Story of Liberty - Charles Coffin

William Brewster and His Friends

Although sixty years have rolled away since Cardinal Wolsey made the old manor-house at Scrooby his home, some of the old people living there can remember how he distributed alms to the poor on Sunday, how he fed the lame and the blind from his kitchen-table. It is the year 1590, and the occupant of the old house is the young man, William Brewster—Sir William Davison's secretary. He has seen the hollowness of court life, and is dissatisfied with it. He learns that men who will be great have no end of trouble. Elizabeth has made lain one of her postmasters, and there he is, living a quiet and peaceful life, looking after the mail, and the post-riders, and the travellers who go by post front London up the great road to York.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


Great changes are taking place in England. Men are beginning to be independent in thought and action. Robert Brown, a zealous minister, has been preaching to congregations in London. Richard Clifton—a man with a long white beard—is also preaching independently of any authority from the bishop. William Brewster believes that every man has the right to think for himself; that neither bishop, pope, king, nor queen should control men in religious matters. Many of his neighbors at Scrooby, Ansterfield, Bawtry, Gainsborough, and other little hamlets, are of the same way of thinking. They believe in having a pure worship, and object to the wearing of gold-embroidered vestments by the bishops, to bowing before the altar during service, and making the sign of the cross when their children are baptized. They hate mummery, and so stay away from church, although it has been decreed that everybody in England must attend church, of which Elizabeth is the head. If they do not, the bishops will know why. They have a complicated machinery of courts to compel everybody to believe as they shall direct. Every man and woman in England must believe in the Thirty-nine Articles, which have been decreed by Parliament and the queen. Commissioners have been appointed to inquire about "heretical opinions," "seditious books," and to punish all who shall stay away from church on Sunday. They arrest and imprison all who disobey their commands. The bishops hang John Copping and Elias Thacker, and arrest Henry Barrow and John Greenwood. For what? For not believing as they believe. Although Archbishop Whitgift is himself a heretic, he will not tolerate a man who does not believe as he believes. If the Pope will not tolerate Archbishop Whitgift, he, in turn, will not tolerate John Copping and the rest.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


In the great struggle for liberty brave men lay down their lives—not on the battle-field, charging up to the cannon's mouth, but on the scaffold, or else wasting away in loathsome prisons. John Copping and Elias Thacker believe that men should lead pure lives.

The English people, for the most part, are a roistering set. They love outdoor sports, hunting and fishing, and games—pitching quoits, wrestling, and dancing. They go into the green-woods on bright summer days, and have a dance—men, women, and children joining in the sport. In the winter the villagers gather in a peasant's cabin, and hold their rustic balls. They are rude in their manners, and spend much of their time in play and idleness.

John Copping, and others like him, think that so much dancing, feasting, and idleness are a waste of time; that they are not promotive of good morals. Sunday afternoons are given to games and dances. The good ministers believe that Sunday should not be used as a holiday, and they preach boldly for a purer way of living. The peasants are not the only ones who need reforming, for the carpenters, joiners, the tradesmen, and the well-to-do people spend a great deal of time in the ale-houses over their foaming mugs of beer. Archbishop Whitgift does not trouble himself about such things: he has little to say against dancing on Sunday, or against their sports and drinking, or the drunkenness, and idleness, and immorality; but he cannot tolerate a man who will not think as he thinks. He looks sharply after those who dissent from his way of thinking. For six years he keeps Henry Barrow in prison. He does not quite dare to burn him, for the people of England do not intend to have any more roasting of human beings; but one morning, before London is astir, the has the poor man taken out to Tyburn, and speedily put to death by hanging. The same day he arrests John Penry, a Welshman, who has written a pamphlet in which he maintains that every man has a right to act according to the dictates of his conscience in matters pertaining to religion. Archbishop Whitgift cannot permit any such heresy. On June 7th, 1593, John Penry is taken out and hanged.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


Notwithstanding the bishops are hunting down those whom they derisively call Puritans, it does not deter the postmaster at Scrooby and his friends from thinking for themselves. More than that, Brewster invites his neighbors to come to the old manor-house on Sunday, to hear a man with a long white beard—Richard Clifton—preach: sometimes, when Clifton is not there, John Robinson preaches. After the service Brewster gives them bread and beer. He and his friends believe that any body of Christian believers may be a church, and that the minister is their bishop. They believe that the churches organized by Peter, Paul, and the other apostles were just such churches.

Among those who come to hear Richard Clifton is a boy from Austerfield, William Bradford. The register in the Austerfield church contains the record of William's baptism:

"William son of Will Bradfourth baptized the XIXth day of March Anno dm 1589."

The next day, after the hanging of Penry, Parliament passes a law imprisoning for three months all who do not conform to the Queen's Church, with the confiscation of all their property, and perpetual banishment from England.

A non-conforming church has been gathered in London; but upon the passage of this law it is broken up, many of its members being banished, or else seeking safety in Holland. The postmaster of Scrooby and his friends, being so far away, are not molested; and Sunday after Sunday they meet in the old manor-house for worship.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


On March 24th, 1603, Elizabeth, who for forty-five years has been Queen of England, draws her last breath, and James of Scotland (who was spanked by George Buchanan), through his descent from Margaret, who in her bridal journey to Scotland stopped at the old manor-house, becomes King of England. He is thirty-six years old. It is to be feared that the spanking did him little good, for he is vain, self-willed, hypocritical, selfish, and superstitious. He believes that wrinkled old women sell themselves to the devil to bewitch the people; and he has been harrying witches at a fearful rate—hanging, drowning, and burning them. He is not the only one who believes in witches. For that matter, everybody believes that they ride about on broomsticks at night, creeping through key-holes, and entering houses to torment the people. Everybody believes that witches should be put to death. It is the spirit of the age.

There are several hundred ministers in England who desire purer ways in the Church, and they present a petition to James, asking that there may be a new order of things. He grants theist all audience at Hampton Conti—it is not a hearing, for when they begin to present their plea, he interrupts them:

"I will have one doctrine, one discipline, one religion. I alone will decide. I will make you conform, or I will harry you out of the land, or else do worse—hang you." The bishops are delighted.

The king is greatly pleased with himself. "I peppered then soundly," he says, in glee, to the bishops. He issues a proclamation requiring everybody to conform to the Church of which he is the head. What shall the men and women who meet in the old manor-house at Scrooby do? They value life; but principle is worth more than property or life. They love their country; but liberty is worth more than country. They will sell their lands, bid good-bye to old England, and find a refuge in Holland, where, since the Spaniards have been driven out, men may think for themselves. Not as individuals, but as a church—a body of Christian believers—will they go.

Why not go to the New World, beyond the Atlantic? There is much talk about Virginia just now—its delightful climate, its fertile soil, its fruits and flowers, and inexhaustible riches. The merchants of London are fitting out a colony to settle there; but the power of the bishops will be felt there. Nor will the king let them go. "No Englishman shall transport himself to Virginia without a license;" that is the king's proclamation. He will not even permit them to find a home amidst the wolves, and bears, and Indians. Nor will he let them go to Holland. He has the power to banish them; but he will not let them go accord into exile.

William Brewster and his friends resolve to leave the country secretly. It is fifty miles to the sea-coast; but they will make their way to the old town of Boston, and take a vessel to Amsterdam. Brewster has been there, and so makes all arrangements. A ship-master promises to take them. They sell their lands, pack their goods, and make their way over the meadows and marshes to Boston. The land is so level that long before they reach the town they can see the tall towers of St. Botolph's Church rising above the horizon. They pass through the narrow streets, and go on board the ship, congratulating themselves that soon they will be beyond the jurisdiction of the bishops. But they are doomed to disappointment. The captain of the vessel is a knave; he has informed the constable, who comes with a lot of policemen, and marches them to the office of the magistrate, who thrusts them into prison, where they are kept many weeks, till he can hear from London; but after much suffering they are allowed to go at large.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


Six months pass. Brewster resolves to make another attempt to reach Holland, and this time makes a bargain with a Dutch skipper to take himself and friends on board at a lonely place on the coast. One by one the people leave their homes. The women and children go in a boat. The winds are high, and they are tossed about by the waves, suffering from sea-sickness. The men, carrying heavy packs, make their way through the marshes. They reach the appointed place, but no ship is in sight. The boat runs into a creek for shelter, for those on board are in a miserable plight—sick, weary, disappointed, disheartened, with no home behind them, none before them, so far as they can see. All day, all night, they lie there. The morning dawns, and their hearts are joyful, for there is the ship riding at anchor off the shore a little distance.

The women and children have spent the night on the land. The ship's small boats come in and carry their goods on board. Some of the men are on the ship, some on the land, when a troop of men come rushing over the sand-hills, armed with spears and guns. The bishops' officers are upon them. Those on shore are seized—the women rudely assaulted. The Dutchman, seeing the commotion, and afraid that his ship will be seized and himself thrown into prison, hoists the anchor, spreads the sails, and steers away. It is a sad hour. Husbands and wives are separated, families broken up. There is loud lamentation, for who knows whether they ever will meet again. William Bradford is on board the ship. He is only nineteen years old; he gives this account of the scene: "Pitiful it was to see the heavy care of these poor women—what weeping and crying on every side; some for their husbands carried away in the ship, others not knowing what should become of them and their little ones; others melted in tears, seeing their poor little ones hanging about them, crying for fear and quaking with cold."

The ship, instead of reaching Holland in a few hours, is caught in a tempest, and driven nearly to Norway. For seven days and nights those on board see neither sun, moon, nor stars. Many times they fear that their last hour has come; but after being tossed about for fourteen days, they are safely landed at Amsterdam.

What shall the officers do with the women and children? To imprison them because they were going with their husbands and fathers cannot be thought of; the people will not permit it. No use to send them back to Scrooby and Ansterfield, for they have no homes; they can only set them at liberty. King James will gain nothing by keeping them in England; and so, after many delays, they are permitted to make their way to Holland, to join their husbands and fathers.