Charles Buck Theological Dictionary
A sect that arose among the puritans towards the close of the sixteenth century; so named from their leader, Robert Brown. He was educated at Cambridge, and was a man of good parts and some learning. He began to inveigh openly against the ceremonies of the church, at Norwich, in 1580; but, being much opposed by the bishops, he with his congregation left England, and settled at Middleburgh, in Zealand, where they obtained leave to worship God in their own way, and form a church according to their own model. They soon, however, began to differ among themselves; so that Brown, growing weary of his office, returned to England in 1589, renounced his principles of separation, and was preferred to the rectory of a church in Northamptonshire. He died in prison in 1630. The revolt of Brown was attended with the dissolution of the church at Middleburgh; but the seeds on Brownism which he had sown in England were so far from being destroyed, that Sir Walter Raleigh, in a speech in 1592, computes no less than 20, 000 of this sect. The articles of their faith seem to be nearly the same as those of the church of England.
The occasion of their separation was not, therefore, any fault they found with the faith, but only with the discipline and form of government of the churches in England. They equally charged corruption on the episcopal and presbyterian forms; nor would they join with any other reformed church, because they were not assured of the sanctity and regeneration of the members that composed it. They condemned the solemn celebration of marriages in the church, maintaining that matrimony being a political contract, the confirmation thereof ought to come from the civil magistrate; an opinion in which they are not singular. They would not allow the children of such as were not members of the Church to be baptized. They rejected all forms of prayer, and held that the Lord's prayer was not to be recited as a prayer, being only given for a rule or model whereon all our prayers are to be formed. Their form of church government was nearly as follows.
When a church was to be gathered, such as desired to be members of it made a confession of their faith in the presence of each other, and signed a covenant, by which they obliged 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 were chosen from among themselves, and separated to their several offices by fasting, prayer, and imposition of hands. But they did not allow the priesthood to be any distinct order. As the vote of the brethren made a man a minister, so the same power could discharge him from his office, and reduce him to a mere layman again; and as they maintained the bounds of a church to be no greater than what could meet together in one place, and join in one communion, so the power of these officers was prescribed within the same limits.
The minister of one church could not administer the Lord's supper to another, nor baptize the children of any but those of his own society. Any 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. In a word, every church on their model is a body corporate, having full power to do every thing in themselves, without being accountable to any class, synod, convocation, or other jurisdiction whatever. The reader will judge how near the Independent churches are allied to this form of government.
The laws were executed with great severity on the Brownists; their books were prohibited by queen Elizabeth, their persons imprisoned, and some hanged. Brown himself declared on his death-bed that he had been in thirty-two different prisons, in some of which he could not see his hand at noon-day. They were so much persecuted, that they resolved at last to quit the country. Accordingly many retired and settled at Amsterdam, where they formed a church, and chose Mr. Johnson their pastor, and after him Mr. Ainsworth, author of the learned Commentary on the Pentateuch. Their church flourished near 100 years. Among the Brownists, too, were the famous John Robinson, a part of whose congregation from Leyden in Holland, made the first permanent settlement in North America; and the laborious Canne, the author of the marginal reference to the Bible.
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Buck, Charles. Entry for 'Brownists'. Charles Buck Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/cbd/b/brownists.html. 1802.