Brownists, a sect of Puritans so called from their leader, ROBERT BROWN. He was born, it is supposed, at Totthorp, Rutland, and educated at Bennet College, Cambridge. His Puritanism was first of the school of Cartwright, but he soon went far beyond his master. He went about the country inveighing against the discipline and ceremonies of the Church of England, and exhorting the people by no means to comply with them. In the year 1580 the Bishop of Norwich caused him to be taken into custody, but he was soon released. In 1582 he published a book entitled The Life and Manners of true Christians, to which was prefixed, A Treatise of Reformation without tarrying for any. He was again taken into custody, but released on the intercession of his relative the lord treasurer. For years afterward he travelled through various parts of the country, preaching against bishops, ceremonies, ecclesiastical courts, ordaining of ministers, etc., for which, as he afterward boasted, he had been committed to thirty-two prisons, in some of which he could not see his hand at noon-day. At length he formed a separate congregation on his own principles; but, being forced to leave the kingdom by persecution, they accompanied Brown to Middleburg in Holland.
Neal observes that "when this handful of people were delivered from the bishops, they crumbled into parties among themselves, insomuch that Brown, being weary of his office, returned into England in the year 1589, and, having renounced his principles of separation, became rector of a church in Northamptonshire. Here he lived an idle and dissolute life (according to Fuller, bk. 10, p. 263), far from that Sabbatarian strictness that his followers aspired after. He had a wife, with whom he did not live for many years, and a church in which he never preached. At length, being poor and proud, he struck the constable of his parish for demanding a rate of him; and being beloved by nobody, the officer summoned him before Sir Rowland St. John, who committed him to Northampton jail. The decrepit old man, not being able to walk, was carried thither upon a feather-bed in a cart, there he fell sick and died in the year 1630, and eighty-first year of his age." After Brown's death his principles continued to gather strength in England. The Brownists were subsequently known both in England and Holland by the name of Independents. But the present very large and important community known as the Independents do not acknowledge Brown as the founder of the sect; they assert, on the contrary, that the distinguishing sentiments adopted by Brown and his followers had been professed in England, and churches established in accordance with their rules, before the time when Brown formed a separate congregation. Neal enumerates the leading principles of the Brownists as follows; "The Brownists did not differ from the Church of England in any articles of faith, but they were very rigid and narrow in points of discipline. They denied the Church of England to be a true Church, and her ministers to be rightly ordained. They maintained the discipline of the Church of England to be popish and anti-Christian, and all her ordinances and sacraments invalid. They apprehended, according to Scripture, that every church ought to be confined within the limits of a single congregation, and that the government should be democratical. The whole power of admitting and excluding members, with the deciding of all controversies, was 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 and prayer, and imposition of the hands of some of the brethren. They did not allow the priesthood to be a distinct order, or to give a man an indelible character; but as the vote of the brotherhood made him an officer, and gave him authority to preach and administer the sacraments among them, so the same power could discharge him from his office, and reduce him to the state of a private brother. Every church or society of Christians meeting in one place was, according to the Brownists, a body corporate, having full power within itself to admit and exclude members, to choose and ordain officers, and, when the good of the society required it, to depose them, without being accountable to classes, convocations, synods, councils, or any jurisdiction whatsoever." — Neal, Hist. of Puritans, 1, 245-6; Mosheim, Ch. History, 3, 181, 412. SEE CONGREGATIONALISTS; SEE INDEPENDENTS.