A U.S. postage stamp commemorating religious freedom and the 300th anniversity of the Flushing Remonstrance (1957)
The struggle for religious tolerance in America pre-dates both the Bill of Rights and Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom (1786). With due respect to the foundation laid by my paternal 10th g-grandfather, Roger Williams (1603-1683) and his early experiment with “liberty of conscience” in Rhode Island, in many ways the USA owes its enduring strength to a little-known document that was signed by 30 ordinary citizens on 27 Dec 1657, including some ancestors on my mother’s side: William Thorne (1617-1657), my 9th g-grandfather and William’s son William, my 8th g-grand uncle; also by Nicholas Pearsall (1613-1690), my 9th g-grandfather, discussed under the heading of Thomas Pearsall (1586-1667). William Thorne’s second son, John (my 8th g-grandfather), married Mary Pearsall, the daughter of Nicholas. The document they signed has come to be known as “The Flushing Remonstrance”, and it originated not in the British-American colonies, but in the Dutch settlements in the region of modern-day New York City, which were the most tolerant in the New World.
[this post is a based on a shortened version of an op-ed in the New York Times published 27 Dec 2007, the 350th anniversary of the Remonstrance].
When the Dutch West India Company set up a trading post at the southern tip of Manhattan in 1625, the purpose was to make money, not to save souls. Because the founding idea was trade, the directors of the firm took pains to ensure that all were welcome. But religious tolerance had its limits, even in New Amsterdam, especially when it came to Quakers, who then had a reputation as obnoxious rabble-rousers. In 1656, Governor Peter Stuyvesant passed an Ordinance declaring that any person entertaining a Quaker Meeting House for a single night was to be fined, and that vessels bringing any Quaker into the province would be confiscated. Sentiment grew in Flushing to oppose this infringement upon the right to enjoy liberty of conscience. After the edict was released, Edward Hart, the town clerk in what is now Flushing, Queens, gathered his fellow citizens on 27 Dec 1657 and wrote a petition to Stuyvesant, citing the Flushing town charter of 1645, which promised liberty of conscience. As Hart and his fellow petitioners so elegantly wrote, “We desire therefore in this case not to judge least we be judged, neither to condemn least we be condemned, but rather let every man stand and fall to his own master.” Their logic was impeccable: “the power of this world can neither attack us, neither excuse us, for if God justify, who can condemn, and if God condemn, there is none can justify.”
The Flushing Remonstrance was remarkable for four reasons:
FIRST, it articulated a fundamental right that is as basic to American freedom as any we hold dear.
SECOND, the authors backed up their words with actions — they did not whisper their opposition among themselves or protest in silence. Rather, they signed the document and sent it to the most powerful official in the colony, a man not known for toleration or for an easygoing or gracious manner.
THIRD, they stood up for others: none of the signers was himself a Quaker. The Flushing citizens were articulating a principle that was of little discernible benefit to themselves.
And FOURTH, like all great documents, the language of the remonstrance is as beautiful as the sentiments they express. “If any of these said persons come in love unto us, we cannot in conscience lay violent hands upon them, but give them free egress and regress unto our town,” its authors wrote in the conclusion. “For we are bound by the law of God and man to do good unto all men and evil to no man.”
So what was the result? As expected, Stuyvesant arrested Hart and the other official who presented the document to him, and he jailed two other magistrates who had signed the petition. Stuyvesant also forced the other signatories to recant, but the door had been opened and Quakers continued to meet in Flushing. When Stuyvesant arrested a farmer, John Bowne, in 1662 for holding illegal meetings in his home, Bowne was then banished from the colony. He immediately went to Amsterdam to plead for the Quakers. There he won his case. Though the Dutch West India Company called Quakerism an “abominable religion,” it nevertheless overruled Stuyvesant in 1663 and ordered him to “allow everyone to have his own belief.” Thus did religious toleration become the law of the colony.
The Bowne house is still standing. And within a few blocks of it a modern visitor to Flushing will encounter a Quaker meeting house, a Dutch Reformed church, an Episcopal church, a Catholic church, a synagogue, a Hindu temple and a mosque. All coexist in peace, appropriately in the most diverse neighborhood in the most diverse borough (Queens) in the most diverse city on the planet.
The John Bowne House is the oldest in Queens and was built in 1661. The residence is the famous site of a 1662 quaker meeting that led to its owner’s arrest. Historical documents also hint that the home might have been a stop on the Underground Railroad in the years leading up to the American Civil War. The structure is now operated as a museum and houses nearly 5,000 artifacts that belonged to the Bowne family.
The original Remonstrance manuscript is kept in the Manuscripts and History Section of the New York State Library in Albany, where it was damaged in a 1911 fire in the Capitol archives.
A page from the original Remonstrance of Flushing (1657)
If you are interested in reading the full text of the Remonstrance or additional information, follow — > this link.
The following resource lists a variety of books, articles, and reference sources, which offer a wealth of information about the Flushing Remonstrance, the Bowne family and the historic 1661 Bowne House, the history of Flushing, and insight into the life of Dutch New York: 350th Anniversary of the Flushing Remonstrance: Bibliography and Research Sources (Flushing, New York: The Bowne House Historical Society) 2007.