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Religious Tolerance in New Amsterdam

New York City,1 named by the English who took it from the Dutch, is nevertheless full of Dutch names: Stuyvesant Street, Harlem, Staten Island, Coney Island, the Bowery, and the Bronx. And while it can be a challenge to see Flushing in Vlissingen and Flatbush in Vlackebos, the counterparts to Brueckelen (Brooklyn) and Lange Eylandt (Long Island) come easier.2 The Dutch built the wall of Wall Street and produced the Vanderbilts and Roosevelts.3 But, as Russell Shorto argues in The Island at the Center of the World, their legacy is as much civic as linguistic—namely, the rich, American mix of Christian primacy, religious liberty, and principled pluralism.

The Dutch had long been known for tolerance. It was to Holland that Jews, including the philosopher Spinoza’s family, fled the Spanish Inquisition. Here, too, English Separatists escaped Anglican persecution and Anabaptists escaped torment by Switzerland’s magisterial Reformers; in Amsterdam, the two groups met and believer’s baptism by immersion became a Baptist hallmark. It was also in Holland that the pilgrims sojourned before departing for America.4

The Dutch love of and stand for freedom was forged in the fires of Spanish tyranny. The Union of Utrecht, drafted in 1579 at the beginning of their war of independence and serving as “the de factor Dutch constitution,” declared that “each person shall remain free, especially in his religion.”5 And it was this sentiment that crossed the Atlantic to New Amsterdam.

The results were not always gratifying, even as today’s Holland is home to all sorts of decadence. Alongside picturesque canals, tidy streets, and tulip arrangements, one can find public houses of prostitution, hashish cafes, and euthanizing doctors. So too, in New York’s early days, “the vaunted characteristic of Dutch society—as a pluralistic, tolerant republic—was in evidence only in a negative way.” Indeed, “[I]t was little more than a place of chaos and slop, of barroom knife fights, soldiers fornicating with Indian women while on guard duty, and a steady stream of wayward newcomers . . . ready to smuggle, drink, trade, whore, and be gone.”6

Still, there were Protestant ministers hard at work in the colony, and some, such as Bastiaen Krol7 and a Reverend Bogardus,8 were particularly concerned that the Indians be treated with respect. Furthermore, there was no mistaking the leading faith in the city: When magistrates entered office, they bowed their heads as a minister prayed, “Thou hast received us in Christ . . . make us fit through Thy grace, that we may do the duties imposed upon us.”9 These were fine Christian words, not unlike those intoned by their English colonial neighbors to the northeast. But there was a big difference, for in Massachusetts, they had a taste for theocracy. One minister called freedom of worship the “first born of all abominations.” Another said, “‘Tis Satan’s policy to plead for an indefinite and boundless toleration.”10 Baptists and Quakers had been running for their lives up there, but New York’s first English governor, Thomas Dongan, could marvel at the mix he found in his previously Dutch “parish”—“Singing Quakers; Ranting Quakers, Sabbatarians; Antisabbatarians; Some Anabaptists some Independants; some Jews.”11

There was no “celebration of diversity” (a modern phrase they would have found silly); in New York rather it was more a matter of “putting up with.” Not a stirring expression, but radical against the backdrop of Europe’s wars of religion.12 Time would tell that the notion was quite fruitful for statecraft and the economy. It is a shame and a puzzle that it took the Puritan pilgrims so long to appreciate the virtues of toleration when they themselves had fled the intolerant. It is a blessing that the Dutch founders of America’s largest city understood religious liberty from the outset.


New Amsterdam was founded in 1625 and reincorporated as New York City in June 1665.


Russell Shorto, The Island at the Center of the World (New York: Doubleday, 2004), 48-49, 262.


Ibid., 255, 310.


Robert Peterson, “The Pilgrims in Holland,” The Freeman Website, http://www.theadvocates.org/freeman/8811petr.html (accessed November 20, 2007).


Shorto, 245.


Ibid., 89.


Ibid., 59.


Ibid., 140.


Ibid., 257.


Ibid., 301.


Ibid., 276.


Ibid., 124-125.