A 16th-century movement in England, advocating for complete separation from the Church of England.

Religion: Christianity
Denomination: English Dissenters
Founder: Robert Browne
Founded: Late 16th century
Location: England

The Brownists were a notable religious group originating in England around the late 16th century, marking a significant chapter in the history of English dissenters and playing a pivotal role in the early Separatist movement from the Church of England. The term “Brownists” derives from Robert Browne, a figure who, despite later reconciling with the Church of England, initially advocated for a Congregationalist model of church governance. This model was characterized by the belief that each congregation should be autonomous, with its members—deemed the visible elect—responsible for choosing and installing their officers. This radical idea laid the foundational principles for what would later evolve into Congregationalism, influencing not only future Separatists like the Pilgrims who settled Plymouth but also the settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. However, the latter group maintained that they had never formally separated from the Church of England​​.

In the decades leading to the Mayflower’s voyage in 1620, the Brownists had made attempts to establish a presence in North America, seeking freedom from religious persecution in England. A particularly notable, albeit unsuccessful, expedition occurred in 1597 when a group attempted to settle in Newfoundland, Canada. This endeavor was spurred by the execution of Separatist leaders and the passing of the Seditious Sectaries Act, which effectively outlawed their religious practices. Viewing themselves as refugees, the Brownists looked to North America as a haven where they could practice their faith freely, away from the constraints of the English state church and the ever-looming threat of imprisonment or worse for their beliefs​​.

The social and political context in England during the time of the Brownists, particularly in regions like the Quadrilateral—bordering Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire—provides insight into the appeal and subsequent growth of Puritanism and Separatism. This area, known for its lawlessness, poverty, and resistance to religious and secular authority, fostered a community desperate for change and autonomy. The rigid and oppressive enforcement of religious conformity under Archbishop Bancroft and the broader Anglican establishment pushed many towards the Separatist cause, seeking not just religious freedom but also a reprieve from the social turmoil that plagued their communities. Amidst such conditions, figures like William Brewster emerged, advocating for a purer form of Christianity, untainted by the perceived corruption and authoritarianism of the established church​​.

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