Robert Browne was an English separatist. He was born in 1550, and died in 1633. He was known as Troublechurch Browne by those who didn’t agree with him and those whom he tangled with throughout his life.
Browne studied at Cambridge University, and there he fully aligned himself with the Puritans. He came under a Puritan influence, and sided with the Puritans against the Elizabethan forces and the Church of England.
The Puritans were attempting to reform the church from within, and Robert Browne was part of that movement. But by the end of the 1570s, he decided that was not the right path to take. He gave up on the attempt to reform from within, and he decided to separate.
In 1581, he is credited as founding what would be the first Congregational church. He was the first to officially secede, and he was only about thirty years old at the time. He was arrested, but he was quickly released, and within a few months he left for the Netherlands.
There in 1582 he married Alice Allen, and together they had nine children. She died in 1610. In 1583, he wrote 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. In this book, which is really a small tract, he puts forward the notion of the separation of church and state.
He believes that the church is not ruled by the monarch or by a civil magistrate, but that it is ultimately ruled by Christ himself, and that church membership is a matter of private conscience and not a public mandate or law enforced by the magistrate. The queen was over the civil life and over the magistrate, but the church is separate from that. So this is an important book in the history of ideas, political philosophy, and the church. In the first paragraph, Robert Troublechurch Browne says, “It is marveled & often talked of among many, why we should be so reviled and so troubled of many, and also leave our country.”
There he’s talking there about himself and his fellow Dissenters, who had to leave their country. He continues. “Forsooth (say the enemies) there is some hidden thing in them more than plainly appeareth; for they bear evil will to their Princes[s] Queen Elizabeth and to their country, yea, they forsake the church of God, and condemn the same, and are condemned of all, and they also discredit and bring into contempt the preachers of the Gospel.”
In other words, there is something wrong with the Dissenter. They’re against the queen. They’re against the Church of England. And to that, Robert Browne says, “We say that they are the men which trouble Israel, these preachers in the Anglican church. They seek evil to the prince and not we, and that they forsake and condemn the church and not we.”
That was Robert Browne in 1583, but in 1585, he decided to go back into the Church of England. After about five years and after his book, which caused many ripples in England, he went back to the Anglican Church. He wasn’t a total conformist, however, and he often clashed with the church and its leadership. It is said that he was arrested thirty-two times over the course of his ministry for his views. He did end up in the East Midlands in a small little village, Thorpe Achurch. He was there from 1591 until his death in 1633. You might have heard of his followers, the Brownists: they made their way onto the Mayflower and crossed the Atlantic.