John Robinson Makes A Choice

“What will we do John?”

Bridget Robinson nervously ran her fingers over the rough edge of the dining table. They sat across from each other. John with his head in his hands while she nervously familiarised herself with the table top. John was quiet for a long time before finally lifting his head and looking at her.

He looked tired and he carelessly rubbed his fingers across his eyes before he spoke.

“I don’t know” he said shaking his head “I didn’t really…” he paused searching for the right words. “I didn’t really think it would come to this” he finished.  

“We had hoped” he continued “that the King would champion our cause but now it seems that he desires to champion his own cause”

“And what is his cause?” Bridget asked

“Strengthening his own political power base” John sighed

In many ways James I was worse than the Queen before him. He was more wolfish in his aspirations. He had humoured the Puritan delegation that had presented a list of proposed reforms before him. He had listened to them before throwing out the entire proposal and immediately setting about clamping down on Puritan thought and influence more tyrannically than the Elizabethan parliament had done before him.

“He has empowered the prelates of the church of England to stamp out the slightest flicker of dissent. He will not reform the church, he cares little for anything outside of his own political gain”

Bridget’s hands stilled on the table and she quietly studied their worn lines.

“You refused to submit to the Bishops of the church?” she finally asked

“What else could I do Bridget?” John scraped back his chair and stood up, pacing restlessly in front of the fireplace. “How can I continue to submit to the authority of a church that is not only spiritually lethargic but, in adding insult to injury, refuses to allow it’s clergy to exercise freedom of conscience and independent thought?” he threw up his hands in frustration as he continued “I cannot! I cannot be a part of such a church!”

“So what will we do then? Will we be become separatists? Leave the church of England?” Bridget looked up at him questioningly “What are we going to do John?”

“I have been suspended” he said, turning his back to her and placing his forearm against the mantlepiece

“What?” Bridget’s voice crackled with emotion “How will we live? How will we put food on the table and care for the children?”

“I don’t know” John ground out resting his forehead against his arm “I don’t know…but I do know that I can no longer be silent”

Bridget fought back tears as she contemplated her husband’s slumped back. She knew he would not have made this decision lightly. It was hard to swallow nonetheless. John Robinson was a priest of the church of England. That was his job. It was that job that put food on the table and clothes on their backs.

This decision, to refuse submit to an authority that would not allow him freedom of conscience was an important one but it also effectively cut off their only source of income.

We will be destitute Bridget’s mind screamed hysterically.

“I will begin to look for work in the morning” John said quietly, raising his head “I hear there is a vacancy for the Mastership at St. Giles Hospital or failing that a vacancy to  serve as city preacher” he turned to face his wife “Don’t worry my dear, we will think of something.”

The Road to Separation

However, John Robinson failed to secure either one of the jobs he applied for and found himself joining the Scrooby separatists as a preacher. It was a difficult time to be a Puritan in England. The factions were multitudinous but a few slim common threads held them all together. They all believed in the infallible authority of the Bible above the authority of the King or his appointed Bishops, the freedom to engage in independent thought and the need for civil and religious liberty.  

None of these ideas were favourites with the King. He was happy to agree with all of them so long as they did not endanger his political agendas or the political stability of the nation. There were some Puritan factions that believed that a political solution was the best means to achieve their desired end of spiritual reformation coupled with civil and religious liberty. But there were others that toyed with the idea of leaving England altogether in search of a new world.

John Robinson was part of the latter group. By 1607 he was the preacher of one of two separatist congregations that were becoming more and more convinced that the church of England was not the church of Christ. Robinson, together with other leaders of the movement, gathered the congregation together and led them to make a covenant. They agreed to go wherever God led them, by his grace and regardless of the cost.

The cost was significant. In April 1593 the Parliamentary Act against Puritans had stated that anyone above sixteen who refused to attend an authorised church would be arrested and imprisoned. The Separatists knew what they faced when they chose to form their own independent congregations a little over a decade later. Arrest and imprisonment were spectres that constantly haunted them.

In 1620 a small group of Robinson’s congregation decided to brave the perils of a long voyage and an unknown frontier in search of a New World. A new world that would offer them freedom of conscience and freedom of thought. Robinson himself did not go but chose to remain in Leyden with the remnant of the Scrooby congregation who were staying behind.

His parting words to the departing members of his flock were powerful;

“Brethren” he said “If God should reveal anything to you by any other instruments of His, be as ready to receive it as ever you were to receive any truth of my ministry; for  am very confident the Lord has more truth and light yet to break forth out of His Holy Word”

Perhaps the most powerful element of Puritanism was its unflinching commitment to absolute surrender to the Word of God, regardless of the cost. This was their legacy. One that is worth replicating. 

Citations and Further Reading

  • White, E.G. (1888) – The Great Controversy
  • Griffis, W.E. (1921) – What the Pilgrim Fathers Accomplished in The North American Review, Vol. 213, No. 782
  • Powicke, F.J. (1920) – John Robinson and the Beginnings of the Pilgrim Movement  in The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 13, No. 3 (Jul., 1920), pp. 252-289
  • Reeves, M, (Audio Content) – The English Reformation and The Puritans

Suki Goonatilleke lives in Melbourne, Australia with her husband and two daughters. She is passionate about winning people for Jesus and has served in full-time ministry at Gateway Adventist Center. Her current ministry endeavors include being a stay-at-home mom by day and writer by night.