Kenneth Jackson: A Colony With a Conscience

Posted by Kendall Harmon

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.

For example, while the Massachusetts Bay Colony was enforcing Puritan orthodoxy, there were no religious tests in the Dutch colony. So open was New Amsterdam that at least 16 languages were being spoken there by the 1640s; by 1654, the first Jews in what is now the United States had been able to settle there peaceably.

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Filed under: * Culture-WatchReligion & Culture* International News & CommentaryAmerica/U.S.A.

Posted December 28, 2007 at 11:06 am [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]

1. Irenaeus wrote:

Stuyvesant also wanted to expel the Sephardic Jews who had fled to New York City (from Recife, Brazil). But the West India Company ordered him to let them remain.

December 28, 4:21 pm | [comment link]
2. Ol' Bob wrote:

As one who enjoys validation of his beliefs, I find this one exceptional.  Do I misread, or was all this religious liberty stuff driven by fervor for religious liberty or by fervor to create and preserve and climate which enhanced and encouraged commerce?
You see, I believe that 1) our democratic form of government, 2) our market-driven, free-enterprise, capitalistic economic system and 3) our religous freedoms are inextricably connected - all three, inextricably related.  This seems to validate that.

December 28, 4:27 pm | [comment link]
3. Jeremy Bonner wrote:


I would say yes, provided one accepts that Democracy and a Market-Driven Capitalist Economy are the least worst options with which fallen humanity are capable of dealing, rather than some ideal state.

Also, both capitalism and democracy tend to be much more tolerant of faiths that are quietist (like the seventeenth century Quakers). When faith becomes critical of the surrounding culture (whether from an economic or a cultural standpoint) enthusiasm for religious freedom dissipates somewhat. And maybe that is at it should be, for how else can a Christian be genuinely countercultural?

December 28, 4:47 pm | [comment link]
4. Irenaeus wrote:

Stable democratic institutions, well-recognized individual rights (including freedom of religion, free speech, and property rights), good government, and a culture of honesty foster prosperity.

Economic freedom, within a prudent legal structure, helps reinforce political freedom and individual rights. (The law should restrain abuses like fraud, corruption, peonage, pollution, and price-fixing, all of which subvert free markets.)

December 28, 5:21 pm | [comment link]
5. Franz wrote:

I’d also add (and maybe it’s redundant) that religious liberty can also only thrive where there is a concept of limited government.  Democracy can easily lead to a repression of a religious minority.

December 28, 5:24 pm | [comment link]
6. Ol' Bob wrote:

# 3 Jeremy, I would be interested in knowing why you think a Christian needs to be be “genuinely countercultural.”  Is not some of our culture good?  Is it not enough to challenge that which is not good?  Must we challenge all culture?

December 28, 5:33 pm | [comment link]
7. Jeremy Bonner wrote:

Ol Bob,

At the risk of calling down elfish wrath for diverting the thread . . .

Of course there are aspects of the prevailing culture in any age that are worthy and should be celebrated. My point - which my limited experience as a historian has tended to confirm - is that NOT being countercultural tends, over time, to breed complacency and ultimately accommodation to things that we should not embrace.

The proponents of the Social Gospel - and some of them, please note, were good Anglo Catholics not Broad Churchmen - initially came to prominence precisely because too many nominal Christians assumed the prevailing economic order was flawless. Ultimately, though, the Social Gospelers themselves accommodated to the new economic orthodoxy. I would also view Norman Vincent Peale as a less than desirable model of cultural accommodation.

Since we all know, on a personal level, of the need for daily renewal, I hesitate to ascribe virtue to any economic or political system. It seems more congruent with the Fall to be constantly aware of the need for correction to what presently exists. That doesn’t seem to me to be incompatible with stable and theologically orthodox worldview.

December 28, 7:43 pm | [comment link]
8. Tom Roberts wrote:

If anyone wishes a more detailed and expansive treatment of the interchange between capitalism, political governance, and religion, I would suggest the Fernand Braudel Civilization and Capitalism trilogy. Its bottom line: money goes where it can earn the highest return and the best minds follow that trend on a general basis. Of course, historically, that path isn’t so easy to discern when looking at your options in the present tense.

Braudel was rather brusque with the Spanish cultural introversion post Reconquista as well as the Moslem and Eastern cultures millenia long refusal to modernize, even when confronted by European military aggression.

December 28, 9:21 pm | [comment link]
9. Sick & Tired of Nuance wrote:

On my father’s side: from 1642 to 1650, when the settlement of Greenwich was officially part of the Dutch colony of the New Netherlands, my ancestors took refuge from the harsh theocracy of New Haven Colony.  They had previously fled [in 1640] to the Connecticut Wilderness to escape the puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Before that, in 1635, they fled persecution in England by the Anglican Church.

In the mid 1840’s, they finally left the Congregational Church and joined the Churches of Christ [Campbellites].  They eventually moved to Indiana, near the headquarters and college of the denomination.

On my mother’s side, they also fled persecution in England by the Anglican Church in 1635.  In 1637, they left the strict puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and settled in Wethersfield, in the Connecticut Colony.  In 1645, they were some of the original founders of a new town in Connecticut called Pequot, now known as New London.  They went on to leave the Congregational Church and become Rogerine Baptists.  They suffered persecution from the Congregational [State] Church for about 100 years.

God bless America and our ancestors who suffered so much to follow their consciences in their worship of the Lord.  The only theocracy that will ever work properly will happen when the Lord Jesus Christ returns to establish it.  Until then, praise God that I live in America.

December 29, 12:05 am | [comment link]
10. Neziha wrote:

Seventeenth century Quakers? Quietist?! Hardly. For one, they had a certain tendency towards naked protesting in Puritan churches.

December 29, 3:05 am | [comment link]
11. Jeremy Bonner wrote:

There’s a wide gulf separating the 17th century Quaker from his 19th and 20th century counterpart. Compared with the products of the Great Awakening only a century later, Quakers definitely rank as quietist, even if they were as subversive, in their way, of church order and authority.

December 29, 10:22 am | [comment link]
12. Harvey wrote:

I’m not sure who said it but I remember a quote, in other words perhaps, that said “..Democracy is a bad form of government but others in comparison are so much worse…”

December 29, 8:53 pm | [comment link]
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