- New Netherland and the Dutch Origins of American Religious Liberty by Evan Haefeli
The title of Evan Haefeli’s book leads the reader to expect a discussion of the standard view of how the Dutch from the melting pot that was seventeenth-century Amsterdam brought religious tolerance to New Netherland and thus to the Middle Colonies and ultimately to the United States. But this is not the case Haefeli makes. The subject is much more nuanced.
Although religious toleration was a legal right in the Dutch Republic enshrined in article 13 of the 1579 Union of Utrecht, which ordained that “everyone shall remain free in religion and that no one may be persecuted or investigated because of religion,” toleration was not tolerance. American religious liberty, Haefeli writes, had its origins not in sixteenth-century Dutch political thinking but in Stuart England. When James, duke of York and a Roman Catholic, was given New Netherland by his Roman Catholic– leaning brother Charles II in 1664, one of his first acts was to allow the discriminated-against Lutherans to call a minister—something the Dutch had not allowed during their forty-year tenure (except in New Sweden on the Delaware), just as they had not allowed public worship by Jews, Catholics, Quakers, or other dissenting Protestants. In New Netherland, the Reformed [End Page 544] Dutch Church was the official church and the only one permitted to conduct public worship. Freedom of the conscience was the freedom to worship privately, not the freedom to worship in groups in public.
Taking a social-historical approach to his topic, Haefeli draws on both Atlantic history, which holds that the American colonies were part of a trans-Atlantic world in which events in Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean affected people, trade, and ideas interactively, and borderlands history, which stresses the fluidity and permeability of boundaries—not only geographical but among and between Europeans, Americans, Indians, and Africans—in early American history. Into this multicultural context enter the Stuarts, restored to their authority after two decades of trauma and civil war. Beset with the need to maintain their Restoration, and mindful of their own proclivities for Roman Catholicism, one part of Charles II’s strategy was to extend tolerance to all comers. Haefeli does not spell this out clearly enough. He provides “readers unfamiliar with Dutch history . . . useful orientation” to the events and religious groups relevant to the Dutch-American story, but he is not equally helpful to readers hazy on Stuart history. So, reader, beware. Brush up on your Stuart history before proceeding.
This aside, the author makes, and convincingly, many salient points not heretofore part of the dialogue about the influence of the Reformed Dutch Church in New Netherland. He indicates, for instance, in chapter 1 that radical philosophical developments of the 1650s and 1660s in Amsterdam made it a very different city from the one the original settlers had known in the 1620s and 1630s. In the 1650s, the establishment of Amsterdam City’s own colony on the Delaware, New Amstel, introduced there a “unique and special time in Dutch history, and in the history of America,” for New Amstel’s authorities allowed some of those radical experiments in religious liberty to establish a first footing on American soil (53).
Haefeli’s treatment of connivance, the Dutch practice of winking at religious dissent (such as hidden house churches and synagogues), is thoughtful and nuanced. He points out that foreigners interpreted the religious diversity in the side streets and attics of Amsterdam as religious freedom, when it was not. Connivance developed, he writes, to “smooth over some of the rough edges created by the clash between the pretensions to hegemony of the Dutch Reformed Church and the reality of its incomplete hold on the hearts and minds of the inhabitants of the Dutch world, but it varied widely depending on the authorities in charge and how closely they supervised” (56). Not all clandestine religious activity was winked at. Some was discouraged, even in...