Friday, November 4, 2022

The Life of William Brewster

Embarkation of the Pilgrims by Robert Walter Weir 

Birth and Early Years

William Brewster was born in c. 1566. This was twenty years after Martin Luther died, two years after John Calvin died, and six years before John Knox would die. The early stages of the Reformation was over, and now various nations were seeking to implement its implications in church and society. What had started as a debate about justification now was impacting liturgy, church government, and politics. 

William Brewster grew up in a family that was well connected to the times. His father, also named William Brewster, was the bailiff of Scrooby Manor, a manor that belonged to the archbishop of York. The estate included a manor-house surrounded by a moat, a chapel, bake-house, brew-house, gallery, barns and stables, farmland, and the archbishop’s offices. His father had also been appointed in the Queen’s service as the keeper of the post at Scrooby. This role as postmaster, though, did not consist of sorting mail. It consisted in the running of a tavern and inn and keeping a change of horses for official courtiers. The manor was on the Great North Road, going from London to Edinburgh. This manor was close to Sherwood forest, near Nottingham, and royalty still loved to hunt in those woods, just as in the days of Robin Hood.


The Brewster family was able to send their son to Peterhouse College at Cambridge University  in 1580 when he was about 14 years of age. At that time, Peterhouse College was designed to train clergy and “enlightened and competent statesmen and administrators.” Brewster was probably training to be a government official like his father. His time at Cambridge was important, for it was there that Brewster was “first seasoned with the seeds of grace and virtue” (Bradford). Cambridge University had fueled the English Reformation. Cambridge was the place where many reformers were trained and where many taught. The White Horse Inn, where men like Tyndale, Bilney, and Latimer had discussed theology, was in Cambridge. William Perkins, whose writings the Pilgrims prized, was also studying at Cambridge at this time. The Pilgrims' first four pastors, including John Robinson, were all trained at Cambridge. The Puritans prized learning, especially the study of Scripture. Here Brewster would learn Latin and some Greek, but his first application of this learning was not in the church, but in the colorful adventures of Sir William Davison. 

Political Service

Sir William Davison was Secretary of State to Queen Elizabeth, and he took on William Brewster as an assistant. For three years, Brewster followed Davison in Scotland and Holland, assisting him in matters of greatest trust and secrecy. At the time, Brewster was in his late teens. At one point, Brewster was given the keys of a Dutch city that Davison had been given on behalf of the Queen. At another point, Davison gave Brewster a golden chain he had been given to wear as they rode through London. In the end, Davison was used as a scapegoat after the execution of Mary Stuart and was imprisoned for a time in the Tower of London. William Brewster assisted him during this time. Thus, it seems that Brewster was living in London when Sir Francis Drake defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588.

Life at Scrooby Manor

In 1589, at the age of 23, William Brewster was back in Scrooby, assisting his father in his role. The next year his father died, and Brewster become the new bailiff and master of the Queen’s post. The next year, he married Mary Wentworth, whose father had also been the bailiff at one point. And so at age 25, William Brewster had received a good education in the university and by experience in the world and he had a good position in a busy estate with good connections, serving as an official of the archbishop and the Queen. He and his wife would have several children in the years to come: Jonathan (b. 1593), Patience (b. 1600), Fear (b. 1606), Love (b. 1611), and Wrestling (b. 1614). It seemed like he was living the English version of the American dream. 

Yet, in 1606, things would change. The ideas of the Puritans which he had picked up at Cambridge continued to work in his mind. He likely heard of the struggles of his classmates, some of whom had sought to reform the church. A few of them had broken away from the church of England. Like many others in that day, he began to be dissatisfied with the low condition of religion and insufficient reforms in worship and church government. At first, he used his position to promote reformation on a local scale. He set a good example, exhorted his people, and promoted good preachers. But when some people in his region decided to break away and form a church of their own, he offered his manor as a meeting place and joined them. This would become the congregation of the Pilgrims.

This choice had enormous repercussions upon his career. He was soon fined for not attending the established church and he had to resign his position as postmaster. Soon, he was being called to court on the charge of "Brownisim," that is, separatism. Some of the more radical sort of Brownists had been executed for what was seen as subversive activity. Brewster did not stay to find out his end. He did not appear at court. It was soon evident that the congregation would be more free in Holland than in England.

Thus, in two years, William Brewster had gone from a prosperous official, operating a tavern and manor, to a refugee, fleeing with his family and a separatist congregation to Holland.

Life in Holland

Not only did Brewster join the separatist congregation, but he also became a ruling elder in that church after they arrived in Holland. While living in Leiden, he found a job teaching English to the university students in that town. In 1616, he and Thomas Brewer and Edward Winslow set up a publishing operation at Brewster's house. They published books that promoted the reform of the church and criticized the errors of the Church of England, books that were they to be smuggled into England. They also published two books by David Calderwood, a Scottish Presbyterian who criticized the Perth Assembly and King James' attempt to roll back Presbyterianism in Scotland. This caught the king's attention, and Brewster had to lay low for a while to escape the king's men. 

Mayflower, Plymouth Colony

When the congregation began to consider leaving Holland and beginning a colony in North America, William Brewster spoke in favor of the idea. He began to assist with the negotiations with the officials in London, but then as he sought to avoid arrest, he handed over these duties to others. When the Pilgrims finally left on the Mayflower in 1620, William Brewster was 54 years old. During the first winter in Plymouth, he served both the religious and physical needs of the settlers. As William Bradford recounts, 
“And of these in the time of most distress, there was but 6 or 7 sound persons, who, to their great commendations be it spoken, spared no pains, night nor day, but with abundance of toil and hazard of their own health, fetched them wood, made them fires, dressed them meat, made their beads, washed their loathsome clothes, clothed and unclothed them; in a word, did all the homely and necessary offices for them which dainty and queasy stomachs cannot endure to hear named; and all this willingly and cheerfully, without any grudging in the least, shewing herein their true love unto their friends and brethren. A rare example and worthy to be remembered. Two of these 7 were Mr. William Brewster, their reverend Elder, and Myles Standish, their Captain and military commander, unto whom my self, and many others, were much beholden in our low and sick condition.”
Elder Brewster

Since their pastor, John Robinson, remained with part of the congregation in Holland, William Brewster was the only church officer in Plymouth from 1620 until they successfully called a pastor in 1629. He continued to serve as a ruling elder until his death, and remained a rock of stability when the first couple pastors did not stay long and various controversies arose in the church. William Bradford said of Elder Brewster's ministry, 
“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.”
Bradford praised Elder Brewster's leadership in teaching, prayer, and church government. 
“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 hart 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 divide their prayers, then be long and tedious in the same (excepts 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 doe in that duty, without flagging and falling of. For the government of the church, (which was most proper to his office,) he was carful 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 endeavors herein all his days, and he saw the fruit of his labors in that behalf.”

William Brewster established a farm in nearby Duxbury in 1632, and his son Love would acquire a farm next door a few years later. William Brewster died peacefully in 1644, nearly 80 years of old. Included among his belongings were a violet coat, black silk stockings, a doublet, caps, pistol, rapier, and a tobacco case. He also had over 400 books, inventoried here, including books by Luther, Calvin, Beza, Erasmus, Thomas Cartwright, William Perkins, Machiavelli, Francis Bacon, as well as books on geography, silkworms, and medicine (62 of the books were in Latin and 302 of them were in English).  

William Brewster sacrificed much over the years and held fast to his principles. Though he had moved in influential circles, he was not haughty, but associated with the lowly. He served faithfully as an elder, shepherding his people amid many and various difficulties. As his younger contemporary recounted, William Brewster was
“a man that had done and suffered much for the Lord Jesus and the gospels sake, and had bore his part in well and woe with this poor persecuted church above 36 years in England, Holland, and in this wilderness, and done the Lord and them faithful service in his place and calling. And notwithstanding the many troubles and sorrows he passed throw, the Lord upheld him to a great age” (Bradford). 

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