William Brewster: Patriarch of the Pilgrims
In a quiet English village named Scrooby, a group of believers met to observe the Lord’s Day. There were no choirs, no bells, no incense, and none of the ordinary trappings of ceremonial worship. Few would have guessed that this small group of believers in an obscure English village would become the Pilgrim fathers, and that the candle that burned here in this manor home would one day “light a thousand.”
The owner of the home in which the believers of Scrooby met was a gentleman named William Brewster. Unlike many of his fellow Separatists, Brewster had been born into the landed gentry. He had studied at Cambridge as a youth, and had been in the service of the English ambassador to the Netherlands, where he was exposed to the Reformed Faith.
When Brewster returned to England after his time in the Netherlands, he began to take an active role in the leadership of the Separatist church. William and his wife, Mary, desired to worship the Lord in a simple way without the man-made trappings of ceremonial formalism. When Archbishop Bancroft sought to force Puritan ministers out of the church, the Brewsters invited John Robinson and Richard Clifton to meet in their manor house in Scrooby for worship services on the Lord’s Day. This was a courageous step for an English gentleman.
William Brewster held the official position of Postmaster in Scrooby. His large manor house had ample room for the 40 or 50 believers who would assemble there each Lord’s Day. During these days in Scrooby, William and Mary Brewster extended an offer of hospitality to a young orphaned teenager named William Bradford, who often walked to Scrooby and stayed in their manor house on Saturdays so that he could attend the worship services on the Lord’s Day.
When restrictions and political pressure began to threaten the Scrooby group, the need to find a refuge elsewhere became apparent. It was William Brewster who, with his political and diplomatic experience, organized the removal of the Scrooby congregation to the Netherlands in 1608.
The congregation lived for a year at Amsterdam, but contention among the other Separatists there convinced Robinson and Brewster to lead their congregation to the city of Leiden. William Brewster made a living in Leiden by teaching English to Dutch university students. His wisdom and experience soon gave him the trusted position of elder in the congregation.
In Leiden, Brewster and the other leaders of the church adopted the Psalter recently produced by a fine Hebrew scholar and preacher they had met at the church in Amsterdam, Henry Ainsworth. Ainsworth’s knowledge of Hebrew and of Scripture in general made his Psalter a very accurate and faithful one and thus attractive to the Leiden congregation that treasured unadorned and uncorrupted Biblical worship. This Psalter is listed in Brewster’s personal inventory of books.
In addition to his duties as an English teacher and an elder in the church, William Brewster took up the task of operating a small printing press in Leiden. Brewster was able to print and distribute pamphlets in Leiden which were illegal to print in England. He printed a controversial pamphlet written by the Scottish minister David Calderwood which criticized the legitimacy of the 1618 Perth Assembly and attacked the innovations imposed by the Five Articles of Perth. The pamphlet argued against the Romish ceremonies of the Church of England and defended the simple worship of God against man-made innovations. When the outraged king found out about the publication, he ordered an international manhunt for both the author and the printer. Leiden University offered their protection to William Brewster, and he was able to evade arrest.
In the midst of increasing political pressure, a church torn by division and schism, and a worldly and licentious Dutch society, William Brewster and the other leaders of the congregation believed that it would be best for their children if they would leave the Netherlands and seek a home in the wilderness of the New World.
Brewster took an assumed name of Master Williamson and took a daring voyage to England to obtain permission and funding for an expedition to America. His efforts, along with those of John Carver and Robert Cushman, were successful and a group of merchants agreed to fund the enterprise. King James even granted his permission for the voyage, not knowing that the man who had published the pamphlets against the Perth Assembly was one of the negotiators.
William and Mary Brewster were accompanied by two of their sons, Love and Wrestling, on board the Mayflower for a journey to the New World. In addition to their two sons, two children from the More family were also placed in the care of the Brewsters.
Brewster’s wisdom and experience became a stabilizing influence during the voyage and during the difficult early days in Plymouth. Without the pastoral care of John Robinson, William Brewster became the spiritual leader of the congregation and was the man who was often called upon to preach the Bible and lead the singing of Psalms each Lord’s Day.
During the deadly first winter in Plymouth, William and Mary Brewster kindly extended their hospitality and care to the sick and dying. William Bradford, the orphaned youth who had once been welcomed into the Scrooby manor house, wrote of William Brewster,
In the time of worst distress there were but six or seven sound persons, who . . . in a word did all the homely and necessary services for them which dainty and queasy stomachs cannot endure to hear mentioned; and all this they did willingly and cheerfully, without the least grudging, showing their love to the friends and brethren; a rare example and worthy to be remembered. Two of these seven were Mr. William Brewster, their reverend elder, and Miles Standish, their captain and military commander, to whom myself and many others were much beholden in our low and sick condition.
In the years following that first winter, William and Mary Brewster began welcoming their other children from England. Brewster’s son, Jonathan, arrived in 1621, and his daughters, Patience and Fear, arrived in 1623. Both girls married Pilgrim leaders, and the Brewster progeny multiplied in the New World.
In addition to serving as the teaching elder of the congregation, William Brewster became an assistant to Governor William Bradford. The young governor leaned upon the wisdom and experience of the man who had once extended hospitality to him as an orphaned boy. For his services to the colony, William Brewster was granted land among the islands of Boston Harbor. Four of these islands still bear his name to this day: Great Brewster, Little Brewster, Middle Brewster, and Outer Brewster.
In 1632, after suffering the death of his wife, Mary, William Brewster moved from Plymouth to a small farm plot in Duxbury where he lived the rest of his life.
William Brewster went to be with the Lord on April 18, 1644. He was buried on Burial Hill in Plymouth, overlooking the harbor where the Mayflower took anchor in the New World. His memorial stone is inscribed with these words, “Elder William Brewster, Patriarch of the Pilgrims and their Ruling Elder.”
The Psalter used by the Pilgrims has been reprinted and is now available here.