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Robinson, John (1576?-1625) (DNB00)


ROBINSON, JOHN (1576?–1625), pastor of the pilgrim fathers, a native of Lincolnshire, according to Bishop Hall (Common Apologie, 1610, p. 125), was born about 1576.

His early career is involved in obscurity. Wide acceptance has been given to Hunter's identification of the pastor with John Robinson who was admitted as a sizar at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, on 9 April 1592 (his tutor being John Jegon [q. v.]), who graduated B.A. in February 1596, and was admitted a fellow in 1598. The college books describe him variously as ‘Lincolniensis’ and ‘Notingamiensis,’ and Hunter conjectures that he was born at Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, divided from Nottinghamshire by the Trent; a conjecture which the parish register in its damaged state leaves undecided.

Mr. Alexander Brown, in his ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ (1895), conjectures that the pastor was born in Lincoln, and was the son of John Robinson, D.D. (d. 1598) [q. v.], precentor of Lincoln from 1572, and prebendary from 1573. For this there is no evidence; baptisms in Lincoln Cathedral are entered in the register of St. Mary Magdalene, which only begins in the seventeenth century.

Some details in the early career of a third contemporary John Robinson suggest a likelihood of his identity with the pastor, but at a critical point the argument breaks down. Robert Robinson (d September 1617), rector of Saxlingham Nethergate and Saxlingham Thorpe, Norfolk, had a son John, who was baptised at Saxlingham on 1 April 1576. This John Robinson is probably to be identified with the John Robinson, admitted as a sizar at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, on 2 March 1592–3, who graduated M.A. 1600, B.D. 1607.

The Saxlingham registers further show that John Robinson, clerk, was married on 24 July 1604 to Anne Whitfield. The Norwich diocesan records state that John Robinson, B.D. (doubtless the Emmanuel graduate), was appointed perpetual curate of Great Yarmouth in 1609, was then aged 34, and was a native of Saxlingham. A serious obstacle to the endeavour to identify this Yarmouth curate with the pastor of the pilgrim fathers is raised by the appearance of the year 1609 in this entry. Neale, the New England historian, asserts, in his ‘History of the Puritans,’ that the pastor of the pilgrim fathers was ‘beneficed about Yarmouth,’ and the Yarmouth corporation records of 1608 mention ‘Mr. Robinson the pastor’ (John Browne, Congregationalism in Norfolk and Suffolk). But in 1608 the pastor left England, and he is not known to have returned.

It is very probable that Robinson the pastor studied at Cambridge during the last decade of the sixteenth century, and perhaps he came under the personal influence of William Perkins [q. v.] In early life he held ‘cure and charge’ of souls in Norwich, and ‘certeyn citizens were excommunicated for resorting vnto and praying with’ him (Ainsworth, Counter-poyson, 1608 p. 246, 1642 p. 145). Robinson himself mentions his residence at Norwich in his ‘People's Plea’ (1618), dedicated to his ‘Christian friends in Norwich and thereabouts.’ Hall confidently asserts (Common Apologie, p. 145) that Robinson's separation from the established church was due to his failing to obtain ‘the mastershippe of the hospitall at Norwich, or a lease from that citie’ (presumably of a place of worship). Later writers speak of him as having held a Norfolk benefice—perhaps the Yarmouth curacy already noticed—and as having been suspended. About 1607 Robinson, according to a guess of Hunter, seems to have joined the ‘gathered church’ meeting at Scrooby Manor, Nottinghamshire, the residence of William Brewster [q. v.], of which Richard Clifton [q. v.] was pastor. Clifton himself held a living, but there are other instances of beneficed clergy who at the same time were members of congregational churches. Robinson, as Hall observes, had been influenced by John Smyth, to whom the Scrooby church owed its origin; but he did not follow Smyth's later views. In 1606 Smyth emigrated to Amsterdam, where he became an Arminian and a baptist. In August 1608 Clifton also emigrated to Amsterdam with some of the Scrooby congregation; later in the year Robinson followed with others, who had made several ineffectual attempts to obtain a passage.

At Amsterdam the emigrants joined the separatist church which had Francis Johnson (1562–1618) [q. v.] as its pastor, and Ainsworth as its teacher. The prospect of dissensions on church government which broke out in this church in the following year may have determined Robinson's contingent not to settle at Amsterdam. Many of them were weavers, and at Leyden there was employment for cloth-weavers. On 12 Feb. 1609 they obtained permission from the authorities at Leyden, and removed thither by 1 May. Robinson was publicly ordained as their pastor; Brewster was a ruling elder; the community numbered about one hundred, and increased to three hundred; their form of church government was congregational.

At Leyden, which had not the trading advantages of a port, their life was hard. They maintained an excellent character, the authorities contrasting their diligence, honesty, and peaceableness with the behaviour of the Walloons. Bradford says that more ‘public favour’ would have been shown them but for fear of ‘giving offence to the state of England.’ There is no truth in the statement, gathered by Prince from old people at Leyden in 1714, that one of the city churches was granted for their worship. In 1610 Henry Jacob (1563–1624) [q. v.] went from Middelburg to Leyden to consult Robinson on matters of church government. In January 1611 Robinson and three others bought, for eight thousand guilders, a house ‘by the belfry;’ the conveyance is dated 5 May 1611, possession was obtained on 1 May 1612 (there had evidently been difficulty in raising the purchase money), and the building was converted into a dwelling and meeting-house. In the rear twenty-one cottages were erected for poorer emigrants.

Some time before 1612 Robinson had corresponded, about terms of communion, with William Ames (1576–1633) [q. v.], then at The Hague. These ‘private letters’ were communicated by Ames to ‘The Prophane Schisme of the Brownists,’ 1612, pp. 47 seq., a composite work, fathered by Christopher Lawne and three others; Ames and Robert Parker (1564?–1614) [q. v.] also contributed to it. George Hornius (Hist. Eccles. 1665, p. 232) thinks Ames and Parker modified Robinson's views; this does not appear to have been the case. There may be some basis of fact for the story of a three days' disputation at Leyden in 1613 between Robinson and Episcopius; but that it was undertaken by Robinson, at the request of Polyander (Jan Kerckhoven) and the city ministers (Bradford), or held in the university (Winslow), seems improbable. The university records are silent about it, and at Leyden the party of Episcopius was in the ascendant. On 5 Sept. 1615 Robinson was admitted a member of the university, by permission of the magistrates, as a student of theology; his age is given as 39; his Cambridge standing, if it existed, is ignored. This enrolment entitled him to obtain half a tun of beer a month, and ten gallons of wine a quarter, free of duty. He attended lectures by Episcopius and Polyander.

Robinson's controversial writing began in 1609 or 1610, with an ‘Answer’ to a letter, addressed to himself and John Smyth, in ‘Epistles,’ 1608, ii. 1 et seq. by Joseph Hall [q. v.] This ‘Answer’ is only known as reprinted, with a reply, in Hall's ‘Common Apologie of the Church of England,’ 1610. It exhibits considerable power of language, and is the production of a man of cultivated mind as well as of strong conviction. He afterwards defended the separatist position against Richard Bernard [q. v.], William Ames, and John Yates of Norwich. In the Amsterdam disputes he sided with Ainsworth, writing against the doctrines of Smyth and his coadjutor, Thomas Helwys [q. v.], and criticising the presbyterian positions of Johnson. His ‘Apologia,’ advocating the congregational type of church government, and rejecting the nicknames ‘Brownist’ and ‘Barrowist,’ is a very able and comprehensive statement, written with moderation.

As early as 1617 a project of emigration to America had been matured by the leaders of the Leyden community. John Carver, a deacon, and Robert Cushman, ‘our right hand with the adventurers,’ were sent to London to forward the scheme. They carried a document to be presented to the privy council, signed by Robinson and Brewster, and containing ‘seven articles,’ acknowledging the king's authority in all causes, and that of bishops as civilly commissioned by him (Colonial Papers, i. 43). Cushman negotiated a loan with the merchant adventurers of London for seven years, on hard terms, the risk being great, and the emigrants dependent on their own labour. On 12 Nov. 1617 Sir Edwin Sandys, subsequently treasurer and governor of the Virginia Company, addressed a letter to Robinson and Brewster (who had been a tenant of the Sandys family), expressing satisfaction with the ‘seven articles.’ Robinson and Brewster replied on 15 Dec. Their letter explains that the intending colonists are industrious, frugal people, who may be trusted to stay and work. A similar letter was addressed on 27 Jan. 1617–18 to Sir John Wolstenholme, giving full particulars of their ecclesiastical views, and emphasising their agreement with the French reformed churches, except in some details. A patent, under the Virginia Company's seal, was obtained in September 1619; it proved useless, as John Wincob, in whose name it was made out, did not join the expedition. The members of the Leyden community were now asked to volunteer for the enterprise. It was agreed that if a majority of the church volunteered, Robinson their pastor should accompany them, otherwise Brewster was to be in charge of the expedition. To Robinson's disappointment only a minority volunteered. The Speedwell, a vessel of 60 tons, was bought in Holland; Carver and Cushman went to London, with Thomas Weston, an English merchant, to make final arrangements, and hire another vessel large enough to carry the freight. All being ready, a day of humiliation and prayer was held at Leyden on 21 July 1620, Robinson preaching from Ezra viii. 21. On 22 July the Speedwell sailed from Delft Haven to Southampton, where the Mayflower (180 tons) from London awaited her. While at Southampton the pilgrims received a letter of advice from Robinson, bidding them ‘be not shaken with unnecessary novelties.’ To Carver he wrote a further letter (27 July), engaging to embrace ‘the first opportunity of hastening to them.’ The two vessels left Southampton on 5 Aug.; but either the Speedwell proved unseaworthy, or, as the emigrants believed, Reynolds, the master, and some of his convoy lost courage. They put in to Darmouth, and again to Plymouth, for repairs; at length the Speedwell was sold, and the Mayflower alone, of which Thomas Jones was master, the expedition being reduced to 101 passengers, set sail from Plymouth on 6 Sept. She was bound for the Hudson river, but at the outset of the voyage was weather-bound for some days at Hull; ‘after long beating at sea’ Cape Cod came in view; further storms frustrated the intention of proceeding southward. Returning to Cape Cod, the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock on 11 Nov.

Robinson's pastoral care for the colonists is shown in his letter (30 June 1621) ‘to the church of God at Plymouth, New England.’ The remainder of the Leyden community became more willing to join their brethren in New England. Yet Robinson writes to Brewster (20 Dec. 1623) that his removal was ‘desired rather than hoped for’ They could not raise money, and the merchant adventurers would take no further risk. Robinson thought influential persons wished to prevent his going out. Meantime he refused to sanction the administration of the sacraments by Brewster, an elder, but not an ordained pastor.

Just as his life was closing, Robinson published a volume of sixty-two essays on ethical and spiritual topics. They show reading and good sense, and their style is marked by ease and simplicity. He left ready for publication his last thoughts on the question of separation, but his friends withheld it from the press for nine years, on the ground that ‘some, though not many’ of the Leyden church ‘were contrary minded to the author's judgment.’ It was at length printed in order to justify the action of some separatists who were occasional hearers of the parochial clergy. The position taken in this treatise is well described by John Shaw (manuscript ‘Advice to his Son,’ 1664, quoted in Hunter, 1854, p. 185), who says that ‘learned and pious Mr. Robinson … so far came back that he approved of communion with the church of England, in the hearing of the word and prayer (though not in sacraments and discipline), and so occasioned the rise of such as are called semists, that is semiseparatists, or independants.’ He had always been in favour of ‘private communion’ with ‘godly’ members of the church of England, herein differing from Ainsworth; and according to John Paget (d. 1640) [q. v.] he had preached the lawfulness of attending Anglican services as early as July 1617, and had tolerated such attendance on Brewster's part much earlier (Paget, Arrow against the Separation, 1618). Robert Baillie, D.D. [q. v.], a strong opponent of his ecclesiastical principles, characterises him as ‘the most learned, polished, and modest spirit that ever that sect enjoyed.’

Robinson fell ill on Saturday, 22 Feb. 1625, yet preached twice the next day. The plague was then rife at Leyden, but he did not take it. He suffered no pain, but was weakened by ague. He died on 1 March 1625 (Dutch reckoning, or present style; in the old English reckoning it was 19 Feb. 1624). No portrait or description of his person exists. His autograph signature is on the title-page of the British Museum copy (C. 45, d. 25) of John Dove's ‘Perswasion to the English Recusants,’ 1603. On 4 March he was buried under the pavement in the aisle of St. Peter's, Leyden, in a common grave, bought for seven years, at a cost of nine guilders. There is no truth in Winslow's story that his funeral was attended by the university and the city ministers. He married Bridget White (his second wife, if he were the John Robinson of Emmanuel), who survived him, and, with his children, removed in March 1629–30 to Plymouth, New England. In October 1622 his children, according to the Leyden census, were Isaac, Mercy, Fear, and James. It is doubtful whether he had a son William; Abraham Robinson, who settled in New England, was not his son, though claimed as such. His descendants, as traced by W. Allen, D.D., are given in Ashton's ‘Life’ (compare Savage's Genealogical Dictionary of the First Settlers of New England, 1861, iii. 549 seq.). After his death some members of his church returned to Amsterdam, and joined John Canne [q. v.], others went to New England (thirty-five in 1629, sixty more in 1630). About 1650 his house was taken down, and replaced by a row of small buildings; on one of these, in 1865, a marble slab was placed, with the inscription, ‘On this spot lived, taught, and died John Robinson, 1611–1625.’ On 24 July 1891 was publicly dedicated a bronze inscribed tablet, provided by a subscription (suggested by Dr. W. M. Dexter, d. November 1890), executed in New York, and placed on the outer wall of St. Peter's, facing the site of the dwelling. On 29 June 1896 the foundation-stone of a ‘John Robinson Memorial Church’ was laid at Gainsborough by the Hon. T. F. Bayard, ambassador from the United States, on the assumption that Gainsborough was Robinson's birthplace, and that he was a member of the ‘gathered’ church at Scrooby Manor, which is in proximity to Gainsborough.

Nothing that Robinson ever wrote reaches the level of his alleged address to the departing pilgrims; expressing confidence that ‘the Lord has more truth yet to break forth out of his holy word;’ bewailing ‘the condition of the reformed churches, who are come to a period in religion,’ the Lutherans refusing to advance ‘beyond what Luther saw, while the Calvinists stick fast where they were left by that great man of God, who yet saw not all things;’ and exhorting the pilgrims to ‘study union’ with ‘the godly people of England,’ ‘rather than, in the least measure, to affect a division or separation from them.’ Neither Bradford nor Morton hints at this address. It appears first in the ‘Briefe Narration’ appended to Edward Winslow's ‘Hypocrisie Vnmasked,’ 1646, pp. 97 seq. Winslow, who is not a first-rate authority, brings it forward as a piece of evidence in disproof of the intolerance ascribed to the separatists. He had been for three years (1617–20) a member of Robinson's church, and affirms that Robinson ‘used these expressions, or to the same purpose;’ he gives no date, but it was when the pilgrims were ‘ere long’ to depart; his report is mainly in the third person. Cotton Mather, writing in 1702, turns the whole into the first person, and makes it (Magnalia, i. 14) the parting address to the pilgrims, changing ‘ere long’ into ‘quickly.’ Neal (Hist. of New England, 1720) follows Mather, but omits the closing exhortation, with its permission to ‘take another pastor,’ and treats the address as the peroration of the sermon preached on 21 July 1620. This last point he drops (Hist. of Puritans, 1732), but it is taken up by Brook and others. This famous address, recollected after twenty-six years or more, owes something to the reporter's controversial needs.

Robinson published: 1. ‘An Answer to a Censorious Epistle’ [1610]; see above. 2. ‘A Ivstification of Separation from the Church of England,’ &c. [Leyden], 1610, 4to [Amsterdam], 1639, 4to (in reply to ‘The Separatists Schisme,’ by Bernard). Robinson's defence of this tract, against the criticisms of Francis Johnson, is printed in Ainsworth's ‘Animadversion to Mr. Richard Clyfton,’ &c., Amsterdam, 1613, pp. 111 seq. 3. ‘Of Religious Commvnion, Private & Publique,’ &c. [Leyden], 1614, 4to (against Helwys and Smyth). The British Museum copy (4323 b) has the autograph of Robinson's brother-in-law, Randall Thickins, and a few manuscript notes. 4. ‘A Manvmission to a Manvdvction,’ &c. [Leyden], 1615, 4to (in reply to ‘A Manvdvction for Mr. Robinson,’ &c., Dort, 1614, by Ames). 5. ‘The People's Plea for the Exercise of Prophesie,’ &c. [Leyden], 1618, 16mo; 2nd edit. 1641, 8vo (in reply to Yates). 6. ‘Apologia Ivsta et Necessaria … Quorundam Christianorum … dictorum Brownistarum, sive Barrowistarum,’ &c. [Leyden], 1619, 16mo. 7. ‘An Appeal on Truths Behalfe (concerninge some differences in the Church at Amsterdam),’ &c. [Leyden], 1624, 8vo. 8. ‘A Defence of the Doctrine propovnded by the Synode of Dort,’ &c. [Leyden], 1624, 4to. 9. ‘A Briefe Catechisme concerning Church Government,’ &c., Leyden, 1624? 2nd edit. 1642, 8vo; with title, ‘An Appendix to Mr. Perkins his Six Principles of Christian Religion,’ &c., 1656, 8vo. 10. ‘Observations Divine and Morall,’ &c. [Leyden], 1625, 4to; with new title-page, ‘New Essayes, or Observations Divine and Morall,’ &c. 1628, 4to; 2nd edit. ‘Essays, or Observations Divine and Morall,’ &c. 1638, 12mo. 11. ‘A Ivst and Necessarie Apologie for certain Christians … called Brownists or Barrowists,’ &c. [Leyden], 1625, 4to (see No. 6); 1644, 24mo, with ‘An Appendix to Mr. Perkins,’ &c. (See No. 9). Posthumous was: 12. ‘A Treatise of the Lawfulnes of Hearing of the Ministers in the Church of England,’ &c. [Amsterdam], 1634, 8vo; partly reprinted, with extracts from Philip Nye [q. v.], 1683, 4to. His ‘Works’ were edited (1851, 8vo, 3 vols. with ‘Life’) by Robert Ashton (No. 4 is not included, but is reprinted in Mass. Hist. Soc. Coll. 4th ser. vol. i.); lengthy extracts from most of them will be found in Hanbury's ‘Historical Memorials,’ 1839, vol. i.

[After Robinson's own writings, the first authority for his Leyden life is William Bradford, whose History of Plymouth Plantation was first fully printed in Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 4th ser. vol. iii. 1856; for the portion to 1620, with Bradford's Diary of Occurrences, his Letters, Winslow's Journal, and other documents, see Young's Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers, 2nd edit. 1844. Secondary sources are Morton's New England's Memoriall, 1669, Cotton Mather's Magnalia, 1702, and Prince's Chronological Hist. of New England, 1736 (the edition used above is 1852); all criticised in George Sumner's Memoirs of the Pilgrims at Leyden, Mass. Hist. Soc. 3rd ser. vol. ix. 1846, which gives results of research at Leyden. Hunter's Collections concerning the Founders of New Plymouth, 1849, are corrected on some points in Ashton's Life of Robinson, 1851, and are improved in Hunter's Collections concerning the Church at Scrooby, 1854. Most of Hunter's conjectures are adopted in Dexter's Congregationalism of Three Hundred Years, 1880, valuable for its bibliography. Baillie's Dissuasive from the Errours of the Time, 1646; Neal's Hist. of New England, 1720, i. 72 seq.; Neal's Hist. of the Puritans (Toulmin), 1822, ii. 43, 110; Brook's Lives of the Puritans, 1813, ii. 334 seq.; Marsden's Hist. of the Early Puritans, 1860, pp. 296 seq.; Cooper's Athenæ Cantabr. 1861, ii. 235; Evans's Early English Baptists, 1862, i. 202 seq.; Barclay's Inner Life of Religious Societies of the Commonwealth, 1876, pp. 63 seq.; Browne's Hist. of Congr. in Norfolk and Suffolk, 1877, p. 127; Proceedings at the Unveiling of the Tablet in Leyden, 1891; Brown's Pilgrim Fathers, 1895, pp. 94 seq.; extracts from register of Emmanuel Coll. Cambridge, per the master; extracts from register and order-book of Corpus Christi Coll. Cambridge, per the master; extracts from the Norwich diocesan registers, per the Rev. G. S. Barrett, D.D.; extracts from the parish registers of Saxlingham Nethergate and Saxlingham Thorpe, per the Rev. R. W. Pitt; information from the dean of Lincoln and from the master of Christ's Coll. Cambridge.]

A. G.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.237
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

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18 ii 35 Robinson, John (1576?-1625): for Mr. Alexander Brown read Dr. John Brown