William Brewster: “A Rare Example” of True Love

4 min

The stench of filth and vomit filled the common house where the band of exiles huddled. They had erected the crude shelter against the brutal Cape Cod winter. Having endured violent storms at sea, uncertain encounters with savages on land, and the chilling effects of sleet and snowy weather, the Pilgrims now faced their deadliest trial yet—sickness.

The colonists had not been strong when they initially landed on the North American shore. Only 102 intrepid passengers had ventured to board the small ship, the Mayflower. Now, this small, brave group was being decimated at an alarming rate. The Pilgrims were burying their dead during the darkness of the night hours so that the Indians would not know how fast they were dying. At this rate, they would soon all perish!

William Bradford, their future governor, recorded notes in his journal regarding those awful days of sickness and misery:

But soon a most lamentable blow fell upon them [the passengers from the Mayflower]. In two or three months time, half of their company died, partly owing to the severity of the winter, especially during January and February, and the want of houses and other comforts; partly to scurvy and other diseases, which their long voyage and their incommodious quarters had brought upon them. Of all the hundred odd persons, scarcely fifty remained, and sometimes two or three persons died in a day. In the time of worst distress, there were but six or seven persons, who, to their great commendation be it spoken, spared no pains night or day, but with great toil and at risk of their own health, fetched wood, made fires, prepared food for the sick, made their beds, washed their infected clothes, dressed and undressed them, in a word did all the homely and necessary services for them which dainty and queasy stomachs cannot endure to hear mentioned; and all this they did willingly and cheerfully, without the least grudging, showing their love to the friends and brethren, a rare example, and worthy to be remembered.

One of these faithful servants Bradford noted as a “rare example” was William Brewster, their “reverend elder.” Brewster was among the oldest of the Mayflower passengers. In fact, he was old enough to be the father of many of his companions! Yet, despite his advanced age, he demonstrated by his daily, sacrificial service what it was like to “love thy neighbour as thyself.”

William Brewster was from Scrooby in Nottinghamshire, England. He was one of the few Pilgrims who had a family background in the gentry of England. In his youth, he had studied at Cambridge, then later served as a diplomat to the Netherlands in the service of the English ambassador. Upon his return to England, William Brewster took up his father’s post as postmaster at Scrooby Manor. He lived in a large, stately house with his wife Mary and their growing family.

The Brewsters took a bold step when they left the established church to unite with a small, persecuted body of believers known as Separatists. William Brewster knew that he was risking his status, his livelihood, and perhaps his own life by uniting with these despised Christians, but he saw the justice of their cause and he loved the truth more than his own life.

When the Separatist church was forced to leave the building in which they met, William Brewster graciously and boldly offered his own manor house as a meeting place. Around the same time, the Brewsters began welcoming a young, orphaned lad named William Bradford to stay at their home and share their meals. Bradford never forgot the hospitality of the Brewster family, and he learned what a Christian family looked like. The grateful orphan wrote of Master Brewster:

He was wise and discrete and well spoken, having a grave and deliberate utterance, of a very cheerful spirit, very sociable and pleasant among his friends, of an humble and modest mind, of peaceable disposition, undervaluing himself and his own abilities, and sometime overvaluing others: inoffensive and innocent in his life and conversation, which gained the love of those without, as well as those within. . . He was tenderhearted, and compassionate to such as were in misery. . . In teaching, he was very moving and stirring of affections, also very plain and distinct in what he taught.

Finally, the religious persecution became unbearable. The Brewsters left Scrooby Manor, fleeing with the other members of the congregation. The group fled to the Netherlands for refuge. In this hasty departure, the Brewster family may have sacrificed the most. As a member of the gentry, William Brewster especially was a wanted man, and the authorities placed a price upon his head, forcing him to travel for a time under an alias. Once in the Netherlands, Brewster boldly opened a print shop, and printed tracts and literature to send back into England.

When the decision was made to leave the Netherlands and travel to the New World, William and Mary Brewster volunteered to make the trip along with two of their younger children, sons named Love and Wrestling. Two children from the More family were also in the care of the Brewsters. In the absence of their pastor John Robinson, Elder William Brewster served as spiritual leader of the Pilgrim band.

Remarkably, the Brewsters were one of only four couples to survive that first brutal winter with both spouses still alive the following spring. William Brewster was present to lead in worship at the famous first thanksgiving event. His leadership, wisdom, hospitality, and his sacrificial, selfless service were fine examples to the entire colony for many years to come. Eventually, the older Brewster children were able to join the family in Plymouth.

In April 1644, William Brewster went to be with the Lord. His direct descendants have become a multitude and include famous persons such as President Zachary Taylor, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, Commodore Matthew Hazard Perry, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Governor Sarah Palin, and hymn writer Fanny Crosby. William Brewster’s legacy of “loving his neighbor” as Christ commanded in Matthew 22:39 lives on in his physical children as well as his spiritual ones.

Sources and Further Reference:
Bradford, William. Of Plymouth Plantation. San Antonio, TX: Vision Forum, 1998.

This article is from our Matters of Life & Death teaching series.

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