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Opinion

The Religious Magna Carta of the New World


  • By The Newnan Times-Herald
  • |
  • Jan. 19, 2021 - 2:57 PM

The Religious Magna Carta of the New World

Lawrence W. Reed, a resident of Newnan, is president emeritus of the Foundation for Economic Education. His most recent book is “Was Jesus a Socialist?” He can be reached at lreed@fee.org

To the Right Honorable Governor of New Netherland Peter Stuyvesant:

“You have been pleased to send unto us a certain prohibition or command that we should not receive or entertain any of those people called Quakers because they are supposed to be, by some, seducers of the people. For our part we cannot condemn them in this case, neither can we stretch out our hands against them. … We desire therefore in this case not to judge lest we be judged, neither to condemn lest we be condemned, but rather let every man stand or fall to his own Master. We are bound by the law to do good unto all men, especially to those of the household of faith.”

With those words, Edward Hart, the town clerk of what is now the Queens neighborhood of Flushing, New York, began a powerful 650-word document known as the Flushing Remonstrance. It was Dec. 27, 1657. Hart wrote on behalf of the 30 inhabitants of the village who also boldly signed their name below his.

This was a defiant shot across the bow of the state, personified by Gov. Stuyvesant. It was an act of resistance and an early declaration in favor of the freedom of peaceful worship.

Gov. Stuyvesant promulgated a policy of intolerance in the Dutch settlements of New York. He aimed to persecute those who did not adhere to the Dutch Reformed Church, and the nonconformist Quakers were his prime target. In this response, the citizens of Flushing (none of whom were Quakers) essentially stated, “You are commanding us to persecute Quakers. We will not. So take your intolerance and stick it where the sun doesn’t shine.”

The policy of persecution had begun in 1656 with an ordinance banning unauthorized religious meetings. Quaker preachers were harassed, arrested, jailed and fined. In Flushing itself, a Baptist pastor was imprisoned and then exiled for the “crime” of baptizing without a license from the Dutch Reformed officialdom.

The Flushing Remonstrance stirs my blood with an abiding appreciation for principled courage. The signers concluded their statement thusly:

“The law of love, peace and liberty … condemns hatred, war and bondage … desiring to do unto all men as we desire all men should do unto us. … 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 egress and regress unto our Town, and houses, as God shall persuade our consciences.”

Stuyvesant reacted in anger. He dissolved Flushing’s town government and put his own cronies in charge. He arrested four of the signers of the Remonstrance, including Edward Hart. To his credit, the elderly Hart went to jail but never recanted.

Relief from Stuyvesant’s harsh rule finally arrived in 1663, but not by the hand of any government. The Dutch West India Company, sponsor and investor in the Dutch colonies of North America, dispatched a letter to Stuyvesant ordering him to stop religious persecution.

Today, the Flushing Remonstrance is known as “the religious Magna Carta of the New World”. It proved to be a major influence on America’s Founders to enshrine freedom of worship in the Bill of Rights, more than a century after the citizens of Flushing defied a Governor.

God bless America.

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Lawrence W. Reed, a resident of Newnan, is president emeritus of the Foundation for Economic Education. His most recent book is “Was Jesus a Socialist?” He can be reached at lreed@fee.org