As we are approaching Thanksgiving, I want to honor my 12th great grandfather, William Brewster, elder of the Pilgrim congregation that sailed to New England aboard the Mayflower and settled Plymouth, Massachusetts. This post is about his life in England. The next post will be about his life in Holland. He is a fine example of how God uses the faithful service of ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things.
William Brewster’s life was one of constant, humble faithfulness. His father, also William Brewster, held a post managing Scrooby Manor, a small estate held by the Archbishop of Canterbury. His duties required him to keep the Manor ready to receive royal guests and dignitaries as they traveled the North Road from London to Scotland. He kept horses ready for use by the post and to exchange horses for official travelers. He ran a brewery and a bakery on the manor. It was a comfortable living, though not an extravagant one. He probably commanded an ample staff of servants and lived a busy, enjoyable life. He had the means to educate his son. In 1580, at about age 13, the young William Brewster finished his preparatory education and entered the University at Cambridge.
Cambridge was a hotbed of religious controversy at the time William Brewster was there. Several of his classmates would in the following years die at the gallows or in prison for their acts of religious “sedition,” such as publishing books and pamphlets that criticized corruptions within the established church and attacked the claim that the British sovereign was the head of the English Church. One classmate was hung, drawn and quartered. But when Brewster left Cambridge to enter the service of William Davison, a diplomat and advisor in the court of Queen Elizabeth, he seemed to show no inclination to separate from the established church.
William Davison was a rising star in Elizabeth ’s court, and Brewster’s star rose with that of his employer. He proved himself a capable, faithful assistant and became the most trusted member of Davison’s staff. His life at court must have been exciting. No doubt he caught glimpses of royalty and dignitaries such as Sir Walter Raleigh on a fairly regular basis. He traveled with Davison on diplomatic trips, spending a great deal of time in Holland, where his aptitude with languages enabled him to quickly pick up the Dutch tongue. However, what rises must also fall, and Brewster’s diplomatic career was ruined when Davison’s star fell from the sky. Davison became the scapegoat for the Queen’s decision to execute Mary Queen of Scots. He was imprisoned in the Tower, and faithful Brewster, rather than distance himself from him, continued to serve his employer—though no longer at court.
After the death of his father, Brewster returned to Scrooby and took over his father’s post at Scrooby Manor. He settled back into the comfortable country life of his youth. He married and started a family. In the years to follow, Brewster would become increasingly involved in hearing and supporting Puritan and Separatist preachers. Eventually he even hosted secret Sabbath Day services at Scrooby Manor, ironically, the property of his employer, the Archbishop of Canterbury. He paid the pastor and provided hospitality to the little congregation of nearby residents—high and low born—who risked arrest to secretly worship at this illegal little church. In time they elected him their elder and he assisted the pastor in teaching and leading the little flock.
William and Mary Brewster were noted for their generosity and hospitality. William Bradford described him as a humble and lighthearted man, who taught and spoke plainly, making complex doctrines understandable to even the simplest, uneducated farmers. He never put himself above others and always assumed the best about everyone. When he did need to offer a rebuke it was so gently and kindly given that it was usually sweetly received.
William Bradford would eventually join the Brewster household as an unofficial foster son. Bradford was orphaned, and the uncles who were left charge of him took the youth from his education and set him out to be a farmer, work for which he was not physically suited or accustomed. Bradford’s involvement with the Separatists displeased his uncles and their relationship was strained.
The Brewsters took young William Bradford into their household and provided for him to complete his education, even at the University in Cambridge. They could not have known then that they were educating the future governor of a colony in the New World. A man who would become one of a new nation’s most loved and respected early leaders. Can you imagine how history would have been different if they had not performed this remarkable act of kindness and generosity to this orphaned young man?
The persecution of this little church became worse. More than once the congregation was hauled off to jail—women, children, and all—and their time in jail was increasing each time. They eventually made the decision to try to escape to Holland, where religious differences were tolerated. Some of the familes were reasonably wealthy and had much to leave much behind them—family estates, inheritances, and comfortable livings. Others had less to leave behind, but also fewer skills to take with them. They would all be strangers in a non-English-speaking land, and they were all making a great sacrifice for the sake of their faith.
They were a most unremarkable band of people. They were a strange mix of farmers, businessmen, gentlemen and servants. Some were University graduates, well-versed in Latin and Greek. Most could not read their native English. Led by their elder, William Brewster, their pastor, the Rev. Richard Clyfton, and their teacher, the Rev. John Robinson, and after several unsuccessful attempts, this unremarkable group made its way to Amsterdam. William Brewster was in the last group to leave, as he had stayed behind to help the “weakest” get over, in many cases, purchasing their passage.
Next time…William Brewster in Holland