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New Netherland and the Dutch Origins of American Religious Liberty

By Evan Haefeli

Publication Year: 2013

The settlers of New Netherland were obligated to uphold religious toleration as a legal right by the Dutch Republic's founding document, the 1579 Union of Utrecht, which stated that "everyone shall remain free in religion and that no one may be persecuted or investigated because of religion." For early American historians this statement, unique in the world at its time, lies at the root of American pluralism.

New Netherland and the Dutch Origins of American Religious Liberty offers a new reading of the way tolerance operated in colonial America. Using sources in several languages and looking at laws and ideas as well as their enforcement and resistance, Evan Haefeli shows that, although tolerance as a general principle was respected in the colony, there was a pronounced struggle against it in practice. Crucial to the fate of New Netherland were the changing religious and political dynamics within the English empire. In the end, Haefeli argues, the most crucial factor in laying the groundwork for religious tolerance in colonial America was less what the Dutch did than their loss of the region to the English at a moment when the English were unusually open to religious tolerance. This legacy, often overlooked, turns out to be critical to the history of American religious diversity.

By setting Dutch America within its broader imperial context, New Netherland and the Dutch Origins of American Religious Liberty offers a comprehensive and nuanced history of a conflict integral to the histories of the Dutch republic, early America, and religious tolerance.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Early American Studies


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pp. 1-3

Title Page

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p. 4-4

Copyright Page

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pp. 5-7


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

Religious tolerance has become a matter of great debate in recent years. When I first wrestled with the topic in the 1990s, it had seemed a fairly straightforward matter. However, since then, incidents and controversies on both sides of the Atlantic coupled with a new burst of more sophisticated scholarship have convinced me that tolerance is a much more complicated...

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Note on Translations, Transcriptions, and Dates

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pp. xiii-xvi

Translation is a crucial issue in the history of New Netherland, where many of the sources are in Dutch but have been translated into English, but not always perfectly. Where there is no English translation easily available, or with certain important phrases, I have made my own translation or checked to confirm the strength of the existing translation. However, since my primary...

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pp. 1-19

What is religious tolerance and how does it happen? For Americans these are more challenging questions than one might think. From the beginning of its existence, the United States of America has done without a national religious establishment of the sort that was long a trademark of European history. Consequently, Americans have been able to take tolerance for...

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1. Dutch Tolerance

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pp. 20-53

With the words, ‘‘each individual enjoys freedom of religion,’’ the Union of Utrecht inscribed tolerance into the heart of the Dutch Republic.1 Individual freedom of religion was soon qualified as liberty of conscience, and liberty of conscience became the fundamental law of the land in all the Dutch provinces and colonies. The cornerstone of Dutch tolerance, it...

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2. Connivance

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pp. 54-81

Dutch tolerance grew out of two seemingly contradictory facts. First was the persistent desire to bring as many people as possible into the Reformed Church. Second was the recognition that many inhabitants of the Dutch world were not and would not be members of the public church. As the Lutherans and English in Holland and America learned, connivance sometimes...

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3. Toleration

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pp. 82-107

The Dutch reputation for trade and pragmatic compromise has obscured the extent to which the religious system of public church and liberty of conscience enabled them to avoid granting formal recognitions of toleration to other groups. The Lutheran petition campaign of 1653 had provoked a successful counter-campaign by the Dutch Reformed to ensure that the...

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4. Non-Christians

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pp. 108-134

The conjuncture of the Dutch nation, Dutch tolerance, the Dutch Reformed Church, the Dutch state, and the Dutch colonies emerging onto the historical stage virtually simultaneously created such a powerful impression that people ever since have had difficulty separating them out, particularly...

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5. Babel

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pp. 135-155

In a May 1656 letter to New Netherland’s dominies, the classis of Amsterdam expressed its fears about religious diversity in the colony. The quashing of the Lutheran effort to form a congregation was ‘‘an affair of great consequence.’’ Had the Lutherans succeeded, ‘‘the Mennonists and English Independents, of whom there is said to be not a few there, might have been led...

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6. Liberty of Conscience

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pp. 156-185

By the 1650s, the Dutch arrangements that had seemed so progressive to English radicals fifty years earlier looked conservative compared to what was then available in the English world. Liberty of conscience, a conservative buttress of the Dutch public church, had become a force for revolutionary change in the hands of radical English Protestants. The sudden arrival of...

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7. Public Church

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pp. 186-210

After the hullaballoo over Lutheran conventicling and Quaker proselytizing, the directors of the West India Company shifted their policy for managing religious diversity in New Netherland. Their encouragement of an Amsterdam-style connivance of a Lutheran conventicle having failed, they turned to a capacious vision of the colonial public church that diluted its...

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8. Borders

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pp. 211-232

The greatest challenge to the Calvinist hegemony in New Netherland came not from the Lutherans or Mennonites within the colony, nor from the directors in Amsterdam. Rather, it crossed the borders. Like much of the Dutch world, New Netherland was surrounded by neighbors of different...

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9. Radicalism

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pp. 233-252

New Netherland was not the only Dutch society in North America. For almost a decade (1657–1664), the city of Amsterdam had a colony of its own on the South River. Technically a patroonship, a sort of fiefdom under the overall authority of the WIC, New Amstel inaugurated the most radical religious and social experiment the republic’s colonies ever saw. While New...

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10. Conquest

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pp. 253-278

The most decisive factor in bringing a change to tolerance in America was military conquest. Conquest changed the terms of engagement and gave groups new forms of negotiating power. Without it, the radical possibilities of New Amstel would not have happened, nor would the one Lutheran minister be tolerated on the South River, both legacies of the conquest of...

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pp. 279-288

What, then, is New Netherland’s role in the story of American religious liberty? The 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s arrival in what became New York prompted a new wave of reflections on the Dutch colony’s contribution to American history. Joyce Goodfriend, a leading American historian of Dutch America, claims, ‘‘New Netherland was the site of America’s...

List of Abbreviations

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pp. 289-290


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pp. 291-312


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pp. 313-342


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pp. 343-350


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pp. 351-355

E-ISBN-13: 9780812208955
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812244083

Page Count: 384
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Early American Studies