- New Netherland and the Dutch Origins of American Religious Liberty by Evan Haefeli
The stern visage of New Netherland director-general Pieter Stuyvesant stares out from the cover of Evan Haefeli’s New Netherland and the Dutch Origins of American Religious Liberty, the text of the Flushing Remonstrance superimposed over his face. Is this man—bane of Lutherans, Quakers, and Jews alike—somehow responsible for Americans’ “first freedom?” Which “origins” of American religious liberty did the Dutch provide? The answer, as it unfolds in this splendid and deeply satisfying book, turns out to be more complicated than triumphalist narratives about the Middle Colonies (built largely on the realities of pluralism and celebrations of the Remonstrance) have often claimed. Readers will encounter familiar names and events (Spinoza, Stuyvesant, the Remonstrance), but also a host of others perhaps less well known (Jogues, Gutwasser, Plockhoy, the Collegiants, Bontemantel, van den Enden), who also played vital roles in the history of religious liberty in America.
Haefeli’s thesis—if such a rich range of studies and careful tracing of change over time can be subsumed under a single “thesis”—is that to gain a sound understanding of the Dutch contribution to American religious liberty, we must rid ourselves of prejudices inherited from an excessive focus on the Anglo-American experience. There, the achievement of toleration tended to be announced by clearly identifiable political accomplishments, like the 1663 royal charter for Rhode Island or the 1689 Toleration Act. By contrast, a renewed engagement with the Dutch experience reminds American audiences of the many different routes to toleration and the multiple ways that early modern regimes handled the religious diversity [End Page 602] in their midst. There is not, after all, one “question” of toleration but many, in many times and places; Haefeli repeatedly emphasizes the “sitespecific quality of Dutch tolerance” and, within sites, shifting dynamics over time (112). “The Dutch extended formal toleration to other groups,” he writes, “only when they had to, and then only reluctantly and hesitantly” (106). Haefeli’s larger point is that they rarely “had to.” The book is filled with subtle discussions of the ways in which the Dutch navigated the religious landscape of their North American territories and the degree to which policies and practices there sometimes did, and other times did not, mirror those at home and in their other far-flung possessions. There was toleration of the classic sort—decreed by central political authority, with explicit guarantees of public worship—in the early modern Dutch world, but it was not in North America; rather, it was in Brazil, which offered “a dramatic contrast to the religious situation in New Netherland” (98). In other places—Batavia, for example—the Dutch interacted with Muslims and practitioners of Chinese folk religion, and policies there depended as much on the centrality of these populations to the colonial economy as on the specifics of their theologies.
Theoretically speaking, the most interesting chapter is probably the second, on “connivance.” This was a strategy that sought to manage and contain religious diversity not by legislating public worship rights but by ensuring peaceful coexistence between groups, recognizing an individual right to conscience while controlling the institutional expressions of that right. The Dutch approach to the religious pluralism within their American borders took a form that, when successful, defied easy observation: connivance, “a mixture of assimilative and marginalizing tendencies[,] … contained pluralism even as it refused to suppress it” (80, 81). It was the antithesis of toleration edicts and legislation. Its success depended on magistrates exercising restraint in the enforcement of orthodoxy and worshippers content to gather in private and not draw attention to themselves. In effect, connivance looked the other way and asked adherents of marginalized religious groups to exercise their liberty of conscience discreetly.
Of course, all notions of connivance, mutual restraint, and discretion in New Netherland went out the window with the arrival of the Quakers in 1657. Insisting on public meetings and refusing to hold their tongues, Quakers represented just the sort of frontal assault that made...