Reading the Foundations of Religious Freedom

Kenneth Jackson, writing in the New York Times, commemorates the 350th anniversary of the Flushing Remonstrance, written in 1657 by Edward Hart and his fellow Flushing, New York, citizens to protest the public torture of a Quaker preacher and the fining and imprisonment of non-Quakers who allowed them to meet in their homes. Jackson notes that the Remonstrance is remarkable for expressing a deep principle of freedom in beautiful language, and for being an example of words in action on behalf of others. None of the twenty nine men who signed the Remonstrance were Quakers. They suffered job loss, fines, imprisonment, and deportation to protect people whose belief they did not share.

Jackson seeks the foundations of this tolerance in the pursuit of free trade, but what strikes me upon reading the document is how deeply rooted it is in the authors’ reading of the Bible, and in their particular community’s way of living out that text:

Wee desire therefore in this case not to judge least we be judged, neither to condemn least we be condemned, but rather let every man stand or fall to his own Master…. And because our Saviour sayeth it is impossible but that offences will come, but woe unto him by whom they cometh, our desire is not to offend one of his little ones, in whatsoever form, name or title hee appears in, whether Presbyterian, Independent, Baptist or Quaker, but shall be glad to see anything of God in any of them, desiring to doe unto all men as we desire all men should doe unto us, which is the true law both of Church and State; for our Saviour sayeth this is the law and the prophets.

That tolerance has borne good fruit for non-quakers in the centuries since the Flushing Remonstrance. In addition to taking active and positive roles in American politics and culture, Quakers continue to have an influence on Christian faith today, including evangelical and charismatic churches. To learn a little more about them, you can listen in on Quaker blogs at www.quakerquaker.org, or pick up J. Brent Bill’s Holy Silence: The Gift Of Quaker Spirituality, Jan de Hartog’s historical novel, The Peaceable Kingdom: An American Saga, or Jessica Erskine’s contemporary young adult novel, Quaking.

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