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

This Christmas story starts in 1645 and culminates during the Christmas of 1657. Part 1 of series

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"Freedom of Worship is the mainspring of the Republic." Detail of an etching to celebrate the Great Synagogue of Amsterdam by Calvinist Romeyn de Hooghe, 1675. Top figures: Judea & High Priest, left; Liberty of Conscience, center; Republic of United Provinces of the Netherlands, right.


This Christmas story starts in 1645 and culminates during the Christmas of 1657. The little town of Flushing in Queens gave us one of the boldest and earliest declarations for religious liberty.

Flushing began in 1645 as a haven for religious outsiders at odds with the religious establishments in New England and New Netherland.

That didn’t mean that this was an unreligious bunch. This group of Englishmen had very intense religious convictions for which they sought a place to freely believe, practice, and evangelize.

However, the New England Puritans and Pilgrims enforced the principle of one town-one faith, which reflected the terms of the peace settlement in Europe between the Catholics and Protestants.  When a bunch of the settlers opted for markedly different version of Protestantism, the majority of the New Englanders would ask or force them to leave. One place that was available was land in the Dutch colony of New Netherlands.  So, religious dissenters from New England founded Flushing (Vlissingen in Dutch).

The Protestants had arrived at this geographic sorting as a way to keep the peace between religions. After a long war in defending their right to follow the reforms of Martin Luther and John Calvin, the Protestants gained the Treaty of Augsburg, signed in 1555, so that each nation would be allowed to follow the religion of its ruler. Although hostilities resumed, the main features of this treaty were reinforced by other treaties in 1648 that became known as the Peace of Westphalia. This type of arrangement left ambiguous how the state would treat its religious minorities.


"The Ratification of the Treaty of Münster, May 15, 1648" by Gerard ter Borch. via


This religious peace through division is roughly what happened between the Israelis and Palestinians after 1948. As we can see, this solution doesn’t work so well when a substantial minority rejects the settlement.

In New England the town councils forced religious minorities either to keep their faith private or move to other areas to start their own communities around their own faiths. So in 1636, the Baptist pastor Roger Williams was forced out of Salem into the area that we know as Rhode Island.

There were three problems with this solution to religious conflict in New Amsterdam. First, it meant that a religious minority couldn’t practice its religion publicly. It couldn’t publish their religious views or hold public discussions or events. Some religious people could celebrate Christmas on the public square, but others couldn’t.

The more authoritarian Dutch leaders particularly were distressed by those public discussions called “evangelism.” They felt such public activities were the equivalent to asking for a revolution, and certainly, they considered such calls to conversion as insults to their dignity. After all, the Dutch Reformed felt that they had the true faith and had the power to back it up.

Inevitably, this lack of tolerance to hearing a religious viewpoint that threatened the status quo and its rules provoked heavy handed repression against dissidents. The appearance of Dutch “Evangelicals” and street-preaching Quakers in New Amsterdam sent rivulets of anger through the nerves of the conservative-types in the colony. The most conservative was Peter Stuyvesant, the Governor-General starting in May 1647, and he promptly threw these evangelists into jail on trumped up charges of disturbing the peace and, then after a brief judicial hearing, hustled them out of the colony with orders never to return. An implicit threat was that a return to New Amsterdam would result in even more severe punishments. However, unlike his neighbors in New England, Stuyvesant didn’t put any returnees to death.

Another problem resulted from how the Dutch decided to handle the private worship services of  religious minorities. Generally speaking, the governments in Holland and New Netherland allowed religious minorities to settle in their states as long as they confined their religious practices to their personal and family devotions. But what happens when more family members come to worship together in one home, perhaps bringing their friends with them? The home devotions could expand into “house churches” (the Dutch called them “hidden churches”). Several families might get together for Christmas services. This hybrid religious organizational form pushed up against the prohibition against any unlicensed religious organization, which in New Amsterdam could only be Dutch Reformed.  Licensing requirements are a common tool to suppress the spread of unwanted religious opinions. No Christmas services unless you have a hard to get license.

Lenient Dutch Reformed pastors offered the option to Lutherans, Baptists, and the like to worship in their Dutch Reformed churches without demanding public professions of Dutch Reformed doctrines. However, men with overly orderly minds like Stuyvesant thought that these solutions were unclean compromises leading to spiritual indigestion in the Dutch Reformed churches. His opinion was undoubtedly reinforced when Flushing threw out Stuyvesant’s pastoral appointee, Rev. Francis Doughty, and refused to pay his salary.

A third problem was that religious minorities were often prohibited from gaining public office. Although this practice was unevenly enforced, its threat caused religious minorities to keep their heads down and their religious beliefs to themselves. For example, there were several Lutherans on the board of the Dutch West India Company, but they discouraged the Lutherans in New Amsterdam from asking for their own pastor and worship services as untimely threats to tipping over the status quo of “believe but don’t tell.”

So, in light of all these political problems of allowing a religious minority into New Netherlands, why did the Dutch West India Company grant a bunch of English religious dissidents the right to land, self-government, and liberty of conscience as far as religion was concerned?

We cannot be sure of all the motives, but some were stated and some unstated ones seem obvious. This part of the Christmas story pivots around a war, immigrants, and, maybe, corruption.


Dutch planter points to all the benefits of having slaves in Barbados. He seems to ask the English Quaker woman, In opposing slavery, do you want to give up these benefits?
Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library. "Engelse Quakers en tabak planters aende Barbados." The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1700?.


Why did the religious establishment allow Flushing to be founded as a colony of religious dissenters?

First, Willem Kieft, the Director-General of New Netherland until early 1647, needed bodies to help win the war that he had provoked with some of the more powerful Indian tribes. His strategy was to settle people out toward the frontiers of New Amsterdam to act as a defensive buffer against the hostile Indians. The New English settlers would provide new cannon fodder for the fight. Also, involving English settlers might worry the powerful upstate New York tribes that the English might come into the fight.

At least, Kieft might have hoped that the Brooklyn and Long Island tribes would feel some reassurance in their agreement to stop paying tribute to the Mohawks and others. This decision was disastrous for the local Indians. Ignoring the various colonists on the frontier, the Mohawks relentlessly hunted down the Indian non-payers and slaughtered them.

Second, the stockholders of the Dutch West India Company needed more people in the colony to generate more economic activities, profits, and taxes. They also needed enough people to block the English advance from New England. Since the dissident English religionists were enemies of the Puritan establishment in New England, they were potential friends for the Dutch. Kieft was lenient toward religious believers who were not Dutch Reformed.

Religion played a role in the lack of Dutch immigration to New Netherland. Holland had gained a peace from Catholic attackers in 1579. So, the Dutch Protestants had less reason to flee to other lands. Consequently, their colonies were not primarily outposts of religious faith but beachheads for the Protestant ethic and the rise of capitalism. The settlers that came tended to be interested in quick profits which they could take back home with them to Holland.

The company had to cobble together settlers from France, England and various other European lands who were still caught in the religious and political conflicts. After the massacre of thousands of Protestants (called Huguenots) in Catholic France in the late 16th Century, they started fleeing to other countries like Holland and England. Consequently, when the Dutch West India Company announced their need for settlers, many Huguenots (and Protestants from Catholic Belgium) responded to the opportunity.  They came to make up a big part of the population of New Amsterdam.

The Dutch West India Company also favored Jewish immigrants who had money, needed a freer place to live, and were people with an important role in Protestant prophetic views on the course of history ending with the return of the Jewish Messiah Jesus. This inclination toward the Jews was one of the seeds of American Protestant Hebraism that eventually led to United States presidents endorsing the formation of a new Israel in the Middle East.

However, the Dutch recruitment of the Protestants still persecuted in other countries brought along their differences of history and religion. The Protestants were divided by economic, political, and religious interests. The Puritan Revolution was just taking hold in England, and there was considerable debate over what was religiously allowable in the Puritan Movement. In fact, the title “Puritan” can mean many things, but we are using it here to refer to all of the reforming, dissenting groups in England.

The lower classes leaned toward more anarchic visions of religion, self, and society. They promoted such Puritan movements as Quakerism, Ranters (loud complainers about any authority except the light of one’s own heart), Diggers (Puritan agrarian romanticists), and Levellers (promoters of radical equality of all people). The Quakers took pains to distinguish themselves from the Ranters and Diggers who seemed to conflate violent political anarchy (every man governs himself, no state allowed) with the peaceful religious Quaker conviction that every person is his own pastor.

Consequent to the debates and sometimes fierce battles, the dissenters were flocking to New England and to New Netherland as a safe harbor. A large portion of the early settlers of New Amsterdam were English dissidents. The losers in these battles were emboldened by their martyrdoms while the winners looked like bullies.

So, some Dutch looked upon the new arrivals as deserving of help and admiration. Many Dutch said that their Christian beliefs favored freedom of conscience, expression, and assembly, because one couldn’t have one without the other. Many Amsterdam merchants also cited economic reasons for letting religious minorities settle in their namesake New Amsterdam. However, the majority of the Company board seems to have been very uneasy or even hostile to this development.

Third, personal greed may have also played a role in Kieft’s permission to the English to establish Flushing. The Director-General had a notorious reputation for corruption. Almost immediately after his arrival, New Amsterdamers were complaining that nothing got done at the town hall unless the Director-General or his friends got some payoff. The local pastor Everadus Bogardus denounced the corruption and arbitrary rule of the local government. Kieft responded by having cannons fired outside the church while Bogardus preached. He complained to the Company that the pastor was a dangerous liberal against commercial interests.

The Company recalled both men. Perhaps, Krieft decided to make some last minute money by granting a charter for a Flushing settlement. We don’t have any concrete evidence of such a corruption; most corruption in history goes unproven in courts of law controlled by the corrupt. We should at least be reflective that religious liberty in early America might have been bought by filthy lucre. Even today, around the world, religious people live out their faith because of some deal that they had to make with authoritarian, corrupt governments. Vice is parasitic to virtue.

One of the great tragedies of New Amsterdam is that it early lost a genuine hero of faith when Pastor Bogardus to Amsterdam was recalled with Kieft. Bogardus fought corruption, stood up for the rights of Africans, and was a theological conservative with a temperate treatment of religious dissidents. Their ship taking them back to Holland went down, taking under both the saint and the sinner.

The Dutch West India Company sent back Peter Stuyvesant, who was both an effective administrator and could be the devil himself when dealing with people who didn’t agree with him on religious matters. The new pastor was generally compliant with Stuyvesant’s wishes. Pretty soon, Stuyvesant put  his watchful eyes on Flushing’s Englishness and its religious liberty and aimed his blunderbuss. He was facing off the law, the people, and English power.

Read The State of religion in Flushing in 1656-1657. Part 2 of series "NYC’s greatest Christmas gift to the nation: religious liberty"

Read The Flushing Remonstrance. Part 3 of series: "NYC”s greatest Christmas gift to the nation: religious liberty"

Read 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”

Nowel Amsterdam en l'Amerique 1672, New York Public Library, Rare Book Collection.



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