William Brewster (c. 1566-1644), American colonist, one of the leaders of the "Pilgrims," was born at Scrooby, in Nottinghamshire, England, about 1566. After studying for a short time at Cambridge, he was from 1584 to 1587 in the service of William Davison (? 1541-1608), who in 1585 went to the Low Countries to negotiate an alliance with the states-general and in 1586 became assistant to Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth's secretary of state. Upon the disgrace of Davison, Brewster removed to Scrooby, where from 1590 until September 1607 he held the position of "Post," or postmaster responsible for the relays of horses on the post road, having previously, for a short time, assisted his father in that office. About 1602 his neighbours began to assemble for worship at his home, the Scrooby manor house, and in 1606 he joined them in organizing the Separatist church of Scrooby. After an unsuccessful attempt in 1607 (for which he was imprisoned for a short time), he, with other Separatists, removed to Holland in 1608 to obtain greater freedom of worship.
At Leiden in 1609 he was chosen ruling elder of the Congregation. In Holland he supported himself first by teaching English and afterwards in 1616-1619, as the partner of one Thomas Brewer, by secretly printing, for sale in England, books proscribed by the English government, thus, says Bradford, having "imploymente inough." In 1619 their types were seized and Brewer was arrested by the authorities of the university of Leiden, acting on the instance of the British ambassador, Sir Dudley Carleton. Brewster, however, escaped, and in the same year, with Robert Cushman (c. 1580-1625), obtained in London, on behalf of his associates, a land patent from the Virginia Company. In 1620 he emigrated to America on the "Mayflower," and was one of the founders of the Plymouth Colony. Here besides continuing until his death to act as ruling elder, he was also - regularly until the arrival of the first pastor, Ralph Smith (d. 1661), in 1629 and irregularly afterward - a "teacher," preaching "both powerfully and profitably to ye great contentment of ye hearers and their comfortable edification." By many he is regarded as pre-eminently the leader of the "Pilgrims." He died, probably on the 10th of April 1644.
See Ashbel Steele's Chief of the Pilgrims; or the Life and Time of William Brewster (Philadelphia, 1857); and a sketch in William Bradford's History of the Plimouth Plantation (new ed., Boston, 1898).