Very little is known about the first William Brewster or his wife Mary Smythe, except for the probable dates of birth and death.
The second William Brewster is very well documented since he was the ruling elder of the congregation forming the mainstay of the Plymouth Colony.
The Pilgrims are generally confused with the Puritans who came later, settling north of them around Boston Bay. The Pilgrims were not pale plaster saints, on the contrary, they were red-blooded and self-assertive rebels against the existing order. They were far from being genteel and anemic Victorians, but were children of the Elizabethan Age and shared its robust qualities. They were restless and impatient with old ways, scornful of precedent and tradition, eager for change, bold and reckless.
The Pilgrims liked good food, strong drink and especially beer. They never complained more loudly than when reduced to drinking water.
They liked bright colors in clothing and only dressed in funereal black on the Sabbath. They were simple folk, farmers and working class for the most part, from the cottages and not the castles of England.
In family-conscious England, the thanes who formed the backbone of any army were good at one thing alone: establishing themselves comfortably on the estates granted them by the King. And then moving heaven and earth to see that not only did they hold on to them, however old, fat or unfitted for military service they became, but also that the estates were passed on in due form to their children. Sometimes they sent sons to perform service for them, sometimes they worked their way into royal favor by enforcing the king’s dooms and witnessing any charter that needed a voice to swear one way or the other. However they did it, even if they had to send their daughters to tempt some magnate’s lust, it was rare in England to find a parcel of land without some noble’s son who thought he had a claim to it.
England established a national church of her own in 1529, forbidding the Roman Catholic Church. The King forbade the worship of “idols.” ordering the destruction of shrines and images throughout the land. He also ordered every church to install a Bible written in English. Englishmen could examine Holy Writ for themselves without benefit of clergy. From this came the Pilgrim tenant that no doctrine or ritual was “lawful” unless it was provided for in Scripture.
At first the English Church assumed a Protestant character under Edward VI, but reform abruptly stopped when he died and was succeeded by Mary. She had been raised a Catholic, and reinstituted the Roman Catholic rite throughout the realm. Hundreds of Protestants—men, women, and small children—were executed. “Bloody Mary’s” days were few, for she died shortly, and was succeeded by Queen Elizabeth.
Elizabeth’s political tactic was to first favor the Catholics, then the Protestants, pitting one against the other in order to keep either from being too strong. She especially didn’t want the reformers to gain enough power to cause a civil uprising. She instituted a “Court of High Commission,” made up of bishops of the Church of England and demanded absolute uniformity of belief. No one could preach without a license and above all no unlicensed printing. Hundreds of people were jailed at the order of the bishops, many upon reports or complaints of jealous neighbors.
The scholars and earnest students at the University of Cambridge dug into the Scriptures to discover just where the “disorder” had first crept in, and the more they dug, the less justification for current belief was found. The need of the hour was to restore the faith to its “ancient puritie.” These views led the Archbishop of Canterbury to label them as “these precise men.” It was very graphic, and reformers were quickly known as Precisians and then as Puritans—so named for their theological doctrine and not for their moral code.
The critics made little progress and the authorities more and more insistent in their demand all hold their tongues and strictly conform. Many of the Puritans resigned themselves to an appearance of conformity and fell silent from fear of jeopardizing their pleasant stations in life.
But not everyone. The Puritan group under Robert Brown decided it was not possible to reform the church from within, so he advocated the establishment of a different church, one made up of individuals who were most worthy. In every parish these people should withdraw from the church and organize themselves under a covenant “to forsake and denie all ungodliness and wicked fellowship.” Every congregation so organized was to remain independent, no bishops, no archbishops, no central organization or authority of any kind. Such a church was to be made up of religious elite, a “priesthood of believers,” a church of “saints.”
With the death of Elizabeth in 1603, the hope of reformers bounded up, for the new King, James I, had been raised in Scotland, where the Calvinist Protestant Kirk was well established. Hopes were quickly dashed. Afraid of civil unrest, he wouldn’t listen to requests for changes. “Away with all your sniveling!” cried the King when reformers approached him. He announced he would “put down such malicious spirits—I will make them conform or will harry them out of the land.” New decrees for conformity were issued and three hundred Anglican clergymen were deprived of office within a year, including the Pilgrims beloved pastor John Robinson.
The small group in and around the hamlet of Scrooby, Nottinghamshire were not to be frightened or intimidated. For “sundrie years, with much patience” they had borne the silencing of “godly & zealous preachers.” Now their patience was exhausted.
William Brewster, then bailiff of Scrooby manor and local postmaster, organized the Scrooby congregation. It was not a Sabbath at Brewster’s, in the imposing manor house. All must have enjoyed the irony that their secret meeting house was the property of the Archbishop of York.
Harassed on all sides, the congregation decided to flee to Holland—about half the company managed to get across. They took what jobs the could in the least skilled and poorest paid handicraft trades for they were simple country folk, skilled only as farmers.
The congregation built a meeting house in the heart of the old city, and here Brewster and his brethren worshiped for more than a year before they thought of moving on again. Disputes with other exiled Englishmen over church doctrine caused the small Scrooby group to move to Leyden, Holland. Within a few years they acquired a permanent place of worship and the “Saincts” were happy at last with more members coming to them from all over England till the congregation reached probably three hundred.
William Brewster first became a tutor, offering instruction in English. Later he established a publishing house for printing “subversive” literature for smuggling into England. The English ambassador prevailed on the Dutch authorities to seize the press and close down the operation. Brewster fled, hiding out in the neighborhood of Scrooby while authorities searched for him all over Holland.
By 1617 the congregation was restless due to their extreme poverty and their fear of being absorbed by the Dutch. They turned to a friend, Thomas Weston, an ironmonger of London and then followed three years of tedious and involved negotiations trying to finance the ship and provisions for their migration to America. The group of merchants assembled by Weston had no charter from the King and they reached a simple business agreement with the Pilgrims. Thus the merchants had no authority to appoint a governor or issue ordinances or decrees and the Pilgrims were free to go their own way from the start.
The preparation for the departure to the New World was conducted with little or no system, with Weston frequently finding fault with the improper manner in which the business was carried on.
Finally things were as ready as they would ever be, and a group of “Saincts” left Leyden. Crossing to England, they suffered vexatious delays and several near disasters before they finally embarked on September 6, 1620 in the Mayflower, carrying 102 passengers—men, women, and children; the ship loaded with all their provisions.
The colonists on the Mayflower, instead of proceeding to the mouth of the Hudson River as originally intended, landed at Cape Cod, and finally settled at a place called by the Indians “Patuxet.”
In the American mind the Mayflower company was a united group, from the simple congregation all the way from Scrooby to Leyden, Holland. Nothing could be further from the truth. Of the 102 passengers, only three were from Scrooby—William Bradford, William Brewster and his wife Mary—and only a little more than a third of the company were “Saincts” from Leyden. The rest were “strangers” who had been recruited from London and all over England by the merchants. What they were seeking in the New World was not spiritual salvation but economic opportunity and a chance to have a piece of land of their own. The smaller Leyden group was in command and determined to impose its religious views upon the majority.
The stage was set for bickering opposition, thievery and all other means of disrupting the settlement in the wilderness—remember, no corner stores, no factories, no mines, no seed supply stores, no tool makers (although they did have a barrel maker and a carpenter) and no hospital, doctor or nurse. All supplies must come from England, by ship, at least until they could harvest a crop the following year. The history of the Plymouth Colony is full of reports of the first few awful years when men staggered in the street from hunger, scarcely able to go to and from the corn fields upon which their very lives depended.
In the first two or three months after arrival in early November 1620, half of the company died due to the severity of the winter, lack of houses, scurvy and ship fever. There were six or seven sound persons, among them William Brewster, who spared no pains night or day, with great toil and risk to their own health, fetched wood, made fires, prepared food for the sick, made their beds, washed infected clothes, dressed and undressed them, did all the homely and necessary services which dainty and queasy stomachs cannot endure; and all done willingly and cheerfully, without the least grudging.
William Bradford, Governor of Plymouth Colony, said of William Brewster, “He was favored above many; he was wise and discreet and well-spoken, having a grave and deliberate utterance, with a very cheerful spirit. He was very sociable and pleasant among his friends, of an humble and modest mind and a peaceable disposition. He was tender hearted and compassionate with those in misery.”
Lloyd Richardson is a great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandson of William Brewster.