The term Brownists was a common designation for early Separatists before 1620. Brownists, Independents, and Separatists were all used somewhat interchangeably for those nonconformists who broke with the Church of England.
The term came to be more specifically applied to those who followed
the writings and teachings of Robert Browne. And to a much lesser
extent those of
It was while Browne was at Corpus Christi, that he probably first met
They were both influenced
by the than current neo-Calvinist lectures of
Browne may have located in and around the greater London area after leaving Cambridge. From 1575?-78 he may have been teaching at a grammar school in Southwark (London). He was also known for his dissident preaching about London, and in the Parish of Islington (London).
Browne was starting to develop his own dissident views of the Church and its criticism of its bishops. Browne may have preferred a teaching career than taking his ordination which was not an uncommon practice.
During 1578, Browne returned home to Tolethorpe but grew weary and returned to Cambridge University for more study. About this period, Browne came under the personal influence of Richard Greenham, puritan divine, and the rector of Dry Drayton Parish, near Cambridge. Browne may have been encouraged to complete his ordination requirements while under Greenham. Browne was encouraged into serving at a local parish church.
Browne was offered a lecturer position at St Benet's Church adjacent to Corpus Christi College at Cambridge University possibly through the offices of the Reverend Greenham. Browne seems to have been too much of a firebrand for the congregation. His tenure there was rather short lived. Browne may have come to reject the puritan view of reform from within the Church, and started to look outside of the established Church.
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 the Church, its administration and leadership in Cambridge. He was arrested and jailed, but was soon released.
The Browne family were will connected, and kinsmen to the Cecil family, i.e.
During the period from 1579-80, Browne became ill possibly from the plague which was abroad in the land. After his illness and convalescence, Robert Browne travelled to the Norwich area.
There is some information to suggest that Browne may have developed a relationship with a former clergyman turned separatist, a Thomas Wosley (d. 1612?). Wosley may have been an influence on Browne's and Harrison's 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 later influenced yet another separatist Robert Barrow, future Barrowist.
Robert Harrison like Browne had tried his hand at being a schoolmaster rather than taking a position in the Church. Harrison's own dissident views soon found him without a job. Through Harrison's own personal relationships in Norwich, he was able to secure for himself the position of Master of the Great Hospital at Norwich, Saint Giles from 157?-1582.
Browne was becoming a Separatist in principle, we rejected the established Church of England as unscriptural, and the puritan belief of reform from within 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 Anabaptists. 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 the growing Anabaptist influence in England after 1560.
There is some indications that Browne was drawn to the immigrant Dutch wool worker population living in the Norwich area and especially those with Anabaptist leanings. This may have been a major draw for Barrow in developing his new theological tenets, and church membership.
1581 was a busy year for Browne, who was now lodging with his old college friend
The local puritan clergy of Norwich had already complained to the Bishop about Browne's unlicensed preaching, and his influences on their own congregations. In April 1581, Browne was engaged in preaching in the Bury St. Edmund, Suffolk area. He was arrested and imprisoned by order of Bishop Freake of Norwich for his unlicensed preaching. He was again released probably based on his family connections.
A new congregation started with Browne elected as pastor, and Harrison as the Teacher. 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 in Norwich into the 17th century.
Members of the Browne and Harrison congregation had suffered from illness on arriving in Holland. Not long after establishing their new congregation, disagreements began to developed within the congregation. Problems also developed between 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 Matthewe and, Treatise of Reformation without Tarrying for Anie (1582) the latter his major work was published in Holland. The books were quickly banned by the authorities. The latter called for immediate reforms to be enacted to the Church of England.
Harrison had written two short monographs expounding some of this own religious view in 1583. Barrow took exception to some of Harrison's recent works. Harrison had simply not been cut from the same radical bolt of cloth as Browne and disagreements soon developed between the two.
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 the works of Robert Browne, and
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 hoped to established himself at Edinburgh in Canongate (Burgh) just outside the city walls near Holyrood Abbey. Barrow was called before the city church authorities to explain his recent religious writings. Brown soon found himself under house arrest by the Church authorities and jailed.
Browne was released through the intervention of the local Civil authorities who were themselves not well disposed toward the Church authorities at this particular period otherwise Browne may have remained under arrest for a long time. Browne took his leave of Edinburgh after being released.
Browne travelled about Scotland looking for new converts to his own message. Calvinist Scotland was not very receptive to Browne's new religious message. Browne graced a few more Scottish jails and prisons during his travels there. Despair, jail time and growing poor health probably drew Browne back to England and home.
Browne returned back to England during the summer of 1584. He had started to write and publish books again. He was soon arrested and jailed. He was released again probably by family assistance.
Browne seems to have been very exhausted, and sick in body and spirit. The Bishop of London and the Archbishop of Canterbury wanted to question Browne concerning the distribution of his writings, i.e. the Proclamation of 1583. He was held, questioned and than released for lack of evidence.
The Church still wanted to keep a watchful eye on him. In 1586, Browne was allowed to be transferred to Stamford, the ancestral family seat, where he slowly recovered his health. By early spring of 1586, he had recovered enough to begin to preach without license again. He was brought up on charges to appear before Bishop Howard of Peterborough for his illegal preaching and writings. He ignored the summons and failed to appear, he was soon excommunicated.
The excommunication itself may have been the catalysis for his change of attitude. Browne may have preferred his own personal freedom in England may have been more important to him than giving a halfhearted recanting to the Church authorities of his own theological principles. The real reasons behind his actions may never be known for certain.
Browne was able to facilitate a reconciliation with the Church of England probably through the good offices of his family, and his kinsman, Lord Burghley. Browne agreed to conform to the rules and statutes of the Church of England, abide by his regular attendance at his designated parish church, etc. He probably made some type of official recanting of this previous beliefs and writings.
In return for this 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 former members of Brownes' Middelburgh (Holland) congregation (1583-85).
This independent congregation was under the leadership of the Reverend
In September 1591, Browne was offered the benefice of the parish church of Achurch cum Thorpe at Stamford (Northamptonshire), Dioceses of Peterborough which he served from 1591-1631?. The church was part of the estates of Lord Burghley.
Browne's term of rectorship at Achurch cum Thorpe were reportedly filled with various gaps. There may be some reason to suggest that Browne may have lapsed or reverted back to some of his earlier dissident habits. Browne had remarried, and may have had some domestic problems? While awaiting charges in 1633 for allegedly striking a policeman, his own godson, Browne was arrested and put in gaol. He became ill, and died in the Northampton gaol at the very ripe old age of 83. Browne seems to have fallen on hard financial time in his later years.
Robert Browne saw the Church of England as being in a state of moral disrepair and 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.
[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 errours of the time : wherein the tenents of the principall sects, especially of the 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 
______. 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  [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 exceptions aforesaid [in M.A. letter] sent ot 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 ot 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.  [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 [Thomason Tracts; of Brownists, separatists, and non-conformists, ... (1641) [EEb, 1641-1700; 254:E.164 [Thomason Tracts; 29:E.164 [Wing T436][ESTCR532]
______. The discovery of a swarme of separatists, or a leathersellers sermon. ...(1641) [ESTCR212673]
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 it 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] Thesis (Ph.D.), 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)