William Brewster


William Brewster was born around 1566 and it is believed it was in or near Scrooby which was a small village in the northern part of England, in the county of Nottinghamshire. Situated on the Great North Road until 1766, it became a popular stopping point for travelers, including heads of state.

The Manor House (Scrooby Manor) at Scrooby belonged to the Archbishops of York and William Brewster Sr. was the Archbishop's bailiff for about 30 years from around the year 1580, therefore Manor House was his residence. The post of bailiff also included postmaster and in those days a large part of the duties of the postmaster was to provide stage horses for those carrying the mail. Because it was situated on such a well traveled road it was a fairly important position. This is where young William grew up.


He studied briefly at Cambridge before entering the service of William Davidson (Davison) in 1584. In 1585 Davidson went to the Netherlands to negotiate an alliance with the States General. In 1586, Davidson was appointed assistant to Queen Elizabeth's Secretary of State, Francis Walsingham, but a year later lost favour with Elizabeth, after the beheading of her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots. Davidson had witnessed the signing of the document for Mary's execution, and there are varying accounts of why Queen Elizabeth was so furious that the execution was carried out. It seems to be accepted by most historical accounts that Davidson, though innocent of any wrong doing, became her scapegoat and she had him thrown in prison and wanted him hanged. Influential men spoke on his behalf and he was set free, but he was never restored to favor with the Queen and it ended his career and consequently, Brewster's also. William Bradford wrote about Brewster's loyalty to Davidson.


When Davidson fell out of favor, Brewster returned to Scrooby, and took over the position of postmaster from 1590 to 1607, having learned the office, assisting his father. Brewster's time in the Netherlands while with Davidson, gave him opportunity to hear and see more of reformed religion.

It was the preaching of Richard Clyfton that William Bradford heard and he began walking to his services every Sunday morning in Babworth which was about six miles from Scrooby. William Brewster also walked to the services every Sunday and it was there that the young Bradford and the elder Brewster became acquainted. Because Clyfton prayed prayers that were not in the officially authorized Book of Prayers, preached dissenting views and refused many of the "trappings" that were mandated by the English Church, he was brought before the Chancery Court and in 1605 and deprived of his position. The group began to meet at Scrooby Manor, Brewster's home. They agreed to form themselves into an independent Separatist congregation. Richard Clyfton was chosen as pastor and William Brewster was chosen as elder. Later, John Robinson was chosen as teacher.


The group tried to leave England and in their first attempt, a ship captain betrayed them and many of them were thrown in prison, including Brewster, and suffered great hardship. They eventually fled to Amsterdam in 1608 at the same time as another group of Separatists from Gainsborough led by John Smyth. A group informally knows as the Ancient Brethren, had already established themselves in Amsterdam ten years earlier. Dissent arose amongst the groups over doctrine, the leading pastors engaging in lengthy debate, even publishing writings. Because there was so much dissension, Clyfton's congregants became weary of the constant bickering and began to gather around John Robinson who wrote and received permission from the Leiden City Council to move to Leiden, Holland which they did, the next year.


In Leiden, Brewster working with Thomas Brewer began working a printing press and publishing religious books and pamphlets which were then illegally smuggled into England. Brewster also taught English at the University of Leiden to support his family. In 1618, the English authorities had sent the Dutch authorities after the two, because of their printed material. Thomas Brewer was arrested but Brewster managed to evade the authorities and went into hiding until the group left for America.


William Brewster and John Robinson, along with Robert Cushman, John Carver, and William Bradford, all played an important role in the arrangements to sail to America. As has been discussed in other accounts, they obtained permission and secured passage through much resistance and many difficulties.


When the colonists arrived at Plymouth, Brewster became the senior elder of the colony, serving as its religious leader and as an advisor to the Governor. Brewster was the only member of the group with university education and he was the religious leader until a pastor, John Smith arrived in 1629. Because of his experience with Davidson and his time at Cambridge historians attribute the Mayflower Compact to William Brewster.


William Brewster married Mary of whose maiden name is not known. William brought Mary and their two youngest children, sons Love and Wrestling with him on the Mayflower. Mary was one of only five adult women to survive the first winter, and one of only four women to survive to the "first" Thanksgiving in 1621. Son Jonathan Brewster joined the family in 1621, arriving at Plymouth on the ship, Fortune. Daughters Patience and Fear came on the ship Anne in 1623. Mary died in 1627, at about age 60. William survived his wife and three of his children, living another seventeen years after Mary died. The Brewster had another child who was born and died in Leiden in 1609 and was unnamed.


"William Bradford wrote at length about William Brewster in, Of Plymouth Plantation; the following is an excerpt:


" William Brewster, The Ruling Elder Of The Pilgrim Church. should say something of his life; if to say a little were not worse than to be silent: but I cannot wholly forbear, though hapily more may be done hereafter. After he had attained some learning, viz. the knowledge of the Latin tongue and some insight in the Greek ; and spent some small time at Cambridge : and then, being first seasoned with the seeds of grace and virtue, he went to the Court; and served that religious and godly Gentleman, Master Davison divers years, when he was Secretary of State. Who found him so discreet and faithful, as he trusted him above all others that were about him; and only imployed him in all matters of greatest trust and secrecy. He esteemed him rather as a son than a servant; and, for his wisdom and godliness, in private he would converse with him, more like a friend and familiar than a master.


He attended his master when he was, sent in ambassage by the Queen into the Low Countries, in the Earl of Leicester's time, as for other weighty Affairs of State, so to receive possession of the Cautionary Towns: and in token and sign thereof, the keys of Flushing being delivered to him, in Her Majesty's name, he kept them some time and committed them to this his servant; who kept them under his pillow, on which he slept, the first night. And at his return, the States honoured him [W. Davison] with a gold chain : and his master committed it to him; and commanded him to wear it, when they arrived in England, as they rode through the country, till they came to the Court.

He afterwards remained with him till his troubles, that he was put from his place about the death of the Queen of Scots; and some good time after : doing him many faithful offices of service in the time of his troubles. Afterwards he went and lived in the country , in good esteem amongst his friends, and the Gentlemen of those parts; especially the godly and religious.


He did much good, in the country where he lived, in promoting and furthering Religion; not only by his practice and example, and provoking and incouraging of others: but by procuring good Preachers to the places thereabouts; and drawing on of others to assist and help forward in such a work, he himself most commonly deepest in the charge, and sometimes above his ability.

And in this state, he continued many years, doing the best good he could; and walking according to the light he saw, until the Lord revealed further unto him.

And, in the end, by the tyranny of the Bishops against godly Preachers and people, in silencing the one and persecuting the other; he, and many more of those times, began to look further into things; and to see into the unlawfulness of their Callings, and the burthen of many anti-christian corruptions: which both he, and they, endeavoured to cast off; as they also did, as in the beginning of this Treatise is to be seen.


After they were joined together into communion, he was a special stay and help unto them. They ordinarily met at his house on the Lord's Day, which was a Manor of the Bishop's; and with great love he entertained them when they came, making provision for them, to his great charge : and continued to do so, whilst they could stay in England.


And when they were to remove out of the country , be was one of the first in all adventures, and forwardest in any charge. He was the chief of those that were taken at Boston , and suffered the greatest loss; and of the Seven that were kept longest in prison, and after bound over to the Assizes.


After he came into Holland, he suffered much hardship; after he had spent the most of his means, having a great charge and many children : and, in regard of his former breeding and course of life, not so fit for many imployments as others were; especially such as were toilsome and laborious. But yet he ever bore his condition with much cheerfulness and contentation.

Towards the latter part of those twelve years spent in Holland; his outward condition was mended, and he lived well and plentifully. For he fell into a way, by reason he had the Latin tongue, to teach many students who had a desire to learn the English tongue, to teach them English : and by his method they quickly attained it with great facility; for he drew Rules to learn it by, after the Latin manner. And many Gentlemen, both Danes and Germans, resorted to him, as they had time from other studies : some of them being Great Men's sons


He also had means to set up printing, by the help of some friends; and so had imployment enough: and by reason of many books which would not be allowed to be printed in England, they might have had more than they could do.


But now removing into this country , all those things were laid aside againe, and a new course of living must be framed unto; in which he was no way unwilling to take his part, and to bear his burden with the rest. Living many times without bread or corn, many months together; having many times nothing but fish, and often wanting that also; and drunk nothing but water for many years together, yea, till within five or six years of his death: and yet, he lived, by the blessing of GOD, in health till very old age.


And besides that he would labour with his hands in the fields, as long as he was able; yet, when the Church had no other Minister, he taught twice every Sabbath, and that both powerfully and profitably, to the great contentment of the hearers, and their comfortable edification: yea, many were brought to GOD by his Ministry. He did more in this behalf in a year than many that have their hundreds a year, do in all their lives.


For his personal abilities, he was qualified above many. He was wise and discreet and well spoken, having a grave and deliberate utterance, of a very cheerful spirit; very sociable and pleasant amongst his friends; of a humble and modest mind; of a peaceable disposition; undervaluing himself and his own abilities, and sometime[s] overvaluing others. Inoffensive and innocent in his life and conversation ; which gained him the love of those without as well as those within: yet, he would tell them plainly of their faults and evils, both publicly and privately; but in such a manner as usually was well taken from him.


He was tender hearted and compassionate of such as were in misery: but especially of such as had been of good estate and rank, and were fallen unto want or poverty; either for goodness' and religion's sake, or by the injury and oppression of others. He would say, Of all men, these deserved to be pitied most. And none did more offend and displease him, than such as would haughtily and proudly carry and lift up themselves, being risen from nothing; and having little else in them to commend them, but a few fine clothes and a little riches more than others.


In teaching, he was very moving and stirring of affections: also very plain and distinct in what he taught; by which means he became the more profitable to the hearers. He had a singular good gift in prayer, both public and private, in ripping up the heart and conscience before GOD; in the humble confession of sin; and begging the mercies of GOD in Christ for the pardon of the same. He always thought it were better for Ministers to pray oftener, and to divide their prayers than be long and tedious in the same : except upon solemn and special occasions, as in Days of Humiliation, and the like. His reason was, That the hearts and spirits of all, especially the weak, could hardly continue, and stand bent as it were, so long towards GOD as they ought to do in that duty, without flagging and falling off.


For the Government of the Church, which was most proper to his Office, he was careful to preserve good order in the same, and to preserve purity both in the Doctrine and Communion of the same; and to suppress any error or contention that might begin to rise up amongst them. And accordingly GOD gave good success to his indeavours herein all his days; and he saw the fruit of his labours in that behalf.


But I must break off: having only thus touched a few, as it were Heads of, things."


William Brewster has been called the father of the Pilgrims and Bradford's personal writings of the man he obviously knew well, speak of the character of Brewster. Bradford called him the ruling elder of the church. By all accounts, he was the leader of colony. God obviously raised him up to guide his people and despite enduring great hardship he devoted his life to serving the colony.

Sources: Wikipedia; History of Plymouth by William Bradford

Written by Kathy Currier

posted February 17, 2010



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