Christmas 2020 was a Christmas like no other in our nation’s history. Thousands of churches across the country were shuttered, others had to hold services outdoors or restrict capacity indoors. Families were not allowed to gather for the holiday.
Many Americans are rightly upset that the freedom to worship—the foundational American freedom—has been curtailed. For some it felt as if we gave up without a fight, and that what is now gone will be lost forever. But the past tells a different story. While we have never experienced what we are going through now, the past tells us that the passion for freedom runs deep in this nation, and it will not be easily squelched.
First and foremost, of course, is the very founding of the nation by the many who came for religious freedom. Not only did they face persecution at home and a difficult ocean voyage, but once here, they still faced many challenges. The passengers of the Mayflower Compact never expected to be blown hundreds of miles off course, to land in a place where their existing patent had no standing. But with the Mayflower Compact, they crafted a powerful agreement that established self-rule, their right to worship as they wished, and the rule of law. In that simple act, they laid the foundation for a nation that would become a beacon of freedom.
A lesser known but perhaps more important moment occurred in 1657. A new sect of believers had emerged in England in the 1650s: the Religious Society of Friends, derisively referred to as Quakers, for their belief that people should “tremble at the word of the Lord.” They were considered radicals and were persecuted, in some cases even executed. They sought safety in the New World. One Quaker named Robert Hodgson began to preach to crowds in New Netherland (today, New York), but for that was arrested and flogged. Peter Stuyvesant, director general of New Netherland, subsequently forbade people from allowing Quakers into their towns or giving them shelter in their homes. When his strictures were challenged, he is said to have responded, “We derive our authority from God and the West India Company, not from the pleasure of a few ignorant subjects.”
On Dec. 27, 1657, Tobias Feake, the sheriff of Vlissingen, New Netherland (today known as Flushing, New York), and the town clerk, Edward Clark, drafted a petition calling for acceptance of the beliefs of others and their right to accept Quakers into their towns and homes. They persuaded 28 of their fellow citizens to stand with them in signing the petition. More importantly, the petition they drafted, known as the Flushing Remonstrance, survives as one of the most beautiful and inspiring statements of the American spirit.
In rejecting the prohibition against receiving or entertaining Quakers, the signatories of the Flushing Remonstrance stated:
"We 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 …
"Therefore if any of these said persons come in love unto us, we cannot in conscience lay violent hands upon them, but give them free egresse and regresse unto our Town, and houses, as God shall persuade our consciences, for we are bounde by the law of God and man to doe good unto all men and evil to noe man."
Feake and Clark paid a heavy price for this act of conscience: they were imprisoned and fined. But their spirit of resistance prevailed. Eventually the Dutch West India Company ordered Stuyvesant to "allow everyone to have his own belief." A little over 100 years later, the right to freedom of belief was codified in the Bill of Rights. Indeed, we tend to think of Thomas Jefferson as the father of our freedoms for having inspired the Bill of Rights, or James Madison for having drafted them, but the path to those freedoms was paved by ordinary citizens, such as the 30 who signed the Flushing Remonstrance.
Winston Churchill said, “The future is unknowable, but the past should give us hope.” As we wait to be allowed to return to our churches and synagogues, we should remember that small band of 30 citizens in Flushing, New York, and remind ourselves that the American commitment to liberty does not depend on singular individuals such as James Madison or Thomas Jefferson, or on a president or governor, but it depends fully on the love for liberty each one of us holds and the lengths we are willing to go to uphold it.
This piece originally appeared in The News & Observer