Robert Browne (1550-1633), a leader among the early Separatist Puritans (hence sometimes called Brownists), was born about 1550 at Tolethorpe, near Stamford. He was of an ancient family, several members of which had been distinguished as merchants, county magnates and local benefactors. He was educated at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, "commencing B.A." in 1572. For some years he was a schoolmaster, but in what place is uncertain. In 1579, on a brother's application and without his own consent, he was licensed to preach, and actually preached for some six months in Cambridge, where he gained considerable popularity; but impugning the episcopal order of the Established Church, he had his licence revoked early in the following year. He then went, on the invitation of Robert Harrison, "Maister in the Hospitall," to Norwich, where he soon gathered a numerous congregation, the members of which became associated in a religious "covenant," to the refusing of "all ungodlie communion with wicked persons." He seems also to have preached in various parts of Norfolk and Suffolk, especially at Bury St Edmunds, and vigorously denounced the form of government existing in the Church, which at this time he held incompatible with true "preaching of the word." Dr Freake, bishop of Norwich, caused him to be imprisoned early in 1581, but he was ere long released through the influence of his remote kinsman, the Lord Treasurer Burghley. Before the end of 1581, however, he incurred two more imprisonments, and, apparently in January 1582, migrated with his whole company to Middelburg in Zealand. There they organized a church on what they conceived to be the New Testament model, but the community broke up within two years owing to internal dissensions.

Meanwhile, Browne issued two most important works, A Treatise of Reformation without Tarying for Anie, in which he asserts the inalienable right of the church to effect necessary reforms without the authorization or permission of the civil magistrate; and A Booke which sheweth the life and manners of all True Christians, in which he enunciates the theory of Congregational independency (see Congregationalism). These, with a third tract (A Treatise upon the 23. of Matthew, see C. Burrage, as below, pp. 21-25), making together a thin quarto, were published at Middelburg in 1582. The following year two men were hanged at Bury St Edmunds for circulating them. In January 1584[1] Browne and some of his company came to Edinburgh, after visiting Dundee and St Andrews. He remained some months in Scotland, endeavouring to commend his ecclesiastical theories, but had no success. He then returned to Stamford, in which town or neighbourhood he seems to have resided chiefly for the next two years, his residence being broken by visits to London and probably to the continent (early in 1585), and by at least one imprisonment (summer, 1585). His attitude to the lawfulness of occasional attendance at services in parish churches seems to have been changing about this time; on the 7th of October 1585 he was induced to make a qualified submission to the established order.

The story that this result was brought about by excommunication, actual or threatened, is very doubtful, and rests on late and questionable authority. A further submission prepared the way for his appointment, in November 1586, to the mastership of St Olave's grammar school, Southwark, which he held for more than two years. During part of this time he was much engaged in controversy, on the one hand with Stephen Bredwell, an uncompromising advocate of the established order, and on the other with some of those who more or less occupied his own earlier position, and now looked upon him as a renegade. In particular he several times replied to Barrowe and Greenwood; one of his replies, entitled A Reproofe of certaine schismatical persons and their doctrine touching the hearing and preaching of the word of God (1587-1588), has recently been recovered, and sheds a flood of light upon the development of Browne's later views (see Burrage, pp. 45-62, for this whole period).

Before the 20th of June 1589 his mastership of St Olave's seems to have terminated, and after being rector of Little Casterton (in the gift of his eldest brother) for a month or two, he finally, in September 1591, accepted episcopal ordination and the rectory of Achurch-cum-Thorpe Waterville, in Northamptonshire. There he ministered for forty-two years, with one lengthy interval, 1617-1626, which is only partly accounted for (see Burrage, pp. 68-71). There is reason to believe that he never entirely abandoned his early ideal, but latterly thought it possible to maintain a spiritual fellowship within the framework of the Established Church. The closing years of his life seem to have been clouded, due partly to separation among his own flock, and partly to growing irritability in himself, a lonely and disappointed man. When over eighty years old he had a dispute with the parish constable about a rate, blows were struck, and before a magistrate he behaved so stubbornly that he was sent to Northampton gaol, where he died in October 1633. He was buried in St Giles's churchyard, Northampton. In spite of his later attitude of compromise with expediency, which he felt forced on him by external conditions too strong to defy or ignore, Robert Browne remains a pioneer in ecclesiastical theory in England, the first formulator of an ideal which subsequently became known as Congregationalism (q.v.). He rediscovered certain forgotten aspects of primitive church life, and did not shrink from suffering for the sake of what he held to be the truth.

In addition to the works above-mentioned, Browne wrote several controversial and apologetic treatises, of which some remained in MS. until quite recently, and some are still missing.

See H.M. Dexter, The Congregationalism of the Last Three Hundred Years (1880); C. Burrage, The True Story of Robert Browne (Oxford, 1906); Congregational Historical Society's Transactions, passim (1901-1906).

[1] Probably after writing A True and Short Declaration, the main source of our knowledge of his life hitherto.