How Religious Toleration Came to America

The Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 2010 | Go to article overview

How Religious Toleration Came to America


THE SOURCE: "Dutch Contributions to Religious Toleration" by Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs, in Church History, Sept. 2010.

SIX YEARS AGO, HISTORIAN Russell Shorto rescued the life of one Adriaen van der Donck from obscurity. Van der Donck, as Shorto told it, was one of the earliest advocates in the New World of a republican system of government and Dutch-style religious toleration. Upon the foundation Van der Donck laid, New Amsterdam flourished and its institutions became a model for America. In the academic world, many delighted in seeing the English philosopher John Locke--traditionally credited with popularizing the idea of religious freedom--knocked off his pedestal.

It's a nice yarn, writes Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs, director of the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum in the Netherlands, but no more than that. None of Van der Donck's writings--published or otherwise--touch upon religious toleration. He doesn't make any appearances in the colony's records arguing for toleration.

New Amsterdam was no beacon of religious toleration. The authorities discriminated against Jews, Lutherans, and Baptists, among others. In 1657, English colonists on Long Island sent a request to the New Amsterdam government for religious freedom for Quakers. The petition (now called the Flushing Remonstrance) was denied and not thought of again until the 19th century. It was hardly the forerunner of the Bill of Rights, as some now imagine.

"With sophistry bordering on hypocrisy, tolerant New Netherland offered its inhabitants freedom to believe whatever they wanted, as long as their belief did not extend to religious exercises outside the family circle--no preaching, no prayer meetings, no group discussions of theology," Bangs writes. …

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