Under the pillow of William Brewster were the great keys of the city of Flushing. The Dutch were still in the midst of their long war with Spain, and were borrowing men and money from England for reinforcements; and Queen Elizabeth, to make sure of the repayment of the debt, had required that certain Dutch towns should be given over to English garrisons.
Thus, among other places of importance, Flushing was surrendered. The English troops marched to the parish church and said their prayers, and promised, on their solemn oath, to be faithful to their trust, and then proceeded to the fortifications of the town, from which the Dutch quietly retreated. The keys were formally presented to the queen's ambassador, Mr. Davison, and he gave them for safe keeping to his secretary, young Mr. Brewster, who, when he went to bed that night, put them under his pillow.
Brewster, in the due course of events, transferred the keys to the hands of Sir Philip Sidney. Thus, for a moment, we see these two brave men together: Sidney, who said, "When you hear of a good war, go to it," and who, as he lay dying on the field of battle, gave to a private soldier the cup of water which was brought to him; and Brewster, the leader of the Plymouth colonists.
He was far enough, at that time, from any thoughts of leading a company of colonists. He had entered with excellent prospects into the service of the English court. His master, the ambassador, who gave him the keys to keep, presently put about his neck a gold chain with which the Dutch had honored him, telling him to wear it till they returned to London.
It seemed the symbol of a pleasant and distinguished future. Mr. Davison became one of Her Majesty's principal Secretaries of State, and Brewster continued to be a member of his household. Here "the Secretary found him so discreet and faithful that he trusted him above all others that were about him," and esteemed him "rather as a son than as a servant."
Then came the peril of the Armada, and though the winds and storms destroyed the Spanish fleet, there was left in the English mind a nervous terror as to what might happen next. The imagination of the people was filled with the idea of plots against the Queen, and constant rumor suspected Mary Queen of Scots. Thus she was beheaded. In this tragic matter, Secretary Davison bore an official, though unwilling part. He it was, attended perhaps by Brewster, who carried to Elizabeth the warrant for Mary's execution, and who took the paper with the queen's signature to the chancellor. But when the deed was done, and Mary was actually put to death, Elizabeth was overwhelmed with remorse and anger, and these emotions she visited upon her innocent secretary. Davison was sent to the Tower; his honorable career was abruptly ended, and Brewster was without occupation.
Out of the shipwreck of his plans, the young courtier secured an appointment as postmaster of Scrooby. Scrooby was a village in Nottinghamshire. A traveler who passed that way about that time noticed two buildings in the town: "the parish church, not big, but very well builded of square polished stone," and "a great manor place, standing within a moat, and belonging to the Archbishop of York, builded in two courts." In this manor, Brewster resided, "in good esteem among his friends and the good gentlemen of those parts," for nearly thirty years. It was his business, as postmaster, to attend not only to the forwarding of private letters, but to receiving and sending of despatches from the court. There he was married, and there his five children came to gladden his life.
Whatever interest William Brewster may have already taken in religion, he now entered into it with great earnestness. "He did much good in the country where he lived in promoting and furthering religion, not only by his practice and example, and provoking and encouraging others, but by procuring good preachers to the places thereabout, and drawing on of others to assist and help forward in such a work."
The preachers whom Brewster thus brought to minister to Scrooby and the neighborhood lamented the evils of the times. Elizabeth had now been followed by King James, and the wise plans under which the Church of England had been governed were unhappily changed. James brought from Scotland a dislike for Presbyterians which amounted to hatred. He remembered how they had driven his mother, Queen Mary, from her throne, and how they had plagued his youth. He detested the very name of John Knox. He believed that all Presbyterians were the enemies of kings. And he found great numbers of them in England. The men who had come back from exile on the Continent had learned there both the new doctrines and the new customs of Calvin, and they liked them. There was a strong desire to make the Church of England as simple as the Church of Geneva. In Geneva there were no bishops, no prayer-books, no surplices, nothing which had been added to the Christian religion since the New Testament. Why should these things be in England?
The people who were of this opinion were called Puritans. They were still members of the Church of England, and they still hoped that the simplicity which they liked might be had within the church. The ministers who were of this way of thinking desired to be free to wear their own coats instead of the surplice, and to pray their own prayers without reading them out of the book. This freedom they respectfully requested from King James.
The king refused them. "I will none of that," he said. "I will have one doctrine and one discipline, one religion in substance and in ceremony"; and he added, "Either let them conform themselves, and that shortly, or they shall hear of it."
But they did not conform themselves, for they were convinced that they were right. And they heard of it. The ministers who followed the new ways were threatened, and silenced and deprived of their churches, and the people who agreed with them were fined and imprisoned.
The result was that the number of Puritans continually increased, and that the Puritans departed further and further from the customs of the Church. Some of them were conservative persons, who felt that Calvin and Knox had gone far enough; these were called Presbyterians. Others, having begun to free themselves from the traditions, went on into larger liberties. They maintained that their minister should be appointed and ordained not by the bishop, and not by any assembly of presbyters, but by themselves, by the people of the congregation. These men were called Independents, or Congregationalists.
The Churchmen of Brewster's neighborhood were Congregationalists. They left the parish church, and met in Brewster's house, where "with great love he entertained them." And they resolved, as fines and imprisonments and other troubles increased, to leave England and go into that country where William the Silent had established freedom in religion. They turned their faces towards Holland.
They chartered a ship to sail from Boston, in Lincolnshire. But even this privilege was denied them. They were forbidden to leave the country. Nevertheless, they made the attempt. At night, they met on board, only to be betrayed by the captain to the police. They were arrested and brought back to land, robbed of their money and their books, and for a time thrust into prison.
The next spring they tried again. They hired a Dutch ship, and began to embark, putting out from the shore in boats. A part of the company were on board, another part, with many of the women and children, were still on the land, when a band of soldiers appeared in the distance in pursuit. The captain hoisted sail, and off he went, the men protesting in vain, their wives and little ones left behind. At last, after a fearful storm, they arrived in Holland. Those who were left were seized by the soldiers and imprisoned; but the injustice of the situation was plain. They had committed no offense; the cost of keeping them in prison seemed a needless burden on the state; they had no homes to which they could be sent back. Finally, they were permitted to make their way, as best they could, to the haven where they would be.
Thus the Scrooby congregation were reunited in Amsterdam in 1608. from Amsterdam, they moved to Leyden: "a beautiful city," they said, "of a sweet situation." Thus Brewster returned to the country which he had visited as a courtier in his youth. The pilgrims were poor, and homesick, and unacquainted with the language of their neighbors, but they had a good courage. They were free at last to worship God in their own way. They made John Robinson their pastor, and chose Brewster to be their ruling elder.
Elder Brewster supported himself by teaching English, and presently by printing books which it was not safe to print in England, mostly concerning the freedom of thought and speech for which he and his companions stood. The matter came even to notice of King James, and he told the English ambassador in Holland to find Brewster and put him in prison. The printing office was searched; the types, books, and papers were seized; and Brewster's partner was brought back to England. But Brewster was in England already, keeping out of the attention of the authorities, but engaged in the arrangements of a great plan.
The congregation had now been in Holland for nine years, and the time was coming when the long truce between the Netherlands and Spain would be ended. The old war might be resumed. It seemed to Brewster and the other leaders that it would be wise to make a new removal.
Their children were growing up in that strange land, in the midst of many temptations, and might lose their nationality and their religion together. They desired "to live under the protection of England, and to retain the language and the name of Englishmen." They began to propose to themselves the possibility of seeking a new country, in some land unsettled, even uninhabited, where they might establish themselves as a new people, beyond the seas. The history of the English colonies in America had been a tragic one. Again and again, the attempt had been made to gain a place along the Atlantic coast; and again and again the attempt had failed. The Spaniards or the Indians or starvation or cold or fever had destroyed the colony. But in 1607, such a settlement had been securely made in Virginia, at Jamestown. Englishmen, in the face of all these perils combined, had succeeded in living there. The exiles in Holland were disposed to try their fortune.
They knew very well that the dangers were great. They must encounter first the wide sea; then famine and sickness, and the hardships of a strange climate, and then the savages. They were informed that it was the custom of the Indians not only to kill their enemies, but to torture them, to roast them alive and eat their flesh. Still, they would venture.
Brewster, in England, was arranging for this momentous journey. When he returned to Leyden, he brought with him a grant from the Virginia Company of London, permitting them to settle on lands which they were undertaking to colonize, and assuring them of the good-will of the king. As for James he thought that the farther away they went, the better. The congregation "sough the Lord by a public and solemn fast," and decided that some of them, at least, should go. They desired that their ruling elder should go with them as their spiritual guide, and to this he agreed. They sold their possessions and bought a ship, the Speedwell, and hired another ship, the Mayflower.
Robinson, their pastor, who was to remain at Leyden, addressed the pilgrims. "Being now ere long to part asunder, and the Lord knowing whether ever he should live to see our faces again, he charged us before God and His blessed angels, to follow him no further than he followed Christ: and if God should reveal anything to us by any other instrument of His, to be as ready to receive it as ever we were to receive any truth by his ministry; for he was very confident that the Lord had more truth and light yet to break forth out of His Holy Word." In the spirit of these noble words, they took their departure. They went from Leyden to Delft Haven on the sea. "Loath to separate, yet the wind being fair, and the tide admonishing, their pastor falls down upon his knees, and they all with him, while he, with watery cheeks, commends them most fervently to the Lord and His blessing."
It is the scene which is painted in the rotunda of the Capitol at Washington. The man in the center of the group, holding an open Bible in his hands, is William Brewster.
In England, at Southampton, they found the Mayflower, and additional companions ready to embark. So out they went, a hundred and twenty passengers, in the two ships. Hardly had they put out to sea, when the Speedwell sprung a leak, and back they came for repairs. Again they started, and again after three hundred miles of rough water, the Speedwell sprung another leak. They returned to England, put in at the harbor of Plymouth, abandoned the Speedwell, and set out at last, with twenty less passengers, in the Mayflower. One time, in a fierce storm, a main beam amidships cracked, and only by means of a great iron screw which one of them had brought from Holland was the vessel saved. After a voyage of two months, they came in sight of land.
But the land was the long beckoning arm of Cape Cod, far north of the district named in their grant. They set sail again for the south, but the winds and waves were contrary. At last they landed in the harbor now called Provincetown. In the cabin of the Mayflower, before they went ashore, they made and signed a sacred compact. "We," they said, "do, by these presents, solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation; and by virtue hereof, do enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, and constitutions, and officers, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony; unto which we promise all due submission and obedience." The fourth name signed to this paper was that of William Brewster.
An exploring party was sent to find a location for a settlement, and on the 21st of December, 1620, they came into the harbor which is now called Plymouth, and found there what seemed to them an excellent place for their residence. Making report to the main company at Provincetown, they all moved forward and took possession of the land. There they found sweet springs and running brooks, and a hill on which to set their guns. They set to work to build houses. Already the winter had come on, with cold and storms. The hardships of the new life proved too severe for many of the pilgrims. They fell sick, until "the living were scarce able to bury the dead," and of all the company only seven were well.
One of these was Brewster, and the record of those days notes how he and Miles Standish nursed their companions, making their fires, cooking their food, ministering to them in their distress, "and all this willingly and cheerfully, showing herein their true love unto their brethren."
Spring came, and with it appeared the Indians. But they proved to be more peaceable neighbors than had been feared in Holland. They had been visited by a great plague which had reduced their numbers and broken their spirit. When the pilgrims ventured into the forest, they found the bones of those who had thus died. Moreover the friendly Indians warned their companions who were not so friendly that the white men had some more that same plague bottled up, and would let it out unless they treated them well. Even so, there were alarms, and times of peril, through which Captain Standish carried them safely.
Meanwhile, Brewster was the minister of the congregation. He preached twice on Sunday, and was "very plain and distinct in what he taught" and of "grave and deliberate utterance." On the hill they made a church of thick planks, and on the flat roof set their six cannon. One who visited them said, "They assemble by beat of drum, each with his musket or firelock, in front of the captain's door; they have their cloaks on, and place themselves in order three abreast, and are led by a sergeant without beat of drum. Behind comes the governor, in a long robe; beside him, on the right hand, comes the preacher, with his cloak on, and on the left hand, the captain, with his side arms and cloak, and with a small cane in his hand; and thus they march in good order, and each sets his arms down near him. Thus they enter their place of worship, constantly on their guard, night and day."
Thus the years passed, and the colony prospered. Ships came bringing more settlers; bringing books, also, from time to time, for Brewster's library, till he had four hundred, there in the woods, some in Latin, some in Greek and Hebrew. From Plymouth, the settlement spread to Duxbury. Presently, in Salem and Boston, another settlement was made, and the pilgrims had good English neighbors, sober Puritans.
When Brewster died at the age of eighty-four, he knew that the community which he had led across the sea, and in all whose plans he had had a determining voice, had become an abiding colony. Founded in the name of God, based upon the principle of liberty in religion, making its own laws, and living according to Brewster's precepts, it was the beginning of New England. It was also the beginning,—with the colony of Jamestown,—of the United States of America.