The printing press has been with us for over a dozen generations. We citizens of the 21st century have no concept of what it must have been like to live in a world where all printed materials were produced primarily by hand then carefully reproduced to provide additional copies.
Johannes Gutenberg gets most of the credit for introducing the modern printing press, but he was actually late to the game. A more primitive method of printing was in use in China before 220 CE. Bi Sheng developed a method of movable type in 1040 CE. Gutenberg introduced his printing press for commercial use in Germany in 1450. That invention made it possible for German Martin Luther to launch the Protestant Reformation in 1517. He printed flurries of anti-Pope flyers, plus thousands more pages of theology and doctrine. I read volumes of his work as part of my seminary training. Luther’s printed documents invoked such fury he hid for nearly a year to avoid arrest.
William Brewster Gets His Own Printing Press
A century later, in 1616, Englishman Thomas Brewer gifted William Brewster with his own printing press. For a few years Brewer functioned as a silent partner to a new printing business William Brewster set up in the garret of his modest Leiden home. A year later Edward Winslow, a young man who had worked with a London printer, began to assist Brewster. With Winslow’s help, Brewster and Thomas Brewer collaborated to smuggle forbidden religious materials back to England. What they printed expressed ideas in direct conflict with King James I and the Established Church of England. In England the ruling monarch is the head of that church body, just as the Pope is the head of the Roman Catholic church. King James had no tolerance for those who wanted to separate (Separatists) or purify (Puritans) his church.
Brewster published the illegal documents under the label “Pilgrim Press.” Perth Assembly was one of two of the most controversial documents Brewster published. The other was De regimine Ecclesiae Scoticanae brevis relation. David Calderwood authored both. A Scotsman himself, Calderwood was especially critical of fellow Scotsman King James I. Perth Assembly, published in Leiden in 1618, was primarily about rejecting Christmas and other designated “Holy Days.”
Freedom of the Printing Press
The Separatists left their homes in the Nottinghamshire area of Northern England in 1608 to avoid more harassment from Established searchers and enforces. More than once, and more than a few, had already been fined and jailed for their disobedience to the mandates of the Established church. Several of Brewster’s friends from his days at Cambridge were put to death for their rebellious ways.
Though the Dutch were gracious hosts to their English religious refugee immigrants, they dared not infuriate the English monarchy. When English archbishops and other authorities representing King James demanded Brewster stop his printing business, the Dutch saw no option but to cooperate with their English neighbors. Authorities reluctantly raided his home in Leiden and confiscated the printing press. They most likely would have arrested Brewster, but he wasn’t home. He wasn’t home for most of the year before he managed to sneak onto the Mayflower to join Mary and their children when they sailed in 1620.
Publish and Risk Perishing
Thomas Brewer was arrested and jailed. He was summoned to England to explain himself. He agreed to help hunt down William Brewster, if the King would pay his transportation back across the English Channel. The King agreed, but never sent the money until after William left on the Mayflower.
Brewster, no doubt realizing how dangerous his printing activities were, did not affix his name to the publications. Instead he placed an image, later known as the “Brewster Bear” on the book. None-the-less in a letter dated August 1, 1619, Dudley Carleton wrote, “I believe I have discovered the printer (of the Perth Assembly) . . . one William Brewster, a Brownist (Separatist), who hath been for some years an inhabitant and printer at Leyden.” At that time Carleton served as diplomat to the Netherlands on behalf of King James.
In Search of More Freedom
Though we do not know the details of where Brewster hid to dodge those looking for him, we do know he and other leaders of the Leiden Separatists were back and forth between England to Holland often through 1619 and 1620 making arrangements for some of their group to sail to the New World to establish a new religious settlement.
Today the world is shifting away from print media toward more electronic communication. Yet, one thing remains constant from generation to generation – the power of the written word to influence change. I write this in the summer of 2020 when people all over the world are out night after night protesting the unresolved injustices against people of color. They are fueled by words posted on social media, hastily printed on protest signs, and spread across front pages of newspapers and magazines. They are also energized by words announced in broadcast news programs and printed in books.
The Printing Pas a Powerful Tool for Change
Words matter. The Mayflower voyage could not have happened without the ability to send letters to make arrangements. We would not know about the voyage without the written record left behind by William Brewster, William Bradford, and many others who were there. We know about history to a large extent because those who lived it, recorded it. We gift future generations by recording we are experiencing. The printing press played a critical role in historic shifts in attitudes and actions. The methods of communication ideas may change, the but the power of words to influence and implement change does not.
The following resources informed parts of the content this blog:
If you enjoyed this trip back in time, you might also like this blog about Edward Winslow.