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The meaning of NYC’s Christmas gift of religious liberty to the nation

Part 4 of the series “NYC’s greatest Christmas gift to the nation: religious liberty”

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Sympathy for the outsider is hard won. Clique ostracizing a new girl, a Quaker, in New York City, 19th century.
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. "Clique ostracizing a new girl, New York City, 19th century." The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1899.

 

This was a time of great debates and some conflict on how Protestants could unite to consolidate their victory and to reach some sort of modus vivendi with Catholics and people of other faiths as Protestant explorers went to all parts of the globe. Were other peoples of other faiths made in the image of God? Could they give birth to creative ideas consistent with Scriptural revelations? Might they be potential brothers and sisters in Christ?

The Remonstrance was important for being one of the founding documents of “sympathetic objectivity.” The writers didn’t just say, tolerate people of other religions. Rather, the argument was that the Christians of New Netherland should consider that people of other faiths might have something valuable to contribute to Christians.

Toleration is a thin relationship with someone else. It is the minimal precondition for being in the same room with each other. But one doesn’t have to say hello and could even stand on the other side of the room, never seeing someone with a different, objectionable faith.

The Remonstrance pointedly reminded the Director General that God’s law is “to do good unto all men.” Regardless of nationality, race, or religion, all “are considered Sons of Adam.” The writers choose to mention specific groups with whom Europeans had a disagreement as representative of all groups: Jews (at least those who rejected the divinity of Christ); Turks (Muslim invaders of Europe at that very moment); and Egyptians (perhaps meaning polytheists like those found in ancient Egypt). Scholar Evan Haefeli points out the similarity of this formulation to the one found in 1612 and 1614 English Baptist tracts on behalf of granting religious  liberty to “Jews, Turks, and pagans as long as they are peaceable, no malefactors.”

A Quaker Trial. Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

 

The document does not mention religious freedom for Catholics or atheists. The omission of Catholics may be due the fact that Protestants were in the midst of fighting a desperate battle with Catholics. No religious party at the time trusted the atheists, whom were considered inclined toward moral depravity.

The writers of the Remonstrance rooted their doctrine in Jesus’ admonition, “Bless your enemies.” He did not say “tolerate your enemies.” His word about inter-religious relations was much, much stronger: “bless” means generously giving favor and aid to a person of another religion. But the Remonstrance went even further.

If “blessing” meant just giving to your enemy, it could easily imply that the Christian has superiority because he or she has something to give the “poor, benighted” person of another religion or no religion. Indeed, the giving can’t be mutual as the “Other” has needs, not resources.

The public-spirited Christians of Flushing pointed out that God may be giving to the non-Christian knowledge, wisdom, and material goods that are of inestimable value to the people of Christian faith. The writers say, look for the good in any man of any faith, “whether Presbyterian, Independent, Baptist, or Quaker” (these being some of the warring factions in England).

Jesus’ golden rule actually states that the relationship between neighbors of any faith should be mutually a blessing. He said, “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” This is “the true law” for the state and church of New Netherlands “for our Savior sayeth this is the law and the prophets.”

The Flushing townspeople wrote that it would be disheartening to good people if we reject the good given by those of another faith.

In the long run, toleration doesn’t work. It is an emotionally grudging social relation. Its main message is put up with someone if you have to but not a moment longer.

Neither is sympathy enough. It is much better, of course, because you let yourself be moved by the needs and hurts of another person, even if not of the same faith. However, this is a position of condescension if sustained over time. Sympathy is comforting in the hospital but feels a little jarring if it is a permanent attitude towards a person.

Empathy is a step closer to another person, because its practice means that you feel another’s pain and see the world as they see it. Empathy brings greater understanding, but its prolonged practice is impossible unless you are willing to go the whole way by discarding your own mind and convictions in favor of the other person’s. At some point, a religious believer or anyone with mature convictions will see the limits of mere “understanding.”

The biggest step for sustained social harmony among people of different faiths is sympathetic objectivity. This is when sympathy and empathy is rewarded by discovering the usefulness and goodness of ideas, practices and things generated by another religion. This is Jesus’ hope: look at the good you hope others will give to you and give back your good.

Notice, the saying of Jesus that forms a core argument in the Remonstrance makes no sense as a simple argument for evangelizing and converting another to Jesus or to Mohammed or to Buddha or to Vishnu. Religious persuasion is a good thing in a community. But most will not be persuaded. So, how do you live with each other having two minds?

The Flushing townsfolk hit upon a capstone of the democratic good: we need to look for the ideas, the interesting practices, or objects produced by religious believers different from ourselves. These contributions could help all of us live better lives and practice our faith in more fruitful ways.

The beneficial results of religious faith, of course, need to be tested to see if they really work. This is the “objectivity” that should come after you have established a sympathetic, empathetic fruitful relation with a person of another faith. If some church, temple, or the like has an effective youth program, its discovery and publicity could provide an exemplar for the entire community. However, if there are only two youth attending, well, maybe the religious group has optimism and enthusiasm but not yet results.

Sympathetic objectivity is when you can say, I like the Sufi music, and maybe, we should adopt the tunes into hymns for our own faith with a hat-tip to our religious neighbors.  Or, you might like kosher cooking and want to take a few lessons in doing it. When you can see the benefits that you get from someone else’s faith, then you will be able to bless them all day long.

For us today, that is what the Christmas gift of the Flushing Remonstrance is all about: let the Presbyterians, Quakers, Baptist, Lutherans, Muslims, Jews and people of other faiths come to New Amsterdam/New York City because whether they know or not they are bearing the gifts of God to the city.  Persecution angers God; religious diversity brings God’s blessing because it offers the believers corrections and good things that they need.

The house of John Bowne, who fought for religious liberty in the 1660s. His house was used for Quaker worship services in the 1660s and is the oldest existing building in NYC that was used for worship services. Flushing, circa 1920

The Christmas Gift: The Flushing Remonstrance

Right Honorable

You have been pleased to send unto us a certain prohibition or command that we should not receive or entertain any of those people called Quakers because they are supposed to be, by some, seducers of the people. For our part we cannot condemn them in this case, neither can we stretch out our hands against them, for out of Christ God is a consuming fire, and it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

Wee 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 or fall to his own Master. Wee are bounde by the law to do good unto all men, especially to those of the household of faith. And though for the present we seem to be unsensible for the law and the Law giver, 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, for if God justifye who can condemn and if God condemn there is none can justifye.

And for those jealousies and suspicions which some have of them, that they are destructive unto Magistracy and Ministerye, that cannot bee, for the Magistrate hath his sword in his hand and the Minister hath the sword in his hand, as witnesse those two great examples, which all Magistrates and Ministers are to follow, Moses and Christ, whom God raised up maintained and defended against all enemies both of flesh and spirit; and therefore that of God will stand, and that which is of man will come to nothing. And as the Lord hath taught Moses or the civil power to give an outward liberty in the state, by the law written in his heart designed for the good of all, and can truly judge who is good, who is evil, who is true and who is false, and can pass definitive sentence of life or death against that man which arises up against the fundamental law of the States General; soe he hath made his ministers a savor of life unto life and a savor of death unto death.

The law of love, peace and liberty in the states extending to Jews, Turks and Egyptians, as they are considered sons 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.

Written this 27th of December in the year 1657, by mee.

Edward Hart, Clericus

 

Additional Signers
Tobias Feake Nathaniell Tue
The marke of William Noble Nicholas Blackford
William Thorne, Seignior The marke of Micah Tue
The marke of William Thorne, Jr. The marke of Philip Ud
Edward Tarne Robert Field, senior
John Store Robert Field, junior
Nathaniel Hefferd Nich Colas Parsell
Benjamin Hubbard Michael Milner
The marke of William Pidgion Henry Townsend
The marke of George Clere George Wright
Elias Doughtie John Foard
Antonie Feild Henry Semtell
Richard Stocton Edward Hart
Edward Griffine John Mastine
John Townesend Edward Farrington

 

Further reading:

Randall Balmer, A Perfect Babel of Confusion. Dutch religion and English culture in the Middle Colonies, 2002

Garnette Cadagan, “Law of love, peace and libertie” in Nonstop Metropolis. A New York City Atlas by Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, 2016.

Evan Haefeli, New Netherland and the Dutch origins of American religious liberty, 2012

  1. Scott Hanson, City of Gods. Religious freedom, immigration, and pluralism in Flushing, Queens, 2016.

Hugh Hastings, Ecclesiastical Records of the State of New York, 1901.

Jaap Jacops, The Colony of New Netherland, 2009

Hermann Wellen-Reuther, ed. The Atlantic World in the latter 17th Century¸2009

 

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