« Browne, Peter Browne, Robert Browne, Sir Thomas »

Browne, Robert

BROWNE, ROBERT: Leader of the English Separatists (from whom they received their popular name of Brownists), and generally considered the founder of the Congregationalists; b. at Tolethorp (3 m. n. of Stamford), Rutlandshire, about 1550; d at Northampton after June 2, 1631. He was of good family and had influential relatives on both his father's and his mother's side, including the great chancellor, Lord Burghley. He studied at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge (B.A., 1572). It is said that in 1571 he was domestic chaplain to Thomas Howard, duke of Norfolk, and that the duke took his part in some obscure trouble with the ecclesiastical authorities; but this is doubtful. He taught school for three years (seventeenth century writers say in or near London) and made "enemies" by freely speaking his mind concerning "many things amiss, and the cause of all to be the woeful and lamentable state of the Church." In 1578 or 1579 he returned to Cambridge. At this time his views seem to have ripened. Holding that the true Church consisted only of such as led Christian lives and did not properly include all baptized persons, he declared that "the kingdom of God was not to be begun by whole parishes, but rather of the worthiest, were they never so few." He publicly harangued against "the calling and authorizing of preachers by bishops," preached constantly to Puritan audiences (acceptably, it would appear) although he had no bishop's license, and, when his brother obtained a license for him, disdained it. Naturally he was silenced, and illness compelled him temporarily to comply with the bishop's mandate.

About 1580 Browne went to Norwich, attracted thither by a friend, Robert (or Richard) Harrison, who became his coworker. Here he organized his first church and soon extended the field of his operations as far as Bury St. Edmunds. The bishop of Norwich complained of him as a preacher of "corrupt and contentious doctrine" and likely to mislead "the vulgar sort of people," but Burghley protected him. Nevertheless Norwich was made so uncomfortable for the little band that about Jan., 1582, most of them, with their pastor, emigrated to Middelburg in Zealand. Browne's impulsive and imperious character, as well as the principles of the congregation, did not promote unity. After two years of continual discussion and division, with four or five families, he left for Scotland. They arrived in Edinburgh Jan., 1584, and at once commenced the propagation of their peculiar doctrines. They "held opinion of separation from all kirks where excommunication was not rigorously used against open offenders not repenting; they would not admit witnesses [sponsors] in baptism, and sundry other opinions they had." Within a week Browne was summoned before the session of the kirk; he was imprisoned, but only for a short time; and soon, unhindered, if not covertly encouraged by the secular authorities, he traveled 280over Scotland. He returned to England, and, possibly, again visited Holland.

It has generally been supposed that Browne kept on as zealously and offensively as ever so far as his strength—which was beginning to break owing to imprisonments and hardships—permitted, continually harassed by the authorities and favored by Burghley, until 1586; that in that year the bishop of Peterborough excommunicated him, and this so wrought upon him that he changed completely, submitted to the Church, and thenceforth lived quietly, and, after a few years, in the enjoyment of a good benefice. Mr. Burrage transfers the excommunication to a later period and gives the date of Browne's submission Oct. 7, 1585. In Nov., 1586, he was elected master of St. Olave's Grammar-school in Southwark, binding himself to abstain from propagating his peculiar doctrines and to live as a member of the Church. His controversial powers were now employed against his former associates, Henry Barrow and John Greenwood. In Sept., 1591, he received the living of Achurch-cum-Thorpe, Northamptonshire; he was ordained deacon and priest on Sept. 30, and he remained at Achurch for forty uneventful years. For a period of ten years (1816–26) the entries in the parish register are not in his handwriting. Mr. Burrage thinks that this was the time when he was under sentence of excommunication by the bishop of Peterborough, and that the cause was a manifestation of Separatist tendencies encouraged by Browne in his parish. If this be so he made submission a second time, for his handwriting reappears in the register. His last entry is dated June 2, 1631, and in Nov., 1633, a new rector took his place. He died in Northampton jail, committed for striking a constable who came to him to collect a debt, and having shown something of his early fervid manner when brought before a justice in consequence.

Browne's biographers have been much puzzled to explain or extenuate his extraordinary conduct in making terms with the Church. It has been urged that he was broken physically and mentally in 1586; but he can not have been forty years old at that time and he lived forty-five years afterward. Dr. Dexter's suggestion that he was naturally of unsound mind with a tendency to insanity which at times became acute has found wide acceptance. It would explain not only Browne's own conduct but also the long forbearance and continued kindness which he enjoyed from Burghley and others. Mr. Burrage thinks that "at last he had become wearied of the continual criticism to which his views in the past had subjected him, and probably had honestly come to feel that he might be of really more service to the world, as it was, not by wearing himself out by combating established ideas, but rather by accepting what the world offered him and by using the advantage he had thus gained to the furtherance of his higher ideals."

The starting-point of Browne's views and system seems to have been his conviction that the spiritual welfare of true Christians required their separation from others who were Christians in name only. It was futile to hope that such separation would be brought about by the bishops and clergy of the Established Church or by the civil rulers. Yet the necessity for it was immediate. Hence the only course possible was for the faithful to secede and organize themselves. A voluntary association or covenant of true believers constituted a church, and each church had the exclusive right of discipline and the choice of its own officers. Two kinds of officers are designated in the New Testament: apostles, prophets, evangelists are temporary and belong to the past; the abiding officers are the pastor, teacher, elders, deacons, and widows who have their charge in one church only. The presence of these officers does not release any member from the duty of watching and helping the others, and a similar responsibility exists between churches. The civil authorities should have nothing to do with spiritual matters, and it is not their province to enforce conformity to any ecclesiastical system. He was thus the first Englishman to express the Anabaptist doctrine of complete separation of Church and State. See Congregationalists, I., 1, §§ 1–2.

Browne published three treatises at Middelburg (1582), entitled respectively: (1) A Book which Sheweth the Life and Manners of All True Christians, and how unlike they are unto Turks and Papists and heathen folk; also the points and parts of all divinity that is of the revealed will and word of God are declared by their several definitions and divisions in order (extracts in Walker, pp. 18–27); (2) 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 (reprinted, Boston, "Old South Leaflet, no. 100 "; with biographical introduction by T. G. Crippen, London, 1903); (3) A Treatise upon the 23d of Matthew, both for an order of studying and handling the Scriptures and also for avoiding the popish disorders and ungodly communion of all false Christians, especially of wicked preachers and hirelings (extracts in Burrage, pp. 21–25). These were intended primarily to further his cause in England and were spread abroad by his followers; two men were hanged in 1583 for disseminating them (see Coppin, John). Several other publications or manuscripts of Browne's are mentioned (Mr. Burrage, True Story, pp. 74–75, enumerates twenty-five) and the following are known to be preserved: (4) A True and Short Declaration both of the Gathering and Joining together of Certain Persons, and also of the lamentable breach and division which fell among them (1584?; reprinted in The Congregationalist, London, 1882), the story of Browne's early life; (5) An Answer to Master Cartwright's Letter for joining with the English Churches (London, n.d.; extracts in Burrage, pp. 31–36); (6) A Reproof of Certain Schismatical Persons [Henry Barrow and John Greenwood] and their doctrine, touching the hearing and preaching of the word of God (manuscript written probably in 1588, discovered by Mr. Burrage and published by him, Oxford, 1907); (7) A letter addressed "My good Uncle," and dated "the last of December, 1588" [Jan. 10, 1589], discovered and published with introduction by Champlin Burrage under the title A New Years Guift (London, 1904). The letter is quoted by Richard Bancroft, afterward archbishop of Canterbury, in a sermon at Paul's Cross, Feb. 9, 1588, and the manuscript discovered by Mr. Burrage is indorsed in what is believed to be Brancroft's handwriting "Mr. Browne's Answer to Mr. Flower's Letter." One sheet (4 pages) is lacking, but the part preserved contains more than 6,000 words, discusses the subject of church government at considerable length, and is particularly interesting for the idea which it gives of Browne's views concerning the Church of England at the time of writing; (8) A letter to Burghley, Apr. 15, 1590, printed by Strype in the Life and Acts of John Whitgift, appendix, bk. iii., no. xlv. (appendix, pp. 133–134, ed. London, 1718).

Bibliography: T. Fuller, Church History of Great Britain, book ix., cent. xvi., sect. vi., §§ 1–7, 64–69, ed. J. S. 281Brewer, 6 vols., London, 1845; C. H. Cooper, Athenæ Cantabrigienses, ii. 177–178, London, 1858–61; H. M. Dexter, Congregationalism of the Last Three Hundred Years, New York, 1880; W. Walker, Creeds and Platforms of Congregationalism, pp. 1–27, ib. 1893; idem, History of the Congregational Churches in the United States, 31–41, ib. 1894; DNB, vii. 57–61; C. Burrage, The True Story of Robert Browne (1550–1603), Father of Congregationalism, Oxford, 1906.

« Browne, Peter Browne, Robert Browne, Sir Thomas »
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