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Robert Browne (1550? – 1633)

by J H Shakespeare, from Baptist and Congregational Pioneers, 1906

This commemorative stone is part of a memorial to Robert Browne situated in the churchyard of St Giles, Northampton.

Robert Browne MemorialThe supreme importance of Robert Browne as a pioneer arises, not from the greatness or worth of the man himself, but from the value and vitality of the truth which he rediscovered. “That so powerful and intelligent a body as the Congregationalists,” says Dr. Jessop, “should strive to affiliate themselves to so eccentric a person as Browne, . . . will always appear somewhat strange to outsiders.” But no unbiassed student of his strange and stormy career could rest his claim to veneration on any other ground than that he reached a truth which men, vastly superior in character and learning, failed to grasp. It was a truth no less precious because, in later days, he fell away from his apostleship. The cause he championed was not less sacred in that – while others, who had “learned his great language,” witnessed to it by their blood – he himself broke “from the van and the freemen,” and assumed the livery of the system which he had despised. But, at least, it should be remembered that he passed within, where Luther and Calvin only stood upon the threshold; that, with the genius of an ecclesiastical statesman, he formed the first Congregational Church on English soil, and that, for a time, in spite of suffering and imprisonment, he was content to stand alone against the religious world of his day, against Catholic, Anglican, and Puritan.

Robert Browne Memorial textWhat was the truth which had been lost, which Robert Browne found and which can never be lost again? It was the primitive doctrine of the Church. It was the return to Corinth, Philippi, and Rome. The visible Church had come to be regarded as a vast historic organisation under a certain form of government. It might be a world-wide system owning the Roman obedience; or a Church within a geographical area, a national Church under the supremacy of the Crown; or it might be Calvin’s conception of Church government through Presbyters. But the issue was everywhere the same. The single, individual Church was wiped out. It vanished and was denied. The congregation or the parish took its place. Even Puritanism held that every baptized person, not excommunicate, was a member of the Church, and looked to the civil magistrate to execute its discipline. But Browne reaffirmed the New Testament ideal of the visible Church. He rediscovered the visible society of Jesus. He held that it was responsible for its own purity. Later on, we shall inquire how far in all this he was indebted to the Continental Anabaptists, but it is certain that Browne ranks with the world’s religious pioneers, inasmuch as he taught that “the essence, substance, and life of the outward Church” was nothing else but “the keeping of the covenant by the outward discipline and government thereof,” and that neither ministry nor sacraments could “make an outward Church, except they have the power of Christ to separate the unworthy.” He formed such a separate company of believers, self-governing, under the authority of Christ. Some of his words ring to-day with all the clearness and vehemence of battle cries,” Reformation without tarrying for any,” “Let them know that the Lord’s people is of the willing sort.” Like every true Congregationalist, he was a High Churchman. “Yea, the Church hath more authority,” he said, “concerning Church government than magistrates, as it is written (Isa. xlv.), ‘They shall follow thee and go in chains.’” Most pioneers miss their way and make serious mistakes, and he was no exception to the rule. He was as a man hewing a path through a dark, trackless forest and vast masses of undergrowth. In himself, as in his work, the fine gold was mingled with much dross. His teaching was sometimes inconsistent and even halting, but he did that which England needed most in his day, and his Separatism was the inevitable reaction against the identification of the Church and the State.

Browne came of a family of wealthy merchants of which the earliest trace is at Stamford in the fourteenth century. His ancestors were distinguished by riches and liberality, by civic services and honours. Three became aldermen of Stamford and two were sheriffs of Rutlandshire. One founded a hospital for decayed tradesmen and another restored All Saints’ Church in his native town. His grandfather was entitled by special charter of Henry VIII. to remain covered in the presence of king and lords. The fragment of family history which had the chief bearing on his career was the marriage of his great-uncle with an aunt of Lord Burghley. Robert was born at the family manor of Tolethorpe, two miles from Stamford, about 1550, and was the third of seven children of Anthony Browne, “a man of some countenance,” and his wife Dorothy, daughter of Sir Philip Boteler.

It is uncertain of which college he became a member when he went to Cambridge in 1570, but it is probable that, after his matriculation, he migrated to Corpus Christi, where he graduated in 1572, being placed eighteenth on the list. He may have been drawn to Corpus by early theological sympathies, as the celebrated Puritan leader, Thomas Aldrich had been appointed master of the college in 1569. Two men destined to play an important part in the story were at Cambridge at this time. Thomas Cartwright was made Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity in 1569, and attracted crowds of students by his fiery genius and dialectic skill, until he was deprived of his post in 1571. Perhaps Browne’s animus against Cartwright and his teaching began already. Robert Harrison, afterwards co-pastor at Norwich and Middleberg, had removed from St. John’s to Corpus Christi, and was now a fellow-student and acquaintance of Browne. Nothing further is known of the period spent by him at the university, except that he was counted so “forward in religion” that he aroused suspicions and made some enemies by his zeal. Strype’s statement that he was domestic chaplain to Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, is inherently improbable. The duke was at this very time deeply implicated with the Papist party, and it is almost ludicrous to suppose that his chaplain should be this youthful and budding Separatist, who was not even in orders. Dr. Jessop suggests that “Strype has confused Robert Browne with” Brown, the Shrewsbury merchant, “implicated when the Ridolfi conspiracy was discovered.” But the latter’s connection with the plot and with the duke was so slight and accidental as to make this very unlikely. On the completion of his course Browne gave himself for the space of three years to the teaching of children. Report has it that the school of which he became a master was at Southwark, and that he also preached in the Gravel Pits at Islington. “By the grudge of his enemies” he was discharged from his office, but continued still to teach privately until, driven away by the severity of the plague, he returned to his father’s house in 1578.

We enter now upon the period in Robert Browne’s history in which, with unaffected earnestness and passionate longing, he sought to find the light and to follow it. Good men may differ as to the conclusions which he reached, but his sincerity and overwhelming desire to bring about a reformation of religion are not open to question. He had always been set on the Church of God, and now resolved to seek its profit in the best way he could. His first step, then, was to leave the quiet haven at Tolethorpe and to go back to Cambridge. He became a member of the household of a Puritan clergyman at Dry Draytori, the Rev. Richard Greenham. This good “preaching minister” was one of those who remained loyal to the Church of England, but clung resolutely to simplicity of dress and worship. It is a beautiful picture which we get of the life within this sixteenth-century manse and parish, the regular and frequent preaching, the teaching of children, the early service, as soon as the dawn broke, that the labourers might hear the Word, the morning and evening prayers in the home, the Christian instruction of the servants, the daily charities, the young men whom he gathered round him and cared for. He was such an one as Chaucer’s poor parson who taught Christ’s lore, “and first he followed it himself.” Into this idyllic scene, the young enthusiast came, in 1578, with many thoughts and hopes. What these thoughts and purposes were, he himself tells us in A True and Short Declaration. Even while he had been a teacher of children in Southwark, he had been sore grieved at the woful and lamentable state of the Church, and had given himself wholly to search out the proper guidance and order of the Church and the abuses in ecclesiastical government. “Night and day he did consult with himself and others about them.” But when he entered into Mr. Greenham’s home, his convictions rapidly became clear and positive. He saw that the voice of the Church, that is, the voice of the whole people, was the voice of God, so that next under Christ was not the bishop, not even an apostle, but the Church. The primacy of the Church he judged not only to be “against the wickedness of the bishops, but also against their whole power and authority.” The bishops, in forcing ministers upon the people, presumed further than Christ, Who would not suffer His apostles to take charge of any who did not willingly receive them. Evidently Browne was on the high road to Congregationalism. We can almost hear the long debates in the manse at Dry Drayton. Mr. Greenham had doubtless listened to Cartwright in the Lady Margaret lectures, and would urge, as he did, that since the bishops both preached the Word of God and had the Sacraments, they must needs have the Church and the people of God. The persistent objector would reply that to preach the Word of God “as it is written in Jeremiah xxiii. 22” was to teach the people “those things whereby they might turn them from their evil ways.” As the bishops did not call the people from their sins, but rather led them in the same, they did not preach the Word of God. At his first coming to Dry Drayton, the young Browne began to expound the Scriptures, which were read at the manse table after meals. Then Mr. Greenham, without leave of the bishop, suffered him to teach openly in his parish. His gifts were evident, and, with the consent of the mayor and vice-chancellor of the university, he took charge of the Benet Church in Cambridge for six months.

Obviously, the natural course for so earnest and gifted a preacher was to obtain the bishop’s license, but he was resolved not to seek this authority. Dr. Jessop is mistaken in thinking that he must have been ordained at an earlier period. “To be authorised of them” (the bishops), “to be sworn, to subscribe, to be ordained, and to receive their licensing, he utterly misliked and kept himself clear in those matters.” He refused the bishop’s seals, which were obtained for him by his brother. He openly preached in Cambridge against “the calling and authorising of preachers by bishops.” He came to the conclusion “that the kingdom of God was not to be begun by whole parishes, but rather of the worthiest, were they never so few.” He refused the stipend which the Benet Church sent to him. But the bishop and council saw in him a dangerous man, and he was inhibited from preaching. The labours, mental conflicts, and spiritual agitations of the past six months laid him low. It was borne in upon his mind that hitherto the Lord had only tried and prepared him “to a further and more effectual message.” With many tears he sought where he might find those like-minded with himself. He had reached the turning point of his career. The Lord was about to set before him an open door.

Two events now occurred of vital moment and far-reaching consequences, which, in reality, determined his ecclesiastical course. One was his visit to Middleberg, in Zeeland. Until recently there has been no confirmation of Fuller’s statement that Browne “perched himself” in the city of Norwich after his visit to the Low Countries. Biographers have unanimously assigned the visit to Zeeland to a later date; but the story of this period must be re-written in the light of a recent discovery by Mr. Champlin Burrage in the British Museum. On February 19, 1589 (New Style), Bancroft quoted in his sermon at St. Paul’s Cross a few passages from some writings of Robert Browne, of which all trace was lost. It was supposed that Bancroft had in his possession a treatise by Browne, but in 1903, Mr. Burrage, searching in the British Museum, lighted upon twelve folio pages beautifully and compactly written, containing Bancroft’s quotation, which proved to be a letter by Browne to his uncle, Mr. Flower, written January 10, 1589 (N. S.). In this letter we read these words: “Before my first voyage beyond the sea and since my last return.” It is probable, therefore, that Browne went to Zeeland twice, first in 1579, or 1580, for a little while, and again in 1581. The version which quaint old Fuller gives of the first journey is somewhat prejudiced, “Browne went over into Zeeland to purchase himself more reputation from foreign parts. For a smack of travail gives an high taste to strange opinions, making them better relish to the licourish lovers of novelty.” It was quite natural that, in this time of his mental and spiritual agitation, Browne’s thoughts should turn to Holland, which through the successful rebellion against Mva’s rule, was the only spot in Europe where religious liberty and equal toleration could be found, and here perhaps he would worship with Cartwright’s Puritan congregation. He would converse with Dutch Anabaptists, and would no doubt hear much of the Dutch congregation in the city of Norwich.

The other important and formative event in his career was the visit to Norwich, that ancient and beautiful city, then one of the first cities of the kingdom, which was to be the birthplace of Congregationalism. Already it had opened its gates to the skilled and thrifty exiles of Alva’s infamous massacres. In 1587, the Dutch and Walloons, numbering 4,679, formed a majority of the population. In London, the Dutch congregation was under the care of the Bishop of London, and serious complaints were lodged that it included many Anabaptists. So in Norwich, the Dutch, by consent of the bishop, would worship in the Blackfriars’ Hall, still called the Dutch Church, and would likewise be infected with the Anabaptist heresy. It was partly through the influence of Robert Harrison that the visit was paid. Browne’s sometime fellowstudent had left Corpus Christi to be master of the county school at Aylsham, and was now the master of the Old Man’s Hospital in Norwich. This charity occupies the church originally dedicated to St. Giles, but is called St. Helen’s to avoid confusion with St. Giles’ Church in the west of the city. St. Helen’s Church itself disappeared after the Reformation. Harrison had paid a flying visit to Cambridge, intending to seek license from the bishop, but was dissuaded by Robert Browne, with whom he renewed his acquaintance, and who regarded the bishop’s authority as “trash and pollution.” Shortly afterwards, Browne “took his voyage” to Norwich and lodged with Harrison. They walked much together in the fields talking of religion. Harrison was no match for the powerful and overbearing personality of Browne, and at last “wholly yielded to the truth.” They talked of the lordship and government, of Christ, and whether they could be lawful pastors who had submitted themselves to the bishops, of the ways also by which men could find salvation and Christian assurance. Harrison made a stout resistance before he would give up the true ministry of some Puritan preachers, but afterwards he admitted them to be “like their fellows.” The fact is that Browne would not suffer him to have an opinion of his own. For example, they compared their Christian experience and “how faith was tried and wrought in them.” Harrison argued that faith might be wrought by reading the Scriptures, but Browne said that this could not be, but only by hearing the Word preached, as Paul saith, “How shall they believe in Him of Whom they have not heard, and how shall they hear without a preacher?” This did not mean hearing the Word read, for Paul saith that,” Faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the Word of God,” meaning the message in the mouth of the preacher. In vain Harrison urged that he was first called as he was reading the Bible, for he was answered that, “we may be deceived in such things,” and after this he surrendered at discretion.

It was, then, under the very shadow of the cathedral and the bishop’s palace, perhaps in Robert Browne’s room at the hospital, that the first Congregational Church in England was formed in 1580 or 1581. It was a tremendous act. It was a solemn hour, fraught with big destinies. The grim spectre of persecution and exile hung darkly above that little company, and yet around them was the glory of a new beginning for England and even for the world. Ignorant of much, sharing to the full in the intolerance of their time, this little branch of Christ’s people saw clearly that the stained, fettered Church of England was not God’s way, and to them was the unspeakable honour of bringing back the rights of the people of God.

Browne had thought long and deeply on the principles of Congregationalism, and it is, therefore, both interesting and important to see the manner of the planting of this Church. A day was set, a covenant made, and certain points were proved to the people from the Scriptures. “They promised their agreement to each thing particularly, saying, ‘To this we give our consent.”’ The terms of the covenant were chiefly these—they joined themselves to the Lord, and elected those who should watch for their souls, promising them obedience. They adopted an order for receiving any into fellowship and for separating the unworthy, and they engaged specially to warn and rebuke one another privately and openly. Church discipline proved to be to them, as later to so many, a rock of offence.

It should be carefully noted that Robert Browne taught that the officers of the particular Church were the Pastor, the Teacher, the Elders, the Deacons, and the Widows. Moreover, Congregationalism, as it was conceived and planned by him, had a place not only for the particular Church, but also for the association of Churches together for common ends. In the True and Short Declaration, he wrote, “For the joining and partaking of many Churches together, and of the authority which many have, must needs be greater and more weighty than the authority of any single person.” Again, in The Book which Sheweth, we read,” Who have the grace and office of teaching and guiding? Some have their several charge over many Churches. Some have charge but in one Church only. How have some their charge and office together? There be synods or the meetings of sundry Churches: which are when the weaker Churches seek help of the stronger, for deciding or redressing of matters: or else the stronger look to them for redress.” He defined a synod thus, “A synod is a joining or partaking of the authority of many Churches met together in peace for redress and deciding of matters which cannot well be otherwise taken up.” There has been an extreme Brownism, as there has been an extreme Calvinism, but selfish independency cannot shelter itself under the authority of the founder of Congregationalism.

The question has been hotly debated how far Robert Browne was an original discoverer, and to what extent he was indebted to the Anabaptists. It is almost certain, in spite of the contrary view held by Dexter, that he owed something to the Dutch Anabaptists. He had conversed with them in Zeeland, and in Norwich he had been in the midst of a large Dutch community. His thoughts were first drawn to Norwich because he had heard that there were some in that city who shared his convictions and sentiments. In his anxious consultations by day and night, Browne must have become acquainted with their views. His fundamental conception of the covenant was the Anabaptists’ conception. Mr. Champlin Burrage, in his work, The Church Covenant Idea, has pointed out that, twenty-five years earlier, an Anabaptist book was printed in English which affirmed the principle of particular Churches and laid emphasis on the covenant. Yet Browne was an independent thinker. He rejected the extreme tenets of the Anabaptists as to oaths, civil officers, and also their views on Baptism, and must in the fullest sense be regarded as a radical religious reformer.


The period of inquiry and speculation was ended. Browne had crossed the line, and he gave himself to the new propaganda with the fervour and energy of an apostle. Hearing that at Bury St. Edmunds there were many “forward in religion,” he went thither with his “arrogant spirit of reproof” and his fiery denunciation of the bishops. At the instance of certain godly preachers,” he was arrested and cast into prison for the first time. This was the beginning of his thirty-two imprisonments. The prison in those days was the scene of inevitable misery and horror, in which the unhappy victim was herded with the vilest scum and dregs of humanity. Often he was left to rot and perish in a dungeon cell so dark that he could not see his own hand. The Bishop of Norwich complained to Lord Burghley that Browne had already seduced “the vulgar sort of people,” who assembled themselves together to the number of a hundred to hear him. We can well believe that, but for the intervention of his powerful kinsman, the bishop would have made short work of this “troublesome man,” as Fuller calls him, but at Burghley’s request he was released. He at once returned to Bury St. Edmunds, again to preach and again to be arrested. This time he was incarcerated in London.

Meanwhile, the little company at Norwich, of which Browne was the Pastor, and Robert Harrison the Teacher, were sore beset and meditated flight to Scotland or to Jersey or Guernsey. Browne, from his prison, wrote to them not to go till they had further testified the truth; but at last, when some were in prison and the rest of them grievously persecuted, they all “ were fully persuaded that the Lord did call them out of England.” The bond of Church fellowship was very real. They migrated as a company in the autumn of 1581 to Middleberg.

And if the story could have ended here, it would have been well. The bright morning star was soon to be quenched in blackness and ruin. The exaggerated importance which Browne attached to “warning and rebuking, privately and publicly,” gives force to the sharp criticism of Dr. Jessop, “It was to be a society . . . for a miraculously gifted few.” On the one hand, was a Church without discipline, and on the other, a separated Church with a censorship which flagrantly violated Christ’s word, “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” The little company, which had set out to reform the Church of God, ended in sordid strife, backbiting and jealousy, failure and apostasy. The grave peril of the Church is to forget that the “fruit of the Spirit is love.”

At first it would appear that Robert Harrison and the Church joined themselves to the Puritan colony at Middleberg, of which Cartwright was the distinguished minister. Perhaps Browne had not yet arrived, and it is probable that, when his influence was felt, the Separatists withdrew. A letter, temperate, if not convincing, was addressed to Harrison by Cartwright, inviting him to return. Browne replied to it in a pamphlet ten times its length. He published the two letters, putting his own reply first, with the narve explanation that “if an untruth be once received it worketh such a prejudice in the head.” In this correspondence Browne showed at his very worst as a controversialist. He poured torrents of abuse upon Cartwright for his “fond and blasphemous” notions, and twisted his arguments about until they were unrecognisable.

The story of the Church at Middleberg is set down at some length in the True and Short Declaration. The members became estranged from their pastor, and when he fell sick, “they made ado secretly.” Meetings were called at which accusations were made against Browne, who privately rebuked Harrison, telling him that he knew several things against him if he liked to speak. There was great confusion at the Church meetings, and Browne insisted that one matter at a time should be debated and judged before another was raised. He was condemned as an unlawful pastor. There was some paltry question about a silver spoon. Browne resigned, but was brought back again, and, in an open meeting, each one confessed his fault. Again, and yet again, was Robert Browne condemned by the Church. There were whisperings and murmurings. Robert Browne’s wife had her share in the disputes. He was charged with divers heresies, and at last shook off the dust of his feet against the Church and, with a little remnant, set sail for Scotland.

Harrison was left behind as the pastor of the Church. He published some Forms of Catechism and a small treatise, but he disappears now from the story, and after his death in August, 1594, the Church at Middleberg was broken up and ceased to be.

During the two years spent at Middleberg, Browne issued from the press three treatises as an exposition of his views.

1. A Treatise of Reformation without Tarrying for Anie. 2. A Treatise upon the 23 of Matthewe. 3. A Book whick Sheweth the Life and Manners of all True Christians.

These treatises were printed both separately and together, and, being circulated in England, were honoured by a special proclamation against them from the Queen in June, 1583, and, in the same month, Elias Thacker and John Coppin were hanged at Bury St. Edmunds for effecting their distribution. As early as 1576, Coppin had refused to have his child baptized by an “unpreaching minister,” and had also declined to have godfathers and godmothers. But the offence through which they became the first martyrs of Congregationalism was, that they had been great dispersers of Browne’s pamphlets.

The student will turn to the Book which Sheweth for the best exposition of the grounds on which Browne separated from and reformed the Church, as well as for the most systematic account of his theology. It is a work of real insight, arranged in a series of questions and answers with definitions and divisions. The author states, with a pardonable pride, “As for the learned who seek deepness and stand in their methods and curious divisions, we have for their case taken some pains.” Congregationalism arose partly in opposition to the episcopal form of government in the Church of England, but much more as a protest against the complete obliteration of the distinction between the Church and the world. It weighed like an agonising burden upon the heart of Browne that the only local Church was the parish assembly, and that, to the Lord’s table, the most unworthy might come. This clearly was not the New Testament way. “There is a circulation, as in the fashion of clothes, so of opinion,” says Fuller, and he adds that Dr. Fulke proved the Brownists to be the same as the ancient Donatists. The statement is historically incorrect, and is made in radical ignorance of Donatism; but at any rate Browne’s teaching was not to be brushed aside as an old heresy. Among secondary points, the reader will notice that Browne held that, in baptism, the body was to be washed, sprinkled, or dipped, in which he was probably in agreement with the earlier modern Baptists. He taught, however, that the children of the faithful were members of the Church through the promise, and should be presented for baptism.

Dr. Dexter has said that Robert Browne is entitled to the proud pre-eminence of having been the first writer clearly to state and defend in the English tongue the true—and now accepted—doctrine of the relation of the magistrate to the Church.” It is a great claim, but before we reject the contrary opinion of Professor Masson, it will be necessary to examine the facts very carefully. There can be no doubt that Browne expressly excluded the magistrate from the control or discipline of the Church. He declared that the magistrates “have no ecclesiastical authority at all “; and again, “they may do nothing concerning the Church, but only civil and as civil magistrates; . . . that is, concerning the outward provision and outward justice, they are to look to it; but to compel religion, to plant churches by power and to force a submission to Ecclesiastical government by laws and penalties, belongeth not to them, as is proved before, neither yet to the Church.” This appears most satisfactory. There are, however, other passages which lead us to suspect that Browne was feeling his way to religious liberty, but was not always consistent with himself. Thus we find,” if then, the magistrate will command the soldier to be a minister, or the preacher to give over his calling, they ought not to obey him, for they have not the gift, and God bath called them this way rather than that, yet if a magistrate call one of a lower calling to a higher, to that which he is fit and prepared, he ought to obey, for God hath called him thereto.” This seems to bring the magistrate back again, but really the question has been settled by the discovery of the long-lost letter to Mr. Flower, to which we have already referred. In this letter Browne declares, “If, then, it be demanded who shall call and consecrate ministers, excommunicate and put down false teachers, let the word of God answer, which appointeth the chiefest and most difficult matters to be judged by them of chiefest authority and gifts . . . I answer that the civil magistrates have their right in all causes to judge and set order.” Later on, while still maintaining that the godly alone should choose the minister, he would admit the civil magistrate to be both present and director of the choice. It is true that these words were written two years after his subscription to the Church of England, but it is more than probable that, in this private letter, he expressed his real and unchanged opinion.

To return to the story. As we have seen, Browne left Middleberg towards the close of 1583, with a few faithful followers, and sailed for Scotland. Having dealt faithfully with the English Church without much apparent success, he now turned his attention to Presbyterianism in its citadel and Vatican. He made his way from Dundee to St. Andrews; thence, armed with a letter from Andrew Melville, on to Edinburgh. From the Canongate he made his assault upon the Church of John Knox, chiefly for its lack of discipline. Presbyterianism, however, was in no mood to be reformed. Browne was at once cited before the Kirk session, On January 21, 1584, he urged that “the whole discipline of Scotland was amiss,” and appealed to the magistrate. He was promptly clapped into the common gaol, and a report on his heresies sent to the King. But statecraft just then was not favourable to Scotland, and the order came for his release. He carried his message to other parts of the country, and then returned to England. His impressions of Scotland were naturally very unfavourable, and, in the letter to Mr. Flower, he gave as his judgment that, under the name of Presbyter, a pope or proud popeling might be hid, and that if Parliament should exchange bishop for presbyter, “instead of one pope we should have a thousand, and of some lord bishops in name a thousand lordly tyrants in deed.” This passage may have been in Milton’s thoughts when he wrote—

“New Presbyter is but old priest writ large.”

Browne added that he had travelled much in Scotland, and had “seen all manner of wickedness to abound, much more in their best places in Scotland, than in our worser places here in England,” and, with a hint at his sufferings, “in England also I have found much more wrong done me by the preachers of discipline than by any of the bishops.”

In July, 1584, we find Browne in London. Probably he now wrote the True and Short Declaration. In a letter from Burghley to Browne’s father, dated October 8, 1584, It would appear that he had been arrested by the order of the Archbishop of Canterbury on the charge of writing a certain book, but that he had been dealt with leniently on Burghley’s intervention. There is much warrant for Fuller’s description of his treatment as “extraordinary favour indulged unto him.” He returned to the old home at Tolethorpe a broken and disappointed man. But his father soon wearied of his company. “Men may wish—God only can work—children to be good.” Browne was removed to Stamford, and, in the spring of 1586, went to Northampton to preach and labour with something of the old fervour and energy. He was cited for trial by the Bishop of Peterborough, and failing to appear, was “excommunicated for contempt.”

But the end of Browne’s Separatism was at hand. Having given his assent to the doctrines of the Church of England, he was appointed master of St. Olave’s Grammar School, Southwark, on November 21, 1586, and signed strict articles in the Governor’s Minute Book not to meddle with the ministry or keep any conventicles, to take the children to church, and to commune himself. There is little further to record. On the 15th of April, 1590, he wrote a singular letter to Lord Burghley, enclosing some Latin tables and definitions, in which he based all the rules of art and learning on the Word of God. In 1591, through the influence of Burghley, he became rector of Achurch-cuin-Thorpe in Northamptonshire. Here he ministered for forty years. He was married twice, and nine children were born to him. He kept the parish register with the utmost care, except between September, 1617, and June, 1626, but it appears that there was a preacher or licensed curate in the parish continuously from 1604 to 1627. Some of the entries in Browne’s handwriting illustrate his originality”

“July, 1604. Marie Hobson an ould-poore maied.”

“1629, Nov. 7. A childe of my own gracious Godsonne Robert Green Baptized elsewere in Schisme.”

He sometimes preached in a little thatched house at Thorpe, where perhaps he still taught his particular principles of Church polity, not being allowed to do so in the parish Church.

Of this period many libellous stories are told. Fuller professes often to have seen him when a youth, and adds, “He had in my time a wife with whom for many years he never lived, and a church where he never preached.” But probably this, together with Bailey’s charge that he beat his poor old wife and called her a “cursed old woman,” is an infamous libel. The last entry by him in the parish register is dated June 2, 1631.

His end was tragic. He struck a constable who had somewhat roughly demanded the payment of a rate, and being summoned before the magistrate for the offence, was committed to Northampton gaol. The unhappy old man was more than eighty years of age, corpulent, and unwieldy. A feather bed was thrown upon a cart, and so he was taken to prison. For the last time he was to hear the clang of the prison door behind him, and on some date, not known with exactitude, but prior to November, 1633, Robert Browne - St Giles Churchyard, Northamptonthe passionate spirit burnt itself out. Fuller records that he was buried in a neighbouring churchyard, and adds, “It is no hurt to wish that his bad opinions had been interred with him,”

The problem of Robert Browne is insoluble. He carried the secret of his recantation with him to the grave. Never was any man more unfortunate in his public career. He was resolute and unresting in his search for the truth, but he left it to others to be its apostles, to suffer exile and death on its behalf, and to face the inevitable consequinces of its acceptance. His attitude towards Episcopacy had been one of unmeasured hatred and contempt, and it is difficult to believe that he ever really altered his opinions in this respect. This hatred was requited with equal virulence. “Hence the Church of England,” said Bishop Hall, in his reply to the Brownists, “justly matches Separatists with the vilest persons.  God Himself doeth so.” From the other side of the controversy the Congregational martyrs regarded him with loathing and scorn. “We are not Brownists,” said Barrow, before his judges. “Browne is an apostate,” said Greenwood, “now one of your Church.” For forty years the great pioneer of Israel’s freedom led the people of God out of the bondage of Egypt, through the wilderness, sharing their struggles, sacrifices, and perils, counting it enough that God was his refuge and dwellingplace; living in the future, not the present; sustained by the vision of a purified and redeemed Israel, and of a promised land when the first generation had passed away. But Robert Browne, as the darkness deepened, stole back silently from the Host of God which he had led into the wilderness, and, in the safety of an obscure rectory, for forty years, watched the tragic procession of events, and gave no sign. He lived on through that dark time of the struggle for freedom against king and bishops, while those who had been inspired by his words were hung or banished from the realm. Many have been the attempts to explain this recreancy, and probably the answer is not to be found in any single direction. It has been suggested that he had never contemplated being cast out of the Church of England, and that, when the limit of patience was reached, he hesitated and drew back. It has been urged that, beneath the strain of repeated imprisonment, mental agitation, and disappointing conflict with his own brethren, the highly strung and intense nature gave way; that Congregationalism had the pioneer, bold as a lion, keen and penetrating and mighty in the Scriptures, and that Anglicanism had the physical and mental wreck, the half-deranged and wholly terrified apostate. It is clear from the letter to Mr. Flower that the poor broken creature, like an animal which has been cruelly tortured, cowered at the possibility of again being flung into the dark and noisome dungeon. But, in spite of all that may justly be laid to the score of mental derangement, we believe that he had, in fact, lost faith in the value of Congregationalism as a practical and working theory of the Church. He felt that it was not worth dying for. We freely admit that the Congregationalism of the Church at Middeberg was not worth any sacrifice, and that it carried with it no spiritual enrichment for the world. It crumbled away beneath his hand, and he left it in ruins. It was Congregationalism with love left out, and in which liberty had become the cloak of maliciousness; and just as the corruption of the best is always the worst corruption, so Congregationalism, which has its very essence in the life of God within the soul, in love and kindness and every fruit of the spirit, when it parts from these saving elements, loses its savour, and is only fit to be cast out and trodden under foot of men.

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