Julio Gonzalez, M.D., J.D.
Flushing was a relatively tolerant place in 1645 as far as the seventeenth century goes. It was under Dutch rule and as such, under the leadership of William Kieft, New Amsterdam's Director General.
The Dutch had made significant advances toward respecting freedom of conscience, and its relative tolerance in the Old World followed it into the new. It was for this reason, among others that New Amsterdam, what we know today as New York, became such a magnet for commerce. Yes, there was fur, and boats, and harbors, and Indians willing to engage in trade, but above all, there was religious tolerance. At a time where belonging to the wrong flavor of Christianity, worst yet, not subscribing to it, could literally mean your head, New Amsterdam was a welcomed respite.
Despite the fact that so many had fled Europe because of religious persecution, such tolerance was not universal amongst the colonies. Many who left England in response to religious intolerance set up shop in the New World only to turn the tables on the others.
Such was the case for Deborah Moody, a wealthy widow living in Massachusetts. Moody was born in Wiltshire County, England in 1586, the granddaughter of the Bishop of Durham. Originally Deborah Dunch, Moody married First Baronet Sir Henry Moody and a member of the House of Commons.
Following Sir Moody's death in 1629, Deborah Moody left England to settle in Lynn, Massachusetts. While there, Moody, an independent thinker and Noncomformist, became attracted to Anabaptism, a religious sect opposed to the baptism of infants due to the concern of their religion being chosen for them.
Anabaptism did not bode well amongst the entrenched and oppressive Puritan majority, forcing Moore to seek a better life. Attracted by the greater degree of religious tolerance afforded in New Amsterdam and despite having been granted 400 acres of land in Massachusetts, Moody and a group of settlers ended up traveling to Gravesend in what is presently known as Brooklyn and inclusive of Coney Island. Gravesend, of course, was under Dutch rule, and their greater degree of tolerance served as an attraction for Moody.
On December 19, 1645, Kieft issued a patent to Moody in Gravesend, an area that included Coney Island, the first patent in the history of colonial North America that included a woman. The patent included the authority to ". . . to haue & enioy the ffree libertie of Conscience according to the Custom and manner of Holland, without molestation or disturbance from any magistrate, or magistrates, or any other ecclesiasticall minister that may pretend iurisdictie ouer them. . . "
Other such patents were not uncommon in the area. For example, on October 10, 1645, Kieft signed a patent for a tract of land in nearby Flushing that included similar, religious tolerance language.
But the relative peace afforded to religious noncomformists in places like Flushing and Gravesend was not to last. In 1647, Kieft was replaced by Petrus Stuyvesant largely in response to a number of ill-advised, violent confrontations Kieft had undertaken with local tribes. A strict disciplinarian, Stuyvesant insisted upon the supremacy of the Dutch Reformed Church and employed a stance of absolute intolerance against Quakers in New Amsterdam. His views were so intolerant that when the Woodhouse, a trading vessel carrying Quakers, arrived in New Amsterdam, Stuyvesant refused the ship entry and hunted down some of the passengers that had managed to escape and remain behind.[i]
In his zeal for persecuting Quakers, Stuyvesant arrested anyone who housed a Quaker, confiscated ships carrying Quakers, and even tortured Quakers captured in New Amsterdam. As word spread of the harsh treatment of religious noncomformists in New Amsterdam, a group of inhabitants of Flushing, including the sheriff, some of its founders, and the town clerk gathered on December 27, 1657, to fashion a response. They drafted and signed a remarkable document written by Edward Hart, one of Flushing's inhabitants, that would serve as the first written assertion of religious liberty in North America.[ii] It's language is fascinating and well beyond its years. It is reproduced below in its entirety:
Stuyvesant was so impressed with the magnificence of this document that he promptly arrested those responsible for its execution including the sheriff of Flushing and Edward Hart, its author.
Despite the overt oppression, the colonists, particularly those of Flushing, continued to be sympathetic to the Quakers, hiding them when necessary and allowing them to hold meetings in the homes of non-Quakers. In one noteworthy case, John Bowne, the husband of a Quaker, was arrested in 1662 for allowing Quakers to congregate in his home. He was tried and fined.
But Bowne refused to capitulate. In an attempt to have Bowne banished, Stuyvesant placed him on a ship to Ireland along with a letter of explanation bound for Holland. Arriving in Ireland, Bowne proceeded to Holland and presented the letter and his case to the Dutch West India Company, which responded with an order for Stuyvesant to moderate his crackdown on religious liberty stating, "The consciences of men ought ever to remain free and unshackled."[iii]
In short, the Dutch West India Company told the Stuyvesant to "allow everyone to have their own beliefs."[iv]
By 1648, New Amsterdam would be handed to the British ending any authority the Dutch West India Company letter may have, but its effects upon religious liberty and the free exercise of religion would be more permanent. The renamed New York was a place tolerant of men's consciences, and the willingness of its people to stand up for their right to worship would be indelibly etched upon the colony's character. New York, like New Amsterdam before it, would be a sanctuary for many of North America's religiously oppressed, including Quakers and Jews. The actions and written words of the settlers in Flushing would serve as foundational steps that would eventually lead to the monumental pursuit of religious freedom within the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War, and the First Amendment to the Constitution.
Dr. Julio Gonzalez is an orthopaedic surgeon and lawyer living in Venice, Florida. He is the author of The Federalist Pagesand served in the Florida House of Representatives. He can be reached through www.thefederalistpages.com to arrange a lecture or book signing.
[i]Willem Kieft, "The Charter, October 10, 1645" in The Flushing Remonstrance, draft edition, accessed Jul. 29, 2015, http://schools.nycenet.edu/offices/teachlearn/ela/Flushing_Remon.pdf. pg. 6.
[iii]A History of Flushing, accessed Jul. 31, 2015, http://www.nyym.org/flushing/history.html.
[iv]Kenneth Jackson, "A Colony with a Conscience," The New York Times, Dec. 27, 2007, accessed on July 31, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/27/opinion/27jackson.html.