Brown, Robert

, an English divine of the sixteenth and beginning of the seventeenth century, from whom the sect of the Brownists derived its name, was descended of an ancient and worshipful family, says Fuller, (one whereof founded a fair hospital in Stamford), and was nearly allied to the lord-treasurer Cecil. He was the son of Anthony Brown, of Tol thorp, in Rutlandshire, esq. (though born at Northampton, according to Mr. Collier), and grandson of Francis Brown, whom king Henry VIII. in the eighteenth year of his reign, privileged by charter to wear Jiis cap in the presence of himself, his heirs, or any of his nobles, and not to uncover but at his own pleasure; which charter was confirmed by act of parliament. Robert Brown studied divinity at Cambridge, in Corpus Christi college, and was afterwards a schoolmaster in Southwark. He was soon discovered by Dr. Still, master of Trinity-college, to have somewhat extraordinary in him that would prove a great disturbance to the church. Brown soon verified what the doctor foretold, for he not only jm^ bibed Cartwright’s opinions, but resolved to refine upon his scheme, and to produce something more perfect of his own. Accordingly, about the year 1580, he began to inveigh openly against the discipline and ceremonies of the church of England, and soon shewed that he intended to go much farther than Cartwright had ever done. In his discourses the church government was antichristian; her sacraments clogged with superstition; the liturgy had a mixture of Popery and Paganism in it; and the mission of the clergy was no better than that of Baal’s priests in the Old Testament. He first preached at Norwich, in 1581, where the Dutch having a numerous congregation, many of them inclined to Ahabaptism; and, therefore, being the more disposed to entertain any new resembling opinion, he made his first essay upon them; and having made some progress, and raised a character for zeal and sanctity, he | then began to infect his own countrymen; for which purpose he called in the assistance of one Richard Harrison, a country schoolmaster, and they formed churches out of both nations, but mostly of the English. He instructed his audience that the church of England was no true church; that there was little of Christ’s institution in the public ministrations, and that all good Christians were obliged to separate from those impure assemblies; that their only way was to join him and his disciples, among whom all was pure and unexceptionable, evidently inspired by the Spirit of God, and refined from all alloy and prophanation. These discourses prevailed on the audience; and his disciples, now called Brownists, formed a society, and made a total defection from the church, refusing to join any congregation in any public office of worship. Brown being convened before Dr. Freake, bishop of Norwich, and other ecclesiastical commissioners, he maintained his schism, to justify which he had also written a book, and behaved rudely to the court, on which he was committed to the custody of the sheriff of Norwich; but his relation, the lord treasurer Burghley, imputing his error and obstinacy to zeal, rather than malice, interceded to have him charitably persuaded out of his opinions, and released. To this end he wrote a letter to the bishop of Norwich, which procured his enlargement. After this, hisjordship ordered Brown up to London, and recommended him to archbishop Whitgift for his instruction and counsel, in order to his amendment; but Brown left the kingdom, and settled at Middleburgh in Zealand, where he and his followers obtained leave of the states to form a church according to their own model, which was drawn in a book published by Brown at Middleburgh in 1582, and called “A treatise of Reformation, without staying for any man.” How long he remained at Middleburgh, is not precisely known; but he was in England in 1585, when he was cited to appear before archbishop Whitgift, to answer to certain matters contained in a book published by him, but what this was, we are not informed. The archbishop, however, by force of reasoning, brought Brown at last to a tolerable compliance with the church of England; and having dismissed him, the lord treasurer Burgh.­Jey sent him to his father in the country, with a letter to recommend him to his favour and countenance, but from | another letter of the lord treasurer’s, we learn that Brown’s errors had sunk so deep as not to be so easily rooted out as was imagined; and that he soon relapsed into his former opinions, and shewed himself so incorrigible, that his good old father resolved to own him for his son no longer than his son owned the church of England for his mother; and Brown chusing rather to part with his aged sire than his new schism, he was discharged the family. When gentleness was found ineffectual, severity was next practised; and Brown, after wandering up and down, and enduring great hardships, at length went to live at Northampton, where, industriously labouring to promote his sect, Lindsell, bishop of Peterborough, sent him a citation to come before him, which Brown refused to obey; for which contempt he was excommunicated. This proved the means of his reformation; for he was so deeply affected with the solemnity of this censure, that he made his submission, moved for absolution, and received it; and from that time continued in the communion of the church, though it was not in his power to close the chasrn^ or heal the wound he had made in it. It was towards the year 1590 that Brown renounced his principles of separation, antl was soon after preferred to the rectory of Achurch, near Thrapston in Northamptonshire. Fuller does not believe that Brown ever formally recanted his opinions, either by word or writing, as to the main points of his doctrine; but that his promise of a general compliance with the church of England, improved by the countenance of his patron and kinsman, the earl of Exeter, prevailed upon the archbishop, and procured this extraordinary favour for him. He adds, that Brown allowed a salary for one to discharge his cure; and though he opposed his parishioners in judgment, yet agreed in taking their tithes. He was a man of good parts and some learning, but was imperious and uncontroulable; and so far from the Sabbatarian strictness afterwards espoused by some of his followers, that he led an idle and dissolute life. In a word, says Fuller, he had a wife with whom he never lived, and a church in which he never preached, though he received the profits thereof: and as all the other scenes of his life were stonny and turbulent, so was his end: for the constable of his parish requiring, somewhat roughly, the payment of certain rates, his passion moved him to blows, of which the constable complaining to justice St. John, he rather inclined to pity than punish him but | Brown behaved with so much insolence, that he was sent to Northampton gaol on a feather-bed in a cart, being very infirm, and aged above eighty years, where he soon after sickened and died, anno 1630, after boasting, “That he had been committed to thirty-two prisons, in some of which he could not see his hand at noon-day.” He was buried in his church of Achurch in Northamptonshire.

Those who are acquainted with the tenets and practices of some modern sects, will easily recognize in Brown their founder. The Brownists equally condemned episcopacy and presbytery, as to the jurisdiction of consistories, classes, and synods; and| would not join with any other reformed church, because they were not sufficiently assured of the sanctity and probity of its members, holding it an impiety to communicate with sinners. Their form of church-government was democratical. Such as desired to be members of their church made a confession of their faith, and signed a covenant obliging themselves to walk together in the order of the gospel. The whole power of admitting and excluding members, with the decision of all controversies, was lodged in the brotherhood. Their church officers for preaching the word, and taking care of the poor, were chosen from among themselves, and separated to their several offices by fasting, prayer, and imposition of hands from some of the brethren. They did not allow the priesthood to be any distinct order, or to give any indelible character; but as the vote of the brotherhood made a man a minister, and gave authority to preach the word and administer the sacraments among them; so the same power could discharge him from his office, and reduce him to a mere layman again. As they maintained the bounds of a church to be no greater than what would contain as many as could meet together in one place, and join in one communion, so the power of their officers was prescribed within the same limits. The minister or pastor pf a church could not administer the eucharist or baptism to the children of any but those of his own society. A lay brother was allowed the liberty of giving a word of exhortation to the people; and it was usual for some of them, after sermon, to ask questions, and reason upon the doctrines that had been preached. Until the civil war, they were much discouraged in England; but upon the ruin of episcopacy, they quitted Holland, and came over to England, they began to form churches on their peculiar | model. The Presbyterians cortiplained of this as an encroachment, and insisted that the Independents should come under the Scotch regulation; This the latter refused to comply with, and continued a distinct sect, or faction; and, during the civil wars, became the most powerful party; and getting to the bead of affairs, most of the other sects, which were averse to the Church. of England^ joined with them, and all of them yielded to lose theit former names, in the general one of Independents.

The chief of Brown’s works is a small thin quarto, printed at Middleburgh in 15 32, containing three pieces. The title of the first is, “A Treatise of Reformation without tarrying for any, and of the wickedness of those preachers who will not reform themselves and their charge, because they will tarry till the magistrate command and compel them. By me, Robert Brown.” “A Treatise upon the 23d chapter of St. Matthew, both for an order of studying and handling the scriptures, and also for avoiding the popish disorders, and ungodly communion of all false Christians, and especially of wicked preachers and hirelings.” The title of the third piece is, “A book which sheweth the life and manners of all true Christians, and how unlike they are unto Turks and papists, and heathen folk. Also the points and parts of all divinity, that is, of the revealed will and word of God, are declared by their several definitions and division s.1


Biog. Brit.—Fuller’s and Collier’s Eccl. Histories.—Mosheim’s ditto.— Neal’s Piritans.—Strype’s Parker, p. 326.—Strype’s Whitgift, p, 323.