Browne, Robert

views updated Jun 08 2018


BROWNE, ROBERT (c. 15501633), leading Protestant Separatist from the Church of England in the reign of Elizabeth I. Although he finally conformed, his teaching anticipated much in later Independency, or Congregationalism. He was born at Tolesthorpe in Rutlandshire. For about twenty years after leaving Cambridge, he was an active Separatist. On receiving the bishop's license to preach in 1579, he threw it in the fire, asserting that he preached "not as caring for or leaning on the Bishop's authority, but only to satisfy his duty and conscience." He helped gather a dissenting congregation in Norwich in 1518 and was frequently imprisoned. In 1582 he was in exile in Holland.

During exile, he wrote the tracts that later became influential among more radical Protestants in which he insisted on the voluntary nature of church membership. The best-known is A treatise of Reformation without Tarying for Anie (1582). A Booke which Sheweth the life and Manner of All true Christians (1582) is the first outline of an Independent church polity.

Browne was a contentious individualist who frequently had to be rescued from trouble by his kinsman Lord Burghley. He fell out with his fellow Separatists Henry Barrow and John Greenwood over the eldership. In 1586, he became master of Saint Olave's School in Southwark but continued to minister to dissenting congregations. In 1591, however, Burghley presented him with the living of a church in Northamptonshire, where he remained for the rest of his life. He appears to have continued to be contentious even in conformity, because he died in Northampton jail after assaulting a constable.

Browne is best thought of as a precursor rather than a founding father of the later Congregational churches. The word Brownists became a general term of abuse for English Protestants who favored a democratic church polity.


Little book-length literature is available other than an edition of Browne's writings in Albert Peel and Leland H. Carlson's The Writings of Robert Harrison and Robert Browne (London, 1953). See also Champlin Burrage's The True Story of Robert Browne, 1550?1633, Father of Congregationalism (Oxford, 1906).

Daniel Jenkins (1987)

Browne, Robert

views updated May 08 2018


First post-reformation separatist from Church of England, claimed by Congregationalists in England and America as first exponent of their principle of church government; b. Tolethorpe, Rutland, 1550; d. Northampton, 1633. Browne was influenced at Cambridge by Thomas Aldrich and Thomas cartwright, leaders of a strong puritan, presbyterian party there, and took to preaching, fervently and effectively, in London and Cambridge, without episcopal license. He denounced ordination, all Church government, and everything remotely connected with popery. For him, the Christian Church was in no sense catholic, but exclusive to the chosen few with no call to convert the wicked. Putting theory into practice, he preached in Norwich and Bury St. Edmunds to small groups calling themselves "the church" and known as Brownists. For this "schism" Browne was imprisoned, but was freed by order of Secretary Cecil, a kinsman, whose campaign at that moment to check Jesuit and Catholic activities led him to leniency toward Protestant sects. Browne and his Norwich "church" migrated in 1581 to Middelburg in Holland, where he published A Book which sheweth the Life Manner of all True Christians and A Treatise of Reformation without Tarrying for Any. This violently dictatorial man soon quarreled with his flock and left for Scotland (1583), where he carried on his denunciation of everything ecclesiastical. Having been jailed by the kirk, Browne was suddenly and unexplainably released, and he left for England. He was again imprisoned for his subversive writings, again released at Cecil's personal intervention, but he was excommunicated for contempt of the Established Church. Making a complete volte-face, at least outwardly, Browne submitted, was episcopally ordained (1591), and became rector of Achurch, Northants, until his death in Northampton jail, where he was sent for assaulting a police constable. Despite his mental unbalance, he had considerable influence on the development of Congregationalism.

Bibliography: c. burrage, The True Story of Robert Browne (London 1906) with full list of his writings. a. peel, The First Congregational Churches (Cambridge, Eng. 1920). The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church 201202. a. jessopp, The Dictionary of National Biography from the Earliest Times to 1900 (London 18851900) 3:5761.

[g. albion]

Browne, Robert

views updated May 29 2018

Browne, Robert (c.1550–1633). An early puritan separatist preacher and pamphleteer, Browne was born in Rutland of a wealthy family. After graduating from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge (1572), where he was under Cartwright's influence, he had a spell in London as a schoolmaster and open-air preacher (1572–8) and then in Cambridgeshire. Hostile to any form of church government, he and Robert Harrison established independent congregations, later known as Brownists, in East Anglia. Arrested for heresy (1581), but protected by his kinsman Burghley, he emigrated to Middelburg (the Netherlands), where he continued publishing heretical literature. At odds with other puritan exiles, he returned to England (1583), was imprisoned, but, after submitting to the church, became master of Stamford Grammar School (1586–91). Accepting episcopal ordination (1591), he was rector of Achurch (Northants) until his death. A turbulent, unstable character, he is still regarded by many as a founder of congregationalism.

Revd Dr William M. Marshall

Browne, Robert

views updated Jun 27 2018

Browne, Robert (1550–1633) English clergyman, founder of the “Brownists”, a separatist religious sect. In Reformation without Tarrying for Any (1582), he presented the first argument for Congregationalism. In 1584, he was imprisoned and late excommunicated. By 1591, Brown had been reconciled to the Church of England.