The English-born Pilgrim leader William Brewster (ca. 1566-1644) was the ruling elder of the Separatist group at Scrooby, England, before he and the congregation migrated to Holland and, finally, to New Plymouth in America.
William Brewster was 10 years old when his father was appointed postmaster and bailiff at Scrooby Manor, an official resting place on the main road from London to Edinburgh. In 1580 Brewster entered Cambridge University but left without a degree. He served briefly in the diplomatic service, returned to Scrooby to assist his father, and became postmaster upon his father's death in 1590. Brewster probably became a Puritan at Cambridge; but how he turned to Separatism, an extreme form of Puritanism, is unexplained. Nonetheless, when a Separatist congregation was formed at Scrooby, Brewster was its most important member, and services were held in the manor house.
The harassment of religious dissenters by James I convinced the Scrooby congregation to search for religious freedom in Holland, and certainly Brewster influenced that decision. Imprisoned while trying to emigrate, he was one of the last to reach Holland. The congregation eventually settled in Leiden, where Brewster taught English to students at the university. In 1617 he entered the printing business, specializing in Puritan tracts whose publication was prohibited in England. More importantly, Brewster was the congregation's ruling elder, second only to the minister, John Robinson. As elder, he would have influenced the important decision to leave Holland for North America, but he was unable to participate in the preparations for emigration because the King's opposition to his printing activities had forced him into hiding.
Smuggled aboard the Mayflower, Brewster next appeared as one of the leaders of the infant Plymouth Colony in New England. He was one of the few who remained healthy during the early months of settlement, and he ministered to the many sick and dying. A trusted confidant in all matters regarding the colony's survival and progress, Brewster served as its religious leader. He led prayers and preached sermons, but without a university degree he could not become an ordained minister and thus could not administer the sacraments of communion and baptism. Despite this deficiency, however, he led the church well.
Of brewster's life in Plymouth little else is known. Like virtually all other men in the colony, he was a farmer. Certainly he assisted Governor William Bradford in making major political and economic decisions. However, perhaps because he was one of the oldest of the Pilgrims, had a large family to care for, and bore the responsibility for the religious life of New Plymouth, his name rarely appears in the records of the colony. At his death in 1644, Governor Bradford praised him for being "sociable and pleasant amongst his friends, of a humble and modest mind, and tenderhearted and compassionate."
Further Reading on William Brewster
There is no recent biography of Brewster. One of the best sources for information, especially on his contribution to Plymouth, is William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647, edited by Samuel Eliot Morison (1952). Specific information as well as general background is in George F. Willison, Saints and Strangers, Being the Lives of the Pilgrim Fathers (1945); Bradford Smith, Bradford of Plymouth (1951); and George D. Langdon, Jr., Pilgrim Colony: A History of New Plymouth, 1620-1691 (1966).
Additional Biography Sources
Harris, J. Rendel (James Rendel), The Pilgrim press: a bibliographical & historical memorial of the books printed at Leyden by the Pilgrim fathers, Nieuwkoop: De Graaf, 1987.
Sherwood, Mary B., Pilgrim: a biography of William Brewster, Falls Church, Va.: Great Oak Press of Virginia, 1982.