John Robinson (pastor)

John Robinson (pastor)

John Robinson (1575-1625) was the pastor of the "Pilgrim Fathers" before they left on the "Mayflower". He became one of the early leaders of the English Separatists, minister of the Pilgrims, and is regarded (along with Robert Browne) as one of the founders of the Congregational Church.


Early life

Robinson was born in Sturton-le-Steeple.

John was educated at Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School, Gainsborough, and at the age of about sixteen, he entered Corpus Christi College at Cambridge University. He remained there for the next twelve years, first as a student, and then later as a teacher. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1596, and his Master of Arts degree in 1599.


Robinson’s studies were preparing him to become a minister of the Church of England. The religious community in England at the time was in a state of flux, and Puritanism was firmly entrenched at Cambridge. During his years there, Robinson gradually began to accept its principles, having possibly been introduced to it at home in Lincolnshire. Before long, he was a leader in the religious controversy that swept across the land.

The leaders of this movement strongly criticized the Church of England because they believed its beliefs and rituals were too much like those of the Roman Catholic Church. The reforms they advocated would “purify” the established church. It was for this reason that they became known as “Puritans”.

The Puritans believed in the independence of each church congregation, and were opposed to any type of church hierarchy. Each congregation, they believed, should have the power to choose and dismiss their own ministers. Their “meeting houses” were starkly plain, with no pictures, statues, or stained glass windows. The Puritans did not celebrate Christmas, and they enjoyed 'strong water' and beer. Unlike other Puritans, however, Robinson's followers had no prohibitions against wearing bright colors as long as it was not done on the sabbath.

Many Puritans despaired of getting any of the changes they favored in the Church implemented. They decided to leave the Church of England and form churches of their own. These people were called Separatists.

Measures against dissent

The monarch, then as now, was the official head of the Church of England. Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) followed a tolerant policy toward the Puritans and Separatists. King James I (1556-1625), however, ascended the throne in 1603 and quickly instituted a policy designed to enforce religious conformity. The Puritans would, he warned, adhere or he would "harry them out of the land". It was the King's belief that his throne depended on the Church hierarchy, "No Bishops, no King".

James I vigorously enforced "The Act Against Puritans" (1593), 35 Elizabeth, Cap. 1, making it illegal for separatists to hold their own services. Anyone who did not attend the services of the Church of England for forty days, and who attended private services:“contrary to the laws and statutes of the realm and being thereof lawfully convicted shall be committed to prison, there to remain without bail mainprise until they shall confirm and yield themselves to same church.”

The king’s campaign to suppress religious freedom ended academic freedom at the universities. Rather than remain in this environment, John Robinson resigned his teaching position at Cambridge on February 10, 1604, and returned home to Nottinghamshire.

t Andrew's Church

Married men were prohibited from teaching at Cambridge, and a desire to marry may have been a factor in Robinson’s resignation. Just five days later, on February 15, 1604, he married Bridget White (1579-1643), the daughter of Alexander and Eleanor (Smith) White. She was born in 1579, to prosperous yeoman farmer parents.

In the latter part of 1604, Robinson became pastor of St. Andrew’s Church in the bustling commercial center of Norwich. This rapidly growing industrial city had contacts on the continent with Holland and Flanders. It also had a considerable number of foreign workers and political refugees. In addition, the most influential political leaders and merchants in Norwich were Puritans.

Soon after he assumed his new duties in Norwich, the king issued a proclamation requiring that all ministers conform to a new book of canons. The deadline was set for the end of November. The bishops, reacting to pressure from King James, made life intolerable for Anglican ministers with Puritan beliefs. For that reason, Robinson left the church at Norwich and returned home to Sturton-le-Steeple, where he and Bridget resided with her parents.

Leaving the established church

The year 1606 was a very important one in his life for it was then that he left the Church of England and became a Separatist. Though vigorously persecuted, Separatist congregations had been active, especially in London, for a number of years. Later that year, a group of Puritans in the nearby village of Scrooby formed a Separatist congregation that came to number about one hundred members. Robinson, it appears, returned to Gainsborough and became a member of John Smyth's Separatist congregation that met,in secret,at Gainsborough Old Hall under the protection of its Lord, Sir William Hickman and his mother,Rose. However, at some point, he seems to have joined up again with the Separatists in Scrooby.

The congregation met at Scrooby Manor, the home of William Brewster. Brewster was the local postmaster and bailiff, and he was instrumental in the formation of the group. He was an old friend of Robinson as well as a Cambridge alumnus.

Richard Clyfton served as their minister, and John Robinson became the assistant pastor when he united with them. Other leaders included John and William Bradford, the latter of whom gave them the name by which they are known to history when he described himself and his followers as “pilgrims and strangers upon the earth.”

Attempts to leave England

In the autumn of 1607, the congregation decided to leave England and emigrate to Holland. Religious freedom was permitted there, and English Separatists had already settled in Amsterdam. The Pilgrims secretly packed their belongings, and set out on foot for the sixty mile trek to the seaport town of Boston on the North Sea in Lincolnshire. Awaiting them there was a sea captain, who had agreed to smuggle them out of the country.

Before the congregation arrived in Boston, the captain had betrayed them to the authorities. The Pilgrims were searched, their money was taken, and their belongings were ransacked. They were then put on display for the crowds and confined in cells on the first floor of the Guildhall. During the month of their imprisonment, the magistrates treated them very well. Richard Clyfton, William Brewster, and John Robinson were the last to be released.

The second attempt to flee to Holland was successful. Robinson was not among the main group that left the country as he, Clifton, Brewster, and other leaders stayed behind until the following year to help weaker members leave the country. Clifton ended up staying behind due to his advanced age.

Period in The Netherlands

The congregation initially settled in Amsterdam where Separatists began to settle as early as 1593. The local congregation of Separatists was strife-ridden, and the Pilgrims left Amsterdam after the first year and settled in Leyden.

Leyden was a bustling city of 100,000 inhabitants in 1609. It contained a number of imposing buildings, and it was one of Europe’s most important centers of learning. Some of the most important scholars of the day were on the faculty of the University of Leyden, and it attracted students from all over western Europe.

Soon after the congregation settled in Leyden, John Robinson was publicly ordained as their new minister. William Brewster became their ruling elder. Under the leadership of Robinson and Brewster, the congregation grew steadily. People from all over England made their way to Leyden, and in time, the congregation came to number several hundred.

In January 1611, Robinson, William Jepson, Henry Wood, and his brother-in-law, Randall Thickins, purchased a large house called Grone Point. It was located almost directly behind St. Peter’s Church on Klok-steeg, which means “Bell Lane.” This site was only a block or two from the university, and it was purchased from John de Laliane for 8,000 guilders. Some 2,000 guilders were paid in advance, and the mortgage was paid off at the rate of 500 guilders per year. It seems apparent that they must have had a hard time raising that sum as they did not take possession of it until May of the following year.

This building served both as a home and a church. Over the next several years, twenty-one apartments were constructed in the garden for the less affluent members.

At the University of Leyden

On September 5, 1615, John Robinson entered Leiden University as a student of theology. He attended the lectures of the noted theologians, Episcopius and Polyander. His entry into the university “freed him from control of magistrates” and entitled him to another privilege of the Dutch intellectuals. Every month he was eligible to receive a half tun (126 gallons) of beer, and ten gallons of wine every three months which were free of all taxes. In addition, no troops could be quartered in his home except during military emergencies. He also became exempt from standing night watch, and making contributions to public works and fortifications.

During his time at the university, Robinson was an active participant in the Arminian controversy, siding with the Calvinists. The former believed in free will, they rejected predestination, and they advocated the possibility of salvation for all. Calvinists, on the other hand, maintained that God is sovereign in the areas of redemption and regeneration. They believed that God saves whom he will, when he will, and how he will.

Robinson was urged by the noted Professor Polyander and other professors to defend Calvinism in public debates with the noted Professor Episcopius, a member of the university’s faculty. He reluctantly accepted, and began attending the professor's lectures to become well versed in his opponent's views. This preparation, he felt, was necessary if he was to ably refute the noted theologian’s beliefs. The debate lasted for three days. William Bradford, who was present, wrote that the Lord helped Robinson “to defend the truth and fail his adversary, as he put him [Episcopius] to an apparent non-plus in this great and public audience. This so famous victory procured him much honour and respect from those learned men and others who loved the truth.”

Robinson was also a rather prolific writer. During various periods, he wrote sixty-two essays, which include his adamant "A Justification of Separation from the Church of England" (1610), "Of Religious Communion, Private and Public" (1614), "Apologia Brownistarum" (1619), "A Defence of the Doctrine propounded by the Synod of Dort" (1624), "Observations Divine and Morall" (1625), and his more tolerant "A Treatise on the Lawfulness of Hearing Ministers in the Church of England" (1624; published after his death in 1634). Several pamphlets were also written defending Separatist doctrine, and their withdrawal from the Church of England. His Works, with a memoir by R. Ashton, were reprinted in three volumes in 1851.

The years spent in Holland were a time of poverty and hardship for a great majority of the congregation. This was in primarily due to the fact that there were not as many English Separatists joining their congregation as anticipated. The congregation was allowed to worship as they pleased, and most found the land of windmills and wooden shoes to be to their liking.

Holland was, however, a land whose culture and language were strange and difficult for the English congregation to understand or learn. Their children were becoming more and more Dutch as the years passed by. The congregation came to believe that they faced eventual extinction if they remained in Holland. Moreover, a war was brewing between the Dutch and Spanish, and the English congregation did not want to become involved in the conflict. These factors caused increasing dissatisfaction, and finally a decision to emigrate again, this time to America.

According to Rev. Dr. Robert Merrill Bartlett, MSMD, "Robinson taught his fellowship: (1) The necessity for an enlightened, scholarly ministry who lived with their people and served as their teacher. (2) The central importance of an educated laity who could read, study the Bible, and think for themselves. (3) Independence of the local church from king and bishops. The people were the church. The people had the right to run their churches, choose their ministers and lay leaders. Their aim was a free church where men could speak their minds and seek new truth. (4) Reform of the church from control by crown and bishops, and reform from corruption and superstition." [Our Pilgrim Heritage by Rev. Dr. Robert Merrill Bartlett, MSMD. At "Discover History." URL: Undated. Accessed 28 September 2008.]

Bartlett went on to write, "The irenic spirit of his famous Farewell at Delfshaven helped make Plimoth Plantation the most liberal and tolerant church in the New World." [Our Pilgrim Heritage by Rev. Dr. Robert Merrill Bartlett, MSMD. At "Discover History." URL: Undated. Accessed 28 September 2008.]

Part of Robinson's Farewell speech read as follows:

"I Charge you before God and his blessed angels that you follow me no further than you have seen me follow Christ. If God reveal anything to you by any other instrument of His, be as ready to receive it as you were to receive any truth from my ministry, for I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth from His holy word.

"The Lutherans cannot be drawn to go beyond what Luther saw. Whatever part of His will our God has revealed to Calvin, they (Lutherans) will rather die than embrace it; and the Calvinists, you see, stick fast where they were left by that great man of God, who yet saw not all things. This is a misery much to be lamented.

"For though they were precious shining lights in their time, yet God has not revealed his whole will to them. And were they now living, they would be as ready and willing to embrace further light, as they had received." [Our Pilgrim Heritage by Rev. Dr. Robert Merrill Bartlett, MSMD. At "Discover History." URL: Undated. Accessed 28 September 2008.]

A minority travel to America

The decision to relocate was made early in 1619, when Deacon John Carver and Robert Cushman, who had business experience, were sent to London to negotiate with the London Company. They carried with them articles of belief, written by Robinson and Brewster, as evidence of their loyalty and orthodoxy.

Only a minority of the congregation (thirty-five members), under William Brewster, sailed on the "Mayflower" from England to America. They were joined by sixty-six people from Southampton and London who had little or no religious motivation. The majority of the congregation remained in Leyden, and planned to make the voyage at a later date. John Robinson agreed in advance to go with the group that was in the majority, and thus did not make the great historic trip. Before Brewster and his group left Holland, a solemn service was held, at which Robinson chose Ezra 8:21 as his text:

“Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river of Ahava, that wemight afflict ourselves before our God, to seek of him a rightway for us, and for our little ones, and for all our substance.”

The Pilgrims reached the coast of what is now Massachusetts on December 21, 1620. They named their little settlement “Plymouth” after the city that they had sailed from in England. For the next several years, these Pilgrims awaited the arrival of Robinson and the rest of the congregation.

The departure for most of the rest of the congregation was delayed for several years, and before long, Robinson had died. He became ill on February 22, 1625, and recovered enough to preach twice the next day, which was Sunday. By the next Sunday, Reverend John Robinson, the great "Apostle of Leyden", was dead. His remains were interred at St. Peter's Church.

Posthumous events

After Robinson had died, the congregation began a period of gradual decline. In time, there were only Dutch members left. A group broke away from the rest and moved to Amsterdam. Others, including one of his sons, immigrated to America and joined the Pilgrims at Plymouth. The remaining members finally united with the Reformed Church of Holland in 1658.

In 1865, a marble marker was placed on the building occupying the site of Robinson’s home. It was inscribed:

“On this spot, lived, taught, and died John Robinson, 1611-1625.”

A ceremony was conducted under the auspices of the Congregational Church of the United States on July 24, 1891, at which a bronze marker in his memory was placed on the wall of St. Peter’s Church. Present were delegates from the United States and England, the city and University of Leyden, and the city’s clergy. On this marker was inscribed:::“In Memory of::Rev. John Robinson, M. A.::Pastor of the English Church Worshipping Over Against::This Spot, A. D. 1609 - 1625, Whence at his Prompting::Went Forth::THE PILGRIM FATHERS::To Settle New England::in 1620::- - - - - - - - -::Buried under this house of worship, 4 March, 1625::Aet. XLIX Years.::"In Memoria Aeterna Erit Justus".::Erected by the National Council of the Congregational::Churches of the United States of America::A. D. 1891”

The General Society of Mayflower Descendants erected a tablet on the wall of St. Peter’s Church in 1928. It was inscribed:::“In Memory of::JOHN ROBINSON::Pastor of the English Church in Leyden::1609 1625::His Broadly Tolerant Mind::Guided and Developed the Religious Life of::THE PILGRIMS OF THE MAYFLOWER::of Him These Walls Enshrine All That Was Mortal::His Undying Spirit::Still Dominates the Consciences of a Mighty Nation::In the Land Beyond the Seas::This tablet was erected by the General Society of Mayflower::Descendants in the United States of America A.D. 1928.”

John Robinson and Bridget White were the parents of the following children:
# Ann, the oldest of the children, born at Norwich, and named in honor of her grandmother in Sturton, married Jan Schetter of Utrecht before 1622, so her name was not listed in the register. She was left a widow by the autumn of 1625.
# John, born in Scrooby in 1606, matriculated at the University of Leyden, April 5, 1633.
# Bridget, born at Leyden about 1608, married (1) John Greenwood, who studied theology at the University of Leyden in 1629. After his death, she married (2) William Lee of Amsterdam in 1637.
# Isaac, born at Leyden in 1610. Arrived in Plymouth Colony on the Lyon in 1631. Married (1) Margaret Handford; (2) Mary (last name unknown).
# Mercy, born at Leyden in 1612, was buried in 1623.
# Fear, born at Leyden in 1614, married John Jennings, Jr. in 1648 and lived her life in Leyden. He died in 1664, leaving three children. She died before May 31, 1670.
# Jacob, born at Leyden in 1616, married (name unknown). Died in May, 1638, and is buried in St. Peter’s Church.

Bridget Robinson continued to live after her husband's death in the Engelsche Poort at the Green Gate. She had arranged passage for her and the children on the "Mayflower" (a second ship of the same name) in 1629 to New England, but she changed her mind for some unknown reason at the last minute and did not sail (interestingly, the captain never removed their names from the ship's manifest). She was mentioned as being in Leyden on April 6, 1640 in the Poll Tax Register. Professor John Hoornbeek stated that she and her children joined the Dutch Reformed Church. She died in 1643.

On October 28, 1643, Bridget Robinson’s Will was drawn up at the office of notary J. F. van Merwen on the Breestraat. It indicates that she was still a widow and at the time had four children: John, a doctor of medicine, who was married and living in England; Isaac, who was married and lived in New England; Bridget, who had married William Lee; and Fear, who later married John Jennings, Jr.

He lives on today through the Pracella and Crawford family.

The accuracy of the above information is disputed -- It should be noted that some believe John, Isaac and Jacob all traveled to Plymouth in 1631 on the ship the Lyon. John settled in Exedor, MA working as a blacksmith (not a doctor), Issaac in Scituate, MA and Jacob, who's name was changed to Abraham, settled in Gloucester, MA. There are a great many American descendants of John, Isaac and Jacob [Abraham] Robinson who still bear the Robinson name today.


*United Reformed Church (2004) "A Gift Box". ISBN 0-85346-222-4.

Our Pilgrim Heritage by Rev. Dr. Robert Merrill Bartlett, MSMD. At "Discover History." URL: Undated. Accessed 28 September 2008.

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