John Bowne (1627–1695) was an English immigrant residing in the Dutch colony of New Netherland, who is honored today as a pioneer in the American struggle for religious liberty.
John Bowne was born March 9, 1627 in Matlock, Derbyshire,England.
Bowne emigrated with his father and sister to Boston in 1648. He became a merchant and married well in 1656. Bowne’s wife Hannah Feake was a great-niece of Governor John Winthrop of Massachusetts, and the daughter of Elizabeth Fones who would serve as the title character in Anya Seton’s historical novel “The Winthrop Woman.”
Bowne and his new bride, however, soon became adherents of the new doctrine of Quakerism, which was at that time actively repressed in most of the English colonies of New England.
Accordingly by 1661, Bowne and Hannah relocated to Vlissingen, Long Island where a small group of English-speaking Quakers were attempting to practice their faith in defiance of the Dutch governor of New Netherland, Peter Stuyvesant.
Bowne then built his home (today known as the Bowne House) The Bowne House has twenty-one rooms and serves as a fine example of Vernacular Dutch-English architecture.
The town of Vlissingen, today known as Flushing, Long Island was established in 1645 by a patent granted to a group of Englishmen by William Kieft, Governor of the Dutch province of New Netherland.
The Flushing patent promised
“the right to have and enjoy liberty of conscience, according to the custom and manner of Holland, without molestation or disturbance from any magistrates, or any other ecclesiastical minister, that may pretend jurisdiction over them.”
The townspeople of Vlissingen courageously resisted all attempts to infringe on that right, by accepting into their community people of every faith and belief.
The right to freedom of conscience was violated at Vlissingen when Governor Peter Stuyvesant ordered a colony wide ban on the harboring of newly arrived Quakers, or the holding of religious services by this sect. This was Stuyvesant’s attempt to force everyone to attend the Dutch Reformed Church, of which he was a member.
Angered by this ban, thirty free holders of the town gathered in the house of Michael Milner to debate and write the Flushing Remonstrance. This document proclaimed that the townspeople would welcome Quakers and anyone else who came into their town.
Nowhere in colonial America was a more consistent or brave effort made to establish true religious freedom.
Without parallel anywhere else in America, the Flushing Remonstrance had great significance and this document later served as inspiration for the adoption of the First Amendment to the Constitution.
Dismissal of town officials, fines and imprisonment failed to suppress the spirit of tolerance in Vlissingen and Quakers continued to hold meetings secretly in the woods to escape persecution by the New Netherland authorities.
The climax of this wave of religious persecution came in 1662, shortly after John Bowne had built his new home and invited fellow Quakers to worship there.
Town officials soon sent complaints to the Governor that
“many of their village were adherents and followers of the abominable Quaker sect and that a large meeting was held in the house of John Bowne every Sunday.”
John Bowne was soon arrested on orders of Governor Stuyvesant and taken to New Amsterdam (New York City), where the council found Bowne guilty of providing lodging to the Quakers, and ordered him to pay a fine of one hundred and fifty florins.
John Bowne refused to pay the fine and end the religious services of the Quakers. Consequently, he was locked up in a dungeon, on a diet of coarse bread and water, to think things over. When this failed to have any effect he was moved to a room in Stadt Huis and informed that the whole matter would be forgotten if he would pay the fine or remove himself from the jurisdiction of the province. However, Bowne continued to refuse and after a three month imprisonment was deported from the colony and sent to Holland for trial before the Dutch West India Company.
Bowne stood trial before the Amsterdam Chamber of the Dutch West India Company. At first, the Chamber was reluctant to interfere in a decision made by the provincial authorities. They suggested that Bowne bring his wife and children to live with him in Holland. Bowne refused to do so, stating that liberty was promised to the Flushing townspeople in the patent granted by the prince, the States General and the West India Company.
Winning the respect of his judges by his uncompromising stance, Bowne successfully exonerated himself by appealing to the guarantees of religious liberty contained in the Flushing patent of 1645 granted by Governor William Kieft.
Bowne was released, and returned triumphantly home in 1664, Governor Stuyvesant being ordered to extend tolerance to all religious sects.
Although New Netherland soon become the English colony of New York, Bowne’s ideal of religious freedom was upheld by the province’s new Governors.
Wife Hannah died sometime after the birth of their 8th child in 1673.
Bowne married his second wife also named Hannah (Hannah Bickerstaff) February 2, 1680.
Second wife Hannah died sometime after the birth of their 6th child in 1688.
Bowne’s married his third wife Mary Cock June 26, 1693 and had 2 children.
John Bowne became the example for other English colonists in North America, and ultimately to the framers of the American Constitution.
John Bowne later served in the provincial assembly of New York before dying in Flushing on December 20, 1695.
A park, high school and an elementary school in Flushing, Queens are named in his honor.
His house at Bowne Street and 37th Avenue in Flushing still stands, and is open to the public as Registered Historic Place. It is currently being restored and will be filled with original 17th, 18th, and 19th century furniture, portraits, and household objects belonging to nine generations of the Bowne family. However, the Bowne house historical society, which governs and operates the Bowne House, places emphasis upon what the Bowne house symbolizes, rather than upon its architecture or the museum-like display of its contents.
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