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Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 07.djvu/64

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Browne
Browne
58

him to take a prominent art in the religious exercises of his household, which was a large one, he went on to encourage him to preach in the villages round, without taking the trouble to get the bishop's license, though it is almost certain that he must have been previously ordained. Soon the fame of his eloquence and enthusiasm extended itself, and he was invited to accept the cure of a parish in Cambridge, probably St. Benet’s, adjoining his own college, where he preached fervently and effectively for some months; at the end of that time he ‘sent back the money they would have given him, and also gave them warning of his departure.' His congregation were not ‘as yet so rightly grounded in church government’ as they should be. In other words, he could not persuade them to follow him as far as he desired to do. It was at this point in his career that he first became possessed with the notion that the whole constitution of ecclesiastical government was faulty and needed a radical reform. Ordination, whether episcopal or presbyterian, was to his mind an abominable institution: to be authorised, licensed, or ordained, by any human being was hateful. When his brother obtained for him the necessary license from Cox, bishop of Ely, and paid the fees, Browne lost one of the necessary documents, threw the other into the fire, and proceeded openly to preach in Cambridge, wherever he had the opportunity, ‘against the calling and authorising of preachers by bishops,’ protesting that though he had been fortified with the episcopal license, he cared not one whit for it and would have preached whether he had been provided with it or not. If the ecclesiastical government of the bishops in their several sees was bad, not less objectionable did the whole structure of the parochial system seem to him, harmful to religion and a bondage from which it was high time that the true believers should be set free. ‘The kingdom of God,' he proclaimed, ‘was not to be begun by whole parishes, but rather by the worthiest, were they never so few.’ Already he had persuaded himself distinctly that the christian church, so far from being a corporation comprehensive, all-embracing, and catholic, was to be of all conceivable associations the most narrow, exclusive, and confined in its influence and its aims. It was to be a society for a privileged and miraculously gifted few, a witness immeasurably less for divine truth than against the world, which was lying in wickedness, and which Browne seems to have considered he had little concern with, little call to convert from the errors of its ways.

While vehemently and incessantly proclaiming this new theory of ecclesiastical polity—and at this time it was a very new theory—his health broke down, and while still suffering from illness he was formally inhibited from preaching by the bishop. Browne, with characteristic perversity, told the bishop's officer that he was not in a position to preach just then; if the circumstances had been different, ‘he would no whit less cease preaching’ for the episcopal inhibition. Soon after this he heard that there were certain people in Norfolk who were ‘very forward' in their zeal for a new reformation, and consumed by his desire to spread his views of the importance of a separation of the godly from the ungodly, he felt called to go down to East Anglia. It was just at this time that a former acquaintance and fellow-collegian of his, one Robert Harrison, returned to Cambridge, or paid a brief visit to the university. Harrison, who was Browne’s senior by some years, had recently been dismissed from the mastership of Aylsham school in Norfolk for some irregularity or nonconformity, but had been fortunate enough to obtain another resting-place as master of St. Giles's [?] Hospital in the city of Norwich. Harrison's visit to Cambridge resulted in a renewal of an old intimacy and in a closer union between two enthusiasts who had much in common. It ended by Browne leaving Cambridge and taking up his residence for a time in Harrison’s house at Norwich. Gradually Browne, gaining ascendency over his friend, used him as a coadjutor, the two working together—pretty much as Reeve and Muggleton did a century later—and round them there soon gathered a small company of believers who, accepting Browne as their pastor, called themselves ‘the church,’ as others have done before and since, and separated from all other professing christians, who ‘were held in bondage by anti-christian power, as were those parishes in Cambridge by the bishops.' The disciples became generally known as Brownists. Edmund Freake was bishop of Norwich at this time, and it was not long before he took action against the new sect. On 19 April 1581 he forwarded certain articles of complaint ‘against one Robert Browne’ to Lord Burghley, in which he set forth that ‘the said party had been lately apprehended on complaint of many godly preachers, for delivering unto the people corrupt and contentious doctrine,' and further that he was seducing ‘the vulgar sort of people, who greatly depended on him, assembling themselves together to the number of one hundred at a time in private houses and conventicles to hear him, not without danger of some evil effect.’ It was not at