|A Year of Colonial American Frontier History|
A bold petition by thirty men addressed to Dutch Director-General of New Amsterdam Peter Stuyvesant pleaded for religious tolerance from the autocratic leader. The Flushing Remonstrance was an early document that touted the idea of religious freedom, a novel idea in the colonies at the time. The men issued the remonstrance specifically in response to Stuyvesant's ban on Quakers, but it mentions other religions as well.
Stuyvesant's Ban on Quakers
The Quakers had garnered a reputation for social non-conformity. They interrupted the religious services of other faiths, proteolysed aggressively and espoused radical ideas. They found themselves unwelcome and persecuted in England and banned in Boston. Many colonies, hearing of their reputation, banned them before any even arrived. In 1657, a Quaker missionary named Robert Hodgson arrived in New Amsterdam and began preaching in public. However, New Amsterdam had a reputation as a religiously tolerant place. However, Hodgson pushed Stuyvesant too far, and the Director-General had him arrested. After Hodgson's arrest, Stuyvesant wrote a decree that fined anyone that sheltered a Quaker and encouraged the populace to report any Quaker activities in the colony.
English settlers, using a charter issued by Dutch Governor Willem Kieft, occupied the area known originally as Vlissengen. Pronounced as "Vlishing," the name has been anglicized in modern times to "Flushing." The town's charter allowed some degree of religious tolerance, but the only religion that could meet publicly was the Dutch Reformed Church. All others had to meet in private homes. The charted also required that all representatives in the town be members of the Dutch Reformed Church. Stuyvesant was a strict Dutch Reformer. He had worked in the past to prevent Lutherans from constructing a church and tried to prevent the entry of Jews into the colony. The decree met with differing opinions in the English areas of New Amsterdam. England at the time was embroiled in religious controversy and this ferment had reached the New World. Some colonists opposed Stuyvesant's decree while others supported it. During 1657, the policy caused some arrests not only of Quakers but of Baptists, also. A growing disquiet engulfed the community.
The Flushing Remonstrance
Thirty English residents of Flushing gathered to sign the document that historians now call the Flushing Remonstrance. None of the signers were Quakers, but most sympathized with them. The petition pleaded for religious toleration. The closing lines of the document are:
"The law of love, peace and liberty in the states extending to Jews, Turks and Egyptians, as they are considered sonnes 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. And because our Saviour sayeth it is impossible but that offences will come, but woe unto him by whom they cometh, our 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.
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. And this is according to the patent and charter of our Towne, given unto us in the name of the States General, which we are not willing to infringe, and violate, but shall houlde to our patent and shall remaine, your humble subjects, the inhabitants of Vlishing."
Stuyvesant's response was harsh. He immediately closed the governing council of Vlishing down. He chose replacements for the men that had made up the council. These men he arrested and fined. All the signers ultimately recanted. The Director-General doubled down on his stance by levying a tax on the inhabitants whose revenue went to finance the salary of a Reformed minister. He also required that all the town's magistrates speak Dutch.
Precursor to the First Amendment?
Many consider the Flushing Remonstrance a Precursor to the First Amendment. Others disagree, stating that it had no impact on Stuyvesant's religious policies and it appears in no other sources the Framers used. So, while the controversy endures, the fact that the document was a remarkable call for religious toleration for its time endures also.
A Year of Colonial American Frontier History
© Paul Wonning 2016