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All that we know of the last forty years of Browne's life comes from those who regarded his early ecclesiastical opinions with abhorrence. There are some strong indications that his excitement sometimes became positive insanity 55; and this, perhaps, is the true explanation of the grosser scandals connected with his name after he had conformed to the English Church. His strength was broken. He used to say that
he had been committed to thirty-two prisons, and in some of them he could not see his hand at noon-day 56 ; and English prisons in the days of Elizabeth were often foul, damp, and fatal to the most robust health. He felt the bitterness of disappointment. In his youth he had dreamt dreams and seen visions of an ideal Church, and with a vehement zeal had endeavoured to realise it ; but the dream had passed and the vision had faded. He was alienated from the men who had shared his enthusisam and his faith ; and his courage failed him. That he had ceased to hold his ecclesiastical principles is not at all certain. Strype says that he “ continued still very freakish ” 57; and Stephen Bredwell, who wrote against him in 1588 when he was master of St. Olave's school, declares that “ the man remaineth of the same judgment against the English assemblies, which he held before, when he passed the
But the great reformation on which he had set his heart, and for which he had endured such cruel sufferings, made no progress, and he turned from it in despair.
With a temperament like his-ardent, sanguine, restlessand with his health injured by repeated imprisonments, there would be nothing to surprise us if in the wreck of all his hopes his reason gave way. During the second half of his life it is possible that he was in a state bordering on insanity and was hardly responsible for his actions; while he was a Congregationalist he appears to have been an excellent Christian, rough in speech after the manner of those times, but free from all moral reproach and a man of intense and fervent religious zeal.
65 Dexter (120-126) suggests that during his later years Browne's reason was troubled.
56 Fuller, v. 67.
58 Quoted by Dexter, 84. There are many passages in Bredwell's Rasing of the Foundations of Brownism which sustain this assertion. Some of them Dexter has quoted.
The ecclesiastical principles which Browne advocated in his earlier years are the principles of modern Congregationalism. The Christian Church, as he contended, should consist only of Christians—a position which may seem sufficiently obvious. But this was the root of the controversy between Browne and the Queen-between Browne and the English Church. Whitgift spoke for Elizabeth and her bishops when he declared that he acknowledged no difference between a Christian Commonwealth and a Christian Church-a theory maintained twenty years later by Hooker in his Ecclesiastical Polity, and the only theory by which the English Establishment can be explained or justified. This was the theory of Edmund Burke, who denied that there is any alliance between Church and State in this country; for the Church and the State are not allied—they are one and the same community. This, too, was the theory of Coleridge and of Dr. Arnold.
The early Congregationalists maintained that a man is not necessarily a Christian because he is an Englishman, and that the evil lives of large numbers of Englishmen were a clear proof that they were not Christians, and, therefore, were not proper members of a Christian Church. To recover the idea of the Church, Browne and his disciples believed that it was necessary, first of all, to reject and to tear to pieces the fiction which treated the English nation or an English diocese or an English parish as a Church of Christ; and then to establish what were called “gathered Churches,” consisting of those “ Christian believers which, by a willing covenant made with their God, are under the government of God and Christ, and keep his laws in one holy communion.” 59
They believed that, according to the will of Christ and the precedent of the apostolic Churches, every separate society of such persons should be free from all control except that of Christ Himself, who is present wherever two or three are gathered together in His name. They believed that in receiving or rejecting members, or excommunicating those who had proved themselves unworthy, and in the election of its officers, it is the duty of each separate Church to learn for itself the will of Christ and to do it.
69 A Booke which sheweth, $ 35.
The Church, according to their conception of it, is not a voluntary club for the regulation of which the members may make what rules they please, the rights and powers of individual members being based upon free contract between themselves; it is a Society of which Christ is the Founder, the Head, and the Lord. Its members have no right to admit whom they like or to exclude whom they like ; they have no right to elect men to office according to their private tastes and preferences. Nor are they at liberty to please themselves in the conduct of public worship. In the whole life of the Church they have simply to give effect to the will of Christ, who is present whenever the Church meets, and apart from whose concurrence and sanction all the decisions of the Church are without validity.
Congregationalism does not assert that all Christian people have a right to choose their own ministers and to control the affairs of the Church ; Congregationalism asserts that it is the duty of all Christian people to assert and defend the authority of Christ in the election and appointment of church officers, in the administration of church discipline, in the conduct of Christian worship. “Christ," said Browne, the obedience of his people to keep his laws and commandments, to their salvation and welfare.” 60
Brook (ii. 368) says that “after travelling up and down the country preaching against the laws and ceremonies of the church, he went to reside at Northampton. Here his preaching soon gave offence, and he was cited before Bishop Lindsell of Peterborough, who, upon his refusing to appear publicly, excommunicated him for contempt. The solemnity of this censure made such an impression upon Browne that he renounced his principles of separation.” What authority there is for this story Brook does not give. Dexter, who quotes from the Bibliotheca Scriptorum Ecclesiæ Anglicana (1709, xii.) a tradition of the excommunication and of its effect on Browne, inclines to the opinion that he was excommunicated. But the evidence seems rather unsubstantial. (Dexter 81, note 87.) See, however, Burrage, True Story of Robert Browne,
60 A Booke which sheweth, $48.
The Rev. T. G. Crippen, the Librarian of the Congregational Library at the Memorial Hall, informs me that a document, undoubtedly in Browne's handwriting, has recently been discovered. He says that “on Browne's first partial submission at the end of 1585, Barrowe and Greenwood sent him a letter of remonstrance, not now extant. To this Browne replies in the lengthy document now discovered, in which his attitude is on the whole opportunist. It seems clear that, not so much the persecution that he had endured, as the practical breakdown of the experiment at Middelberg, had brought him to this position. He does not renounce his ideal, but seems to look upon it as a kind of spiritual Utopia to be approximated as nearly as circumstances may permit; and altogether repudiates the uncompromising combativeness of his correspondents.” To this letter Mr. Burrage thinks that the Barrowe treatise, which it was Mr. Crippen's good fortune to bring to light last year, was intended as a reply ; Browne rejoining with the Answer to one Barrowe, now lost, but quoted by Bancroft.
In addition to the various references given above, special mention should be made of Mr. Champlin Burrage's treatise, The True Story of Robert Browne, and of the articles by the Rev. F. Ives Cater in Transactions of the Congregational Historical Society, September 1905, January 1906. The same Society has reprinted Browne's Treatise of Reformation without Tarrying for Anie and A New Years Guift, discovered in 1903 by Mr. Burrage.
TROUBLES AT BURY ST. EDMUNDS-MEMORIAL ON BEHALF OF HAND
SON AND GAYTON_COPPING, THACKER, AND DENNIS IMPRISONED
N the letter written by the Bishop of Norwich to Lord
Burleigh, April 19, 1581, complaining of the irregularities of Robert Browne, the bishop also complains of the
many great disorders in the town [of Bury] and the country thereabouts, as well in the clergy as the laity.” 1 These “ disorders ” had existed in Bury St. Edmunds for several years before Robert Browne disturbed the two counties of Suffolk and Norfolk by preaching Congregationalism. In 1573 John Handson, curate of St. James's Church in that town, had been examined before the Bishop's Chancellor on account of his Puritan practices. Richard Gayton, who had been suspended by the bishop in 1576 for refusing to make the sign of the cross in baptism and for other acts of 1 Strype, Annals, iii. (1), 21.
2 Brook, i. 238-239.