Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Roots of Freedom of Religion

It’s amazing how quickly people will toss away the lessons of generations.  Amazing how much the media and a desire to fit in with a particular group influences that.  I get a mental picture of a bobble head sometimes, and I want to say “Polly want a cracker?” because all someone can do is quote the latest media-ocraty and if I poke around a bit it’s clear that all they have is that quote and a belief that repeating it often enough makes it so.  There’s actually no substance behind it, just emotion and catch phrases. Which is why I don’t bother to talk to people much anymore.  Right now I am inclined to be bluntly honest.  And I know from experience that people who can’t articulate an argument on subjects just get angry and nasty with me.  Right now I’d just be nasty right back.

I can’t even comment at length on Obama’s attack on freedom of religion. It just makes me too tired and sad.  No one should be surprised that he’s doing it – a tyrannical regime always has to take down the religion of the people and replace it with the worship of the state.  And of course the bobbleheads that supported the Park 51 project in New York on the basis of freedom of religion are quite happy to see the iniquitous Catholic Church get her comeuppance. 

Since history isn’t taught, the bobbleheads might be surprised at some of the roots of freedom of religion in this country.  True, the Founding Fathers did not want to be forced to support a national church as citizens of Britain were.  But our melting pot had brought the concepts with them generations before the Constitution was written.  I don’t think any story reflects that better than that of the Dutch and of the arrival of the first permanent Jewish settlers in New Amsterdam.

The Dutch owners of the East India Company dreamed of a short cut to Asian wealth when they sent English navigator Henry Hudson across the Atlantic in 1609 to search for a passage above or through the land mass of North America that would allow a ship access to the Pacific and to the eastern coast of Asia.  Hudson didn’t find the riches of spices and silk but he did write to his employers of finding “as fine a river as can be found, wide and deep, with good anchoring ground on both sides” and he promised them “many skins and peltries, martins, foxes, and many other commodities.”   

So the Dutch swallowed whatever disappointment they may have had and claimed an area for trade that comprised all or parts of what became New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, created the Dutch West India Company in 1623, and established a transportation hub for the shipment of timber and furs at the mouth of the Hudson. The first Dutch colonists arrived in the area of “Manahatta” in 1624.  

The settlers for New Netherlands came out of a Europe that had suffered through generations of upheaval and wars of religion.  In 1579 the Protestant provinces of the Low Country - Holland, Zeeland, Groningen, Friesland, Utrecht, Overijssle, and Gelre – united as the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands under the Union of Utrecht.  They declared their independence from the House of Hapsburg and their Spanish overlords with the Act of Repudiation in 1581.  The Protestantism of the Dutch was of the Calvinist kind as embodied in the Dutch Reformed Church.  In theory, this was the official church of the Netherlands.  However, the Union of Utrecht, which acted as a de-facto constitution, contained a declaration that was revolutionary for its time:  “Each person shall remain free, especially in his religion…no one shall be persecuted or investigated because of their religion.”  In an era when state religions were brutally enforced, when one Protestant sect battled another, and when Catholic monarchs waged war on everybody else, this was a welcome breath of fresh and free air.  The Netherlands became a refuge for Brownings, Baptists, Walloons, Huguenots, Puritans, and Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews.  At the same time, Dutch merchants were expanding into the New World, fiercely competing with other European powers.  Eventually, among the Dutch holdings was the richest part of the sugar producing areas in the northeast and coastal districts of Brazil.  But the Dutch were abrasive towards the Brazilians, and the Brazilians in turn didn’t think much of Dutch Protestantism.  A revolt ensued - unofficially supported by the Portuguese with men and arms.  The Portuguese did not have the same free-wheeling attitude towards religion and philosophy as the Dutch, and when Recife, Brazil, fell in January of 1654 the Jews of the city fled, fearing that the Portuguese Inquisition was right behind advancing Portuguese troops.

Most of the Jews of Brazil returned to Holland.  Six families, including 13 children, did not.  Perhaps too poor to afford passage back to their homeland, they sailed into the Caribbean instead.  The Spanish authorities wanted no part of them in Jamaica and Cuba.  Barred from those islands, their captain took advantage of the situation and demanded an exorbitant fee to carry them north to the Dutch colony of New Netherlands.  The Dutch Jews had no choice, and if they were poor before then, they were deeply impoverished now. That alone was excuse enough for the governor of New Netherlands, Peter Stuyvesant, to try to bar their entry when they sailed into the capital of New Netherlands, the port of New Amsterdam.  

New Netherlands had defied the standard Dutch pattern of simple outposts and roots had been put down. The upriver settlement of New Orange, later named Albany, sent furs, timber, and, eventually, tobacco down to the port at New Amsterdam, but lack of good oversight and leadership left New Amsterdam in periodic danger of collapse.  One ill-advised attack on the local Native Americans in the 1640s led to a tribal confederation that quickly destroyed many years worth of work and drove all into the safety of Fort Amsterdam at the south end of Manhattan.  The colonists demanded a new governor. The Company obliged in 1647 by sending Peter Stuyvesant, a Frieslander who had lost his right leg while fighting the Spanish in the Caribbean and who had years of experience in hard-headed colonial management. 

New Amsterdam was a hub through which cargo laden ships passed and paid dues and through it access to a rich interior was provided.  The population became ever more polyglot as trade cycled from the Netherlands to West Africa to the Caribbean to New Amsterdam and back to Europe.  Inheriting the tolerance of its parent country, the colony attracted Baptists, Anabaptists, and Familists.  Mennonites, having found the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Plantation no more welcoming than European countries had been, fled south into the more welcoming population of New Netherlands.  Eventually, the company ordered Stuyvesant to form a municipal government based on the laws of Amsterdam.  New Amsterdam incorporated as a city.  Roads were cobbled, brick houses built, tile roofs installed, a proper wharf was built.  Fear of British incursion led to the building of a palisade along the northern perimeter of the community:  Wall Street ran along it, a roadway now synonymous with business that was built to protect businesses 360 years ago.

All in all, the New Amsterdam of 1654 must have looked a lot like any village of Holland.  But despite the Dutch reputation for tolerance and the rambunctious history of the trading port, the Jews were not exactly welcome.  To begin with, they were broke.  The captain of the St. Catherine had brought them north “on spec”, and he wanted 2,500 guilders for his trouble.  Fortunately, the leader of the local Dutch Reformed Church, Johannes Megapolensis, had pity on them.  He was not happy at their arrival but he kept them from starving.  Still, the captain wanted his pay, and after furniture and belongings were sold several of the newcomers were thrown in jail until the required amount could be raised.

Once the debt was taken care of the little group began to look for housing.  This was horrifying to  Stuyvesant; he protested to the Company and asked to be allowed to expel them.  To be fair, it wasn’t just that Stuyvesant was an anti-Semite.  He didn’t like Lutherans, either.  Or Catholics, or Quakers.  Indeed, his determination to stop Quakers from settling around the town of Vlissingan (Flushing) earned him the rebuke of the Flushing Remonstrance in 1658:  “God is a consuming fire, and it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” the good fathers of Vlissingan wrote.  And further, “we desire therefore in the case not to judge lest we be judged, neither to condemn lest we be condemned, but rather let every man stand and fall to his own…our desire is not to offend one of his little ones in whatsoever form, name or title he appears in, whether Presbyterian, Independent, Baptist, or Quaker; but shall be glad to see anything of God in any of them.”  The Quakers stayed. 

Megapolensis was willing to keep the Jews from starving, but was not willing to keep them.
His protests were shrugged off.  The West India Company replied that those Jews had suffered “considerable loss … in the taking of Brazil.”  Further, “To effectuate and fulfill your wishes…. Would be somewhat unreasonable and unfair… because of the large amount of capital which they still have invested in the shares of this company.”  The Jews were to be allowed to “travel and trade to and in New Netherlands and live and remain there.”  This must have been a shock:  Stuyvesant had already ordered the Jews expelled.  The Jews stayed instead.  Initially, they were forbidden to own land or houses, open retail stores, trade with Indians, or conduct public prayer services.  Nor were they allowed to join the city militia.  Within a year, however, the directors of the Company had made it clear that they were displeased and many of the restrictions were dropped.

New Netherlands existed as a Dutch colony for another decade.  In September of 1664 an overwhelming force of British ships and soldiers forced Stuyvesant, outgunned and surrounded by colonists who refused to fight, to surrender the colony without a fight.  It gained a new name, New York, in honor of King Charles II’s brother, James, Duke of York.  Life went on, now as British citizens.

The Jewish population in the British colony grew very slowly.  By the Revolution they numbered only around 2,000 – 2,500 out of a total population of 2.5 million.  But Jewish businessmen resented taxation without representation just as much as their Christian counterparts did.  The Jewish community embraced the cause of Liberty and served readily, and surely they must have rejoiced in 1787 at the words of Article VI of the new Constitution: “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States”   The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights further cemented religious liberty with “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  Finally, after 2,000 years, a small part of an ancient Diaspora was not just tolerated.  They had the same right to worship as everyone else and no one could take that away from them.

It took 2,000 years of suffering for one group of religious to have their right to worship according to the dictates of their consciences codified in a national constitution.  And now so many in the country whose constitution had to be won at an enormous cost of lives so that that step could be taken, that freedom guaranteed, are ready to just throw that away because they neither understand nor care that religion is more than something you do for an hour on Sunday.


  1. Excellent post, and we could ALL learn from that!

  2. @NFO - Thanks. And I wish this administration would learn from SOMETHING!

  3. I had passed on the "liebster blog" award to you, you can see it here

    1. Thanks! I obviously have missed some blogs in my daily reads recently...