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O Little Town of Flushing, a wondrous gift of religious liberty you gave for Christmas. HINGE — Flushing Retro 1

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

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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 an outlying region of New Amsterdam (now Queens) faced down a chiseled-faced autocrat in Town Hall, who wanted to abort the birth of religious freedom. The result was that Flushing wrote up a Biblical argument for religious liberty that helped to lay the groundwork for the early American colonies and the United States.

 

A feature of the HINGE series on the future of NYC religions.

 

Flushing began in 1645 as a sort of asteroid hangout for religious outsiders at odds with the religious establishment in downtown New Amsterdam and the powerful neighbors in New England.

That didn’t mean that this was an unreligious bunch. They had versions of Christianity in their pockets which they were quick to pull out to convince visitors. Most of them were Englishmen who had very intense religious convictions for which they sought a place to freely believe, practice, and evangelize.

However, in the New England, the 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.

The Christians had arrived at this geographic sorting as a way to keep the peace between religions. After a long, nasty 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. This peace settlement allowed each nation to follow the religion of its ruler. In other words, it gave religious tolerance between nations. A Catholic or Protestant country couldn't force another country to toe its religious line. Not everyone was happy with even this degree of peace and religious liberty and hostilities soon resumed. However, further conflicts lead to more treaties like the Treaty of Munster in 1648 that followed the principles of the Augsburg peace. The various treaties together became known as the Peace of Westphalia.

However, this type of inter-nation arrangement left ambiguous how the nation would treat its own religious minorities.

 

"The Ratification of the Treaty of Münster, May 15, 1648" by Gerard ter Borch. www.geheugenvannederland.nl via wikimedia.org

 

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. Now, the United States has recognized Jerusalem as the capitol of Israel, but it was unclear what exactly are the borders of the "Jerusalem" of Israel. The Palestinian governments want a Jerusalem to be divided between them and Israel. So, this peace through division is a device in use today that can take a long time to establish. In the early American colonies, the English, Dutch, Swedes, and others were trying to figure out what the European treaties meant for their own interrelations and for religious practices. At first, they followed the idea that peace was best established by separating out the religious groups to their own territories.

For example, when a bunch of the settlers in New England opted for markedly different version of Protestantism, the town councils would ask or force them to either to keep their faith private or to move to another area in order to start their own community with their own mono-religious culture. So in 1636, the Baptist pastor Roger Williams was forced out of Salem into the area that we know as Rhode Island. Another haven that was available was land in the Dutch colony of New Netherlands. Nine years after the Baptist group was forced out of New England, some other religious dissenters, mostly sympathetic to Williams, came from New England to found Flushing (Vlissingen in Dutch). This didn't exactly solve their problems, however.

First, New Netherlands followed the general thinking of the European peace treaties that a religious minority couldn’t practice its religion publicly in a place that wasn't governed by their own co-religionists. They couldn’t publish their religious views either or hold public religious discussions or events. Some religious people could celebrate Christmas on the public square, but others couldn’t if they had distinctly different concepts of Christmas.

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 the power to back it up.

Inevitably, different religious viewpoints that threatened the Dutch 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 who arrived in May 1647 as the new Governor-General of the New Netherlands and its leading city New Amsterdam.

He heard about these noisy agitators and promptly threw the 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 lands as long as the outsiders 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, which by definition are liable to break out into a noisy public cheerfulness.

These hybrid religious organizational forms pushed up against the prohibition against licensing religious organization in New Amsterdam that were not Dutch Reformed.  Licensing requirements are a common tool to suppress the spread of unwanted religious opinions. No Christmas religious celebrations could be held publicly unless you had a hard to get license. So, there were loud boisterous Christmas parties among the Dutch, but the Baptists, Quakers, Lutherans, and the rest had to hang their jolly in a closet.

Lenient Dutch Reformed pastors offered the option to Lutherans, Baptists, and the like to worship in the 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 sour disposition against mixed congregations 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 some religious minorities to keep their heads down and their religious beliefs to themselves. They did not appreciate fellow religionists trying to gain more religious rights. They argued that things were not too bad and slowly improving. If you force the issue, then maybe we will lose what little religious liberty that is allowed, they argued.

For example, the New Amsterdam Lutherans were quite optimistic that the Lutherans on the board of the Dutch West India Company could push for more liberty of worship and practice for Lutherans in the American colony. They underestimated their co-religionists bravery. Instead, the Lutherans in Amsterdam 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 that could precipitate out when a religious minority came into New Netherlands, why in the world 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.

 

Commercial and religious interests warred against each other in the Dutch colonies. 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?

Willem Kieft was the Director-General of New Netherland before Stuyvesant arrived. He doesn't seem to have been an especially religious leader and was in a fierce fight with the local pastor over corruption. He also was not a popular leader because he provoked an unnecessary war with the more powerful tribes of Indians. Consequently, he needed more bodies to implement his strategy to win the war.

He thought that he could settle people out toward the frontiers of New Amsterdam to act as a defensive buffer against the hostile Indians. The New English settlers, who wanted to come into the New Amsterdam territory, would be new cannon fodder for the fight. Also, if he could make it appear that the English settlers would call on the help of their powerful English colonies in New England, then the Indians might worry about provoking a bigger enemy. Kieft also was using the friendly tribes in Brooklyn and Long Island as pawns in the fight. The English settlers in Flushing could help them out.

Kieft persuaded the Brooklyn and Long Island tribes that they should stop paying tribute to the powerful and fierce Mohawks. This would deny economic resources to the Mohawks and their allies. Maybe, the entrance of the English settlers gave the Brooklyn and Long Island tribes some reassurance. But it was a disastrous decision for them to stop paying tribute. The Mohawks just ignored the various European colonists on the frontiers of New Amsterdam and went directly on the hunt for the Indian non-payers. When they found the scofflaws, the Mohawks slaughtered them.

At the same time, the stockholders of the Dutch West India Company were demanding more profits and taxes from New Amsterdam. They estimated that a big problem was that they didn't have enough settlers in the colony to to generate sufficient economic activity. The Dutch were also in a world-wide-competition with the English. They needed enough people in New Netherlands and its biggest town New Amsterdam to block the English advance from New England. Since the dissident English religionists were enemies of the Puritan establishment in New England, the Dutch reasoned that they were potential friends. So, Kieft was lenient toward religious believers who were not Dutch Reformed as long as they paid taxes.

This inclination toward commerce has given rise to a bit of myth about the Dutch colonists. It is claimed that they were mainly interested in money, not religion, so that is why they gave out more religious freedom. The argument is that New York was better at democracy and religious toleration because it has this Dutch tradition of low priority on religion. The situation was a bit more complicated than this simple secularization script. The early discussions on trade and religious freedom were intermixed with theology. The big question for the Dutch in this period was how did their religious faith establish the peace after the years of war. The answer was the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism.

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 and establish a religious structure for exiles. Consequently, their colonies were not primarily outposts for the establishing religious faith but beachheads for the Protestant ethic and the rise of capitalism. The Dutch West India Company certainly set aside money for preachers, the building of churches, and the distribution of religious literature. However, the company was worried that the English would take over and so investors were interested in quick profits to come to Holland. Consequently, the Dutch company needed to recruit settlers that needed a peaceful place to live in exile.

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 the unpopular 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.

Upcoming ---

The State of religion in Flushing in 1656-1657.

The Flushing Remonstrance.

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

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

 

 

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