during this period.

A Brownist conventicle was discovered near Southwark (London) in Oct. 1587, its pastor and members of the congregation were arrested. Its membership included some former members of Brownes' Middelburgh (Holland) congregation (1583-85).

This independent congregation was under the leadership of John Greenwood (d.1593),a former puritan clergyman turned Independent. There is no direct evidence to associate Browne to this particular conventicle. Greenwood became associated with Henry Barrow (1550?-1593), at the start of the Barrowist movement, a more radical form of Brownist polity.

In September 1591, Browne was offered the benefice of the parish church of Achurch cum Thorpe at Stamford (Northamptonshire), the Dioceses of Peterborough which he served during 1591-1631?. The church was part of the estates of Lord Burghley.

Browne's records of the parish at Achurch cum Thorpe were reportedly filled with various gaps in service, which may have been poor bookkeeping errours. There may be some reason to suggest that Browne may have had lapsed or reverted back to some of his earlier dissident habits in his later years. Browne had remarried, and may have had some domestic problems? While awaiting charges in 1633 for allegedly striking a local policeman, Browne's own godson. Browne was placed under arrested and put in gaol. Browne became ill, and died while in the custody of Northampton gaol at the rather ripe old age for the period at 83. Questions of why did he die while in jail have been raised by some. Browne seems to have fallen on hard financial times in his later years, and may have lacked adequate funds for bail pending his trial?

Robert Browne saw the Church of England as being in a state of moral disrepair and tainted by catholicism. Rather than reforming the Church from within, Browne sought out a new "true church" ethic. He advocated an early church polity which would later be known as congregationalism. He was one of the first to advocate religious separation from the Church of England. Browne was only an active Separatist from 1579-1585.

Browne has been actively criticized by those who came after for recanting his principles and giving in to the Establishment for his own personal liberty. This did not stop the influence of his writings or the spread of Brownist congregationalism and theology.

Browne and his writings were major contributions in the early development of Elizabethan English religious dissent, and the beginnings of the English Separatist movement during the later reign of Elizabeth I. His light may have shown only briefly, but he lighted the path for others to follow including some with other more radical points of view.

Many English Dissidents would set sail for America and establish Congregations along the lines of basic Brownist Theology. Later Generations were usually referred to as Congregational. Browne has often been called the father of Congregationalism. Browne had a major influence on the early Barrowist sect.


Primary Sources

[Anon,] A Whip for the back of a Backsliding Brownist [1640?;] [STC 3920]

[Anon,] The Brothers on the Separation; or, a Relation of a Company of Brownists (1641);, [BL E.172.11]

[Anon,] The Brownist Conventicles (1641);, [BL E.164.13]

Ainsworth, Henry, [d.1671], A True Confession of the Faith which Brownists doo hould (1596)

______, A True Confession of the Faith, which wee Falsely called Brownists doo hould (1596); [STC 237]

______, An Arrouu Against Idolatrie taken out of the Quiver of the Lord of Hosts (1640); [EEb, 1475-1640; 1761:9] [STC (2nd ed.) 222.5]

______, and Francis Johnson,[1562-1618], An Apologie or Defence of such true Christians as are Commonly called Brownists (1604); [STC 238]

Baille, Robert, [1599-1662], A Dissuasive from the Rrrours of the time : wherein the Tenents of the Principall Sects, Especially ofthe Independents, are drawn together in one map, ...(1645); [EEb, 1641-1700 ; 51:9]

______, Anabaptism, the tvre fovntaine of Independency, Brownisme, Antimony, Familisome, and the most of the other Errours, which for the time due trouble the Church of England, ... (1647); [EEb, 1641-1700 ; 1626:44] [Wing B452A ]

Brachlow, S., The Communion of Saints: Radical Puritans and he firste Verse of the 122 Psalm (1583)

______, Three Formes of Catechismes, Conteyning the most Principall Pointes of Religion (1583)

Bredwell, Stephen [ ],The Rasing of the Fovndations of Brownisme (1588); [STC 3599]

Browne, Robert,[1550?-1633], A Trve and Short Declaration [1581]

______, A Treatise of Reformation without Tarrying for any and of the Wickedness of those Preachers which will not reform till the Magistrate command or compel them (1582); [STC 3910 ]

______, A Booke which Sheweth the Life and Manners of all true Christians, ... (1582)

______, An Answere to Master Cartwright his Letter for ioyning with the English Church (1583); [STC 3909]

______, A True and Short Declaration, both of the Gathering and ioyning Together of Certaine Persons, and also of the Lamentable Breach and Division which fell amongst them [1583] [STC 3910.5] [EEb, 1475-1640 ; 1788:27]

______, A Reproof of Certain Schismatical Persons [Manuscript]

______, A New Year's Guift (1589)

Fairlambe, Peter [ ], The Recantation of a Brownist, or, A Reformed Pvritan (1606); [STC 10668]

Hall, Joseph,[1574-1656], A Common Apologie of the Chvrch of England, against the vniust Challanges of the ouer iust Sect, commonly called Brownists ... (1610); [STC 12649]

Harrison, Robert [ ], A Little Treatise vppon the Firste Verse of the 122 Psalm (1583)

______, Three Formes of Catechismes, Conteyning the most Principall Pointes of Religion (1583)

Jacob, Henry [1563-1624], A Defence of the Chvrches and Ministery of Englande (1599); [STC 14335]

Jacob, Henry [1563-1624], A Defence of the Chvrches 1562-1618. An Answer to the Writings and E xceptions aforesaid [in M.A. letter] sent to the same partie, by Mr. Fr. Jo. Whereunto he hath also added some things more, upon occasion of the other copie lately printed [1600?;]

______, Certayne Reasons and Arguments proving that is is not lasrituall Communion with the present Ministerie of the Church of England ... (1608); [STC 146602]

Johnson, Francis,[1562-1618], An Answer to the Writings and Exceptions aforesaid [in M.A. letter] sent to the same partie, by Mr. Fr. Jo. whereunto he hath also added some things more, upon occasion of the other copie lately printed [1600?]

______, Certayne Reasons and Arguments proving that is is not Lawfull to heare or have any Spirituall Communion with the Present Ministerie of the Church of England ...(1608); [STC 146602]

Lawne, Christopher [ ], The Prophane Schisme of the Brownists Discovered by by C. Lawne, J. Fowler, etc. (1612) [STC 15323]

______, Brownisme Turned the in-side Outward (1613); [STC 15324]

Paget, John, [d.1640], An Arrovv against the Separation of the Brownists. Also an Admonition touching Talmudique & Rabbinical Allegations. [1618; ] [EEb, 1475-1640; 1110:14] [STC 19098]

Robinson, John, [1575-1625], A Just and Necessary Apology of Certain Christians ... called Brownists or Barrowists (1625);, English translation)

Taylor, John,[1580-1653], The Brothers of the Separation. Or a true Relation of a Company of Brownists which kept their Conventicle at one Mr. Porters in Goat-Alley in Whitecrosse-street, where they were Apprehended on Sunday,Aug. 14, 1641, ... (1641); [ESCTR16330]

______, A Brownists Conventicle: or an Assemble of Brownists, Separatists, and Non-conformists, ... (1641); [EEb, 1641-1700; 254:E.164[13] [Thomason Tracts; of Brownists, Separatists, and Non-Conformists, ... (1641); [EEb, 1641-1700; 254:E.164[13] [Thomason Tracts; 29:E.164[13] [Wing T436][ESTCR532]

______, The Discovery of a Swarme of Separatists, or a Leathersellers Sermon ... (1641); [ESTCR212673 ]

Secondary sources

Brachlow, S., The Communion of Saints: Radical Puritans and Separatist Ecclesiology 1570-1625 (1988)

Burrage, C., The True Story of Robert Browne (1906)

______, The Retractions of Robert Browne, Father of Congregationalism (1907)

Cater, F.I., "Robert Browne's Ancestors and Descendents", Transactions of the Congregational Historical Society 2,1905

______, "New Facts Relating to Robert Browne", Transactions of the Congregational Historical Society, 3(1906)

______, "Robert Browne and the Achurch Parish Register", Transactions of the Congregational Historical Society 3,1907

______, "The Later Years of Robert Browne" Transactions of the Congregational Historical Society 3,1908

______, "The Excommunication of Robert Browne and his Will",Transactions of the Congregational Historical Society 4,1912

Dexter, H.M., "Robert Browne and his co-workers", In The Congregationalism of the Last Three Hundred Years as seen in its Literature, (1970 reprint)

Peel, A., The Brownists in Norwich and Norfolk Around 1580 (1920)

______, The First Congregational Churches (1920)

______, Carlson, L.H., (ed.), The Writings of Robert Harrison and Robert Browne (1953)

Powicke, F.J., Robert Browne, Pioneer of Modern Congregationalism (1910)

Rickwood, D.L., The Origin and Decline of the Stranger Community of Norwich (with Special Reference to the Dutch Congregation), 1565-1700 [Unpublished] M.A.(thesis), University of East Anglica (1967)

Smith, D.C., "Robert Browne, Independent", Church History 6,1936

White, R.B., The Development of the Doctrine of the Church among English Separatists with Special Reference to Robert Browne and John Smyth, [Unpublished] Ph.D.(Thesis),Oxford University (1961)

______, "A Puritan Work by Robert Browne", Baptist Quarterly 18,1959-60

______, The English Separatist Tradition from the Marian Martyrs to the Pilgrim Fathers (1971)

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