Thanksgiving is approaching, and the leaves are turning magical colors of gold, red, and orange. It’s a time when we see images of turkeys and pilgrims dressed in black and white with buckles on their shoes and smiles on their faces, but for one man, William Brewster, becoming a pilgrim was a dramatic reversal of fortune. His path to the new world is a story of leadership, courage, and perseverance. His destiny was set in motion when Mary, Queen of Scots, was executed via a death warrant penned by diplomat William Davison and signed by Queen Elizabeth I.
William Brewster grew up in Scrooby Manor in rural England, was educated at Cambridge University, and found employment with William Davison, Secretary of State in the Elizabethan court. As a member of court, Brewster saw firsthand the political machinations of Elizabethan society, and how quickly one fell in and out of favor. He was also lucky enough to accompany Davison to the Netherlands, where he was impressed with the honor and acclaim his mentor received, including a gold chain that was presented by the Dutch. Davison liked William Brewster, and entrusted him with the keeping of the chain on the journey home. William slept with it under his pillow, and wore it himself when he stepped on English soil. This early exposure to Holland and the independence of the people there left an indelible impression.
During this time, a web of plots known as “The Enterprise of England” threatened Queen Elizabeth’s life and sovereignty. The enterprise was an assassination plan to kill the Queen and replace her with Mary, Queen of Scots, restoring the Catholic religion as the official religion of the empire. Mary herself was sent to the tower, and Elizabeth suggested Mary be “privately dispatched” before her trial was even over. Davison, a man of upstanding morals, bravely informed his monarch that the way provided by the law was the best way. He himself penned the death warrant at her command, and had to witness her signature. Afterwards, Elizabeth blamed Davison for Mary’s death, and imprisoned him in the Tower. Davison was the “fall guy”, so that Elizabeth could remain guiltless and beloved. Young William Brewster witnessed this shocking turn of events, and left the vanity of the court behind him forever after attending dutifully to his friend in the Tower. All of his life, he was showed sympathy and compassion to those in misery, but especially to those fallen from favor due to undeserved political or religious oppression.
William returned to the country, married and had children. Now in his 30s, he encountered William Bradford, who was in his teens, at sermons given by Smyth in Gainsborough. Although later in the colonies they were equals, Brewster began as a father figure to the orphaned Bradford, mentoring him much in the same way that he had been mentored by Davison. Although Bradford wrote nothing of Brewster’s appearance in hisPlymouth history, he described his character:
“He was wise and discreet and well-spoken, having a grave and deliberate utterance, of a very cheerful spirit, very social and pleasant among his friends, of a humble and modest mind, of a peaceable disposition, undervaluing himself and his own abilities, and sometimes overvaluing others. Inoffensive and innocent in his life and conversation, which gained him the love of those without as well as those within…”
This doesn’t sound like someone daring and brave, someone who began an illegal publishing company that went against the dictates of the state. Does it? But that’s what William Brewster did. Brewster found purpose in the Separatist movement, which revived the values of the first Christians and defied the state religion. This was the beginning of Brewster’s role as a spiritual leader. He began his own publishing company, printing sermons that were not “state-approved”. He suffered religious persecution, and his family was imprisoned in Boston, England, while attempting to leave the country. After some time, they were released and able to find a captain willing to take not only Brewster and his family, but an entire group of separatists – including William Bradford, to the Netherlands.
Back in Holland again, Brewster made money by teaching Latin and English to locals, and once again began printing sermons. His eldest son, Jonathan, made money as a ribbon maker. William Brewster’s love of books grew, as well as his collection. Captain John Smith’s Description of New England was hot off the press in 1616, and Brewster had it in his library, along with the writings of Sir Walter Raleigh, and Navigations, an account of Sir Francis Drake’s expedition around the earth.
So when the opportunity to participate in an exciting venture to the new world under the auspices of the Virginia Company presented itself, Brewster pursued it. A sticking point in the contract was a clause giving the colonists “freedom of religion”. Brewster insisted on the clause, and it was included. He was one of the leaders who later ensured that the debt to the company was discharged by the colonists.
Well into his 50s, William Brewster sailed in the Mayflower to Plymouth, Massachusetts. He took his wife and two youngest children, leaving the other two in the care of his eldest child, Jonathan Brewster. Although Jonathan made the journey later on the Fortune, this initial separation must have been incredibly painful for a family that had already endured so many hardships.
When the Mayflower’s voyage was over, the men on board assembled to write the now famous Mayflower Compact, an agreement to establish a civil body politic – a new idea, quite different from the monarchy that William Brewster escaped in England, and the foundation for the democracy that we live in today. There were more hardships, more stories of trials and triumphs, to accompany that first Thanksgiving. But that’s a story for another time. For now, I’d like to leave you with these words from Mary Sherwood’s biography of William Brewster, which commemorate a true Pilgrim, one of the first Americans in spirit, if not citizenship.
“William Bradford, telling of the departure [from Holland], wrote the lines that later gave the Pilgrims their name. ‘So they left that goodly and pleasant city that had been their resting place near twelve years, but they knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on these things, but lift up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits.’ Bradford was using the word “pilgrim” in the same sense it was used in the 11th book of the Epistle to the Hebrews in the Bible, which he cites – meaning a stranger, a traveler, one who seeks a country.”