A victory for religious liberty

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This Sunday, January 16th, is Religious Freedom Day, celebrating Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. This law, one of the world’s first declarations of human rights, was enacted on January 16, 1786 and served as a model for the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution.

But the fight for religious freedom was already more than a century old by then. Many early settlers from Europe came to the New World seeking freedom to worship. King Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church in the 1530s and declared himself and his successors as head of the official Church of England. That didn’t sit well with Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and other faith communities, who were seen as enemies of the crown.

As early as 1608, English families fled to the Netherlands, where they could worship freely. Soon after, others came to the New World seeking the same thing. Among them were the people we know today as the Pilgrims, who landed in Massachusetts in 1620. I’ll post more about them this fall.

Among the early emigrants from England to the New World were John Bowne, his sister Dorothy, and father Thomas. They settled first in the Boston area, then moved in the mid-1650s to what was then the Dutch colony of New Netherland. Around 1661, John Bowne and his wife Hannah built a house in what is now Flushing, N.Y. It still stands today.

Coming down on the Bownes

Soon afterward, Governor Peter Stuyvesant issued an edict forbidding the practice of religions other than the Dutch Reformed Church. Hannah Bowne was a minister in the Society of Friends, or Quakers. John Bowne violated Stuyvesant’s order and allowed Quakers to meet in his house.

Stuyvesant sent his sheriff to arrest John Bowne. He spent several months in jail in New Amsterdam, now Manhattan, without backing down or paying the fine. Eventually Stuyvesant deported him.

Bowne returned to England, then to Holland, to face trial by the Dutch West India Company. At his trial, he cited the town Charter of 1645, which guaranteed its citizens “Liberty of Conscience.” That persuaded the company, which ordered Stuyvesant to permit freedom of religion in the colony. Bowne returned home in 1664, successful in his two-year battle for religious freedom.

This freedom evolved over 100 years later into the guarantees in the First Amendment to the Constitution. Also guaranteed there are the rights of assembly and freedom of speech—all principles advanced by John Bowne in 1662 when he welcomed Quakers into his home. 

“The Bownes,” bownehouse.org

Full disclosure: My maternal great-grandmother was a Bowne. Our family stories often mentioned the historic Bowne House in New York. However, Bowne House experts say our branch, which settled in New Jersey, is related but not direct descendants. I’m also a former member of the Reformed Church of America. You might say I’m reformed.

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