history essay


A Tradition to Live By: New York Religious History, 1624–1740 Author(s): Thomas E. Carney Source: New York History, Vol. 85, No. 4 (FALL 2004), pp. 301-330 Published by: New York State Historical Association Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/23187346 Accessed: 29-01-2018 23:12 UTC

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A Tradition to Live By: New York Religious History, 1624-1740.

Thomas E. Carney, Assistant Professor of Constitutional History, University of Baltimore, Baltimore, Maryland

"Rellijon is a quare thing, " said Dunne's Irish wit, Mr. Dooley. "Be

itself it's all right. But sprinkle a little pollyticl^s into it an dinnymit is bran

flour compared with. Alone it prepares man f r a better life. Combined

with pollytic\s it hurries him to it."1

The issue of religion was a subject of great concern for the people of colonial New York and continues to be so for those historians who

study that place and time. Many historians of this period have focused

their attention upon the relationship of church and state in the colony.2

The purpose of this essay, however, is to look at the development of reli

gion within colonial New York society from a more dynamic perspec

tive. I will argue that the New York colonial experience represents the

development of an expectancy of religious freedom. This expectancy of religious freedom was a shared belief held by many inhabitants of colo nial New York: that each individual had the right to choose and prac tice whatever religion that individual found acceptable. "Expectancy,"

as used in this discussion, is not to be confused with "expectation."

Rather, expectancy refers to a developing legal interest/right in its nas

cent form.ί This belief—this expectancy—is based, in the first instance,

1. Mr. Dooley, created by Finley Peter Dunne, quoted in Leonard W. Levy, The Establishment Clause: Religion and the First Amendment, 2d ed., revised (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), xivn2.

2. Patricia U. Bonomi, Under the Cope of Heaven: Religion, Society, and Politics in Colonial America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 50—54; Thomas J. Curry, The First Freedoms: Church and State in America to the Passage of the First Amendment (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 65; John Webb Pratt, Religion, Politics, and Diversity: The Church-State Theme in New Yor/ζ History (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1967); E. Clowes Charley, "The Beginnings of the Church in the Province of New York," Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church, 13 (March 1944): 6.

New York History Summer 2004 © 2004 by The New York State Historical Association

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in a perception of natural law and came to fruition through the agency

of tradition. The development of this expectancy was an evolutionary

process, growing with the experience of each generation. The expectan cy did not exist in 1624; it developed gradually and came into existence

by the 1740s. This story begins with a colony that was diverse in ethnic

ity, nationality, and religion and became even more so as the colony

developed. It traces the stages by which this initial diversity gave rise to

an expectancy of religious freedom that had come to fruition by 1740.

This development was fostered by several different situations which

existed in the colony: in some instances, the colonists lived beyond the

constraints of royal authorities; in other cases, the authorities simply

ignored what the colonists were doing. Under this hands-off policy,

people grew so accustomed to worshipping without interference that,

on occasion, they clashed among themselves and with the colonial

authorities. In all cases, the colonists sought to practice the religion that

they had chosen. In time the colonists came to believe that they had the

right to choose their own religion. This expectancy seldom took the

form of written law (although legislative acts occasionally did become

part of the process), but, in the colonial period, traditional practices had

the effect of law in the mind of the people.4

The province of New York, unlike other British North American colonies, was founded by the Dutch, not the English. The Dutch claims to the area were based upon the explorations of Henry Hudson who, in

1609, sailing under contract with the Dutch East India Company, first

explored the river that now bears his name. In 1614, the New

Netherland Company received a monopoly over this area and estab

lished a trading post at Castle Island, just below the site of present-day

Albany.5 The company's charter expired in 1618, and another group of

merchants, the Dutch West India Company, received a "monopoly to all

Dutch trade and navigation with the Americas and West Africa."6 The

3. For a discussion of the development of individual property interests/rights, see Charles A. Reich, "The New Property," 73 Yale Law Journal (April 1964), 733-787.

4. This process is not unique to the development of freedom of religion. It is the same process, at least in part, through which the common law itself was forged.

5. Michael Kämmen, Colonial New Yortç A History (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1975), 26. 6. Ibid.

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Carney New York Religious History, 1624-1740 303

Dutch West India Company began to occupy their claimed territory in

1624. In April of that year, the company sent the Nieu Nederlandt,

under the command of Captain Cornells Jacabson May, with the first

settlers to the colony of New Netherland. These colonists, who includ

ed Dutch Protestants and also Walloons, French-speaking Protestants from southern Netherlands, foretold the diversity that would character

ize the colony throughout its history to the present day.7

The Dutch West India Company promoted the fur trade in the

colony. Early efforts to populate this desolate and distant land failed to

excite most of the Dutch people, who enjoyed a reasonably comfortable

life at home as a result of an expanding Dutch economy. To attract set

tlers, in the 1630s and 1640s, the company authorized a series of "free

doms and exemptions" that promised free land and local self-govern

ment to any hardy soul "who brought five adults with him" to the

colony.^ These offers brought a moderate growth in population, but the

new immigrants were not Dutch, and most did not come directly from

Europe. The ballooning population of New England drove some English Puritans down the New England coast to the eastern end of

Long Island, where they established the town of Southampton in 1640

and soon expanded to found East Hampton and Southold. This group came to the colony of New York with a tradition of religious dissent. In

some cases, these Puritans were dissenters twice over: they or their

forefathers had fled from religious persecution in England, and at this

time some of these immigrants were fleeing from religious disputes in

New England. They would provide fertile soil for the future develop ment of the expectancy of religious freedom. By 1644, the population of

the colony was already so diverse that the Jesuit missionary Father Isaac

Jogues, a frequent visitor to the colony, wrote: "there may well be four or five hundred men of different sects and nations; the Director General

told me that there were persons there of eighteen different languages."9

7. Ibid., 29; Randall Balmer, A Perfect Babel of Confusion: Dutch Religion and the English Culture in the Middle Colonies (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), vii.

8. Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New Yor\, ed. Ε. Β. O'Callaghan (Albany, NY: Weed, Parsons and Company, 1858), II: 551-57; I: 119-123. Kämmen, Colonial New Yor\, 31, 34-36; Pratt, Religion, Politics and Diversity, 4.

9. Kämmen, Colonial New Yor\, 37; Balmer, A Perfect Babel of Confusion, vii.

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This was probably an overstatement, but the basic sentiment—great

diversity in religion and ethnicity—was accurate.10

The Dutch Reformed Church was the only officially recognized reli gion in the Dutch Republic by the early seventeenth century, but it was

not the only religion practiced in the country. Despite the best efforts of

the Reformed ministers, the civil magistrates prevailed in their efforts to

protect the religious minorities. The result was an uneasy policy of tol eration in the Netherlands, born from Article 13 of the Union of

Utrecht of 1579, leading to tensions and power politics between the

Reformed Church and the civil magistrates. The magistrates attempted

to control the Reformed ministers who were vying with them to domi

nate and direct Dutch society.11 This oppositional situation was carried

over to New Netherland. The Dutch West India Company controlled the colony and looked to the Amsterdam Classis, which was a loose knit association of Reformed ministers of Amsterdam churches who

were responsible for maintaining orthodoxy in Amsterdam and in the

colony, to provide for the religious welfare of the colony. But this rela

tionship was not without its tension. The company sought "a

lighthanded policy of toleration" to promote the colony's success as a

commercial venture, but the company also had to contend with the

Reformed ministers' demand for orthodoxy and religious dominance.12

10. The religious and ethnic diversity of colonial New York is the single fact upon which all his torians agree and most have commented. William Smith, Jr., A History of the Province of New Yor/{, Michael Kämmen, ed. (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1972), I: 203—208; Thomas Jones, History of New Yorl{ during the Revolutionary War, ed. Edward Floyd DeLancey (New York: New York Historical Society, 1879), 2; John Fiske, The Dutch and Quaker Colonies in America (Boston, MA: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1899), I: 230; Patricia U. Bonomi, A Factious People: Politics and Society in Colonial New Yorf{ (New York: Columbia University Press, 1971), 1—2; Curry, The First Freedoms, 62.

11. The traditional interpretation of the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic as "a haven of tol eration" has recently undergone some réévaluation. Andrew Pettegree, "The politics of toleration in the Free Netherlands, 1572—1620," in Ole Peter Grell and Bob Scribner, eds., Tolerance and Intolerance in the European Reformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 182—198; see also Jaap Jacobs, "Between Repression and Approval: Connivance and Tolerance in the Dutch Republic and in New Netherland," de Halve Maen (Fall 1998): 51—58.

12. Oliver A. Rink, Holland on the Hudson: An Economic and Social History of Dutch New Yor\ (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986), 228. The past decade has been marked by a renewed interest in the relationship between the religious and commercial interests in the West India Company's administration of New Netherland. Willem Frijhoff has argued that religion did play a significant role in the company's decisions; while Jaap Jacobs and Oliver A. Rink have argued for the dominance of commercial interests. All these historians, however, have pointed out that the situa tion was much more complicated than previously suggested. Willem Frijhoff, "The West India

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Carney New York Religious History, 1624-1740 305

The precariousness of this situation became problematic with the appointment of Pieter Stuyvesant as director-general of the colony in

1647. Stuyvesant, a professional soldier and the son of a Dutch Reformed minister, was director-general of New Netherland from 1647

to 1664. He was a devoted Calvinist, "fiercely patriotic, fearless in battle,

capable of towering rages, and an autocratic leader with a reputation for

discipline and work."'3 The new governor and the Dutch Reformed ministers in the colony entered into a symbiotic relationship. The gov

ernor ensured that the Reformed Church maintained its exclusivity

within the colony, and the Church aided the governor in preserving

order. In the colony the social situation became explosive because the

governor refused to recognize the unofficial policy of toleration.

Overturning the unofficial policy of benign neglect of the past,

Governor Stuyvestant sought to eradicate in toto all other religious prac

tices, regardless of whether they were practiced in public or private.

Prior to Stuyvesant, the unofficial policy had engendered an expectancy

on the part of the colonists, especially the English dissidents of the peri

od, that they would be permitted to practice their religion in the colony,

at least in the privacy of their homes. This expectancy based on past

policy and the governor's zeal collided, but the governor could not

extinguish the colonial drive or desire for individual religious free

dom.^ Religious freedom was an elixir which, once tasted, would not readily be relinquished by those who had enjoyed it.

By the 1650s, many Lutherans resided in New Netherland. Some were Dutch, but others were Swedes and Finns who had established a

colony, New Sweden, on the Delaware River that the Dutch had seized and incorporated into New Netherland. In October 1653, several of these Lutherans petitioned Governor Stuyvestant for "permission to call

a Lutheran Minister out of Holland and to organize separately and pub

Company and the Reformed Church: Neglect or Concern," de Halve Maen, 70 (Fall 1997): 59—68; Jacobs, "Between Repression and Approval" de Halve Maen, 71 (Fall 1998): 51-58; and Oliver A. Rink, "Private Interests and Godly Gain: The West India Company and the Dutch Reformed Church in New Netherland, 1624-1664," New Yorl{ History, 75 (July 1994): 245-64.

13. Rink, Holland on the Hudson, 223; Frijhoff, "The West India Company and the Reformed Church," 60. Stuyvesant was appointed director-general in May 1645 but did not arrive in the colony until May 1647. Fiske, The Dutch and Quaker Colonies in America, I: 194—95.

14. For a full discussion, see Pratt, Religion, Politics and Diversity, Chapter 1.

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licly a congregation and church."1? This effort by the colonial Lutheran

church came close upon the heels of the that of Lutherans in the mother

country, who had only recently gained a very limited right to organize

there.1^ The Dutch Reformed ministers, the Reverends Johannes

Megapolensis and Samuel Drisius, immediately sent word of the request

to the Amsterdam Classis. Megapolensis argued that such an action by

the Lutherans "would tend to the injury of our church, the diminution of hearers of the Word of God, and the increase of dissensions of which

We have had a sufficiency for years past." To grant the Lutherans'

request "would also pave the way for other sects, so that in time our

place would become a receptacle for all sorts of heretics and fanatics."1?

Acting on this correspondence, the Classis promptly solicited the

support of the directors of the West India Company to oppose the

Lutheran petition. The Classis and directors both feared "that other

evil consequences might result: that Mennonites, as well as English

Independents, who are numerous there, might seek to introduce like

public assemblies."1® The directors of the company on February 23,

1654, enacted a resolution opposing the Lutheran petition and forward

ed it to Governor Stuyvestant.'9

The religious composition of the colony was further complicated in

the fall of 1654 when "some Jews came from Holland" and were later

followed by other Jews who were forced to flee from Brazil when the

Portuguese defeated the Dutch there.20 Once again, the Reverend

Megapolensis complained to the Amsterdam Classis and requested its assistance in driving "these godless rascals," the Jews, out of the colony.21

15. "Letter from Reverends Megapolensis and Drisius to the Classis at Amsterdam, 6 October 1653," Ecclesiastical Records of the State of New Yorfy, ed. Ε. T. Corwin (Albany: J.B. Lyon Company, 1905), I: 317; Rink, Holland on the Hudson, 230.

16. For a careful examination of the Lutheran efforts to gain a freedom of religion in the Netherlands, see Jonathan I. Israel, The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall, 1477—1806 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

17. "Letter from Megapolensis and Drisius to the Classis," Ecclesiastical Records, I: 317. 18. "Request to the Hon. XIX, to Prevent Lutheran Preaching and Public Assemblies in New

Netherland, with Answer Thereto," Ecclesiastical Records, I: 320—21. 19. "Acts of Deputies Denying Lutheran Petition For a Pastor," Ecclesiastical Records, I: 322. 20. "Letter from Reverend John Megapolensis to the Classis of Amsterdam, 18 March 1655,"

Ecclesiastical Records, 1:335; Howard M. Sachar, A History of the Jews in America (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 13—14; Rink, Holland on the Hudson, 233.

21. "Letter from Reverend John Megapolensis to the Classis of Amsterdam," Ecclesiastical Records, 1:335.

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Carney New York Religious History, 1624-1740 307

In closing his letter to his religious superiors, Megapolensis painted a

picture of what appeared to him to be the dismal religious complexion

of the colony: "For as we have here Papists, Mennonites and Lutherans among the Dutch; also many Puritans or Independents, and many

Atheists and various other servants of Baal among the English under

this Government... ; it would create a still greater confusion if the obstinate and moveable Jews came here to settle."22

Stuyvestant, an ardent member of the Dutch Reformed Church,

feared the civil disorder that religious dissidents such as the Lutherans

and Jews might cause.23 He issued a proclamation in early 1655, specif

ically aimed at both, forbidding any "conventicles" or gatherings to cele

brate or worship pursuant to any practice other than the Dutch

Reformed Church. He also forbade the Jews from trading within cer

tain areas in the colony. In the Netherlands, these actions were not

blessed by the directors of the company. Writing to the governor in

June 1656, the directors chastised Stuyvestant for his actions. In very

direct language, they told him that the Jews were to be permitted to

"quietly and peacefully carry on their business as before, and exercise in

all quietness their religion within their houses." This was not a grant of

religious toleration or full acceptance in society. The directors were

possibly concerned that Stuyvestant's hostilities toward the Jews in the

colony would be communicated to those Jews in the Netherlands, whereupon the Jewish investors in the company might withdraw their

money from the company. Furthermore, the directive specifically pro vided that "Jews or Portuguese people however shall not be employed

in any public service . . . nor to have open retail shops." The Jews were

also required to live in what has subsequently become known as ghet toes: ". . . they must without doubt endeavor to build their houses close

together in a convenient place on one or the other side of New Amsterdam."24

22. Ibid., I: 335-36. 23. Governor Stuyvestant's aversion to Jews dated from his earlier service as governor of

Curacao, Sachar, Jews in America, 14. 24. "Letter from the Directors to Governor Stuyvesant, Concerning the Jews and Lutherans, 14

June 1656," Ecclesiastical Records, I: 352; Rink, Holland on the Hudson, 234; Sachar, Jews in America, 13-16.

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The directors also lamented that "[W]e would also have been better

pleased, if you had not published the placat against the Lutherans." The

directors then declared: "Hereafter you will therefore not publish such

or similar placats without our knowledge, but you must pass it over qui

etly and let them have free religious exercises in their houses."25 Perhaps

encouraged by this nominal recognition, the Lutherans continued to

press for freedom to practice their faith publicly. In October 1656, the

Lutherans in New Amsterdam petitioned the governor and his council

for the right to "celebrate, with prayer, reading and singing."

Responding to this petition, the governor and council remained steadfast

in their intention to prohibit "conventicles and public gatherings, except

those for the divine service of the here prevailing Reformed Church."20

The Lutheran question appeared unresolvable. The directors of the company continued to support the Lutherans' right to the private prac

tice of their religion, but the New York Lutherans pressed for the right

to worship publicly with the formation of a congregation under the

direction of a Lutheran minister. In the summer of 1657, Reverend

Johannes Ernestus Goetwater, a Lutheran minister, arrived in the colony

from Holland. Once more, the Reverend Megapolensis raged against the Lutherans. In a petition to the Burgomasters of New Amsterdam,

he argued vehemently that although the Lutherans could not hold sepa rate "conventicles," their numbers were increasing. He urged no further

concessions because "[I]f the Lutherans should be indulged in the exer

cise of their (public) worship, the Papists, Mennonites and others, would

soon make similar claims."2? After considering this petition, the

Burgomasters found that "[W]hen we deliberated on all this, we could

not believe that the Hon. Directors would tolerate in this place any other

doctrine, than the true Reformed Religion."2® This decision was subse

25. "Letter from the Directors to Governor Stuyvestant, Concerning the Jews and Lutherans, 14 June 1656," Ecclesiastical Records, I: 352.

26. "Petition of the Lutherans to the Governor and Council to be Permitted to Enjoy Their Own Public Worship, 24 October 1656," Ecclesiastical Records, I: 358—60; Fiske, Dutch and Quaker Colonies, I: 231—232.

27. "Petition of the Reverends Megapolensis and Dress to the Burgomasters, etc., Against Tolerating the Lutherans, 6 August 1657," Ecclesiastical Records, I: 386—88.

28. "Report of the Mayor and Aldermen of New Amsterdam Upon the Petition of the Ministers Against Allowing Lutheran Services, 14 July 1657," Ecclesiastical Records, I: 389.

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Carney New York Religious History, 1624-1740 309

quently ratified by the governor and his council, who ordered that the

placat prohibiting conventicles "be retained and enforced strictly."29

Attempting to explain and justify their position, they found this action

"to be necessary for the maintenance and conservation not only of

Reformed divine services, but also of political and civil peace, quietness

and harmony."3°

Such actions did little to reduce the flow into the colony of religious

dissidents, such as Puritans, Quakers, and Baptists. The dissident

English religious sect, the Baptists, appeared in the English areas of

Long Island outside the city of New Amsterdam in 1656. William Hallett, an Englishman living in the village of Flushing, was convicted

of hosting and participating in Baptist conventicles. He was fined fifty

pounds Flemish and banished from the colony. In the fall of 1657 the

Reverend Megapolensis sent notice to the Amsterdam Classis of the

recent arrival of "Quakers, as they are callec' "31 He also complained

once more about the continued presence in the colony of the Lutheran

minister, Reverend Johannes Ernestus Goetwater.32

Governor Stuyvestant responded to the Quaker invasion by issuing a

proclamation forbidding anyone from sheltering or assisting the

Quakers.33 This caused an outright rebellion by the English settlers of

the village of Flushing. In a well-reasoned argument based upon

Christian charity, the people of Flushing, many of whom were Quakers

but some of whom were not, defied the governor:

The law of love, peace and libertie in the [Dutch] states extending

to Jews, Turks and Egyptians, as they are considered the sonnes of

Adam, which is the glory of the outward State of Holland; so love,

peace and libertie extending to all in Christ Jesus, Condemns

hatred, warre and bondage; and because our Savior saith it is

impossible but that offence will come, but woe be unto him by

29. "Receipt of Report of Mayor and Aldermen by Governor-General and Council," Ecclesiastical Records, I: 390.

30. Ibid.

31. "Letter from Reverends Megapolensis and Dress to the Classis of Amsterdam, 25 October 1657," Ecclesiastical Records, I: 409.

32. Ibid.

33. Ibid.

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whom they Commeth, our desire is not to offend one of his little

ones in whatsoever forme, name or title hee appeares in, whether

Presbyterian, Independent, Baptist or Quaker; but shall be glad to

see anything of God in any of them; desireing to doe unto all men as wee desire all men should doe unto us, which is the true law

both of Church and State;34

This truly Christian proclamation resulted in the arrest and imprison ment of two Flushing magistrates, Edward Farrington and William

Noble, who had been foolish enough to sign the Remonstrance and then

appear before the governor after he had read it. No documentation

exists that would explain what provoked Farrington and Noble to do

this. One might, however, reasonably presume that the two magistrates were themselves Quakers or, at least, had Quaker tendencies. The

Remonstrance then becomes a personal statement of faith; such expres

sions were common among Quakers.

Attempting to raise his attack on the Quakers to a theological level,

Stuyvestant issued a Proclamation for a Day of Prayer for March 18. He

preached to the citizens of the province that God in his righteous anger

. . . hath visited near and remote places, towns and hamlets with

hot fevers and dangerous diseases, as a chastisement if not punish

ment of the thankless use of temporal blessings; permitting and

allowing the Spirit of Error to scatter its injurious passion amongst

us, in spiritual matters here and there, rising up and propagating a

new unheard of, abominable Heresy, called Quakers; seeking to

seduce many, yea, were it possible even the true believers. . . .35

But prayer was not the governor's only means of attack on the Quakers.

On 28 January 1658, Governor Stuyvestant found Tobias Feaks of the

village of Flushing guilty of harboring and leading "the abominable sect

called Quakers." Feaks was fined and banished from the colony, but the

sentence was suspended because Feaks confessed his sins and promised

34. "Remonstrance of the Inhabitants of Flushing, L. I., Against the Law Against the Quakers and Subsequent Proceedings by the Government Against Them and Others Favoring Quakers, 1 January 1658," Ecclesiastical Records, I: 413; Rink, Holland on the Hudson, 237.

35. "Court Minutes of New Amsterdam, 21 January 1658," Ecclesiastical Records, I: 414.

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Carney New York Religious History, 1624-1740

to sin no …