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William was the son of William Brewster, postmaster at Scrooby, Nottinghamshire. William (Jr.) was educated at Cambridge University, but never completed a degree. He entered the service of Secretary of State William Davison, under whom he first traveled to the Netherlands. After Davison's tenure ended, William returned to Scrooby and took over as postmaster. There he helped establish a small Separatist church with Richard Cyfton. He and the others were eventually forced out, and he and his family fled to Amsterdam in 1608 and Leiden in 1609.
In Leiden, Brewster worked as a printer, publishing religious books that were illegally imported into England. His colleague Thomas Brewer was eventually arrested for those activities, but Brewster avoided the authorities.
Brewster was the highest ranking church official in the Leiden Pilgrim's church, and agreed to accompany the Pilgrims when their pastor John Robinson declined to go.
William Brewster was the Reverend Elder of the Pilgrim's church at Plymouth, since their pastor John Robinson remained behind in Leyden, Holland with the majority of the congregation which planned to come to America at a later time. Brewster was a fugitive from the King of England, because he had published a number of religious pamphlets while in Leyden which were critical or opposed the tenets of the Church of England. He had been a member of the Separatist church movement from its very beginning, and was the oldest Mayflower passenger to have participated at the First Thanksgiving, in his early fifties.
William Bradford wrote a lot about William Brewster in Of Plymouth Plantation, some of which follows:
After he had attained some learning, viz. the knowledge of Latin tongue, and some insight in the Greek, and spent some small time at Cambridge, and then being first seasoned with the seeds of grace and virtue, he went to the court, and served that religious and godly gentleman, Mr. Davison, divers years, when he was Secretary of State; who found him so discreet and faithful as he trusted him above all other that were about him, and only employed him in all matters of greatest trust and secrecy . . . he attended his mr. when he was sent in ambassage by the Queen into the Low Countries . . . And, at his return, the States honored him with a gold chain, and his master committed it to him, and commanded him to wear it when they arrived in England, as they rid through the country, till they came to the court . . . Afterwards he went and lived in the country, in good esteem amongst his friends and the gentlemen of those parts, especially the Godly and religious. He did much good in the country where he lived, in promoting and furthering religion not only by his practise and example, and provocating and encouraging of others, but by procuring of good preachers to the places thereabouts, and drawing on of others to assist and help forward in such work; he himself most commonly deepest in the charge, and sometimes above his ability. . . . They ordinarily met at this house on the Lord's day, (which was a manor of the bishops) and with great love he entertained them when they came, making provision for them to his great charge. He was the chief of those that were taken at Boston, and suffered the greatest loss; and of the seven that were kept longest in prison, and after bound over . . . After he came into Holland he suffered much hardship, after he had spent the most of his means, having a great charge, and many children; and, in regard of his former breeding and course of life, not so fit for many employments as others were, especially as were toilsome and laborious. But yet he ever bore his condition with much cheerfulness and contention. Towards the later part of those 12 years spent in Holland, his outward condition was mended, and he lived well and plentifully; for he fell into a way to teach many students, who had a desire to learn the English tongue, to teach them English; . . . He also had means to set up printing, by the help of some friends . . . and by reason of many books which would not be allowed to be printed in England, they might have had more then they could do. . . . And besides that, he would labor with his hands in the fields as long as he was able; yet when the church had no other minister, he taught twice every Sabbath . . . For his personal abilities, he was qualified above many; he was wise and discreet and well spoken, having a grave and deliberate utterance, of a very cheerful spirit, very sociable and pleasant amongst his friends, of an humble and modest mind, of a peaceable disposition, undervaluing himself and his own abilities . . . inoffensive and innocent in his life and conversation . . . he was tender-hearted, and compassionate of such as were in misery, but especially of such as had been of good estate and rank, and were fallen into want and poverty, either for goodness and religions sake, or by the injury and oppression of others; . . .
In Governor Bradford's 1650 Accounting of the Mayflower Passengers, he wrote,
"mr Brewster lived to very old age; about .80. years he was when he dyed, having lived some .23. or .24. years here in ye countrie. & though his wife dyed long before, yet she dyed aged. His sone Wrastle dyed a yonge man unmaried; his sone Love, lived till this year . 1650. and dyed, & left .4.children, now living. His doughters which came over after him, are dead but have left sundry children alive; his eldst sone is still liveing, and hath .9. or . 10. children, one maried. who hath a child, or .2."
Brewster died without a will. His inventory was taken by Myles Standish and Thomas Prence, his son-in-law. His goods totaled £107, plus he also had over 60 books in Latin, and over 300 in English. (Full list)
Final disposition of Elder Brewsters estate was made on 20 Aug 1645 by Wm Bradford, Winslow, Prence and Myles Standish between Jonathan & Love, his only children remaining. (Full court record)