2007-05-18 / Community

Queens Document First To Call For Religious Tolerance In US

By Miriam Rosenberg

The United States Post Office issued a stamp honoring The Flushing Remonstrance in 1957 to honor the 300 anniversary of the document.
The United States Post Office issued a stamp honoring The Flushing Remonstrance in 1957 to honor the 300 anniversary of the document.

The year was 1657 and the place was what would become the Borough of Queens in what would become New York City.

In a show of support for their neighbors, 32 brave souls defied the government and stood behind their convictions.

In doing so, in December 1657, the residents of Flushing, then know as Vlishing (which encompassed all of Queens and the town of Hempstead) - became the first settlers in the New World to stand up for religious tolerance and freedom with their defiant act in signing "The Flushing Remonstrance."

This year the Flushing Remonstrance is 350 years old and many locals as well as historians are taking a look back to examine exactly what the document means and to find what precipitated such an historic event.

In 1656 Richard Smith, a resident of Southampton, Long Island, and the first known Quaker to live in the New World, and other Quakers were jailed and deported when they visited Boston. Many of these English Quakers returned to the New Netherlands - specifically Flushing and Oyster Bay - and were accepted by their neighbors, but not by the government or the Reformed Dutch Church.

The governor of the New Netherlands, Peter Stuyvesant, forbade any colonist from having a Quaker in their home or allowing a Quaker meeting to be held in their home. The penalty for violating the rules was a fine of 50 pounds.

When Henry Townsend, a resident of Flushing, held a Quaker meeting in his home he was not only fined, but also banished from the colony. It was this incident that caused other colonists in Flushing to gather, write and sign the Flushing Remonstrance on December 27, 1657.

Stuyvesant's reaction to the Flushing Remonstrance was to jail two of the signers of the document, one of whom was banished from the colony. Stuyvesant also disbanded the Flush`ing town government. Although the religious intolerance continued, the numbers of Quakers continued to grow all over Long Island and the Hudson Valley.

The Dutch ended their persecution of the Quakers in 1663 after a colonist, John Bowne, was banished from the colony for holding a Quaker meeting in his home. Bowne presented his case to the Dutch West India Company in Holland, after which Stuyvesant received a letter from Holland that established religious freedom in the New Netherlands.

The last part of the Flushing Remonstrance reads as follows:

"And because our Saviour sayeth it is impossible but that offences 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 hee 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 Saviour sayeth this is the law and the prophets.

"Therefore if any of these said persons come in love unto us, we 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, 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."

The Flushing Remonstrance is heralded as the first document arguing for religious freedom and it became the model for religious tolerance in the United States. The first amendment of the US Constitution (1787), which guarantees freedom of religion, came 130 years later.

To celebrate the 350 year anniversary of the Flushing Remonstrance, the Queens Library at Flushing will host Rivka Widerman telling the story of the Flushing Remonstrance with Chinese and Korean translation on Sunday, May 20 at 2 p.m. The library is located at 41-17 Main Street near Kissena Boulevard.

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