3 Browne, Robert

Browne, Robert

(c. 1550-1633)
   early English radical reformer
   Claimed by both Baptists and Congregational-ists, Robert Browne was the founder of an independent church movement in Elizabethan England notable for its rejection of church-state connections. Born into a well-to-do family near Stamford, England, about 1550, he attended Cambridge University, graduating from Corpus Christi College in 1572. He became a schoolmaster at Southwark and also began to preach at Islington, where he first espoused some of his separatist, Puritan notions.
   At the end of the 1570s, he returned to Cambridge, where he lived with a Puritan clergyman, Richard Greenham; loyal to the Church of England, Greenham was known for his simplicity in both dress and worship. Here, Browne's ideas were nurtured, and he concluded that the voice of the church rested with the people, not with bishops. When Browne was placed in charge of the Benet Church in Cambridge, he refused to seek the legitimizing authority of the local bishop, refused his stipend, and used his pulpit to attack episcopal authority. The city council and the bishop moved to stop his preaching.
   Now unemployed, Browne visited Holland, then the most religiously tolerant nation in Europe, where he probably made contact with Anabaptist leaders. He returned to settle in Norwich, known as a refugee center of Dutch who had earlier fled from Spanish rule. With a friend, Robert Harrison, he formed the first British independent congregation around 1580. The structuring of the congregation included instruction in Browne's basic understanding of church life and the adoption of a covenant in which believers joined themselves to God and elected their leaders, to whom they promised obedience. They adopted procedures for receiving new members and for removing any who proved unworthy. officers included the pastor, the teacher, the elders, the deacons, and the widows. Anticipating other such congregations, Browne made provisions for associative fellowships of congregations.
   Browne became an enthusiastic propagandist for separatism and soon faced the first of his many imprisonments. in 1581, the congregation as a group relocated to Middleburg, which brought him up against Thomas Cartwright, who had been fired from his position at Cambridge for advocating Presbyterianism, which opposed bishops but still wanted formal ties with the government.
   Browne lived two tumultuous years at Middle-berg, during which time he published three works outlining his position. in the end, his conflicts with other Puritans and his brash manner turned the church at Middleberg against him as an "unlawful pastor." He withdrew and went to Scotland, Harrison inheriting leadership of the congregation, which dispersed in the 1590s. In 1593, Elizabeth I condemned Browne and had the two men who attempted to distribute his works executed.
   After failing in 1584 to bring the Presbyterians of Scotland into the Independents' camp, he returned to England. Two years later, he relented, offered his assent to the Church of England, and returned to his old occupation as a schoolmaster. Five years later, he became rector of Achurch-cuin-Thorpe in Northamptonshire, where he lived quietly for the next 40 years, married twice, having outlived his first wife, and fathered nine children. In 1633, he died in jail after assaulting a local constable.
   In later centuries, the Baptists would see in him a precursor, though he did not voice opinions on adult BAPTISM. He was also claimed by the Congregationalist Puritans, who arose in the next century, though he argued for complete disconnection from the state. Closest to his approach were the Pilgrims, the small band that left England for Holland and eventually settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
   Further reading:
   ■ Stephen Brachlow, The Communion of Saints: Radical Puritan and Separatist Ecclesiology 1570-1625 (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1988)
   ■ A. Peel and L. H. Carlson, eds., The Writings of Robert Harrison and Robert Browne (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1953)
   ■ Fredericke J. Powicke, Robert Browne: Pioneer of Modern Congregationalism (London: Congregational Union, 1910)
   ■ R. B. White, The Development of the Doctrine of the Church among English Separatists with Special Reference to Robert Browne and John Smyth (Oxford: Oxford University, Ph.D. diss., 1961); , The English Separatist Tradition from the Marian Martyrs to the Pilgrim Fathers (London: Oxford University Press, 1971).

Encyclopedia of Protestantism. . 2005.

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