Leading Separatists in the Pilgrim Roots region

United Reformed Church, Gainsborough

The United Reformed Church in Gainsborough stands as a memorial to John Robinson, famously known as the pastor to the Pilgrims and one of the founders of the Separatist movements.

He led the Pilgrims to the Dutch town of Leiden, helping them plan their pioneering voyage of the Mayflower. However he would never make the journey. He was instrumental in planning a second Pilgrim voyage but would tragically die before being able to live his dream.

Robinson was born sometime between 1575 and 1576 in Sturton-le-Steeple, a small English village nestled in the Nottinghamshire countryside. Today, about 500 people live there and just down the road are the villages of Scrooby and Babworth – home to William Brewster and William Bradford, two men who would go on to lead the Pilgrims when they arrived in the New World.

He moved to Norfolk where he took charge of St Andrew’s Church in the centre of Norwich. At the time the city had a significant population of Puritans and it had contacts with Europe, particularly in Holland. His radical views on religion meant he gave up the position when the authorities suspended him and instead, he preached to a small Separatist congregation.

He was removed from office in 1604 when the Bishop of Norwich enforced the ruling that all those who rejected the faith and practices of the established church should be ejected. Robinson returned with his wife to Sturton-le-Steeple, meeting others frustrated with the church and its limitations. They included John Smyth (or Smith) at nearby Gainsborough, William Brewster at Scrooby, William Bradford at Austerfield, Richard Clifton at Babworth and Richard Bernard at Worksop and became known as the Scrooby Separatists.

The group met mainly at Scrooby Manor, home of William Brewster. Richard Clifton, who had been based at Babworth Church, became their minister and Robinson was the assistant pastor.

They made a dramatic attempt to emigrate to Holland in 1607 from the nearby town of Boston but were betrayed and Robinson was among those imprisoned in the cells of Boston Guildhall. Having been tried and freed, a second successful attempt was made from Immingham in 1608. Robinson stayed behind to look after weaker members of the group and travelled to Amsterdam the following year. It was here he became ‘pastor to the Pilgrims’.

The Scrooby Separatists eventually settled in Dutch city of Leiden in 1609 and Robinson became Pastor to the Church. He also became associated with the University there and became recognised as a leading theologian of Separatism for he was ‘a distinguished scholar among many eminent scholars’ and one of the leaders in the planning of the subsequent journey to America by the Pilgrim Fathers in the Mayflower in 1620.

He was to have accompanied the second wave of Pilgrims but died in Leiden and a memorial plaque attached to St Pieterkirk Church states that John Robinson was ‘Buried under this House of Worship on March 4, 1625.

The plaque states:

‘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 commemorative tablet is to be found in Gainsborough United Reformed Church, which stands as a memorial to his memory. The church have also created a ‘Mayflower Room’ which is open First and Third Thursday of the Month, 10am to 11.30am. This impressive and informative display of the local history commemorates the anniversary and the area’s Seperatist ancestors, who played an important role in the Pilgrim Fathers Mayflower voyage in 1620.

Pilgrim Roots is a partnership connecting Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire and South Yorkshire telling the story of the Pilgrims before they set sail on the Mayflower who many believe laid the foundations for modern America. Follow the links below to find out more.