John Robinson was born in 1575, but his parents and upbringing are unknown. He was probably from Nottinghamshire, England, and graduated at Cambridge. Becoming a separatist pastor in Nottinghamshire before 1607, he renounced the honors and degrees that were conferred on him.
His first pastorate was as a Puritan in Norfolk, and he had problems with complying with the ceremonies, and vestments; often either omit them or modify them in his services. The National Church authorities annoyed and persecute him until he was suspended.
He then settled in Norwich where he assembled a group of Puritans, and many of the worshippers were fined and imprisoned for attending his meetings. During the years as pastor there, he continued to struggle with various aspects of church practice and continued to modify things to become more Biblical. Although suspended from the National Church, he continued to seek to retain his position in the Established Church, and just modify things so that he could fit back in with the group. Finally, he realized there was no chance to “purify” the government religion, and the only choice there was to do was to separate completely from it.
In 1604 he officially left Norwich, England, and resigned his fellowship with Cambridge, becoming a Separatist formally. The king and bishops were determined to imprison, fine and banish all who did not conform to their system of religion. He went to Lincolnshire, and found a number of Separatists that would meet together as long as they could escape detection from their persecutors.
There were two Separatist churches in the area, and Mr. Robinson joined up as an assistant to Pastor Clyfton, and they met at Mr. Brewster’s mansion. Mr. Brewster would supply the needs of those attending, at a great cost to himself. The residence was in Scrooby. At the same time, James I was King, and he boldly sought out the Separatists to extinquish them from the Kingdom. Unable to hide from the spies any longer, the other Separatist church in the area led by Pastor Smyth, fled to Holland, and arrived in 1606. A few months later Pastor Clyfton and some of his church joined them. John Robertson stayed in Lincolnshire and pastored the folks unable to make it to Holland.
The persecutions however in England did not subside and those remaining made three attempts at escaping. In their first attempted they were betrayed by the Captain of the ship, and all their assets and valuables were seized. After about a month in prison, they were released but seven of their leaders were to appear in court for sentencing.
The second attempt to leave was interrupted. After several hours of delay in boarding a ship, most of the men had finally gotten on board, and the sailors were getting ready to go for another load, when they saw an army approaching and set sail and fled. Some of their members escaped, others were sent from court to court, but not knowing what to do with so many helpless, homeless, and poor people, they were released.
Other attempts were made and succeeded. It was a great day of rejoicing when the members all were united in Holland, having overcome great adversity and depravation in the attempts. John Robinson left with the last group and arrived in Leyden, Holland, in 1609. There were about 100 members in the church and they were joined in their emigration by many other refugees.
The time in Holland was a time of learning to survive as refugees, learning how to govern themselves, and learning the importance of living in a culture that inspires holiness instead of atheistic secularism. It was also a time when they learned more about old Baptist doctrine from the Anabaptists and Mennonites in the area, bringing great changes to the congregation.
The Farewell Fast of Leiden, July 21, 1620
The Pilgrims had left England because of religious persecution, and had gone to Leiden, Holland, where they found it very difficult making a living, and the secularized society was having a negative effect on their children. They decided they had no choice but to try to extricate themselves from Holland and seek freedom in their own community in a new land. They were fully aware of the dangers of this venture which included not only trying to survive attacks from savage Indians, but also the real probability they would have to stand their ground by fighting attacks from Spain or France, or even other Englishmen. They also knew they would be enduring great privation because they would be far removed from aid, supplies and protection.
The extraordinary Pastor John Robertson called for a day of fasting and prayer before a large group from his church was to leave. His text was from Ezra where God’s people had faced a similar dilemma about 2300 years earlier.
Ezra 8:21-22 Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river of Ahava, that we might afflict ourselves before our God, to seek of him a right way for us, and for our little ones, and for all our substance. For I was ashamed to require of the king a band of soldiers and horsemen to help us against the enemy in the way: because we had spoken unto the king, saying, The hand of our God is upon all them for good that seek him; but his power and his wrath is against all them that forsake him.
“We are now ere long to part asunder, and the Lord knoweth whether ever he should live to see our faces again. But whether the Lord had appointed it or not, he charged us before God and his blessed angels, to follow him no further than he followed Christ; and if God should reveal anything to us by any other instrument of his, to be as ready to receive it, as ever we were to receive any truth by his ministry; for he was very confident the Lord had more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy word. He took occasion also miserably to bewail the state and condition of the Reformed churches who were come to a period in religion, and would go no further than the instruments of their reformation. As for example, the Lutherans, they could not be drawn to go beyond what Luther saw; for whatever part of God’s will he had further imparted and revealed to Calvin, they will rather die than embrace it. And so also, saith he, you see the Calvinists, they stick where he left them, a misery much to be lamented; for though they were precious shining lights in their times, yet God had not revealed his whole will to them; and were they now living, saith he, they would be as ready and willing to embrace further light, as that they had received. Here also he put us in mind of our church covenant, at least that part of it whereby we promise and covenant with God and one another to receive whatsoever light or truth shall be made known to us from his written Word; but withal exhorted us to take heed what we received for truth, and well to examine and compare it and weigh it with other Scriptures of truth before we received it. For saith he, it is not possible the Christian world should come so lately out of such thick antichristian darkness, and that full perfection of knowledge should break forth at once.”
After the day of solemnities were ended, on July 22, those staying behind in Leyden put on a feast for the members that were leaving. They then sang songs, being very expert in music, raising an amazing chorus together. Then made their way to the port with the townspeople gathering, but no one was able to say a word over the deep sorrow they all felt at being separated. The folks leaving boarded the ship and set sail, firing a volley of small shot and exploding three pieces of ordinance. The two groups then prayed for each other and experienced the “joy of grief” that God had sent his provisions and blessings to begin a new colony.
John Robinson had every intention in joining the other folks in America, and sent several groups there, but his health continued to fail, until he gave his last sermons and then died on March 1, 1625. The amount paid for his burial is the lowest paid for any burial, and only the lowliest and poorest people in the town paid the same. It rented a pit with four other bodies for seven years, after which time the pit was redug, the remains discarded and the pit was used for others.
Robert Ashton, The Works of John Robinson, Pastor of the Pilgrim Fathers, with a Memoir and Annotations (London, England: John Snow, 1851), Vol. 1; pp. v-lxxiv.
William R. Estep, The Anabaptist Story: An Introduction to Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism, 3rd ed., rev. and enl. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996), pp. 284-291.
Verna M. Hall and Rosalie J. Slater, The Bible and the Constitution of the United States of America (San Francisco: Foundation for American Christian Education, 1983), pp. 14-15.
Verna M. Hall, The Christian History of the Constitution of the United States of America, Vol. I. Christian Self-Government, Founders Edition (San Francisco: Foundation for American Christian Education, 2006), p. 184; quoting William B. Sprague, ed., Trinitarian, Congregational, vol. 1, 1857, of Annals of the American Pulpit, (New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1866), p. 4.
Paul Lagassé and Columbia University, The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. (New York; Detroit: Columbia University Press; Sold and distributed by Gale Group, 2000), “Pilgrims.”
Ruben G. Thwaites, Epochs of American History: The Colonies (Redding, California: Pleasant Places Press, 2005), p. 116.