parochial limits, by accustoming the more godly sort to feel an inner bond peculiar to themselves, prepared many for the congregational idea of the church, and on the other hand made them feel more than ever dissatisfied with the “mixed” services of the parish church. It seemed to them impossible that vital religion could be inculcated, unless there were other guarantee for ministerial fitness than episcopal licensing, unless in fact the godly in each parish had a voice in deciding whether a man was called of God to minister the Word of God (see C. Burrage, The True Story of Robert Browne, pp. 7, 11 f.). But this implied the gathering of the earnest “professors” in each locality into a definite body, committed to the Gospel as their law of life. Such a “gathered church” emerges as the great desideratum with Robert Browne, between 1572, when he graduated at Cambridge, and 1580–1581, when he first defined his Separatist theory. It involved for him a definite “covenant” entered into by all members of the church, with God and with God’s people, to abide by Christ’s laws as ruling all their conduct, individually and collectively.
It has been debated how far Browne derived this idea from Dutch Anabaptists in Norwich and elsewhere. Doubtless the “covenant” idea was most characteristic of Anabaptists. But they connected it closely with adult baptism, whereas Browne enjoined baptism for the children of those already in covenant, and in no case taught re-baptism. Thus he evidently made “the willing covenant” of conscious faith the essence of the matter, and regarded the sign or seal as secondary. Considering, then, his other differences from Anabaptist theories, and the absence of any hint to the contrary in his own autobiographical references, “it is safe to affirm that he had no conscious indebtedness to the Anabaptists” (Williston Walker, Creeds and Platforms of Congreg., New York, 1893, p. 16). If he adopted ideas then in the air, whether of Anabaptist or other origin (see p. 706, footnote 1), he did so as seeing them in Scripture.
From Browne’s idea of a holy people, covenanted to walk after Christ’s mind and will, all else flowed, as is set forth in his Book which sheweth the life and manners of all true Christians. As it may be called the primary classic of congregational theory, its leading principles must here be summarized. Hearing the word of God unto obedience being due to “the gift of His Spirit to His children,” every church member is a spiritual person, with a measure of the spirit and office of King, Priest and Prophet, to be exercised directly under the supreme Headship of Christ. Thus mutual oversight and care are among the duties of the members of Christ’s body; while their collective inspiration, enabling them to “try the gifts of godliness” of specially endowed fellow-members, is the divine warrant in election to church office. Thus the “authority and office” of “church governors” is not derived from the people, but from God, “by due consent and agreement of the church.” Conference between sister churches for counsel is provided for; so that, while autonomous, they do not live as isolated units. Such were the leading features of Browne’s Congregationalism, as a polity distinct from both Episcopacy and Presbyterianism. Any varieties in the congregational genus which emerge later on, keep within his general outlines. To this fact the very nickname “Brownists,” usually given to early “Separatists” by accident, but Congregationalists in essence, is itself witness.
“The kingdom of God was not to be begun by whole parishes, but rather of the worthiest, were they never so few.” This sentence from Browne’s spiritual autobiography contains the root of the whole matter, and explains the title of his other chief work, also of 1582, A Treatise of Reformation without tarrying for any, and of the wickedness of those Preachers which will not reform till the Magistrate command or compel them. Here he, first of known English writers, sets forth a doctrine which, while falling short of the Anabaptist theory that the civil ruler has no standing in the affairs of the Church, in that religion is a matter of the individual conscience before God, yet marks a certain advance upon current views. Magistrates “have not that authority over the church as to be . . . spiritual Kings . . . but only to rule the commonwealth in all outward justice. . . . And therefore also because the Church is in a commonwealth, it is of their charge; 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 . . . neither yet to the Church” (Treatise, &c., p. 12). Here Browne distinguishes acceptance of the covenant relation with God (religion) and the forming or “planting” of churches on the basis of God’s covenant (with its laws of government), from the enforcing of the covenant voluntarily accepted, whether by church-excommunication or by civil penalties—the latter only in cases of flagrant impiety, such as idolatry, blasphemy or Sabbath-breaking. In virtue of this distinction which implied that the nation was not actually in covenant with God, he taught a relative toleration. In this he was in advance even of most Separatists, who held with Barrow “that the Prince ought to compel all their subjects to the hearing of God’s Word in the public exercises of the church.” As, however, the prince might approve a false type of Church, in spite of what they both assumed to be the clear teaching of Scripture, and should so far be resisted, Browne and Barrow found themselves practically in the same attitude towards the prince’s religious coercion. It was part of their higher allegiance to the King of kings.
Between 1580 and 1581, when Browne formed in Norwich the first known church of this order on definite scriptural theory, and October 1585, when, being convinced that the times were not yet ripe for the realization of the perfect polity, and taking a more charitable view of the established Church, he yielded to the pressure brought to bear on him by his kinsman Lord Burghley, so far as partially to conform to parochial public worship as defined by law (see Browne, Robert), the history of Congregationalism is mainly that of Browne and of his writings. Their effect was considerable, to judge from a royal proclamation against them and those of his friend Robert Harrison, issued in June 1583. But the repression of “sectaries” was now, and onwards until the end of the reign, so severe as to prevent much action on these lines. Still Sir Walter Raleigh’s rhetorical estimate of “near 20,000” Brownists existing in England in April 1593, at least means something. We hear of “Brownists” in London about 1585, while the London petitioners of 1592 refer to their fellows in “other gaols throughout the land”; and the True Confession of 1596 specifies Norwich, Gloucester, Bury St Edmunds, as well as “many other places of the land.” But of organized churches we can trace none in England, until we come in 1586 to Greenwood and Barrow, the men whose devotion to a cause in which they felt the imperative call of God seems to have rallied into church-fellowship the Separatists in London, whether those of Fytz’s day or those later convinced by the failure of the Puritan efforts at reform and by the writings of Browne. At what exact date this London church-which had a more or less continuous history down to and beyond 1624-was actually formed, is open to doubt. It was only in September 1592 that it elected officers, viz. a pastor (Francis Johnson), a teacher (Greenwood), two deacons and two elders. Yet as Barrow held that a church could exist prior to its ministry, this settles nothing.
In 1589 Greenwood and Barrow composed “A true Description out of the Word of God of the visible Church,” which represents the ideal entertained in their circle. It was practically identical with that set forth by Browne in 1582, though they were at pains to deny personal connexion with him whom they now regarded as an apostate. “The Brownist and the Barrowist go hand in hand together.” So was it said in 1602; and there is no good ground (see Powicke, pp. 105 ff., 126 f.) for distinguishing
the theories of the two leaders as to the authority of
- See F. J. Powicke, Henry Barrow (1900), pp. 128 f., for his views on the topic.
- I.e. to all honest leaders in State, as well as in Church, as it was in Israel when a king like Hezekiah restored the Covenant and then set about enforcing obedience to it. The problem of interpretation of the Divine Will, especially in the case of the “papist” or traditionalist, lay beyond their vision at the time. Hence their doctrine was not really one of freedom of conscience or toleration.
- S. Bredwell, The Rasing of the Foundations of Brownisme (1588), p. 135. See also F. J. Powicke, “Lists of the Early Separatists,” in Cong. Hist. Soc. Transactions, i. 146 ff.