“Troublechurch” Browne

Paul W. Martin asked for more on “Troublechurch Browne”. Here is a wee sketch. In the latter part of the sixteenth century, a number of Puritans came to the conviction that the Church of England would never be fully reformed, and thus they decided to separate from the state church and organize their own congregations. These Puritans would be known as Separatists and they would argue for what was essentially a Congregationalist form of church government.

One of their earliest leaders was Robert Browne (c.1550–1633), who in a tract entitled A Treatise of Reformation without Tarrying for anie (1582), provided the “clarion-call” of the Separatist movement. Browne—nicknamed “Troublechurch” Browne by his opponents—came from a family of substance and was related to Robert Cecil, Elizabeth I’s Lord Treasurer and chief minister. During his undergraduate years at Cambridge University, Browne had become a “thoroughgoing Presbyterian Puritan.” Within a few years, though, he had come to the conviction that each local congregation had the right, indeed the responsibility, to elect its own elders. And by 1581 he was of the opinion that the setting up of congregations apart from the Established Church and its parish churches was a necessity for, he wrote that year, “God will receive none to communion and covenant with him, which as yet are at one with the wicked.” That same year he established a Separatist congregation at Norwich. Experiencing persecution he and his Norwich congregation left England the following year for the freedom of the Netherlands.

It was in the Netherlands that Browne published the book for which he is remembered, A Treatise of Reformation without Tarrying for anie (1582). In this influential tract, Browne set forth his views that, over the course of the next century, would become common property of all the theological children of the English Separatists, including the Congregationalists and the Calvinistic Baptists.

First of all, Browne willingly conceded the right of civil authorities to rule and to govern. However, he drew a distinct line between their powers in society at large and their power with regard to local churches. As citizens of the state the individual members of these churches were to be subject to civil authorities. However, he rightly emphasized, these authorities had no right “to compel religion, to plant Churches by power, and to force a submission to ecclesiastical government by laws and penalties.”

Then, Browne conceived of the local church as a “gathered” church, that is, a company of Christians who had covenanted together to live under the rule of Christ, the Risen Lord, whose will was made known through his Word and his Spirit. Finally, the pastors and elders of the church, though they ultimately received their authority and office from God, were to be appointed to their office by “due consent and agreement of the church … according to the number of the most which agree.”

The key principle that Browne had seen clearly was that the kingdom of God cannot be brought about by the decrees of state authorities and that ultimately Christianity is “a matter of private conscience rather than public order, that the church is a fellowship of believers rather than an army of pressed men” and women.

Browne returned to the British Isles not long after publishing this treatise. To the consternation of many of his friends he subsequently recanted his views, and rejoined the Church of England. But he had begun a movement that could not be held in check. Browne’s mantle fell to three men—John Greenwood (c.1560–1593), Henry Barrow (c.1550–1593) and John Penry (1559–1593)—all of whom were hanged in 1593 for what was regarded by the state as an act of civil disobedience, namely secession from the Established Church.

Prior to his death, Penry rightly emphasized to the state authorities that “imprisonment, judgments, yea, death itself, are not meet weapons to convince men’s consciences, grounded on the word of God.” The response of the English state was swift and brutal. In April 1593 a law was passed that required everyone over the age of sixteen to attend their local parish church. Failure to do so for an entire month meant imprisonment. If, after three months following the individual’s release from prison, he or she still refused to conform, the person was to be given a choice of exile or death. In other words, the Elizabethan church and state was hoping to rid itself of the Separatist problem by sending those who were recalcitrant into exile. But the preaching and writings of Greenwood, Barrow and Penry led a significant number in the English capital, London, to adopt Separatist principles. And as British Baptist historian Barrie White has noted: “For many it was but a short step from impatient Puritanism within the established Church to convinced Separatism outside it.”

Browne also ended up spending his final days in prison. He was arrested when a very old man for striking a village constable. His own personal walk may have been wanting—but he set in motion a train of events and ideas that could not be held in check.