Freedom Hero: William Brewster

by Marshall Foster

What can you do when you live in a time of great change and upheaval? How can you make a difference when you are just one person or family up against powerful elites who seemingly control the destinies of everyone? The following story reveals what one person can do.

The hot conflict between tyranny and liberty was lighting up the cities of Europe in the late 16th century. The kings of Europe were in a full attack and annihilate mode. They were systematically attempting to silence or kill the truth seekers and believers who were daring to challenge their right to tyrannize and plunder in the name of God. In Germany, millions were dying in the 30 Years War. In the Netherlands, King Phillip of Spain was killing and torturing hundreds of thousands for their faith in Christ. In France, their demented king celebrated St. Bartholomew’s Day, 1572, by butchering tens of thousands of French Huguenots. He killed the flower of France, as they had come in peace, unarmed, for a royal wedding. And the grand island of England, newly released from the tortures and burnings of Bloody Mary, was now ruled by her half-sister. The “Virgin” Queen Elizabeth, though less cruel, still ruled with an iron fist, even as the Bible for the first time was rearranging the very order of mankind itself in the minds of the people.

In the midst of this caldron of fearful reprisal and war, William Brewster was born in 1566 in Scrooby, England. He grew up in the old, but grand Scrooby Manor House, owned by the archbishop and cared for by his father. The manor had a moat, 40 rooms, a grand hall, stables, bakeries, and outbuildings.

It was an exciting time to live. Elizabethan England was filled with energy and mirth as long as the common people kept their heads down and did not rock the established order of the royalty and its state church. Young Brewster was educated by his parents and the local church school where he learned Latin. Then William was sent at the age of 15 to the one place in England where the ideas of liberty of conscience and the truth of Scripture were being debated and prepared to bring down the tyranny of the age – Cambridge University.

At Cambridge, William came face to face with the liberating truths from the Book of books, which alone were mankind’s hope for freedom. In the great struggle for liberty in which William Brewster became a major combatant for the next 50 years, “many brave men and women would lay down their lives—not on the battlefield, charging up to the cannon’s mouth, but on the scaffold, or else wasting away in loathsome prisons,” according to historian Charles Coffin.

Young Brewster had a close friendship with John Davison, who became the secretary to the queen’s secretary of state. Brewster assisted Davison for several years through the intrigues, glamour as well as miseries of the royal court of Queen Elizabeth. Just as Brewster’s career was rising, his boss, Davison, was deceived by the queen as she chose him as a scapegoat for the beheading of her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, in 1588. Davison was sent to the Tower prison. Young Brewster was forced to leave the court and go home to Scrooby where he took over his ailing father’s supervision of the Manor house, inn, post office and livery stable.

From this position of leadership, William Brewster began his long selfless avocation of teaching the faithful believers around him to stand for liberty against tyranny. He left the corrupt state church. Then he began a secret, illegal church in his manor house by candlelight. Here in 1604, the young William Bradford came and joined the congregation and Brewster became his lifelong mentor and friend. He took in the brilliant Rev. John Robinson and his family who were left destitute as he was driven from his presidency of a college at Cambridge because of his biblical views. Brewster was running the risk of the loss of his home and job at the very least, and the further danger of imprisonment or death—and he knew it.

By 1607, the king’s troops were hunting down the Scrooby congregation. The small church, bound together in love, tried to escape to Holland twice. After several terrifying trials and imprisonments, they finally united and settled in Leyden, Holland. This was the only place they knew where they could live and practice their faith without being tortured. John Robinson was their pastor from about 1605 to 1620. Robinson and Brewster, the two “hot minds” from Cambridge, provided the biblical and intellectual fire that prepared the Pilgrims to found America, the bastion of Christian liberty. Here they learned the doctrines of religious liberty, freedom of conscience, and the biblical principles of self and civil government.

Out of his love for his native land, Brewster began a clandestine printing business to print books and pamphlets to send back to England and Scotland. He wanted to help bring the message of liberty to the people who were persecuted by the whims of the demented King James I. As a result, Brewster became a hunted man and the authorities eventually found and destroyed his hidden presses.

But he and his family managed to hide from the authorities. When the Mayflower sailed in August of 1620 from Southampton, William Brewster was smuggled on board, probably in a keg or chest. When half of the Pilgrims died the first desperate winter in Plymouth, Elder Brewster was one of only six people who could walk and care for the sick and bury the dead.

He led the new colony in Plymouth as its spiritual leader for 24 years, along with Governor William Bradford, his beloved disciple from the early days in Scrooby. By the spring of 1644, William Brewster, surrounded by many grandchildren and a beautiful farm in Duxbury, was truly a man at peace beneath his own vine and fig tree. The colony was now 3,000 strong and 200 ships had brought 16,000 persecuted Puritans and others to New England’s shores following in the footsteps of this faithful pioneer and his little band of brothers and sisters. The beachhead of liberty for the world had been established against all odds.

What can one person do? William Brewster reasoned from the Bible to every institution in life. He helped to craft the structure of the world’s first constitutional republic. He helped create the first free enterprise society. He and his friends were able to accomplish it all without war.

Brewster preached the first sermon ever given in New England. Historian Charles Coffin describes how the world was changed that day. He says, “The new state— new order of things—has begun. That which the human race has struggled for through all the ages has come at last – the right of the people to rule… Self-government has begun. Take note of it, ye lords, nobles, kings, and emperors, for of this beginning there will come a new order of things in human affairs!”

Whatever the cost, we dare not let this precious legacy die on our watch.
From the World History Institute Journal, May 2010 Issue, Dr. Marshall Foster, President.
Used by permission © 2010

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