Walking down Bowne Street in Flushing, Queens, you may see a most interesting sign. “Bowne House; Built in 1661,” it reads, “A National Shrine to Religious Freedom.” Flushing is known for many things—the New York Mets, for example, or its Chinatown. It is not, however, known for being the location of one of the first debates over religious conscience and tolerance in the American colonies.
This past December 27th marked the 356th anniversary of the Flushing Remonstrance, a petition to the Director-General of New Netherland, Peter Stuyvesant, regarding a law against harboring Quakers. Written by Edward Hart, the town clerk of Flushing (the Anglicized form of the Dutch Vlissingen), and signed by 30 of his fellow townsmen, the Remonstrance argued that “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.” The United States has long been known as a nation with a history of religious liberty; yet the Remonstrance, which expressed a vision remarkable for its time, remains virtually unknown outside of Flushing—and even within. But the compelling and unique story of the Flushing Remonstrance deserves to be rescued from the dustbin of history.
The storybook narrative of religious freedom in the United States goes something like this: since the Pilgrims and Puritans arrived in search of religious freedom, America has been a beacon—a shining “city upon a hill”—for others around the world searching for the same. But, as with any tidy version of history, the reality was more awkward, bloody, and complicated. The Pilgrims and Puritans who came to Massachusetts did indeed come to escape religious persecution in England. But they came to establish settlements founded on their own religious visions; those with unorthodox views, like Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, would be exiled for their religious beliefs. The arrival of another radical religious group in 1656 would only intensify the crackdown on religious dissent across the English colonies: the Quakers.
Known today for their pacifist and quietist ways, Quakers had an altogether different reputation in the seventeenth century: belligerent and boisterous rabble-rousers. Fueled by evangelical zeal, and asserting radical ideas for the time, the Quakers were aggressive proselytizers. As a result, they faced violent persecution in England and, to a lesser extent, in the Netherlands, where many migrated. News of their beliefs (e.g. equality for women, refusal to swear oaths, etc.) and their tactics (e.g. preaching loudly and publicly, disrupting worship services, etc.) reached the colonies before the Quakers did. Connecticut, in fact, banned Quakers in October 1656—prior to any Quakers having ever reached the colony. Other English colonies followed suit (Massachusetts would be particularly harsh on the Quakers), with the sole exception of Rhode Island—though Roger Williams, its founder, spent much of his later life debating Quakers and being frustrated with their refusal to adhere to the “sober rules of civility and humanity.” Quaker missionaries arrived in New Netherland in 1657. Following the sentencing of one of their number, Robert Hodgson, for public preaching, Peter Stuyvesant passed a law that penalized anyone who housed a Quaker, and at the same time incentivized locals to become informants of Quaker activities. The law had gone into effect by December 1657, when local men John Tilton and Henry Townsend were convicted under it.
In the seventeenth century, the Dutch Republic was considered a land of religious diversity and tolerance, but religious intolerance and inequality persisted. It was a state where the Dutch Reformed Church enjoyed privileged status, and the Quakers endured persecution, something other religious minorities experienced when they were too open and public about their beliefs. (Catholicism, of course, was simply banned; not only was the Dutch Republic predominantly Protestant, but Catholicism was also the religion of the hated Spanish, from whom the Dutch revolted in the Eighty Years’ War.) Accordingly, when Flushing was founded by English colonists under the auspices of the Dutch West India Company (WIC), the town charter allowed for “liberty of conscience,” but mandated that the Dutch Reformed Church be the only place of public worship, and called for town representatives to be members of the Dutch Reformed Church. New Netherland’s ability to promote and enforce these rules was limited by personnel and politics, but in Peter Stuyvesant the WIC found a Director-General who took a stern approach to order and stability.
The anti-Quaker ordinance was not the first time Stuyvesant sought to promote religious orthodoxy; the son of a Calvinist minister, he took a heavy-handed approach against non-Reformed colonists, and not only vigorously enforced existing religious law, but at various points also prevented Lutherans from forming a church, and tried to block Jews from settling in New Amsterdam. The new anti-Quaker legislation and the conviction of a Flushing resident (Henry Townsend) crystallized opposition to Stuyvesant among the English inhabitants of Flushing. It was at this time the Remonstrance was drafted. Written by Edward Hart in discussion with his fellow signatories, the document was delivered to Stuyvesant and his council by sheriff Tobias Feake.
Given the circumstances and the era, the Flushing Remonstrance was a striking document for a variety of reasons. First, its concept of religious freedom was more generous than any at the time. Europe had been wracked by religious conflict since the Reformation; perceived wisdom across many European states, including England, was that religious uniformity was the correct path to take. Even the two contemporary documents often noted in the history of American religious freedom—the 1649 Maryland Toleration Act and the 1663 Rhode Island Royal Charter—restricted their toleration to Christians only. The Flushing Remonstrance, on the other hand, extended the “law of love, peace and liberty” to “Jews, Turks and Egyptians,” and further stated that “our desire is not to offend one of his little ones, in whatsoever form, name or title he appears in, whether Presbyterian, Independent, Baptist or Quaker, but shall be glad to see anything of God in any of them.” Not only did it advocate toleration for non-Christians, but it also implied that “Presbyterian, Independent, Baptist or Quaker” could all be valid truths from God, a testament to the theological open-mindedness of the signatories. It should be noted, however, that Catholics are mentioned nowhere in the document.
Second, the Flushing Remonstrance advanced the argument—a new one for the time—that persecution itself would anger God. This was an era in which it was commonly believed that religious persecution was necessary, not just for uniformity, but also because diversity and heresy provoked the wrath of God (in the form of plagues, wars, etc.)—a belief that Stuyvesant certainly subscribed to regarding the Quakers. The Flushing Remonstrance, however, argued against persecution based on the fear of God. Much of the argument was drawn from scripture, and the document itself was steeped in biblical references. Given their belief that there might be multiple possible (Protestant) truths, the signatories “desire therefore in this case not to judge least we be judged, neither to condemn least we be condemned.”
Third, the Flushing Remonstrance presents a unique instance of Dutch religious rule and tolerance interpreted through English Protestant lenses. People across Europe had long used the Netherlands as an example, whether positively or negatively, of religious tolerance. English Protestants were no exception; proponents of religious toleration frequently drew on an exaggerated notion of the Dutch Republic in their arguments. So, when the English Protestants of Flushing saw the first-hand effects of the anti-Quaker law, it was apparent to them that it did not meet their expectations of a land that promised liberty, which they called “the glory of the outward state of Holland,” in a town where “liberty of conscience” was granted “according to the patent and charter of our Towne.” Thus the English settlers drew on what they interpreted to be their rights under Dutch rule to draw up the document, a situation that could only occur in New Netherland.
Finally, the Remonstrance was a particularly courageous act. Although many of the signatories were sympathetic to the Quakers (e.g. Henry Townsend), none were Quakers at the time. A few would later convert, but the majority of the inhabitants in Flushing (and other English settlements in the region) were Calvinists; many were immigrants from the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony. Governed by a Director-General not known for his religious leniency, the signatories, nevertheless, directly and openly lodged their complaint. Unlike the Maryland Toleration Act or the Rhode Island Charter, the Remonstrance was not written by the persecuted, but by those who wanted to help them.
For their efforts, Feake and the other magistrates who signed the document were all imprisoned, citing their failure to uphold the law that permitted the public exercise only of the Reformed faith. Ultimately, they recanted their stances regarding the anti-Quaker law, and were fined accordingly. After seeing firsthand the corrupting influence of the Quakers, Stuyvesant set out to restore order by requiring all magistrates to know Dutch, and levying a tax on the inhabitants for a Reformed minister. Additionally, Stuyvesant proclaimed a day of prayer in response to the Quaker encroachment, calling the Quakers “a new unheard of, abominable Heresy…seeking to seduce many, yea, were it possible, even the true believers—all signs of God’s just judgment and certain forerunners of severe punishment.”
But the issue of the Quakers in the New Netherland was not quite over. In September 1662, Peter Stuyvesant heard of one John Bowne, a migrant from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who, along with his wife, had recently converted to Quakerism. Defying Stuyvesant’s anti-Quaker laws, Bowne had been hosting Quaker meetings in his newly constructed house. Accordingly, he was arrested and convicted, but Bowne refused to accept his guilt or pay the fine. As a result, Bowne was banished from New Netherland, and went to stand trial before the directors of WIC in Amsterdam. In April 1663, WIC issued its verdict, which allowed Bowne to return to Flushing with a clean slate as long as he promised adherence to the law; Bowne eventually returned in 1664, and his house continued to serve as a meeting place for local Quakers. In 1694, he built the Flushing Quaker Meeting House, the oldest house of worship in New York City, which like the Bowne House, still stands today.
The directors of WIC also sent a letter to Stuyvesant, soon after the trial, stating that they:
heartily desire, that these and other sectarians remained away from there, yet as they do not, we doubt very much whether we can proceed against them rigorously without diminishing the population and stopping immigration, which must be favored at so tender a stage of the country’s existence. You may therefore shut your eyes, at least not force people’s consciences, but allow everyone to have his own belief, as long as he behaves quietly and legally, gives no offense to his neighbors and does not oppose the government.
Although the directors agreed with Stuyvesant in the righteousness of the Reformed faith, this admonishment underscored the mercantile nature of the WIC (and the Netherlands in general): Religious persecution is bad for business, so you can turn a blind eye to things unless the transgressions are public or rebellious. Whether this would have had any long-term impact on Stuyvesant’s religious policies will never be known; New Netherland became New York in 1664. The Articles of Capitulation that Stuyvesant signed did include a particularly notable clause, which guaranteed Dutch colonists “the liberty of their consciences in Divine Worship and church discipline.”
What, then, is the ultimate legacy of the Flushing Remonstrance? Especially since its 300th anniversary, there has been some literature that considers it a precursor to the Bill of Rights and instrumental in the development of religious freedom in the United States. But, besides several mentions in the Dutch records, the document is almost completely absent from any sources from the time, and appears to have had no impact on Stuyvesant’s religious policy. And any attempts to situate the document in modern debates over religious freedom and toleration are problematic, given the very different circumstances under which the signatories worked 350 years ago. But none of that should take away from the boldness of its signatories and the strength of its message. The document, and the events surrounding it, provide an important window into the minds of these seventeenth-century Flushing inhabitants.
The Flushing Remonstrance was an attempt to resolve tensions between different peoples and different faiths, all with varying understandings of conscience, governance, and religion—a negotiation rare at the time, but common in many places today. It is a coincidence, but a fitting one, that Flushing, and Queens in general, came to be one of the most religiously pluralistic areas in the United States. Today, just a few blocks from where the Bowne House stands, you can see places of worship for Calvinists, Jews, Lutherans, Muslims, Quakers, and, yes—even Catholics.