In the days of Edward VI we have the first hints of people setting up church meetings apart from the reformed Church of England. Under Mary’s reign, however, a network of separatist churches developed, centered in London. The London congregation grew to 200 people, meeting in secret, before Mary’s reign came to an end. Of course, with Elizabeth’s accession to the throne, the vast majority of separatists went back to the English church. Some of the formerly separated pastors became bishops in the Church of England.
Nevertheless, not all were happy with this arrangement. Timothy George writes, “From the beginning, there were those who were frustrated by the temporizing nature of the Elizabethan Settlement, and who, as their frustration gave way to disillusionment, and disillusionment to despair, called to mind the precedent of the Marian congregations.” As the established church set about enforcing its prescriptions, more men began to view the issues of ministerial clothing as not merely indifferent, but positively idolatrous. “Far from being harmless adiaphora, necessary for order’s sake, the garments in question, the square cap, gown, tippet, and surplice, were branded by the advanced reformers as idolothytes.”
These early separatists were a concern to the leadership of the Church of England, as is shown in a letter from Archbishop Grindal to Henry Bullinger, dated June 9, 1568.
“Some citizens of the lowest order, together with four or five ministers, remarkable neither for their judgment nor learning, have openly separated from us; and sometimes in private houses, sometimes in the fields, and occasionally even in ships, they have held their meetings and administered the sacraments. Besides this, they have ordained ministers, elders, and deacons, after their own way.”
One pioneer separatist inadvertently imparted his name to the movement, even though he later returned to the English church. Later Separatists tried to shed his name because they did not want to be associated with him. In 1580 Robert Browne (1550-1633) settled at Norwich with Robert Harrison, with whom he had been a student under Thomas Cartwright, and together they went about establishing a congregationalist church. Browne fired a canon ball into ecclesiastical affairs in 1582 when he published A Treatise of Reformation without Tarying for Anie. As one can tell from the title, Browne believed that those who were trying to reform the Church of England from within were tolerating evil. Thus they were compromising the Word of God. He called upon men to abandon all evil immediately and break away from the corrupt church.
The church which Browne and Harrison founded did not last long. It fell apart with internal division. In the end, Harrison complained that “Caine dealt not so ill with his brother Abel, as he [Browne] hath dealt with me.” Browne kicked the church out of his house, which was their accustomed meeting place. After a brief stint in Scotland, Browne returned to England and to the English church.
Despite the evident pastoral failure, three key ideas that Browne articulated became standard Separatist convictions: “the church as a covenanted community, gathered and separated from the parish assemblies, and entered into by voluntary consent.” Browne thought of the church as a company of believers bound together by “a willing covenant made with their God.” He did not delve into how this fit with the doctrine of predestination. Browne also wanted to separate from the parish church system, which was both the basic religious unity of society and the basic civil administrative unit of society. He anticipated seventeenth century debates by declaring that civil magistrates have no ecclesiastical authority at all. This was closely tied with his third key idea which was an emphasis on voluntary participation in the church.
Henry Barrow and John Greenwood carried on the Separatist ideal in London. Barrow identified four grounds for separation from the Church of England: false worship, false ministry, false discipline, and false basis of membership. Both Barrow and Greenwood were imprisoned in 1586 and eventually executed in 1593. During their imprisonment they continued to write and promote their ideas.
In 1591, Francis Johnson was convinced of separatism by Barrow, and in 1592 he was elected pastor of the London congregation. In 1593 the congregation decided to leave England for Amsterdam. Johnson was not able to join them until 1597, for he had been imprisoned for his beliefs, along with 56 other church members. In the meantime, the congregation of the “Ancient Church” selected Henry Ainsworth as a pastor. He led the group to produce “A True Confession,” which showed a developing congregationalism among the Separatists. For example, note how the church is described in the following sections of the confession.
17 That in the meane tyme, bisides his absolute rule in the world, Christ hath here in earth a spirituall Kingdome and c canonicall regiment in his Church ouer his servants, which Church hee hath purchased and redeemed to himself, as a peculiar inheritance (notwithstanding manie hypocrites do for the tyme lurk emongest the) calling and winning them by the powre of his word vnto the faith, seperating them from emongst vnbeleevers, from idolitrie, false worship, superstition, vanitie, dissolute lyfe, & works of darknes, &c; making them a royall Priesthood, an holy Nation, a people set at libertie to shew foorth the virtues of him that hath called them out of darknes into his meruelous light, gathering and vniting them together as members of one body in his faith, loue and holy order, vnto all generall and mutuall dutyes, instructing & governing them by such officers and lawes as hee hath prescribed in his word; by which Officers and lawes hee governeth his Church, and by none other.
18 That to this Church hee hath made the promises, and giuen the seales of his Covenant, presence, loue, blessing and protection: Heere are the holy Oracles as in the side of the Arke, suerly kept & puerly taught. Heere are all the fountaynes and springs of his grace continually replenished and flowing forth. Heere is hee lyfted up to all Nations, hither hee inuiteth all men to his supper, his manage feast; hither ought all men of all estates and degrees that acknowledg him their Prophet, Priest and King to repayre, to bee enrolled emongst his houshold seruants, to bee vnder his heauenly conduct and government, to leade their lyues in his walled sheepfold, & watered orchard, to haue communion heere with the Saincts, that they may bee made meet to bee partakers of their inheritace in the kingdome of God.
19 That as all his seruants and subiects are called hither, to present their bodyes and soules, and to bring the guyfts God hath given them; so beeing come, they are heer by himself bestowed in their severall order, peculiar place, due vse, beeing fitly compact and knit together by euery ioynt of help, according to the effectuall work in the measure of euery parte, vnto the edification of yt self in loue; whervnto whe hee ascended vp on high hee gaue guifts vnto men, that hee might fill all these things, and bath distributed these guifts, vnto seuerall functions in his Church, hauing instituted and ratified to contynue vnto the worlds end, only this publick ordinarie Ministerie of Pastors, Teachers, Elders, Deacons, Helpers to the instruction, government, and seruice of his Church.
20 That this ministerie is exactly described, distinguished, limited, concerning their office, their calling to their office, ther administration of their office, and their maintenance in their office, by most perfect and playne lawes in Gods word, which lawes it is not lawfull for these Ministers, or for the wholl Church wittinly to neglect, transgresse, or violate in anie parte; nor yet to receiue anie other lawes brought into the Church by anie person whatsoever.
21 Thatt none may vsurp or execute a ministerie but such as are rightly called by the Church whereof they stand ministers; and that such so called ought to gyve all diligence to fulfill ther ministerie, to bee found faithful! and vnblamable in all things.
22 That this ministerie is alyke given to euery Christian congregation, with like povvre and commission to haue and enioy the same, as God offereth fit men and meanes, the same rules given to all for the election and execution therof in all places.
23 That as every christian Congregation hath povvre and commandement to elect and ordeine their ovvn ministerie according to the rules prescribed, andy whilest they shal faithfully execute their office, to haue them in superaboundant loue for their vvorke sake, to provide for them, to honour them and reuerence them, according to the dignitie of the office they execute. So have they also povvre and cornmandement when anie such defalt, either in their lyfe, Doctrine, or administration breaketh out, as by the rule of the word debarreth them from, or deprivéth them of their ministerie, by due order to depose them from the ministerie they exercised; yea if the case so require, and they remayne obstinate and impenitent, orderly to cut them off by excommunication.
24 That Christ hath given this povvre to receiue in or to cut off anie member, to the vvholl body together of euery Christian Congregation, and not to anie one member aparte, or to moe members sequestred from the vvholl, or to anie other Congregation to doo it for the: yet that ech Congregation ought to vse the best help they can heer vnto, and the most meet member they haue to pronounce the same in their publick assembly.
25 That euery member of ech Christian Congregation, hovv excellent, great, or learned soeuer, ought to be subiect to this censure & iudgment of Christ; Yet ought not the Church vvithout great care & due advise to procede against such publick persons.
26 That for the keeping of this Church in holy & orderly communion, as Christ hath placed some speciall men over the Church, who by their office are to governe, ouersec, visite, watch, &c. So lykevvise for the better keeping therof in all places, by all the members, hee hath giuen authoritie & layd duty vpon tho all to watch one ouer another.
27 That vvhilest the Ministers and people thus remayne together in this holy order and christian communion, ech one endevoring to do the will of God in their calling, & thus to vvalke in the obedience of faith Christ hath promised to bee present with them, to blesse & defend them against all adverserie povvre, & that the gates of Hell shall not prevayle against them.
28 But when & vvhere this holy order & diligent vvatch was intermitted, neglected, violated. Antichrist that man of sinne corrupted & altered the holy ordinances, offices, & administratios of the church brought in & erected a strange new forged ministerie, leitourgie and government & the Nations Kingdoms & inhabitants of the earth, were made drunken vvith this cup of fornications & abhominations, & all people enforced to receiue the Beasts marke and worship his image & so brought into confusion & babilonish bondage.
29 That the present ministerie reteyned & vsed in Englad of Arch. bbb. Lobb. Deanes, Prebendaries, Canons, Peti-Canons, Arch-Deacons, Chancellors, Commissaries, Priests, Deacons, Parsons, Viccars Curats, Hireling rouing Preachers, Church-wardens, Parish-clerkes their Doctors, Proctors, & ivholl rable of those Courts with all from & vnder them set ouer these Cathedrall & Parishionall Assemblies in this confusion, are a strange & Anti-christian ministerie & offices; & are not that ministerie aboue named instituted in Christs Testament, or allovved in or ouer his Church.
Johnson did not share the congregational leanings of many in this church. The church was also plagued by internal factions, and it declined following Johnson’s death in 1617.
Next: The Separatists Who Came to America
 John Robinson and the English Separatist Tradition, NABPR Dissertation Series No. 1 (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1982), 23.
 Ibid. The term “idolothytes” means something offered to idols.
 Cited from H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage (Nashville: Broadman, 1987), 26.