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Robert Browne

c.1553-1633. English Separatist leader. Born in Rutland, he went to Cambridge and there came under the Presbyterian influence of Thomas Cartwright.* In 1573 he graduated, and while he was a school teacher his thinking developed in a Puritan separatist direction. In 1579 he began to preach in Cambridgeshire churches, refusing to accept the bishop's permission on the ground that the calling and authority of bishops was unlawful and that true authority lay in the gathered church. He concluded that the parishes were incapable of reform and that this would have to begin among “the worthiest were they never so few.” In 1580 he was forbidden to preach by the council. In Norwich, Browne convinced Robert Harrison of his views, and together they organized separatist churches locally. His ideas effectively undermined the church-state relationship achieved by the Elizabethan Settlement,* and he was imprisoned several times-though his relationship to Lord Burghley helped to secure his release.

Persecuted by the authorities, the new church was persuaded that it was better to settle abroad; thus in 1582 it emigrated to Middlebrugh in Zeeland. While there, Browne set forth his views in the Treatise of Reformation without Tarrying for Anie and the Booke which Sheweth the Life and Manners of all True Christians. He argued that the Church of England was beyond reformation and that the true church should be established without tarrying for the magistrate. He quarreled with Harrison, however, and was excommunicated by the church in 1583 and eventually returned to England. By 1585 he had made peace with Archibishop Whitgift* and by 1591 was sufficiently orthodox to be ordained to a Northamptonshire living which he occupied for the next forty- three years. In 1633 he died in prison after a fit of aggression against the local constable. He is often called “the Father of English Congregationalism” and the followers of his ideas were known as Brownists (a term of abuse).

C. Burrage, The True Story of Robert Browne (1906); A.L. Peel and L.H. Carlson, The Writings of Robert Harrison and Robert Browne (1953); H.C. Porter, Puritanism in Tudor England (1970).