THREE hundred and fifty years ago today, religious freedom was born on this continent. Yes, 350 years. Religious tolerance did not begin with the Bill of Rights or with Jefferson’s Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom in 1786. With due respect to Roger Williams and his early experiment with “liberty of conscience” in Rhode Island, this republic really owes its enduring strength to a fragile, scorched and little-known document that was signed by some 30 ordinary citizens on Dec. 27, 1657.
It is fitting that the Flushing Remonstrance should be associated with Dutch settlements, because they were the most tolerant in the New World. The Netherlands had enshrined freedom of conscience in 1579, when it clearly established that “no one shall be persecuted or investigated because of his religion.” And when the Dutch West India Company set up a trading post at the southern tip of Manhattan in 1625, the purpose was to make money, not to save souls. Because the founding idea was trade, the directors of the firm took pains to ensure that all were welcome...
So what was the result? As expected, Stuyvesant arrested Hart and the other official who presented the document to him, and he jailed two other magistrates who had signed the petition. Stuyvesant also forced the other signatories to recant.
But the door had been opened and Quakers continued to meet in Flushing. When Stuyvesant arrested a farmer, John Bowne, in 1662 for holding illegal meetings in his home, Bowne was then banished from the colony. He immediately went to Amsterdam to plead for the Quakers. There he won his case. Though the Dutch West India Company called Quakerism an “abominable religion,” it nevertheless overruled Stuyvesant in 1663 and ordered him to “allow everyone to have his own belief.” Thus did religious toleration become the law of the colony.
The Bowne house is still standing. And within a few blocks of it a modern visitor to Flushing will encounter a Quaker meeting house, a Dutch Reformed church, an Episcopal church, a Catholic church, a synagogue, a Hindu temple and a mosque. All coexist in peace, appropriately in the most diverse neighborhood in the most diverse borough in the most diverse city on the planet.
America's religious tradition - the tradition I was brought up with - is one of diversity and tolerance. I remember walking by that very same Quaker meeting house near Main Street in Flushing, with its roots way back to the story above; it's the place Thomas Merton used to go to before he became a monastic and before he discovered Zen Buddhism.
Turns out we Zen Buddhists are as American as apple pie.