One of the rights we enjoy in America is the freedom to worship, or not worship, the way we choose. We’ve learned since childhood that America was founded on that principle, and we celebrate the Pilgrims who were the first, but certainly not the last group to come here, seeking a place where they could worship God in their own way. Unfortunately, not everyone who settled here was that tolerant, and even in New York, where commerce was always a deity, those who practiced a religion outside of the established order found themselves hiding from authority when Peter Stuyvesant was governor of New Netherlands.
The Bowne family came from England. They were an old established family that could trace their lineage back to the days of William the Conqueror. They left no records as to why they chose to leave England, but in 1649, John Bowne, his father Thomas, and his sister Dorothy made long trip from Derbyshire to Boston. John didn’t stay there for long and traveled south to New Amsterdam, where he bought some land in Flushing, then still called Vlissengin, from members of the Matincock Indian tribe. There, in 1661, he built his home, a synthesis of Dutch design and English building traditions.
He married Hannah Feake, the niece of Governor John Winthrop of Massachusetts and Governor Robert Winthrop of Connecticut. They would have eight children before Hannah’s death in 1677. John Bowne remarried twice more, and had six more children with his second wife, and two more with his third. As the family grew and prospered, more wings were added to the house in 1669 and 1680. The final footprint of the house, which remains to this day, was completed in 1695.
The fact that the house is in existence today is simply remarkable, but even more remarkable were the events that took place in this rather humble farmstead, and the lives of some of the members of the Bowne family. They were participants in some of our city’s defining moments, events that had repercussions that still resonate today, not just here in New York, but in our entire nation.
The Bowne’s were Quakers. This denomination, more formally called the Society of Friends, was founded in England in the 1640s. They believed in a personal relationship with God, through Christ, and most dangerously for them, that this relationship could be found without the benefit of clergy and an ecclesiastical hierarchy. They believed that they were much closer to true Christianity, and that the Church of England and other established churches had grown corrupt and had strayed from the path. When George Fox, one of the leaders of the Friends, was brought before the courts on blasphemy charges, he “bade them tremble before the Lord,” prompting some detractors to call them “Quakers.”
The Society of Friends grew quickly in England, so much so that they were seen as a threat to the religious and social order, and they were officially persecuted in England beginning in 1662. The official sanctions against them didn’t relax until the Act of Toleration, passed in 1689. By that time, many had fled England for other lands, including the New World. Pennsylvania was founded by William Penn in 1682 as a Quaker refuge. But even in North America, the Quakers were not welcomed everywhere.
They certainly weren’t welcomed in New Netherlands. Peter Stuyvesant, governor of New Amsterdam from 1647 until it became New York in 1664, was many things, but tolerant wasn’t one of them. Actually, he was a pretty unpleasant man in many ways, so it’s rather amazing that history has rewarded him by immortalizing him, and his name is everywhere in our city today. Stuyvesant was the son of a Calvinist minister, and a member of the Dutch Reformed Church, the official denomination of the colony of New Netherlands.
Flushing was part of New Netherlands, but the town’s charter, granted by the Dutch West India Company in 1645, guaranteed “liberty of conscience.” Stuyvesant didn’t like other religions, and he really didn’t like Quakers, with their lack of a hierarchical clergy and their progressive ways. They even allowed women to become preachers, and they were against slavery, which was an established practice in New Netherlands, and had been since the beginning. He passed laws forbidding the practice of any religion except that of the Dutch Reformed Church.
Flushing’s town leaders weren’t having it. They drew up a document called the Flushing Remonstrance and presented it to Governor-Director Stuyvesant on December 27, 1657. The letter stated in essence, that not only were they going to defy the law of the Governor-Director of New Netherlands, but that Flushing would welcome anyone into their township, regardless of religious affiliation. The Remonstrance is a remarkable document, and can be read in its entirety here.
John Bowne did not sign the letter, we’ll never know why, but he certainly took the contents to heart and practice. In 1662, he further defied Stuyvesant’s edict, and openly allowed his home to be a meeting place for Quaker services. His wife Hannah was one of the preachers at these services. He was arrested, but refused to pay a fine, or plead guilty to any wrongdoing. He also refused to leave town, as ordered. Stuyvesant was furious, and had Bowne sent to Holland to stand trial there.
Bowne was brought before the board of the Dutch West India Company, which technically owned New Netherlands. There, he argued his case, using the “liberty of conscience” clause of the town charter as his defense. The board had to agree with him, and he won not only his freedom, but the Dutch West India Company ordered Peter Stuyvesant to permit dissenting faiths to worship freely in all of the towns and lands of New Netherlands. John Bowne returned to Flushing in 1664, victorious, and with a framework for religious freedom that was spread to the entire colony. The courage and tolerance of the leaders of Flushing, and the principles of the Flushing Remonstrance formed the basis of our freedom of religion, as stated in the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution. GMAP
Next time: John Bowne’s descendants were no historical slouches either. They helped form modern New York, and were active in the issues of their day, including the anti-slavery movement. Please join me next week for their stories, and a look at how and why this remarkable house, the oldest house in Queens, has survived all these centuries in a city that is constantly tearing down and rebuilding itself. The Bowne House is located at Weeping Beech Park, 37-01 Bowne Street, Flushing, NY 11354.
(Photograph: John Bowne house, via Wikimedia Commons)