William Brewster, Grace Abbot’s 9th-great grandfather, was a spiritual leader of the Pilgrims, “the single most important individual in the formation and development of the group of settlers known as the Pilgrims” according to his biographer. He was born near Scrooby, in the upper central part of England, in 1568 and was exposed to reformist religious thought at Cambridge University.
After Cambridge, Brewster became a trusted servant to William Davison, who was a member of Queen Elizabeth’s Privy Council and would become her Secretary of State. Brewster served Mr. Davison “at Court” meaning they both traveled with the Queen from palace to palace. Brewster’s lifelong friend William Bradford would later write that Davison “trusted him above all others that were about him, and only employed him in all matters of the greatest trust and secrecy. He esteemed him rather as a son than a servant, and for his wisdom and godliness he would converse with him more like a friend and familiar than a master.”
After the assassination of the Dutch Prince of Orange in 1584, the Hapsburg Catholic armies marched on the Protestant north and captured Antwerp. The Dutch sought English aid and protection. The negotiations brought Davison and Brewster to Holland in 1585 and 1586. In return for English support, the Dutch pledged three towns as security of repayment. Upon their return to England, Davison gave Brewster the honor of wearing the gold chain and keys to the town of Vlissingen as they made their way back to Court.
Davison was Queen Elizabeth’s principal advisor during the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots. Elizabeth knew her cousin had to be executed for Elizabeth’s own safety, but only reluctantly signed the order, asking Davison to delay its implementation. In the meantime she secretly asked the wardens guarding Mary to do the deed; they refused on religious and legal grounds. When the Privy Council went ahead and carried out the Queen’s signed execution order, she had Davison imprisoned in the Tower of London and put on trial at Westminster Abbey, seeking to blame him for Mary’s execution. Brewster attended Davison in prison and got a first-hand look at Court intrigue.
Brewster returned to the manor in Scrooby, a roadside Inn which his father managed for the Archbishops of York. Brewster and a handful of acquaintances increasingly questioned the hierarchy of the Church which in their eyes had become corrupted by “time and human intervention,” standing in the way of one’s direct worship of God. They wanted to get back to original ideas from Scripture; to return to “its primative order, libertie, & bewtie [beauty]” as they themselves would later put it.
The Church did not believe men were entitled to independent judgement in religious matters, nor were they free to worship as they wished. The ideas of Brewster and his colleagues were dangerous, not only to the Church, but to the State. For if all men were created equal before God, it’s a short jump to assert that all men are created equal before the law. England was built on a “Divine right of Kings” where privileges were bestowed by accident of birth, and the unprivileged toil from cradle to grave, which seemed to conflict with the ideals of Christian brotherhood.
Since questioning the Church was a serious threat to the State, Queen Elizabeth demanded absolute uniformity of belief. No one could preach without a license, nor could there be unlicensed printing of religious material, for that would surely lead to “seditious and hellish errors.” Rebels became targets of persecution by the Church of England and the government, and some of Brewster’s Cambridge classmates were hanged for resistance to the official State religion.
Against this backdrop, Brewster and a few of his acquaintances secretly began meeting to hear the sermons of the Separatist Richard Clyfton. Brewster would sometimes repeat Clyfton’s sermon in the Scrooby village church. At Easter, 1598 a mandatory report requiring the church to report complaints noted that William Brewster was “repeating sermons publicly in the church without authority.” This complaint is the first documented reference to the independent preaching that would culminate in the Pilgrim migration to the New World.
Brewster and his neighbors would go on to found a Separatist Church operating partly out of the Brewster home. This group, which would have such an influence on history, probably never numbered more than 40 or 50 (another group of Separatists operating out of Sandwich, in southern England, would later add another 30 or 40 Pilgrims). At its heart was a radical political thought: the State had no business running religion. The original thinking and courage it must have taken to challenge the two most powerful influences on the hardscrabble life back then can’t be overstated. The Separitists believed that failure to act on what they knew to be the truth would invite God’s punishment for their conscious sin.
The Church regularly thundered against Separatist thinking, which incited most Englishmen against them. The Scrooby congregation had been meeting less than a year when in 1607 the authorities struck. Some members were imprisoned, others had their houses watched night and day, and most were afraid to leave their homes. A wave of terror swept the countryside. The daughter born to the Brewster’s at this time was, appropriately, named Fear.
Later that year the group decided to escape to Holland. While this meant leaving old friends and abandoning homes and farms that had been in their families for generations, the promise of a more tolerant society awaited. But the Dutch captain of the ship they had hired betrayed them. The English militia seized the group and took their money, books and personal possessions and held the leaders in prison in Boston (England). Seven ringleaders including Brewster were put on trial. The others were sent back “from whence they came.”
Amongst those who had to walk the sixty miles back to Scrooby were William and Mary Brewster’s daughters Patience, then seven years old, and her younger sister Fear, less than a year old (Patience is Grace Abbot’s 8th-great grandmother). Imagine how terrifying such a journey would have been to a young child, with few possessions, no home to return to, relying solely on the goodness of others.
The following spring, in 1608, the group attempted another escape. The escape had its own harrowing complications, but in the end they reached Holland. They eventually made their way to the town of Leiden, where Brewster knew an influential Dutch official, Jan van Hout, whom he had met on his 1585-6 visit.
In Leiden Brewster taught English at Leiden University. Part of the original wall of Brewster’s home can be seen along the alley now known as “Brewstersteeg”
Interestingly, the future painter Rembrandt was born in Leiden in 1606 and went to Latin school in the Pilgrim neighborhood.
Brewster and two peers started a secret enterprise publishing religious books. Some of these were highly critical of the Church of England. When in 1618 Brewster published a pamphlet critical of King James I, who had succeeded Elizabeth in 1603, the King demanded the Dutch arrest him ‘if they valued the King’s friendship.’ The Dutch only partially complied. They held him in the Town Hall overnight, but let him go the next day upon which Brewster went into hiding. That Brewster was allowed to escape is almost certainly due to protective collusion by the Dutch government.
In the meantime, Brewster and Robinson and leading laymen of the church had been conferring about the possibility of transporting the community to the New World. As immigrants, they were at the low end of the economic scale, working long hours in some of the least desirable trades in the textile industry; their children were assimilating into Dutch society, and the parents feared them losing their spiritual identity; and the children were at risk of losing any inheritance or claim to property they might have in England. Also, the Catholic Spanish were threatening renewed war against the Protestant Low countries (which did in fact result in the 30 Years’ War, part of the Netherland’s struggle for independence). Explorer John Smith’s “Description of New England” was published in 1616, and the Leiden group studied it carefully.
After considerable negotiation, betrayal, and difficulty, in 1620 they were granted a charter from King James in the New World and secured passage on the Mayflower. It was not unusual for troublemakers such as the Pilgrims to be sent to far-off regions with the admonishment ‘good riddance.’
It is impossible to appreciate the courage and sacrifice they were making. Families and friends were split apart; they faced a difficult two-month sea voyage at a bad time of year (September to November); they had limited money with which to buy stores and equipment; and they would arrive in the New World at the onset of winter.
The group traveled the canals from Leiden to the nearby seaport of Delfshaven, where they embarked on the ship that would take them to England, and then the New World.
William Bradford, in his seminal history “Of Plymouth Plantation,” describes the momentous day the group left to set sail for the New World:
[John Robinson] was spent pouring out prayers to the Lord with great fervency, mixed with abundance of tears. And the time being come that they must depart, they were accompanied with most of their brethren out of the city, unto a town sundry miles off called Delftshaven, where the ship lay ready to receive them. So they left that goodly and pleasant city which had been their resting place near twelve years; but they knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those things, but lift up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits. The next day, the winds being fair, they went aboard, and their friends with them, where truly doleful was the sight of that sad and mournful parting; to see what sights and sobs and prayers did sound amongst them, what tears did gush from every eye, and pithy speeches pierced each heart; that sundry of the Dutch that stood on the key as spectators, could not refrain from tears.
After stopping in England, the group departed aboard the Mayflower for the New World on September 6, 1620. Robinson had written an address to be read upon their departure from England which concluded: “Lastly, whereas you are become a body politic, use amongst yourselves civil government, and are not furnished with any persons of special eminence above the rest, to be chosen by you into office of government, let your wisdom and godliness appear, not only in choosing such persons as do entirely love and will promote the common good, but also in yielding unto them all due honor and obedience in their lawful administrations.” The concept of civiI government was on its way to the New World.
Of the 102 passengers, 32 were children (including Grace’s ancestors Elizabeth Tilley and Constance Hopkins, both about age 13) and 3 of the women were pregnant (including ancestor Stephen Hopkin’s wife, who gave birth to son Oceanus during the voyage). Most of the adults were in their 30s and 40s. After their harrowing voyage, they arrived north of their intended destination which had been the Hudson River valley. After nearly losing the ship in the shoals and currents off Nantucket, the captain headed to modern-day Provincetown where they dropped anchor on November 9, after a passage lasting 66 days.
The Mayflower Compact
Despite the urgency to get ashore, the leaders had to confront a new threat. There had been discontented and mutinous speeches by some in the group claiming that since the ship ended up in New England, and not the Virginia Territory where English law applied and where their contract said they were headed, they were no longer bound to be commanded by others.
Some historians believe that Stephen Hopkins (Grace’s 9th great-grandfather) was the ringleader. In 1609 Hopkins had been shipwrecked in Bermuda while on a voyage to resupply the colony at Jamestown (an event which helped inspire Shakespeare to write “The Tempest”). Hopkins had led a mutiny, asserting personal and religious independence, claiming the shipwreck dissolved existing contracts and negated both company and Church control over the common laborers.
To meet the situation aboard the Mayflower, the leaders drafted a document by which they mutually pledged to establish a civic representative government and abide by its laws. Brewster was the only Pilgrim with political and diplomatic experience, and the Mayflower Compact was in all likelihood written by him. It’s an important document that helped lay the groundwork for the type of society America would become. It was a revolutionary milestone – shaking off feudalism, the aristocratic system of power and privilege that had dominated Europe from ancient times – towards a more democratic system. John Quincy Adams later described the Compact as the “first example in modern times of a social compact or system of government instituted by voluntary agreement conformable to the laws of nature, by men of equal rights and about to establish their community in a new country.”
The first winter in Plymouth was harsh, and fully half of the Plymouth Colony had died by March. William and Mary Brewster survived, along with two of their children. Brewster’s humanity is revealed in a passage from Governor William Bradford’s account of that winter:
But that which was most sad and lamentable was, that in two or three months’ time half of their company died, especially in January and February, being the depth of winter, and wanting houses and other comforts; being infected with the scurvy and other diseases which this long voyage and their inaccommodate condition had brought upon them. So as there died some times two or three of a day in the foresaid time, that of 100 and odd persons, scarce fifty remained. And of these, in the time of most distress, there was but six or seven sound persons who to their great commendation, 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 beds, 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, showing herein their true love unto their friends and brethren; a rare example and worthy to be remembered. Two of these seven were Mr. William Brewster, their reverend Elder, and Myles Standish, their Captain and military commander, unto whom myself and many others were much beholden in our low and sick condition. And yet the Lord so upheld these persons as in this general calamity they were not at all infected either with sickness or lameness.
The Plymouth Colony hewed to and gradually expanded upon the Mayflower Compact. In 1636 they drew up a new constitution which Samuel Eliot Morison considers “the first bill of rights in America.” There would be a clear separation of church and state, with no role in government for the clergy. Believers and non-believers alike would be afforded equal justice. There were protections for the poor.
Important Dutch Concepts the Pilgrims brought to the New World
It is important to acknowledge the influence that the years spent in Holland had on the Pilgrims, and helped shape the society they established in the New World. The concept of civil marriage, which protected lawful rights regardless of religion, was a Dutch innovation as was New England’s town-meeting style of democracy and representative government not subject to external (ie home country) review. Religious tolerance was another: though it wasn’t adopted for reasons that are unclear, a majority of Pilgrims in 1645 supported a “freedom of conscience” petition would “allow and maintain full and free tolerance of religion to all men that would preserve the Civil peacemaking and submit unto Government” with no exception against any other race or religion.
The Pilgrims had first-hand knowledge of the otherwise equal and independent Dutch provinces which had come together as “States General” under the Union of Utrecht (1579) in order to coordinate foreign policy and defense from the Spanish, and to settle disputes amongst themselves. There had been no such model under English law. The four New England colonies (Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, Connecticut and New Haven) formed a similar type of Union in 1643 to coordinate policy with regard to Indians, France, Spain and the Netherlands; to settle boundary and other disputes amongst themselves; and to coordinate taxation and other regulation related to mutual military endeavors. No doubt the Dutch model witnessed by the Pilgrims influenced the creation of the Union. More than one hundred years later John Adams would write “The New England confederacy of 1643 was the model and prototype of the North American confederacy of 1774.”
Mary Brewster died in 1627, and several of William’s children passed away during his lifetime. William Brewster lasted until 1644 in relatively good health right up until his final days at the ripe age of 79.
Years earlier, back in Scrooby, William and Mary Brewster had taken an orphan under their wing and virtually adopted him as a son. William Bradford had been with them through the entire journey, and became the long-time Governor and de facto leader in Plymouth. His seminal history “Of Plymouth Plantation” is the primary source for much of what is known of the Pilgrims. We will leave this story with Willam Bradford’s Eulogy to his lifelong friend and mentor, Elder William Brewster:
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 an humble and modest mind, of a peaceable disposition, undervaluing himself and his own abilities and sometime 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 tenderhearted 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 and 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 or a little riches more than others.
Pilgrims vs Puritans
There were significant differences between the small group of “Pilgrims” who came to Plymouth in 1620 and the “Puritans” who streamed mostly to Massachusetts Bay a decade later. The Pilgrims were at heart Separatists. They believed worship was a personal, individual experience. They rejected the idea of a national church, and the right of a monarch being head of any church.
The Puritans, while wanting to reform or “purify” the Church of England, nonetheless believed it was the one true church, with the monarch at its head.
The two groups are often conflated with one another – often to the detriment of the Pilgrims.
Probably the most authoritative source on the Pilgrim story is Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs, who has been Chief Curator of Plymouth Colony, Curator of the Leiden Pilgrim Documents Center, and founded the American Pilgrim Museum in Leiden. His recent “Strangers and Pilgrims” is a comprehensive fresh look at the Pilgrim story.
“Saints and Strangers” by George Willison is a very readable and enlightening story, as is the more specific “Pilgrim: A Biography of William Brewster” by Mary Sherwood.
I have relied heavily on these three books in writing this blog and recommend all three.