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The best Christmas gift ever: The Flushing Remonstrance

Part 3 of series: NYC”s greatest Christmas gift to the nation: religious liberty

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Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library. "A particular account of the late and present great sufferings and oppressions of the people called Quakers ... [title page]." The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1680.

The Flushing community defied the order and sheltered some of the Quakers and organized a rebuke of the Director-General.

The confrontation came to a head during the Dutch Christmas festivities. The Director-General’s house was ablaze with candles and shook with merriment. On December 9th, children received gifts, followed by three weeks of celebration. Then, on December 27, 1657, a short communication for Stuyvesant arrived from Flushing. It was like getting a sour pickle after the sweets had already been served.

Their statement to Stuyvesant was called “The Flushing Remonstrance.” It is one of the most unique religious documents in the history of the United States, because it was published so early and combined elements that are also found in the U.S. Constitution. The Christmas card was signed by thirty-one Flushing townspeople. Four only could sign with their mark. But the message was clear.

Although it was surely not seen as gift by Stuyvesant, in fact it was Christmas gift from what would become New York City to the United States. The Flushing townspeople thought that the birth of Christ into the world was about the earthly application of the principle of “blessing your enemies” with freedom of religion. As the revelers beat their drums, fired their guns, danced and drank for the holidays, the remonstrance came as an unexpected gift of joy by outlining a Christian theory of religious liberty with the three main elements that also filled the First Amendment of the United States Constitution: freedom of conscience, freedom to speak one’s faith, and freedom of religious assembly.

 

The birth of Christmas. Dutch etching by Romeyne de Hooghe, from his book Hieroglyphica, Amsterdam: 1735. Graphic by A Journey through NYC religions

 

The group called their statement a “remonstrance” because it was a rebuke to Stuyvesant for his running roughshod over their legal protections that were guaranteed in their agreement with the Dutch West India Company. Stuyvesant’s actions were a serious grievance that also violated God’s teaching. So, the document was also a prophetic rebuke, similar to what the Quakers called “speaking Scripture.”

The standard practice for “speaking Scripture” was to string together well-known verses of the Bible into a cohesive narrative or logical statement. In the Remonstrance, there are no specific Scriptures cited by book, chapter, and verse. However, many of the phrases are identical to well-known Bible verses that were part of the everyday life of the signers.  Flushing was a town with a spiritual ambience made palpable through proverbs, scriptural verses, prophetic utterances, and various rituals like baptism. The journey of their lives made sense to Flushing residents as a journey through spiritual landmarks, symbols, and practices. A few years later, John Bunyan captured this sense of spiritual living in small town England in his wildly popular The Pilgrim’s Progress. The landscape, the journey, the dialogue and events were framed by a common sense use of scriptural and local understandings.

There are appeals to “the law” and “the Law giver,” what “our Saviour sayeth,”, “the law and the prophets” (.i.e., the Old Testament), and the “law of God.” Also, the writers were neither Deists nor non-Trinitarian Christians. They emphasize that Jesus Christ is God. The signers of the Remonstrance also appealed to logic, human law given by the States General in Holland, and the Flushing Town Charter.

They wrote, “The consciences of men ought to be free and unshackled so long as they continue moderate, peaceable, inoffensive, and not hostile to the government. Such have been the maxims of prudence and tolerance by which the magistrates of the city (Amsterdam) have been governed…”

The wording of this plea was concurrent with contemporary theological and legal arguments in  Amsterdam as well as in England. There is a brief mention about “the law written in his [the civil ruler’s] heart” that reflects the Biblical creation theology about conscience. The idea that god has written His law in each person’s heart was spun by some philosophers into a more secular natural law idea. But the Flushing residents don’t refer to secular rationalists like Rene Descartes, who was active in Belgium, or other Enlightenment thinkers. The remonstrants’ argument seems more like the theology of Simon Episcopius. He claimed that a state grows stronger when it allows freedom of worship and intellectual debate. Religious freedom creates debate that restrains bad ideas of Christian supremacy and intolerance as well as sparking new intellectual innovations.

Although Stuyvesant didn’t like the purpose to which Scripture was being used, he would have recognized the format and the fact that it was putting together a different worldview and course of action as endorsed by God. He wanted to provide a narrower, more controlled path for the community that respected foremost his authority. Just after his arrival, Stuyvesant made clear what his first principle was going to be: the respect of his authority. He cited three Scriptures as defining his approach:

“Thou shalt not revile the gods, nor curse the ruler of thy people.” (Exodus 22:28)

“Curse not the King, no not even thy thoughts.” (Ecclesiastes 10:20)

“Be subject to the higher powers.” (Romans 13:1)

Stuyvesant arrested the suspected ringleaders behind the Remonstrance, fined them, and removed Flushing officials from their offices. The fight continued for several years. One local leader, John Bowne, who had become a Quaker in 1657, had escaped arrest because he was abroad at the time. But after he came back and built a home, he defiantly opened it up for Quaker meetings, which lead to his arrest in 1662 and banishment. He and Stuyvesant took their cases to Holland.

It turned out that the Dutch West India Company, which itself had different types of Christians on its board, wanted a looser social construction for its colony. On April 16, 1663, the company directors ordered Stuyvesant to cease his persecution so that God would continue blessing the colony with more settlers. Their missive read, “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 offence to his neighbors and does not oppose the government.”

 


 

Here are the sections of The Flushing Remonstrance with their scriptural references (using the King James Bible) and a few comments. This listing uses some of the matchups that R. Ward Harrington made in an article in Quaker History, Fall 1993, 82, 2, 104-109.

 

 
Flushing Remonstrance

Biblical References

Comments
“Quakers…are supposed to be…               seducers of the people”

Mark 13:22; I Timothy 4:1;

I John 2:26; Matthew 24:4; Revelation 12:39

 

What is the right balance between social unity and

individualism?

 

 

“we cannot…stretch out our hands against them” Luke 22:52-53. Does it make sense to treat others like the religious and political authorities treated Jesus by killing him?

 

“for out of Christ God is a consuming fire” Hebrews 12:29 Only God has the power to make ultimate judgements & give forgiveness. Humans shouldn’t arrogate this power to themselves.

 

“fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God”

Hebrews 10:31

 

Persecutors are in danger of Hell fire.
“Wee desire therefore in this case not to judge least we be judged, neither to condemn least we be condemned”

Luke 6:37

Sebastian Castello, a much quoted theologian at the time, put it this way: “Many will be damned on

Judgment Day because they killed innocent people, but nobody will be damned because he killed nobody.”

“rather let every man stand or fall to his                own master.”

Romans 14:4

This verse has had special meaning for African Americans in Flushing. In Garnette Cadogan’s exploratory walk through Flushing, he found only one person in Flushing that knew about the Flushing Remonstrance. A deacon of the Macedonia AME Church, the first African American church founded in Flushing, knew about the remonstrance and found it personally meaningful. “He saw in himself – part African American, part Native American – the story of the place…For the deacon the significance of the Remonstrance wasn’t whether it bequeathed the diversity he celebrated. It was a model how that diversity could be preserved: a group of men… stood up to defend the religious freedom of people with whom they disagreed, refusing to demonize them.” From Nonstop Metropolis, 2016.

 

“Wee are bounde by the law to do good               to all men, especially to those of the household of faith.”

Galatians 6:10

 

Do good to all but don’t forget your own family.

 

“yet when death and the Law assault us, if wee have our advocate to seeke, who shall plead for us in this case of conscience betwixt god and our own souls; the powers of this world can neither attach us, neither excuse us”

John 2:1 ?

 

God is the ultimate judge. The Holy Spirit is our lawyer.
“if God justifye who can condemn and if God condemn there is none can justifye”

Romans 8:33-34

 

Christ took the penalty for wrong-doing on himself, so that we can be forgiven & forgiving.

 

“therefore that of God will stand, and that which is of man will come to nothing”

Acts 5:38-39

 

Don’t fight against God’s work that you don’t understand. “And however in civil things we may be servants to men, yet in divine and spiritual things, the poorest peasant must disdain the service of the highest Prince.

 

Be you not the servants of men, I Corinthians 14:11” – Roger Williams, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, 1644.

 

“so he hath made his ministers a savor of Life unto life and a savor of death unto death”

2 Corinthians 2:16

 

Stuyvesant, do we meet the smell test of a Christian?

“For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one, we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life.”

“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”

Matthew 18:7; Luke 17:1

 

How will this oppressive policy look to the children?
“desiring to doe unto all men as we desire all men should doe unto  us, which is the true law of both Church and State, for our Saviour sayeth this is the law and the prophets”

Matthew 7:12

The Golden Rule. “…our city thrives not only despite our differences, but because of them. And to affirm with W.H. Auden, ‘You shall love your crooked neighbor/With your crooked heart.” – Garnette Cadogan in Nonstop Metropolis, 2016.

 

“we are bounde by the law of God and man to Doe good unto all men and evil to noe man.”

Galatians 6:10

Do good and do no evil is better than do no evil.

 

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  • Hi John, Thanks for the good eye.

    Of course, I didn't write that Bowne signed the remonstrance. Actually, I thought I was clear that he was out of the country at that time. My phrasing about Stuyvesant was not intended to say the Director-General physically went to Amsterdam to appeal his case. Probably should have written that both appealed to Amsterdam. Bowne moved into his house in 1661 and was arrested in 1662.

    Thanks for the quick eye and all you have done for Flushing!

  • John Bowne was not one of the original signers of the Remonstrance and was not arrested in 1861. Only Bowne went to the Netherlands to appeal his case.

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