Three hundred and fifty years ago, on Dec. 27, 1657, 30 inhabitants of Flushing, New Netherland (now New York), defied Gov. Peter Stuyvesant’s order barring townspeople from harboring Quakers.
“For our part,” they protested to Stuyvesant, “we cannot condemn [the Quakers], neither can we stretch out our hands against them, to punish, banish or persecute them.”
Today the signers of what is known as the Flushing Remonstrance are celebrated as early advocates for religious freedom. And so they were. But the historic significance of their protest is not merely their plea for religious freedom. After all, 17th century Europe and America rang out with cries for the right to choose in matters of faith.
No, what is truly remarkable about the signers of the Remonstrance — and why they are still remembered 350 years later — is their demand for religious freedom not only for themselves, but also for others.
And not just any “others,” but for Quakers, widely reviled in that day as dangerous zealots who threatened the public good.
Here was something new, an early defining moment in the history of religious freedom in America. For the first time in the Colonies, one group of people stood up for the rights of another.
What many find noble in 2007 was not well-received in 1657. Stuyvesant was firmly resolved to maintain order and cohesion in New Netherland through outward religious conformity. His response to the Remonstrance was to arrest town officials who had signed the document, abolish their government and replace it with his own appointees. The town clerk was banished and other signers forced to recant.
So why did the protesters dare to put their names on that document? Why risk so much on behalf of a small religious sect that, in fairness to Stuyvesant, did indeed have a reputation for stirring up trouble?
The question is not academic. In our own time, when rivers of blood are spilled in the name of religion throughout the world, it’s well worth contemplating what motivated those 30 citizens of Flushing “to doe unto all men as wee desire all men should doe unto us,” in the words of the Remonstrance.
In the document itself, the protesters invoke the Dutch Republic’s tradition of toleration, “which is the glory of the outward state of Holland.” And they cite their own town charter, which granted liberty of conscience “according to the Custome and manner of Holland.” But neither of these references explains the motivation behind the act.
Of course, as English dissenters who had earlier fled Puritan persecution in Massachusetts Bay, the inhabitants of Flushing were already primed to oppose any sign of Dutch persecution in New Netherland.
The deeper source of the protest, however, was a simple but profound conviction: Liberty of conscience is required by God — and defense of that liberty for all people is an obligation of faith.
What began as a religious insight about rights of conscience in the 17th century translated into a civic commitment to religious freedom in the 18th century when the First Amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution in 1791. Today, the twin principles of “no establishment” and “free exercise” are meant to guarantee what the Flushing Remonstrance sought: religious freedom as a fundamental, inalienable right for every person.
But legal protections can never be sufficient to ensure full religious freedom. In real-life conflicts, religious freedom often means little unless ordinary citizens speak up for the rights of others, including members of the smallest minorities and least-popular communities.
When government officials ignore the rights of minority faiths — in a town opposed to an Islamic center, in a public school hostile to Wiccan children, in a court that ignores Native American religious claims — will those at the helm stand up for those in the hatches?
And when religious intolerance turns violent — a mosque is bombed, a synagogue desecrated — will those of the majority faith act to counter prejudice and stop erosion of civil liberties for those of minority faiths?
The 350th anniversary of the Flushing Remonstrance is a rare collective opportunity for Americans to ask the hard questions about the depth of our commitment to religious freedom — not just for ourselves, but for people of all faiths and none.
It won’t be easy. In what is now the most religiously diverse nation on earth, religious differences are a growing source of division and conflict. But if we hope to live with our deepest differences in 21st century America, we must do all we can to keep alive the spirit of 17th century Flushing.
(Note: The minutes of the New Netherland colonial council provide the only contemporary copy of the Flushing Remonstrance. It is kept in the collections of the New York State Archives.)
Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, D.C., 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: email@example.com