New Netherland and the Dutch Origins of American Religious Liberty

Evan Haefeli demonstrates how convoluted and uncertain were the beginnings of religious tolerance in America, by giving them an international context.

New Netherland and the Dutch Origins of American Religious Liberty

Evan Haefeli

2012 | 376 pages | Cloth $45.00 | Paper $26.50
American History / Religion
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Table of Contents

Note on Translations, Transcriptions, and Dates

Chapter 1. Dutch Tolerance
Chapter 2. Connivance
Chapter 3. Toleration
Chapter 4. Non-Christians
Chapter 5. Babel
Chapter 6. Liberty of Conscience
Chapter 7. Public Church
Chapter 8. Borders
Chapter 9. Radicalism
Chapter 10. Conquest

List of Abbreviations

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


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 matter than we think. Though it is a central theme of American history, there is still much that we do not understand about what tolerance is or how it came to America. Dutch tolerance in particular became a topic of political controversy during the uproar over New York's so-called "9-11 Mosque" in the summer of 2010. Mayor Michael Bloomberg invoked the legacy of Dutch tolerance in defense of the construction of an Islamic religious center in lower Manhattan, while Dutch politician Geert Wilders drew on it to oppose the very same institution. How could the religious tolerance of New Netherland lead to two such diametrically opposed interpretations? Barriers of language, culture, and history make the case of the Dutch and their way of managing toleration particularly difficult for Americans to understand. Nonetheless, as Bloomberg and Wilders made clear, it remains a vital part of American culture and politics.

What follows is a new telling of an old story. This is not the first account of religious toleration in New Netherland, nor have I uncovered a trove of hitherto unused sources, though I have cast my research net wider than earlier scholars. Many of the Dutch sources I rely on are published and have been available in English translation for a hundred years or more (though it is always best to go back to the Dutch originals). Yet my version is significantly different from earlier accounts, in both scope and approach. Recent work in several languages by scholars on both sides of the Atlantic has helped me to set the story of Dutch America firmly within its broader Dutch context. Though I am an American historian, and my training and interests in that field led me to this topic, I have gone to some lengths to write a book as relevant to the Dutch as to Americans, in the hopes of provoking both to think more deeply about tolerance (a quality both nations claim to possess) as well as the history of New Netherland that connects us.

So far, the history of religious tolerance has tended to remain aloof from other methods of historical inquiry, though recently scholars have embraced a social historical approach to the topic. My work drew inspiration from the relatively new fields of Atlantic world history and borderlands history. Atlantic world history builds on the recognition that the American colonies were part of a trans-Atlantic world that included Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean in very important ways. Much of the work in the field is about motion, circulation, networks, and connections, tracing people, trade, and objects as they move about from place to place, only some of which wound up in the future United States. Religious issues, and a problem like religious toleration, have remained a secondary concern in the field, but there are clear parallels. In many ways, this study can be seen as an example of Atlantic world history as I feel it should be done, one aware of the connections, comparisons, and differences between various parts of a trans-oceanic community, in this case the Dutch world of the seventeenth century. Borderlands history, though it tends to focus on the American Southwest, has brought an awareness of the permeability of borders in early American history, and the importance of connections and conflicts between different groups of people across and around border zones, that is also relevant to my approach. Borderlands existed across the Americas, and between groups of Europeans as well between Europeans and indigenous Americans, the field's usual focus.

Above all, I hope my work will be of interest to students of religious tolerance. As religious tolerance comes under increasing scrutiny from a growing range of thinkers, it is becoming clear that it means different things to different people. We often presume there is—and was—a shared understanding about tolerance, yet on closer inspection it becomes clear that advocates for tolerance vary in their visions for coexistence. The seventeenth century was no different. Only then there were far more people who argued that tolerance was a bad idea than do so today. I have chosen to write an account of a particular time and place—New Netherland—because I believe the specifics of where, when, and how tolerance exists are not trivial. They are, in fact, essential. Examining the specifics makes clear that what we too often group together as "tolerance" contained a great diversity of possibilities and relationships. Connecting one instance with another, as with New Netherland and American religious liberty, turns out to be more of a challenge than had long been thought. It certainly cannot be taken for granted. My approach has been both chronological and thematic, uniting what have hitherto been treated as separate accounts into a single narrative, one that stresses the broader, Dutch context of what has long been considered an American story. My narrative, I hope, will encourage readers to think anew about a familiar story, a story of relevance to the histories of America, the Dutch and their empire, and religious tolerance.

Note on Translations, Transcriptions, and Dates

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 goal is to pull Anglophone readers into research and thinking on the Dutch world, I have generally used the existing English translations of Dutch documents, preferring the recent translations of Charles Gehring to earlier ones whenever possible.

Dutch spelling of town names and certain words has been retained. The most important issue to keep in mind is the Dutch "ij," pronounced "aye" (like a cinematic pirate). Common terms, like south (zuid) and new (nieuw) have been rendered in English even as I have tried to preserve as much of the Dutch flavor as seems reasonable for an English-reading audience. With personal names I have followed the Dutch usage, where Pieter van Rooden or Jan de Meier is referred to as Van Rooden or De Meier but listed in the bibliography under Rooden and Meier rather than van or de.

Several Dutch cities, like Vlissingen, had English versions of their names, in this case Flushing. When discussing Dutch places in a primarily Dutch context, I have endeavored to use the Dutch name, but have used the English name when discussing the same place in a prevailingly English situation. Other towns had several names that changed over time, usually from a Lenape-related term to a Dutch and then an English one, as with Mespath-Middelburgh-Newtown. In these cases I have preferred the name that reflects the sovereign power claiming authority over it at the time, with the exception of The Hague (Den Haag).

When transcribing seventeenth-century English, I have preserved the existing spelling as much as possible. However, in cases of unusual spelling, where an "i" functions as a "j" or a "u" as a "v," for example, I have generally corrected it to modern usage to avoid confusing modern readers unfamiliar with the older conventions.

The Dutch switched to the modern calendar some two centuries before the English did. Consequently, dates are in New Style, with the occasional exception from after the conquest, when the English imposed their Old Style system of dating, which was ten days ahead of the New Style system.