The Brownists, named after Robert Browne, had many contacts with the English Anabaptists and Dutch Mennonites, and formed a number of independent churches in England and Holland after Browne himself had returned to the English state church in 1586. For this reason they usually avoided the name of Brownists. They increased rapidly: in 1592 they are said to have numbered 20,000 members in England. From 1592 to 1597 they were subjected to severe persecution. On 6 April 1593, Barrowe and John Greenwood were put to death, and on 29 May 1593, John Penry, all charged with high treason. Penry penned a farewell letter to his congregation, in which among other things he wrote: "And my good brethren, seeing banishment with loss of goods is likely to betide you all, prepare yourselves for this hard entreaty, and rejoice that you are made worthy for Christ's cause to suffer and bear all these things. And I beseech you, in the bowels of Jesus Christ, that none of you in this case look upon his particular estate, but regard the general state of the church of God, that the same may go and be kept together, whithersoever it shall please God to send vou." In this letter we have the first intimation of emigration. Many brethren fled to Holland, of whom a number eventually returned. In 1611 two other members of this church suffered martyrdom, when Bartholomew Legate and Edward Wightman were arrested and after a long imprisonment burned at the stake in London, on 18 March and 11 April 1612, respectively. The Brownists were not Mennonites; their church leaders both in England and Holland, such as Francis Johnson, Henry Ainsworth, Thomas Helwys, Leonard Busher, John Murton, emphatically refused to join the Mennonite Church. But they were usually on good terms with the Mennonites, and many of the Brownist churches in England and Holland, which were sometimes called Anabaptists or even Mennonites, rejected infant baptism and adopted the practice of baptizing adults. On 12 November 1626, five "Anabaptist" churches of England, viz., London, Lincoln, Sarum, Coventry, and Tiverton, wrote a letter to Hans de Ries and other leaders of the Waterlander Mennonites in Amsterdam with the object of forming a union with them. This letter, written in the name of 150 Anabaptists, was delivered in Amsterdam personally by two deputies of "high rank." But the union between the English Brownists and the Dutch Mennonites was not established. The fact that the Brownists had sworn an oath of allegiance to the king seems to have been a drawback to de Ries and other leaders. As early as 1624 and 1625 there had been some correspondence between Hans de Ries and Elias Tookey, an Anabaptist (Brownist) from London, on the subject of the use of the oath under certain circumstances. In any case the matter of union was dropped because there were "too large differences in the doctrines," as de Ries states (J. Dyserinck, 14-17).
In England most of the Brownist churches, each independent of the other, were absorbed in the general movement of Independentism during the early 17th century, while also many Brownists joined the Baptist churches or the Quakers.
In Amsterdam, where many Brownist refugees sought safety (in 1608 alone three or four hundred souls from Scrooby fled to Amsterdam), they had in the late 16th and the early 17th centuries four or five Brownist congregations, which were all independent of each other; that of Johnson and Ainsworth since 1593; that of John Smyth, which united in 1615 with the Mennonites (Waterlanders), since 1606; that of John Robinson since 1608; that of Thomas Helwys since 1609, and maybe still another one, of which Leonard Busher was the leader. All of these groups disappeared soon, because their members returned to England, but the oldest group, though steadily decreasing in number, existed until 1701. At that time the congregation had five members, four of whom joined the English Reformed Church in Amsterdam.
Dyserinck, J. De Vrijstelling van den Eed voor Doopsgezinden. Haarlem, 1883.
Hoop Scheffer J. G. de and W. E. Griffis. History of the Free churchmen called the Brownists, Pilgrim fathers and Baptists in the Dutch republic, 1581-1701. Ithaca, NY: Andrus & Church, 1922.
Selbie, W. B. "Robert Browne and the Brownists," in Congregationalism. London, 1927: Chapter II.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 440-441. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: van der Zijpp, Nanne. "Brownists." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. 25 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/B779.html.
APA style: van der Zijpp, Nanne. (1953). Brownists. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 25 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/B779.html.