Rare Religious Liberty Document Goes On Display In New York

The Flushing Remonstrance, a little-known but important early document arguing for religious liberty, went on display at a public library in New York City last month.

Drafted in 1657 by 30 citizens who lived in the Flushing area, the document is a heart-felt plea for religious liberty from residents who were alarmed by persecution of their Quaker neighbors. At the time, New York was under the control of the Dutch. The Quakers, who were English, sought the right to dissent from the state-established Dutch Reformed Church.

Some of the signers of the document had allowed Quakers to hold unauthorized religious meetings in their homes. They boldly admitted this to Dutch officials, writing to Gov. Peter Stuyvesant, “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. 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.”

The missive, dated Dec. 27, 1657, did not have the effect the senders had hoped. In fact, some of its signers were arrested and jailed. They were released a short time later, and most vowed to continue to support the Quakers.

One signer, a farmer named John Bowne, was subsequently banished from the colony for his support of the Quakers. Bowne traveled to the Netherlands and argued that he should be allowed to return. He was, and his homestead is now a museum.

The New York Times reported that the Flushing Remonstrance on display at the Queens Public Library in Flushing is a copy. The original document has been lost. The version on display in December dates to 1657 and was copied by a notary from the original. It was damaged in a 1911 fire and is now held by the New York State Archives. At the library, it was displayed in a climate-controlled case with special glass that blocks ultraviolet light.

Kenneth T. Jackson, a history professor at Columbia University, told The Times, “It is an elegant and eloquent statement of what we mean to be as a people.”

Jackson added that when it comes to religious liberty, “Thomas Jefferson gets most of the ink. The Remonstrance is not given enough credit, but it should be in every school curriculum.”

A series of workshops, seminars and conferences was held to mark the anniversary of the Remonstrance. On Dec. 7, there was a luncheon for descendants of the document’s original signers.

The Times notes that the Remonstrance’s plea for toleration and religious liberty certainly came true for Flushing. Today the neighborhood is incredibly diverse, with dozens of languages spoken and an equal number of religions practiced.

To learn more about the Flushing Remonstrance or to read it, go to www.flushingremonstrance.info.\n