The controversies surrounding religion and its relationship with the state are deeply woven into the American fabric. Likewise debates about intolerance, heroic fights to worship freely, sectarian prejudice, man’s ability to relate with God, and the scope of government influence over the consciences of men.
While too many episodes induce shame and wincing, America’s story is ultimately one of the growth of religious freedom, the elimination of state control of faith, and the overall diminishment of intolerance. That is, until now. Not since the campaign to adopt the Blaine Amendment has America witnessed so direct an attack on a religious faith as it has with President Obama’s HHS regulation, which demolishes the conscience rights of Catholic institutions.
Barack Obama and his staff need a salutary reminder of the various battles that colonists and Americans have waged to establish the right to worship without government imposition. One such battle occurred from 1656 to 1664, in Dutch-run New Netherland. This historic fight for religious freedom — against an intolerant government — gave birth to The Flushing Remonstrance, widely considered a forerunner to the First Amendment.
The town of Flushing was established in 1645. Then it was known as “Vlishing” and “Vlissengen,” and located where the Mets now (allegedly) play baseball. The town operated under a charter that established “the right to have and enjoy liberty of conscience, according to the custom and manner of Holland, without molestation or disturbance from any magistrates, or any other ecclesiastical minister.” But despite having such a clear mandate, the infamous Peter Stuyvesant, New Amsterdam’s Governor — famed for his bad temperament and wooden leg — had little patience for any religion that was not the Dutch Reformed Church. (His treatment of Jews earned him reprimands from his Dutch overlords.) Stuyvesant bristled over the growing Quaker community in Flushing. Learning that one Henry Townsend had allowed his home to be used for a Quaker meeting, Stuyvesant fined him and banished him to Holland. A complete account of this affair is found in a wonderful article by Michael Peabody in Liberty.
Disturbed by such an action, which clearly violated their charter, 30 Flushing residents wrote Stuyvesant in December of 1657. The Flushing Remonstrance argued in part that the townsfolk could not shun Quakers:
The law of love, peace and liberty in the states extending to Jews, Turks, and Egyptians, as they are considered the sonnes 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 saith it is impossible but that offenses 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 he 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 Savior saith this is the law and the prophets. Therefore, if any of these said persons come in love unto us, wee 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. And in this we are true subjects both of Church and State, 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.
Stuyvesant was unmoved. He had four of the signers imprisoned on a bread-and-water diet and, in March of 1658, ordered a Day of Prayer for (in Peabody’s words) “the purpose of repenting from the sin of religious intolerance.”
More oppression and banishments followed. So Stuyvesant had an intolerance ordinance — aimed at preventing the immigration of “Vagabonds, Quakers, and other Fugitives” — adopted in New Amsterdam in 1663:
The Director General and Council of New Netherland, To all those who shall see these Presents or hear them read, Greeting, make known. Whereas we daily find that many Vagabonds, Quakers and other Fugitives are, without the previous knowledge and consent of the Director General and council, conveyed, brought and landed in this Government, and sojourn and remain in the respective Villages of this Province without those bringing them giving them notice thereof, or such persons addressing themselves to the government and showing whence they come, as they ought to do, or that they have taken the oath of fidelity the same as other Inhabitants,
Vagabonds, Quakers and other fugitives not to be brought into the Province without permission of government:
Director General and Council, Therefore, do hereby Order and command all Skippers, Sloop captains and others, whomsoever they may be, not to convey or bring, much less to land within this government, any such Vagabonds, Quakers and other Fugitives, whether Men or Women, unless they have given information thereof and obtained consent,
on pain of the Importers forfeiting a fine of twenty pounds Flemish for every person, whether man or woman, whom they will have brought in and landed without the consent or previous knowledge of the Director General, and, in addition, be obliged immediately to depart again out of this government with such persons
Fines, how to be applied:
The fine to be applied one-third for the fiscal, one-third for the informer and the remaining third at the discretion of the court.
The law was short-lived. The year before, John Bowne, a Quaker, had been arrested for his faith and locked in a dungeon for three months by Stuyvesant. This was followed by banishment to the Netherlands. But Bowne, although bowed, was not broken. As Peabody writes, he fought back against Stuyvesant:
The Amsterdam Chamber of the Dutch West India Company was reluctant to interfere in a colonial matter, and suggested that Bowne remedy the situation himself by bringing his wife and child to live with him in more tolerant Holland. However, Bowne refused and appealed to the town’s patent and The Flushing Remonstrance. The chamber then recommended that Bowne return and agree to abide by the ban on the Quakers, but he refused to deny his faith. The next day the chamber acquitted Bowne and ordered Stuyvesant to be tolerant of faiths not his own, in line with the patent and the remonstrance.
Nearly four centuries later, the right freely to worship won by John Bowne and other brave colonials — the victory over undue government control of religious practice — now stands threatened by a new regime. It is one led by a chief executive who has taken an oath to uphold a Constitution that, informed by the Flushing Remonstrance and other declarations of tolerance, protects the right to the free exercise of religion. The president is happy to go along with this, only as long as the religion does the government’s bidding.
— Jack Fowler is the publisher of National Review