Flushing Remonstrance Gave Us Religious Freedom
On Dec. 27, 1657, 30 English settlers in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam in a letter told Peter Stuyvesant, the colony's governor, that they could not in conscience "lay violent hands" on members of the religious sect known as the Quakers. Although Stuyvesant under the "patroon" policy of the colony's establishing body, the Dutch West India Company, had extensive powers as governor and imprisoned four of the signers of the document, known as the Flushing Remonstrance, the spirit of religious tolerance continued to grow in the colony. Five years later, Stuyvesant exiled another English settler in the colony, one John Bowne, to Holland for daring to allow Quakers to hold their religious services, known as meetings, in his house. Bowne appealed to the board of directors of the Dutch West India Company, citing the guarantees of religious liberty contained in the Flushing patent of 1645 granted by then Governor William Kieft. The directors came down firmly on Bowne's side, advising Stuyvesant in 1663 to end religious persecution in the colony. One year later, in 1664, New Amsterdam fell to British control and the British maintained religious tolerance.
The Flushing Remonstrance remained in the American consciousness. One hundred thirty years after the Flushing 30 called for acceptance of other forms of religion- including Catholics, Lutherans, Quakers and "Jews, Turks and Egyptians, as they are considered sons of Adam" - the drafters of the United States Constitution in Article VI specified that no religious test could serve as a qualification for office. They went further in the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercising thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
It is difficult for contemporary Americans who have always known an atmosphere of religious tolerance to understand the significance of the Flushing Remonstrance and the First Amendment. Not long before the British took over the colony of New Amsterdam, England had been wracked by a bitter civil war between Cavaliers, who wanted to keep the Church of England under royal control, and Oliver Cromwell's Puritan Roundheads, who sought to impose their own kind of worship on the country. The Middle Ages and the Renaissance saw those considered heretics burned at the stake, often after undergoing unspeakable tortures by those who considered their version of a just and loving God the only acceptable path of faith. Even today in some parts of the world, there are those who believe that theirs is the only true religion and anyone outside their particular circle does not deserve to exist. Those first forays into religious tolerance exercised by the Dutch at home and in their colonies gave rise to the Remonstrance and the guarantees of freedom of religion written into the United States constitution. Somewhere the Flushing 30 are smiling.
The Queens Borough President's office and the Bowne House Historical Society are searching for descendants of the Flushing 30. On Dec. 27, 2007, the 350th anniversary of the signing of the Remonstrance, the document will be brought down from Albany, where it has been in storage, and a celebration will be held to mark the occasion with as many descendants of the signers as possible present- between 30 and 50 people have come forward so far. We hope that many more will join them. We hope, too, that wherever we and our readers find ourselves on Thursday, Dec. 27 2007, we will take a few moments to salute the Flushing 30. We can worship as we choose- or not at all- because they opened the door. Honor to their memory. May their spirit prevail.