Life in Plimoth: Elder William Brewster, Religious Leader
William served as an elder of the Separatist church in Holland and was the religious leader of Plimoth for many years. He and his wife, Mary, sailed on the Mayflower with their two youngest sons. Their three older children were left behind in Leiden, Holland. Here are his answers to students' questions.
- Grades: 3–5, 6–8
The Church in Plimoth
What are your responsibilities as the religious leader of Plimoth?
I am responsible for making sure that all of the church members live a godly life, and if they do not, I am in charge of their discipline.
Do you have to be very old before you become an elder of the church?
Generally, elders are among the more reverent members of the Church, but there is no law prescribing their age.
How long have you been an elder?
I was made an elder in 1608, when we went to Holland. I was 40 years of age.
Is everyone in Plimoth a member of the Separatist church?
No, there are people in town who are still members of the Church of England. There are more people who are not members of the Separatist church than there are members of the Separatist Church.
Are there any disagreements among the people of Plimoth?
The differences between our Church and the Church of England still cause some difficulty. But we hope all will come to a better common mind.
Where do you hold church services? What is the place like?
We do not have a building where the Church meets. We've been gathering in one of the members' houses. On warm days, we meet outside.
What are your church services like?
In the morning on Sunday, a drum is sounded at about eight o'clock. Together, we march to wherever we are going to meet — with the Governor, Captain Myles Standish, and myself leading the parade. We gather for prayer and reading the Bible and singing the songs of David. And I give sermons that are about 90 minutes long. The morning service lasts about four hours altogether.
What kind of discipline does a religious leader have to follow?
We follow the rules laid out in the Bible for running our church.
How do you discipline the adults and children?
My wife and my children I can correct with harsh words and sharp lessons. I can strike them, but I do not think that this is a good thing to do. I discipline churchgoers with godly lessons and sharp words if they do not change their ways. My goal is to open their hearts so that they seek forgiveness.
What are the topics in your sermons?
I preach much upon the callings of the true Christians, the dangers and woes of sin, and the tender mercies of our Lord Jesus. He is our redeemer and the hope of our salvation.
How were you treated by the King of England?
The King was persuaded by the bishops that we were outlaws in religion. So his men arrested us and even put some of us in jail. We are loyal to the King and respect his civil authority. But we cannot admit him to be head of the Church of Christ.
Why didn't you bring your other children on the Mayflower?
I didn't bring all of my children because there wasn't enough room on the Mayflower. When the Speedwell had to stay back in England, some of us had to leave family members behind. I chose to bring my two littlest children, Wrestling and Love. My older children [son, Jonathan, and daughters, Patience and Fear] returned to Holland and are living with our minister.
Do you ever want to return to Holland?
No, we were not well-contented amongst the Dutch. Their nation is in much confusion. We do pray to bring the rest of our children from Holland here to New England.
Where did you meet your wife, Mary? How long have you been married?
Mary and I were married in 1591. Her family lived near mine in Scrooby, Nottinghamshire.
Was it difficult leaving England when you moved to Holland? Was it more difficult to move to America?
It was very difficult to go into Holland, to a land where I didn't know how I would feed my family and didn't know how to speak the language. It was difficult leaving Holland, because I didn't know what the wilderness would be like in America.
Who were some of your closest friends on the Mayflower?
Samuel Fuller, the deacon of our church; his brother, Edward; John Carver, our governor, and his family; and young William Bradford, a long acquaintance of my family.
How old are you now? How old were you when you came over on the Mayflower?
In 1621, I am 54. I was 53 coming over on the Mayflower.
Do you send letters back to your family and friends? How long does it take to get them to England or Holland?
Yes, we send letters back and gladly receive them from friends and family. Sometimes well more than a year will pass before we have exchange of letters.
We learned that you have many books in your house. What are your favorites?
Of course, the Bible is the one book above all others. But I also have some books I was honored to print on my own printing press. Some are by our minister, John Robinson, and I hold those especially dear.
What do you do in your spare time?
I don't have any. I am so busy preparing my sermons, raising my children, and working my farm, that I have no spare time.
Life at Plimoth
How many people live at Plimoth Plantation?
There are about 50 people living in town. Most are young adult men.
What kind of food do you eat?
We are planting both our English crops, and many strange native corns and beans and pompions. We hope to have more livestock to slaughter, but the hunting and fishing are very good.
How do you store and preserve food for the cold winter months?
Most meats — especially fish and pork — are salted. Some things are pickled, and others are dried, such as grains and onions.
What are some of the children's chores?
Young lasses help their mothers, chiefly, about the hearth and in preparing and preserving our meats. The young men go with their fathers, chiefly to farming, but some to fish and to hunt. All children are busy tending livestock.
Do children go to school? Do you lead the school?
Schooling is chiefly done in the home by the parents. As the only man who has attended university, I assist the parents, letting them use some of my books, and occasionally, examining the children.
What kind of games did children play?
My boys love to play with marbles and run after each other and play hide-and-seek. They also have a ball that my wife made for them from leather and wool.
Do the children have pets?
There are some children who have a favorite dog, cat, goat, or lamb. But we English see animals for their uses to us. We do not encourage overmuch consideration of them as companions unto men.
What does your wife do during the day?
Chiefly, she looks to the housework, the cookery, the children, and the kitchen garden. Here our women must also bake and brew. There is no market where we might purchase our beer and bread.
Are the women in charge of anything besides the home?
Women milk the cattle. Women's responsibilities are generally in the home.
What kind of clothing do you wear?
We continue to dress ourselves as well as we can, as English men and women. Our clothes are chiefly of wool and linen. Hats and cloaks are necessary against the wild weathers of the land.
Why do Pilgrim men always wear very dark clothing?
We don't always wear dark clothing. Many people have colorful clothing — reds and oranges and blues.
What type of writing utensils do you have?
We use a quill and paper, or parchment, and ink that is powdered. We brought the powdered ink from England, and must mix it with water. Goose quills are best.
Do you have medicine?
Yes. Samuel Fuller, our surgeon, takes good care of our health. He has surgeons' books, herbal remedies, and tools for pulling teeth, letting blood, and mending bones. Bloodletting is a particular skill of his.
Do you pay for things with money? What currency do you use?
We trade with the native peoples, but we do not exchange money with them. In England, we would use pounds, shillings, and pence. Here, all of our goods are purchased from merchants.
Why did the Pilgrims build a palisade, or barrier, surrounding Plimoth?
Though our Pokonoket neighbors are friendly, we were threatened by other natives who live further off. We must also fear our ancient foes, the French and Spaniards.
How far outside of the plantation have the Pilgrims traveled?
We've done some exploring, because we want to trade with the Indians for beaver fur that we use to make hats. We have traveled up and down the coast from the bottom of Cape Cod to the Charles River.
Have there been any births at Plimoth this year?
There have been no births since Peregrine White was born at Cape Cod, soon after our arrival.
Have there been any deaths at Plimoth?
Most grievously, our dear Governor John Carver passed from this vale of tears in April — shortly after the Mayflower's departure from Plimoth back to England. Having survived the sicknesses of the winter, he succumbed while working in his field. His wife died a few weeks after in her grief.
The 1621 Thanksgiving Feast
What were some of the foods you ate at the Thanksgiving feast?
There were turkey birds, goose, duck, fish of many different kinds, good cheeses, and pudding made out of corn.
How many Indians were present at the feast?
There were more natives than colonists at the feast. We were about 50, and they were more than a 100.
Why was the Thanksgiving feast special to you?
Our harvest feast came after we had goodly yield from our plantings. For three days, we feasted with our Pokonoket neighbors.
How long did the Thanksgiving harvest feast last?
We feasted for three days. It was a civil harvest feast. Our (religious) thanksgivings are daily observances of the Church, which we could never celebrate with Indians, who are not Christian.
Do you celebrate any holidays besides Thanksgiving?
We consider the only Holy day to be Sunday. We do not celebrate Easter or Christmas because they cannot be found in the Bible. Jesus did not tell us the day he was born.
Before you met the Wampanoag Indians, what did you expect them to be like? What are your impressions of them now?
We were much afraid of the natives. But on coming here to Plimoth, we found the Pokonoket to be loving and friendly to us. We have a treaty with their king, Massasoit. They have taught us many useful things, of planting, fishing, and hunting.
When was your first meeting with an Indian?
The first time I ever talked with an Indian was last March, when King Massasoit came to town and signed a peace treaty.
What was the most important thing the Indians taught you?
Squanto, who speaks the best English and is our most useful help, taught us to set and tend the native corn using herring to manure the ground and make it fast.
Are your children friendly with the Indian children?
A few have some acquaintance with Hobbamock's children, who live nearby. But as they are not Christians, we think well that they not spend much time together.
How many people came over with you on the Mayflower? Were they all members of the same church?
Of the Mayflower's 102 passengers, about half were members of our Church. Some of the others were much in sympathy with us. But they were members of the Church of England, whose bishops had condemned us. Some of them have been opposite and untoward.
Were you scared when you first set foot on the Mayflower?
No, I had been to sea on other ships twice — back and forth to Holland. The Mayflower was a larger ship, and she was a good one. We had confidence in her.
What was the worst part of the ocean journey on the Mayflower?
For me, it was the dampness and the darkness of the ship — and the frightening Atlantic storms.
Were there any bad storms during your trip over?
Yes. One so bad that a chief timber of the ship suddenly cracked. The sailors were afraid the ship might break apart. But it was successfully mended, and the storm abated.
How did you feel when you first saw land from the Mayflower?
I couldn't believe how filled with trees the land was! After living for many years in Holland, where there are no trees, it was amazing to me.
Did all the men on the Mayflower sign the Mayflower Compact? Did any women sign?
All of the adult men signed, but no women signed the document, because women don't have legal powers.
How old were the children that worked on the Mayflower?
There was a cabin boy, but other than that, children did not work on the Mayflower. The children were passengers, and their job was to stay out of the sailors' way. All of the sailors were grown men.