On Dec. 27, 1657, a bold – some might say audacious – letter arrived at the office of Peter Stuyvesant, director-general of what was then known as New Netherland.
Signed by 31 residents of Vlissingen, a town now known as Flushing, a community in the New York City borough of Queens, the letter was a demand for religious freedom. Its endorsers insisted that Stuyvesant end the colony’s policy of religious persecution and allow Quakers to worship freely.
Remarkably, none of the signers were themselves Quakers. They were demanding a right on behalf of their neighbors, which could be a risky proposition in 17th-century New Netherland.
Earlier that year, a small band of 12 Quakers had arrived from England in North America. Stuyvesant was determined to keep them out of New Netherland. The colony, which had been established by the Dutch in 1624, included what we now call New York City as well as parts of Long Island, Connecticut and New Jersey. The Reformed Dutch Church was established by law, and Stuyvesant announced steep fines on anyone who sheltered the Quakers or allowed them to hold meetings in their homes.
Several residents of Vlissingen, noting that their town charter guaranteed “the right to have and enjoy liberty of conscience,” decided that they simply were not going to comply.
Employing the spelling and syntax of the time, the dissenters took their protest directly to Stuyvesant.
“You have been pleased to send unto us a certain prohibition or command that we should not receive or entertain any of those people called Quakers because they are supposed to be, by some, seducers of the people,” they wrote. “For our part we cannot condemn them in this case, neither can we stretch out our hands against them, for out of Christ God is a consuming fire, and it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
The document, which came to be known as the Flushing Remonstrance, goes on to say, “The law of love, peace and liberty in the states extending to Jews, Turks and Egyptians, as they are considered sons of Adam, which is the glory of the outward state of Holland, soe love, peace and liberty, extending to all in Christ Jesus, condemns hatred, war and bondage. … [O]ur desire is not to offend one of his little ones, in whatsoever form, name or title hee appears in, whether Presbyterian, Independent, Baptist or Quaker, but shall be glad to see anything of God in any of them, desiring to doe unto all men as we desire all men should doe unto us, which is the true law both of Church and State; for our Saviour sayeth this is the law and the prophets.”
The letter, which appears under the signature of Edward Hart, the town clerk, was likely drafted by Tobias Feake, the community’s sheriff. It concluded with a vow of defiance: “Therefore if any of these said persons come in love unto us, we cannot in conscience lay violent hands upon them, but give them free egresse and regresse unto our Town, and houses, as God shall persuade our consciences, for we are bounde by the law of God and man to doe good unto all men and evil to noe man.”
This month marks the 365th anniversary of the Flushing Remonstrance, an early and powerful call for religious freedom. While not as well-known as some other historic religious freedom documents, the Remonstrance is a reminder of that concept’s long roots in America – indeed, they stretch back to a time before there was an America.
The Flushing Remonstrance tended to get overlooked by early U.S. historians, who, in an attempt to forge a national identity, emphasized the new country’s ties to England, said Tabetha J. Garman, a history professor at Northeast State Community College in Blountville, Tenn., and author of the 2012 book Designed for the Good of All: The Flushing Remonstrance and Religious Freedom in America. The Remonstrance, a product of Dutch New Netherland, did not fit that narrative.
In telling the story of religious freedom in America, early historians, Garman said, shifted the emphasis to the Puritans and the Pilgrims, portraying them as advocates of religious freedom when in fact they wanted that concept only for themselves and never embraced pluralism.
“The influences of the Germans, Dutch, Swedes, Africans, Spanish, Native culture and everyone else that was here were ignored in favor of an imagined hegemony,” Garman told Church & State. “That emphasis on England in the early days of our country kind of set up our history to be Anglocentric – historians that followed built on these original works, casting the English colonists as the star, and everyone else as background players.”
But although overlooked, the vision of the Flushing Remonstrance is notable for its foresight; indeed, it seems to predict the America to come. At a time when the vast majority of Americans were Christians, the Remonstrance envisions a truly pluralistic nation. Its call for encompassing the rights of “Turks and Egyptians” is a recognition of Islam, a faith that had virtually no presence in the colonial era except for its practice among some enslaved people.
Garman and other scholars believe the Flushing Remonstrance might have influenced the religious freedom provisions of the First Amendment, although there is no evidence that the founders were aware of it.
“The influence was indirect,” Garman said. “We do not know if the founders knew about it, but we do know that Quakers knew about it, and we know that several movers and shakers in the revolutionary era had Quaker roots. We can see the lingering memory of the Remonstrance in religious liberty laws around the colonies, and the idea that religion should be a private relationship, not a government imposition.”
The Quaker connection is important because they are key to the story. An often-disdained minority, Quakers held a precarious position in many colonies. Members of that denomination were often persecuted for their beliefs, which, in part due to their spontaneous, exuberant nature, were considered idiosyncratic and outside the Christian norm. In Stuyvesant’s view, they were a threat to the colony.
In 1656, just one year before the Remonstrance was issued, a man named Robert Hodgson publicly preached Quaker doctrines in New Netherland. He was arrested, tried and sentenced to two years of hard labor in a quarry after a trial conducted in Dutch, a language Hodgson didn’t speak. He was repeatedly beaten while in confinement and eventually exiled to Rhode Island.
Stuyvesant sometimes sent soldier-spies into the homes of suspected Quakers to pressure them to drop the faith. Those who would not relent were imprisoned or exiled from the colony. (Stuyvesant persecuted members of other faiths as well, including Baptists and Jews.)
Given Stuyvesant’s well-known negative view of religious tolerance, the signers of the Flushing Remonstrance must have known that their gambit was risky. Indeed, Stuyvesant’s response was swift and harsh. He essentially fired everyone in Vlissingen’s government, and all the signers of the Remonstrance were arrested.
Faced with the loss of livelihood and possible expulsion from the community, some signers of the Remonstrance recanted, sort of. They agreed to sign statements admitting that the Remonstrance had offended Stuyvesant, but they didn’t disavow its tenets. In fact, many of them continued to help Quakers, and some even later converted to that faith (today known formally as the Society of Friends).
“Their recanting is akin to a non-apology apology,” asserted Garman. “Essentially, they said they were very sorry they ticked Stuyvesant and/or Stuyvesant’s government off, but they did not renounce the content of the Remonstrance. They apologized for thinking they could write it without punishment.”
Ringleaders Hart and Feake were imprisoned and put on starvation rations. Hart, who was in poor health, was released, although he was threatened with banishment. A few weeks later, Feake also caved. He was pardoned but had to pay a fine and was barred from holding public office.
But Stuyvesant wasn’t done yet. Three months after receiving the Remonstrance, he proclaimed a public Day of Prayer, in part calling on the colony to repent from the “sin” of religious tolerance.
Some residents of New Netherland were not cowed and continued to allow Quakers to meet in their homes. A man named John Bowne was arrested in 1662 and charged with harboring Quakers. He was banished back to Holland. Bowne’s house in Flushing, built in 1661, still stands and is operated as a museum today.
In 1664, New Netherland passed to English control after a brief military conflict. Stuyvesant, who was never a popular ruler, returned to Holland the following year but came back to the colony in 1667, where he lived in retirement on a farm.
The English rulers of New Netherland, now christened New York, adopted a more open policy toward religious freedom. In 1682, Roman Catholic King James II appointed Thomas Dongan, an Irish Catholic, governor of New York and instructed him to “permit all persons of what Religion soever quietly to inhabit within your Government without giving them any disturbance or disquiet whatsoever for or by reason of their differing Opinions in matters of Religion, Provided they give no disturbance to ye public peace, nor do molest or disquiet others in ye free Exercise of their Religion.”
The diverse colony included Protestants of many types including Quakers, but also Roman Catholics and Jews. All were free to worship as they saw fit.
And what of the Flushing Remonstrance itself? The original letter delivered to Stuyvesant has been lost (one can’t help but wonder if he tore it up in a rage), but a contemporary copy was made. This existing copy is kept in the New York State Archives in Albany. In 1911, a fire there damaged the Remonstrance, but it remains essentially intact. The document is occasionally put on public display. The Queens Library exhibited it from Dec. 5, 2007, to Jan. 7, 2008, and the document was made available at the Federal Hall National Memorial in New York City for about three months in 2018.
In a media statement, the National Park Service observed, “Preservation experts from the New York State Archives in Albany who accompanied the Remonstrance during its journey to [Federal Hall], immediately began installing an exhibition of the document, an important early recorded defense of the freedom to worship that has been called the religious Magna Carta of the New World.”
In 1957, the U.S. Postal Service honored the 300th anniversary of the Flushing Remonstrance with a three-cent stamp.
There are occasional attempts in New York to incorporate the Flushing Remonstrance into history classes, but in much of the country, the document is hardly a household name. In 2008 Russell Shorto, who has written extensively about the history of the Dutch in New York, called the Remonstrance “a document that gets very little respect.”
Shorto, writing in New York Archives Magazine, called the Flushing Remonstrance a “remarkable piece of paper” that is “an outright statement of religious freedom, and it is a watershed.”
Added Shorto, “Many places in the world today still have state religions and bar faiths other than the approved one. When Americans want to tally the things they value most in their society, the things to be proud of and hold close, the Flushing Remonstrance – by whatever name – should be high on their list.”
“It expresses a true concept of religious liberty in a way that is often misconstrued today,” she said. “It also introduces a perspective that was deliberately erased from our history – by including it in history classes, we are putting it back in its proper place. It also challenges the mythology we have created and combats the idea that all American colonists were one religion of the other. And honestly, it just makes more sense than the myth: The Pilgrims were not tolerant, nice people – but the people of Flushing were.”
Concluded Garman, “It is simply a much more accurate depiction of those who truly sought and fought for religious freedom. Why should we give the Pilgrims credit for creating something they would have hated? They left Holland because of religious diversity. The Pilgrims sought isolation, not freedom, and they did nothing to encourage religious diversity once they arrived. Credit where credit is due!”