Most people think of the Pilgrims as stuffy, mournful souls who dressed in black and never smiled. The life of William Brewster quickly dispells these myths, for he was a bold leader of the Pilgrim Church. Born in 1566 or 1567 in Scrooby, England, he entered Cambridge University and became an assistant to William Davison, one of Queen Elizabeth’s Secretaries of State. William went to Holland on a diplomatic mission with Davison in 1585 and thus became familiar with the Netherlands.
William Bradford writes “He went to the Court and served that religious and godly gentleman Mr. Davison diverse years when he was Secretary of State. (He) found him so discreet and faithful as he trusted him above all other that were aout him, and only employed him in all matters of greatest trust and secrecy; he esteeemd him rather as a son than a servant, and for his wisdom and godliness, in private he would converse with him more like a friend and familiar than a master.”
Davison was eventually imprisoned by Queen Elizabeth and Brewster returned to Scrooby where he worked as postmaster, a position held by his father previously. While at Scrooby, he joined with the others by a covenant of the Lord into a church estate. Bradford writes, “They ordinarily met at his house on the Lord’s Day (which was a manor of the bishop’s) and with great love he entertained them when they came, making provison for them to his great charge, and continued so to do whilst they could stay in England.” When Bradford joined the Scrooby church as well at age 14 (having been abandoned by his uncle and aunt for doing so), Brewster virtually adopted him, becoming his mentor at age 40 or 41.
He remained in his postmaster position until 1607 when the Pilgrim church attempted to secretly leave England. He was imprisoned (with the other leaders) in Boston, England after being captured in their first attempted to depart for Holland. William and the others made it to Amsterdam and were eventually joined by the wives and children in late Spring of 1608. In Holland he led in many ways as Bradford writes, “He fell into a way (by reason he had the Latin tongue) to teach many students who had a desire to learn the English tongue… and by his method they quickly attained it with great facility, for he drew rules to learn it by after the Latin manner.” This initiative must have inspired Bradford later in life, for he studied Hebrew in the wilderness of America!
While in Leyden, William Brewster began operating a printing press, located in Choir Alley. Moveable type had only been invented a little more than a century before. Thomas Brewer bought the English type and sent it to Brewster in Holland. There, in concert with some Dutch master printers, they printed off the sheets of books to be sent into England. Since the Synod of Dort controversy was over, the English authorities under King James I renewed their efforts to regulate other rogue non-conformists, which included the bringing of “illegal” books into England.
It is important to note that the Pilgrim Church wished as little controversy with English and Dutch authorities as possible. All they wanted was to do was conduct their church in peace. They had received legal permission to immigrate to Holland and wanted to be left alone. However, in the wake of the Synod, the government of the States General passed a law to fully regulate everything printed and all printers – in other words, there was no freedom of the press, especially religious! Brewster and Brewer began smuggling books into England in 1616, and in March of 1619, Carleton (an agent of King James) was hunting down a book concerning Scotland called The Balance that was critical of King James attempt to force his government (religious and civil) from the top upon them.
But who printed it? No printer was identified as required by law. William Brewster had an ingenious way of being identified, however. He would place an image, called later the “Brewster Bear” on the book. But in any event, the hunt was on to discover the printer and the Pilgrims were no longer safe in Leiden due to this activity. The Anglican Bishops came to Holland without permission from even the Dutch government, and in a letter of August 1, 1619, Carleton identified the printer of a book entitled The Perth Assembly. He wrote, “I believe I have discovered the printer… one William Brewster, a Brownist, who hath been for some years an inhabitant and printer at Leyden.”
Brewer was arrested and held in the town hall at Leyden. Brewster was also apprehended and held there, but on account of being sick, he was released. He soon disappeared. After all, Brewster had friends in high places from his former diplomatic work. Though Brewster, Robinson and Cushman went to London to work out details on their departure for America, Brewster was “missing” for almost a year prior to the Pilgrims departure due to being hunted continually. Brewster, and the Pilgrims, were indeed pioneers in the freedom of the press, especially religious liberty! Some have said that William only made it on the Speedwell or Mayflower by being put in a barrell, but no one knows for sure. His story of conviction, boldness and daring, as well as escape, is one made for a movie!
He was an example, as an elder, while in Plymouth also, for as Bradford writes, “He was no way unwilling to bear his burden with the rest, living many times without bead or corn many months together, having many times nothing but fish and often wanting that also… he lived by the blessing of God in health till very old age. And besides that, he would labor 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 comrfortable edification; yea, many were brought to God by his minsitry.”
Bradford writes (part of which is engraved on the Brewster stone in Plymouth,) “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.”
May we learn from such a fine example as William Brewster, and as the Scriptures declare in Colossians 4:5-6, “Walk in wisdom towrd them that are without, redeeming the time. Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer every man.”