Netherland and the Dutch Origins of American Religious Liberty
By the seventeenth century the Protestant Reformation had resulted in a profusion of religious sects, but separation of church and state was so slow in following that a new faith could literally leave its believers without a country. French Huguenots, English Separatists, Spanish Jews, and other believers converged on a place where at least they could believe as they chose without danger-the Netherlands. That the Dutch were tolerant of other religions is stated today as a fact. But their tolerance was not ours, as Evan Haefeli argues in New Netherland and the Dutch Origins of American Religious Liberty. In it he attempts to clarify the delicate, complex, and sometimes arbitrary world of Dutch toleration, which even in its own time was easy to misinterpret.
Haefeli moves slowly; one of the appealing qualities of the book is his patience. A different author might have concentrated only on Stuyvesant's fourteen years in New Netherland with background information provided as needed. Instead Haefeli covers over a century, starting in the Renaissance and finishing in 1674 with New Netherland's relinquishment to English control. He is willing to move slowly and give attention to issues that did not immediately affect New Netherland. His concern is to trace a nuanced picture of Dutch religious toleration and to familiarize the reader with the many faiths that struggled for open acknowledgement in Dutch society.
His first chapter is a history of the religious conflicts in the sixteenth-and early seventeenth-century Netherlands. The northern Dutch provinces adopted Calvinism and subscribed to the opinion that a single faith, the Reformed Church, was synonymous with peace and domestic order. Yet they had no wish to force conversions; this would undermine the faith and create believers who were believers in name only and not in spirit. Haefeli also cites at least two quotations from Dutchmen (one of them from Stuyvesant, below) that show an intrinsic abhorrence for attempts to control an individual's own beliefs; he suggests that the roots of this abhorrence stemmed from the Dutch hatred of Catholic insistence on religious conformity. Furthermore, the Dutch reliance on trade meant it was obliged to deal with many nations of different faiths and to welcome a diversity of immigrants through its borders. To do otherwise would mean risking the Netherlands' interests and perhaps even its hard-won freedom. Liberty of conscience, diplomatic toleration, and the necessary supremacy of proper Calvinist theology, upheld by the Reform Church and the Dutch government, became the three points between which Dutch attitudes towards religious liberty balanced.
Many parts of the Netherlands were uniformly Calvinist. It was in culturally diverse cities such as Amsterdam that Haefeli finds examples of the methods the Dutch used to reconcile their acceptance of other faiths with their loyalty to their church and country. He takes care to emphasize the difference between private and public religion, a distinction perhaps unfamiliar to modem Americans but critical to the Dutch. Private religion describes personal belief; this was the territory of the soul and conscience, into which the Dutch would not tolerate invasion. As Stuyvesant himself said, "liberty of conscience ... 'was in his breast, and withal struck his hand on it.'" (page 44)
Public religion was the open expression of personal beliefs. With its open theological debate, preaching, designated spaces for worship and burial, control of marriages, and attempts to convert others, public religion was considered a threat to order and }Vas carefully controlled. In theory it was frowned upon by the government. Yet officials could be convinced to allow other faiths a degree of public worship through the policy of connivance, a sort of religious don't-ask-don't-tell. Through this review I will use the term "acknowledgement" to describe the goal of non-Calvinist religions in Dutch culture for approval to worship openly. Connivance and acknowledgement were both means of practicing one's faith — the latter protected by official recognition and the former protected by its official nonexistence. Cooperating with connivance often brought greater freedom and rewards than pursuing acknowledgement, as the issue was not only the religion in question but also the believers' willingness to avoid the appearance of challenging the official church.
Part of connivance meant maintaining a profile low enough for officials to plausibly pretend not to see it. A church allowed to exist through connivance was sometimes called a "winking church." Not all Dutch approved of turning a blind eye to falsehood and heresy. But the general hope was that eliminating open competition without alienating people of other faiths would allow correct theology to draw converts to the Reformed Church.
Instead the other faiths-Anabaptists, Jews, Lutherans, even Catholics-were content with what they were offered. While groups and individuals occasionally overstepped the boundaries of toleration by refusing to connive, requesting too much official acknowledgement, or becoming too disruptive, most were able to live quietly without government interference. An outsider to the system could easily have misconstrued the placid Dutch attitude towards compliant non-Calvinist faiths as acceptance.
Nor was connivance a successful conversion strategy overseas. Having described the attitudes towards non-Calvinist faiths, Haefeli briefly describes Dutch religious toleration in its colonies, citing the lack of Dutch Reformed converts in Southeast Asia and the Americas as compared to the Catholic converts created by Spanish and Portuguese forced conversion and French proselytizing. But connivance also let the Dutch allow religious liberty for trade purposes without (consciously) compromising their own beliefs. The trade connections of Sephardic Jews were necessary to sustain New Holland in modern-day Brazil; therefore the Dutch bid for Sephardic colonization included the benefit of significant religious freedom. Religious liberty could be a commodity-and the Dutch used it to a degree that few other countries were willing to match.
The Dutch colonies present a different type of religious toleration that was used to get along with natives and preserve trade agreements. Haefeli briefly describes the practice of Chinese religions in Batavia which went far beyond connivance and into open worship. The Dutch had to work to avert their eyes from pagodas and public parades. But as the Dutch officials found, attempts to restrict public non-Christian worship were doomed to fail — there were simply too many factors, from the need for local traders and workers to the system of connivance itself, working against it. In North America, probably because the American Indians and Dutch did not live together as the Dutch and Chinese did in Batavia, there was little apparent urge to control native religion. The Dutch wished instead to bring American Indians into the church through genuine belief-which happened only occasionally. The Dutch nicety for genuine belief extended even to denying baptism to slaves who were deemed to be more interested — understandably — in securing the freedom of themselves and their children than they were in the conditions of their souls. Again, if the Dutch had accepted imperfect conversions with the understanding that the children of these converts would grow up properly catechized within the faith, it might have strengthened the church against non-Calvinist threats.) It was enough to excuse slavery by pointing out that it exposed Christianity to those who otherwise would have never known it.
Ninety pages into the book the reader reaches New Netherland, but we arrive with enough information to enter into the religious conflicts there without the distraction of back story. A Dutch colony in the New World, many settlers thought, would give an unprecedented opportunity for religious freedom away from the eye of European authority and without the difficulty of establishing one's own colony, as the Puritans and Separatists had in New England. But Haefeli states that one of the major reasons for religious conflicts in New Netherland was outsiders' failure to understand that Dutch toleration had less to do with respectfully acknowledging different beliefs than with tactfully overlooking them. In addition to dealing with more aggressive worshippers who were unaware of the rules of connivance, New Netherland's director generals were less able than their counterparts in Patria to tolerate Reformed Church. Under such circumstances, clashes were inevitable.
The best-known religious clashes in New Netherland are those between Stuyvesant and the Quakers. But Haefeli concentrates on the quieter, long-term struggles of the colony's Lutheran population for recognition and the freedom to worship openly that they enjoyed in Amsterdam. New Netherland was one of the few Dutch colonies in which the religious struggles were almost completely between Protestant groups. This meant that they were more likely to be influenced by Dutch interactions with neighboring countries. Haefeli writes, "The ... Protestant axes: across the sea to England, and north-south to Lutheran Scandinavia", and the Dutch need to deal diplomatically with their European neighbors was sometimes at odds with Stuyvesant's directives to prevent threats to the Dutch Church.
While Haefeli argues that political pressures were a major reason for the Dutch to allow for public worship, he also illustrates the ways in which the Dutch were supportive — sometimes unexpectedly so — of individuals' right to believe privately as they saw fit. The Dutch were suspicious of Catholics, especially of priests; the presence of any unapproved religious leader who had the power to lead services and baptize new converts was considered dangerous. Most priests and pastors were rushed out of the colony. Yet Dutch settlers were responsible for ransoming Father Isaac Jogues and several other Jesuits. Nowhere does Haefeli find any feeling on the Dutch leaders' parts that ransoming Catholics was unexpected or ill-advised. It was simply what one did to assist fellow Europeans.
The varying reactions to different religions illustrate the way in which the Dutch were not equally welcoming of all faiths. Instead believers seemed to occupy different circles of value depending on both their beliefs and their situations. Europeans would be ransomed from the Indians regardless of faith because the Dutch saw all Europeans as united against the non-European, non-Christian Indians (Haefeli offers no case in which Jews were seized by Indians). It was only against the familiar background of European religion that one's faith determined one's treatment. Anglicans were welcomed and overtures of friendship were made to them, as "the differences between us are so small as to be ---." The Lutherans and Anabaptists were left in peace so long as they behaved themselves quietly, and non-Protestant faiths, if they were wise, attempted to stay behind closed doors.
Even if a reader disagrees with Haefeli's reinterpretation of Dutch religious thought, there is no doubt about the value of seeing the struggle for religious toleration in a new light. Suddenly the bullying director general at odds with his charge to uphold order in the colony he is obligated to protect. Haefeli takes the opportunity to point out that not only did the signers of the Flushing Remonstrance intervene only on behalf of the Quaker faith, in which many of them had an interest, but also that they were mainly English and probably unable to negotiate the delicate terrain of connivance even if they were aware of it. Their words that "we must allow each man to choose to worship as he sees fit" do not represent the official Dutch view. Instead this is what outsiders wished the official Dutch view to have been. The signers were certain enough that this was the Dutch opinion that they considered it worthwhile to address the directors of the West India Company in the expectation that they would remedy this injustice. Which they did — only because, Haefeli argues, they did not wish to antagonize England by mistreating an English colonist.
Haefeli's greatest contribution is to argue that American religious freedom has its roots not in Dutch toleration but in the English toleration that appeared from about 1645 to 1670. It was a short period between long stretches of Anglican Church hegemony, when religious non-conformism in England proliferated and such a controversial figure as George Fox could address both Oliver Cromwell and Charles II. Haefeli argues that as England grew (briefly) more tolerant, the Netherlands grew less so; by 1650 the height of Dutch religious diversity had passed. To support this claim he cites the actions of the Dutch authorities to reestablish the church when the Netherlands regained control of New York in 1673. Expecting the colony to remain in their hands, they set about making it properly Dutch again by reasserting the supremacy of the Reformed Church. Although their efforts were hampered by the infirmity of the available pastors and cut short by the return of English control one year later, their intent was to return the colony from the English form of religious liberty to the more restrictive Dutch form.
If left alone, they might have succeeded — to an extent. Dutch Reformed worshippers and their fellow Protestants in the Anglican Church were powerful and numerous in the colony. But the comparatively modest freedoms offered to the colonists in the days of Dutch rule had opened up the colony to too many faiths for it to achieve the religious homogeny the Dutch hoped for. The new Dutch rule returned New York to a situation in which the state supported a central church and other religions struggled, on their own, to gain measures of freedom; a situation in which religious tolerance was supported only by those whose interests would be expanded, rather than threatened, by it.
It was too difficult to separate church and state in order to allow non-Calvinists a significant official role in the colony. Yet the distaste for coerced, non-genuine conversion meant that the Dutch Reformed Church could not hope to wield the power of other state-supported churches, and it would not force conversion for political or economic reasons. Thus toleration of public worship became their stock in trade — an offering that might have been even more valuable had they not offered such a measure of freedom in private worship. Religious toleration was only not an ideal but a tool. With it they attracted settlers to New Netherland, headed off possible support for the Swedish on the South (Delaware) River by acknowledging the large Lutheran population there and granting them a church, and attempted to keep good relations with other countries by ordering Stuyvesant to let John Bowne return to Long Island. Perhaps this was part of the policy of connivance that Europeans from more aggressively religious countries failed to understand.
What, then, was the role of the Dutch in the formation of American religious freedom? It led to the creation of the Flushing Remonstrance, which articulated a philosophy of free worship around which later proponents of religious toleration could rally. And, Haefeli says, it bequeathed to the English a colony of many faiths that might otherwise have taken much longer to appear. Rhode Island had been founded as a colony for religious tolerance, but the newly re-named New York's reputation as a bastion of religious freedom had already attracted a much more cosmopolitan population than that of English Rhode Island. Nowhere else in North America could one find such a patchwork of non-native languages, faiths, and cultures jostling against each other for — to use the term again — acknowledgement.
In the introduction to the book Haefeli includes a one-page public service advertisement from February 1958 DC comics on the Flushing Remonstrance that portrays its signers as men intent on defending the right of all people to worship as they chose — in other words, as modem Americans. It is easy to see ourselves in the past to look at a set of circumstances and understand them through modem ideas.
Haefeli does not pursue the possible consequences of the Dutch reluctance to pursue conversions. This is both disappointing from a writer who has studied European-Native interactions, but it is also understandable. It is not history's job to spend much time speculating about might-have-beens. However, I could not help but place some of the blame for the weakness of the Dutch Reform Church with its own squeamishness about asserting itself.
Anne Matusiewicz, MA