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NYC’s greatest Christmas gift to the nation: religious liberty. Part 2

The State of religion in Flushing in 1656-1657

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"No," to religious liberty, said Director-General Peter Stuyvesant.                                                                                                                                                The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. "Peter Stuyvesant. Portrait and autograph of Peter Stuyvesant from 'The Dutch and Quaker colonies in America' by John Fiske. Fully illustrated" The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1899-- - 1903--.


Before Keift left, the English settlers in Flushing were able to gain a patent (charter) on October 10, 1645 that guaranteed their “liberty of conscience, according to the custom and manner of Holland, without molestation or disturbance from any Magistrate or Magistrates, or any other ecclesiastical Minister, that may extend jurisdiction over them.” The charter also specified a set amount of taxes to be given to the New Amsterdam government and the town’s right to select their own local official. Such an agreement had the advantages of both Dutch pluralism and English self-government. However, the charter limited the government in ways that didn’t apply to the rest New Amsterdam. This disjuncture struck Peter Stuyvesant, the new incoming Director-General, as disorderly and unchristian.

Stuyvesant wanted to void the original agreement. He felt that the religious liberty clause allowed: religious “scum” (as his pastor called them) to creep into the most righteous Dutch Reformed territory; leaders who were maybe more loyal to England than to Holland; and too low of payments to downtown city government. In Brooklyn and Long Island, Stuyvesant’s complaints raised up an uproar. And Flushing seems to have been part of the organizers of almost every protest rally in Brooklyn and Long Island.

The tension over religious freedom in Flushing broke out open hostilities in 1656. A Baptist minister in Flushing and Mespath (Maspath) was joined by another, William Wickenden. The visiting minister was a mere cobbler but a formidable presence. He was a leader in Roger Williams’ Baptist settlement in Rhode Island where he was a three-time member of the legislature. Flushing’s Sheriff William Hallett invited Wickenden to his home to preach and administer Communion. Then, Wickenden boldly baptized several people in a river in Flushing, a public spectacle that scorched the sensibilities of the Dutch authorities in Manhattan. The widespread respect for Hallett’s work in gaining acquittal for two people accused of witchcraft (the only such trial in New Amsterdam) did not grant him immunity from the director-general’s wrath.

Stuyvesant had the minister and his host Sheriff Hallet arrested, jailed, and fined. The Dutch authorities relented on the huge fine after they were told that Wickenden was just a poor cobbler with a large family, but they kicked him and Hallett out of New Netherland. In the same year the other Baptist pastor also left for Virginia.

The Dutch Reformed clergy were sounding the alarm back in Holland. One report gives us their view on “The State of Religion” in New Amsterdam. Johannes Megapolensis and Samuel Drissius, who identified themselves as clergy of the Reformed Church in “Amsterdam, in New Netherlands,” sent the report, dated August 5, 1657, to their ecclesiastical superiors (called the Amsterdam classis). They noted the dilemma of the Presbyterian teacher “who conformed to our Church” faced in Flushing. The people avoided every opportunity to hear him preach and refused to pay his expenses. Instead, they had fallen into “divers opinion.” The situation was ripe for religious disaster in their view.

Then, a “fomenter of evil” showed up, a “cobbler” who claimed his ordination was directly from Christ. This man, evidently Wickenden, preached and took “people to the river and dipped them.”

The two informants linked the Flushing imbroglio to religious malcontents found in Newtown (today’s Elmhurst), and Hempstead, Long Island. The most difficult continuous religious challenge came from a woman, Lady Deborah Moody, in Gravesend, Brooklyn. The authorities were reluctant to move against  the woman probably because she was a noblewoman, wife of the late Sir Henry of Garsden. So, she was able to shield a growing body of religious malcontents, which the report called “Mennonites,” though the pastors’ specific complaints seem to be about Baptists and their type of baptism.

The Baptists denied the validity of the Dutch Reformed practice of infant baptism, which was done by sprinkling water, and insisted on adult “believer’s baptism,” which was done by immersion. The Dutch Reformed infant baptism was closer to the Roman Catholic practice and had a similar meaning in the understanding of its practitioners. Infant baptism was a way of attaching the destiny of the child to the Reformed Church. It was like natural born citizenship in a nation. Without it, the child was like an abandoned, stateless person. However, the Baptists emphasized adult conversion and baptism which was like being an immigrant to God’s kingdom swearing an oath of allegiance to his new country.

This analogous description doesn’t capture all of the theology of baptism but does give the sense of its social and political importance. The Dutch officials saw the Baptist ritual as undercutting loyalty to the state as well as introducing spiritual uncertainty. So, the Dutch Reformed leaders were ready to fight.

Early in the summer of 1657, a Lutheran minister arrived from the Netherlands with the purpose of setting up a church. The Lutherans performed baptism in the same way as the Dutch Reformed, but there were other differences. The colony’s officials tried to arrest him, but he hid out for two years in the hopes, it seems, of getting permission from the West India Company. The Lutherans on the company’s board, however, didn’t support his request because they thought that the political and religious tensions in the Netherlands were so taunt that any attempt to change the status quo might upset the current modus vivendi by which Lutherans in the Netherlands could worship at homes and go freely in the commonwealth. So, after two years, the Lutheran pastor was caught and expelled.

Stuyvesant also wanted Flushing to pay for a Dutch Reformed pastor, an obligation that specifically was in the New Amsterdam charter, but not in the Flushing charter. The Director-General favored uniformity of laws, government practices, and religion as more efficient, simple, and righteous. But he really didn’t have a right to arbitrarily change or ignore the Flushing charter.

The breaking point for Stuyvesant was the arrival of a group of Quakers on the ship Moorehouse in August 1657. This was a frighteningly tiny ocean-going ship that the Quakers had to build in England themselves because the colonial authorities in America threatened heavy penalties on skippers who brought Quakers with them. There were eleven Quakers on board, five got off, and the rest went onto Rhode Island. The Quakers immediately started street preaching in downtown New Amsterdam.

We can well imagine that the Director-General’s underlings heard the shouts of the preachers through their office windows. New Amsterdam wasn’t very large. Certainly, the officials in charge of the markets would have reported back the disturbing news that two women were among the proclaimers.

What they reported was that the two women and one man “began to quake and go into a frenzy, and cry out loudly in the middle of the street, that men should repent for the day of judgment was at hand.”

Their appearance was like the enthusiastic congregants in today’s Pentecostal churches who become “slain in the Spirit.” These events can seem pretty wild, though actually harmless to the public.

The Quaker message was that Jesus Christ was coming back soon, and that New Amsterdamers needed to prepare for the end of the world. The group’s doctrine was that there was no need for a permanent government, an army, or for ordained clergy. Everyone needed to take control of himself or herself according to personal conscience and the light of revelation that God would surely give. Prophetic pronouncements were encouraged.

The Quaker way was self-government, religious belief by inner conviction by Scripture, prophetic utterance, and pacifism. These teachings didn’t mean at that time being quiet in public or withholding the loudest condemnation of tyranny or religious error. Quakers practiced prophetic confrontation and followed the example of their founder George Fox’s boldness in going into the ruler’s offices, the army’s headquarters, and ongoing religious services to argue his convictions.

The records indicate that the Quakers didn’t personally upbraid Stuyvesant. They seemed to have preached on the streets in central New Amsterdam and then moved into Flushing and other places in Long Island and Brooklyn. However, the Director-General heard about them soon enough and saw the performance as a disturbance of the peace. He had the two women arrested and expelled them from the colony. The man, Robert Hodgson, made it out to Long Island where he was eventually arrested and also expelled. He decreed that anyone giving shelter to Quakers in his or her home would be arrested and heavily fined.

All of the Fall of 1657, Flushing and the downtown government headquarters of New Amsterdam engaged in a tug of war over the meaning of religious freedom. Were the townspeople of Flushing within their rights to let Baptist do public baptisms and Quakers hold religious meetings?

The controversy wrapped up an unexpected Christmas gift for the Director-General.


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