The Brownists were English Dissenters or early Separatists from the Church of England. They were named after Robert Browne, who was born at Tolethorpe Hall in Rutland, England, about the middle of the 16th century. A majority of the Mayflower passengers in 1620 were Brownists, and indeed the Pilgrims were known for 200 years as the Brownist Emigration.
There had been early advocates of a congregational form of organization for the Church of England in the time of Henry VIII. It became clear that the English government had other plans on the re-establishment of the Anglican Church, after the Catholic Mary's reign, and these dissenters looked towards setting up a separate church.
Browne became a Lecturer at St Mary's Church, Islington where his dissident preaching against the doctrines and disciplines of the Church of England began to attract attention. During 1578, Browne returned to Cambridge University and came under the influence of Richard Greenham, puritan rector of Dry Drayton. He encouraged Browne to complete his ordination and serve at a parish church. Browne was offered a lecturer position at St Bene't's Church, Cambridge possibly through Greenham, but his tenure there was short. Browne came to reject the puritan view of reform from within the Church, and started to look outside the established Church.
In 1581, Browne had become the leader of this movement and, in Norwich, attempted to set up a separate Congregational Church outside the Church of England. He was arrested but released on the advice of William Cecil, his kinsman. Browne and his companions left England and moved to Middelburg in the Netherlands later in 1581. There they organised a church on what they conceived to be the New Testament model, but the community broke up within two years owing to internal dissensions.
His most important works were published at Middelburg in 1582: A Treatise of Reformation without Tarying for Anie, in which he asserted the right of the church to effect necessary reforms without the authorisation of the civil magistrate; and A Booke which sheweth the life and manners of all True Christians, which set out the theory of Congregational independence. Two men were hanged at Bury St Edmunds in 1583 for circulating them.
Browne was only an active Separatist from 1579-1585. He returned to England and to the Church of England, being employed as a schoolmaster and, after 1591, a Church of England parish priest. He was much engaged in controversy with some of those who held his earlier separatist position and who now looked upon him as a renegade. In particular, he replied to John Greenwood and Henry Barrowe several times.
The Brownists are mentioned in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, believed to have been written around 1600–02, in which Andrew Aguecheek says, "I had as lief be a Brownist as a politician"' (III, ii). The Browne family seat of Tolethorpe Hall is now home to the Stamford Shakespeare Company.
- Cromwell, Thomas (1835). Walks through Islington. London. pp. 82–4.
- http://www.edintone.com/independents/robert-browne/ includes photos of a memorial stone erected in 1923
- Thorne, J. O., ed. Chambers Biographical Dictionary (1969)
- Stamford Shakespeare Company history.