The Early Years of Persecution and the Flushing Remonstrance
In 1645, Flushing, then called Vlissengen, was granted a charter by the Dutch West India Company and became a part of New Netherlands. It was settled largely by English families, similar to English settlements at Gravesend, Hempstead, and Jamaica, Long Island.
At that time, the first known Quaker in the United States, Richard Smith, lived in Southampton, Long Island. He, with other Quakers, visited Boston in 1656, but all were put in jail as soon as they arrived and sent back to England. This action of the authorities caused many English Quakers to feel a call to go to the New World. Religious persecution of these zealous souls only seemed to convince Quakers of the need for their message, “that the Spirit of God, dwelling in man, is the supreme authority.” See About Friends (Quakers).
Other Quakers came, and their religious teaching found wide acceptance throughout Flushing and Oyster Bay, despite continued opposition on the part of the government and heads of the Reformed Dutch Church. At that time, Peter Stuyvesant was the governor of New Netherlands. He issued an edict forbidding anyone in the colony to entertain a Quaker or to allow a Quaker meeting to be held in his or her house under penalty of a fine of fifty pounds.
A respected Flushing colonist, Henry Townsend, held a Quaker meeting in his home and was fined and banished. This prompted a protest from Flushing citizens, which is perhaps the earliest demand for freedom of religion made by American colonists to their political superiors. It is dated December 27, 1657, and is drawn up and signed by Edward Hart, the Town Clerk, Tobias Feake, the Schout (sheriff) and twenty-eight other citizens. This document, known as the Flushing Remonstrance, respectfully but firmly argues the cause of religious freedom: “for if God justifye who can condemn; and if God condemn who can justifye… And because our Saviour saith it is impossible but that offenses will come, but woe unto him by whom they cometh, our desire is not to offend one of his little ones, inwhatsoever form, name or title hee appears in, whether Presbyterian, Independent, Baptist or Quakers, but shall be glad to see anything of God in any of them desiring to doe unto all men, as wee desire all men should doe unto us, which is the true law both of church and state.” It goes on to quote the original Flushing Charter, which grants Flushing the right “to have and Enjoy the Liberty of Conscience, according to the Custome and manner of Holland, without molestation or disturbance.” (See Flushing Remonstrance for full text.)
In response, Governor Stuyvesant put the Town Clerk and the Schout in jail. The former was subsequently banished from the colony and the latter excused after making an abject apology. In addition, the Flushing town government was entirely swept away and the governor replaced it with his own appointed organization.
Despite continued persecution, Quakerism continued to spread throughout Long Island and the Hudson Valley. Several signers of the Remonstrance later became Quakers. There is a tradition that Flushing Quakers met in a sheltered spot in the woods designated by friendly Indians during this time.
One of the many to become interested in the new religious message was John Bowne, whose young bride, Hannah Feake, had already become a Quaker. In 1661 John bought land and built a comfortable farmhouse. This house, little changed since he added the front part in 1680, still stands on Bowne Street, about two blocks from the meeting house.
John Bowne, fully aware of the risk he incurred, invited the Friends in Flushing to hold their meetings in his home. In 1662 Stuyvesant’s soldiers arrested him and he was imprisoned, tried and fined. As John Bowne refused to pay the fine or escape when the prison door was left unlocked, Governor Stuyvesant felt forced to banish him from the Colony. He sent an account of the case to Holland on the same ship with John Bowne, but told Bowne he could get off wherever he wished. (John Bowne and Robert Fowler were the only people who called Governor Stuyvesant moderate.) Bowne got off in Ireland, went to England, and later to Holland, where he presented his case before the Dutch West India Company. The burghers in Holland replied immediately to Governor Stuyvesant with a letter establishing religious liberty in the colony: “The consciences of men at least ought ever to remain free and unshackled.”
This letter, written in 1663, ended the severe punishment of the Quakers. The English (who took possession of the colony the next year) continued for some years to impose fines and order distraints on account of Quaker objections to oaths and military service, but Friends were allowed to meet for worship where they pleased. The Friends could now hold their meetings for worship without fear of disturbance, and they met at Bowne’s house twice a week for thirty years.
In 1672, George Fox, the founder of the Quaker movement, visited the Bowne House and preached under a stand of oak trees across the street. The oaks have gone but the house still stands and the site of his sermon is marked with a stone memorializing the event.
John Bowne donated land and arranged for a burial ground on Northern Boulevard in 1676 (See Historic Graveyard), and in 1692 Bowne and John Rodman bought three acres of land from John Ware adjoining the graveyard to be used for a meeting house site. The Meeting House was built and the first recorded meeting held in it was in 1694. (See Historic Meetinghouse.)
The New England Yearly Meeting established the New York Yearly Meeting in 1695 and the first New York Yearly Meeting was assembled at Flushing in 1696. At that time Friends’ meetings in Manhattan, Long Island and Westchester were part of Flushing Monthly Meeting.
The Growth of Quakerism in New York, The American Revolution, and The Beginnings of The Abolitionist Movement
The early 1700s saw many converts to Quakerism in New York. Meeting attendance grew and Flushing Meeting decided to establish a school for their children in 1703, the first school in Flushing. In 1717 the Meeting House was enlarged to accommodate the Friends who gathered there for yearly meetings, sometimes numbering one or two thousand.
In 1716, John Farmer called for the abolition of slavery at a meeting assembled at Flushing. Other Flushing Quakers who spoke out against slavery include Horseman Mullenix and Matthew Franklin, who traveled with John Woolman when he visited Flushing and Long Island to speak against slavery. William Burling, a member of Flushing Meeting, published one of the country’s first anti-slavery addresses in 1718. Flushing Meeting formally condemned slavery as incompatible with the principles of Christianity in 1767 and urged members not to purchase slaves in 1773. The New York Yearly Meeting banned members from owning slaves in 1774. This was not an easy decision. Elias Hicks of Jericho noted “a great unwillingness in most of them to set their slaves free.” But by the time of the revolution, most New York Quakers were convinced and set their slaves free.
Friends were encouraged to bring African-American servants to meetings for worship, to see to their education, and to arrange special meetings for them. Flushing Meeting began arranging for regularly held gatherings of African-American worshipers at Westbury, Cow Neck, Matinecock and Bethpage in 1784. Despite this concern for the plight of African-Americans, African-Americans were not always socially accepted into the Religious Society of Friends. Meetings varied in how they welcomed former slaves who wished to attend or become members, and African-American membership in the Society was rare.
During the Revolutionary War, Flushing was occupied by the British. The Meeting House was seized by the army and used for various purposes including a hospital, stable and storage. It is believed the original benches and picket fence were burned for firewood, which was in short supply. Flushing Quakers would not participate in the war effort and a number of them suffered the confiscation of property as punishment for refusing to supply the British with requisitions. In addition, Flushing Meeting spoke out against members who aided the British or accepted military service. Flushing Meeting joined with all other New York City Quakers in refusing to man the city watch in 1782, as ordered by the British troops. These were not acts of revolutionary fervor; the Flushing Quakers attempted to hold true to their peace testimony and refrained from lending support to either side of the war.
Since Flushing Meeting House was unavailable during the war, the New York Yearly Meeting moved to Westbury, Long Island, never to return. Monthly meetings in New York and other areas were formed, and Flushing Meeting became a local monthly meeting, which it remains today. After the war, George Washington visited the Meeting House in 1789 and again 1790 on his way through Long Island. About this time, outbreaks of cholera swept New York City and Quakers were occupied in raising funds to try and relieve the intense suffering brought on by the plague.
Public Education, The Underground Railroad, and Prosperity
On February 7, 1814, a group of Flushing Quaker women formed The Flushing Female Association and started a school for the poor children of Flushing. At its inception, this school was not segregated and accepted both black and white children. The women collected money, rented a building and engaged a teacher. Warm clothes were provided pupils in winter and by 1828 the average number of pupils was 50. It is believed one of the graduates of this school was Patrick Healey, who later became the first African-American to receive a Ph.D, and later became president of Georgetown University. This school continued until 1862, when the District School Board rented the building and only black children were allowed to attend.
The Flushing Female Association continued their charitable efforts “for the education and amelioration of the Negro” until 1989, when the Association was finally disbanded. Over the years, the Association vigorously supported a number of efforts, including a “Colored Sunday School,” the Child Service League, and evening classes for adults. Today, a scholarship, established by the Association in 1946, continues to be awarded annually to a young woman graduating from Flushing High School.
Other Flushing Quakers were busy with another endeavor. An active underground railroad, one of the first in the country, was quietly operated by Flushing Quakers helping slaves escape through Long Island and upstate New York. The Parsons family were particularly active in this endeavor. Samuel Bowne Parsons, a member of Flushing Meeting, was later said to boast that he assisted more slaves to freedom than any other man in Queens County.
No mention is made of the Civil War in Flushing meeting minutes. However, sympathy for the Union cause must have been high. Flushing Quakers joined with New York Yearly Meeting in resisting the payment of war taxes, although they declared these were not acts of disloyalty to the Union but expressions of their peace testimony
A number of Quakers associated with Flushing Meeting were both influential and wealthy. Financier Samuel Leggett formed the New York Gas Light Company in 1823, which was awarded the first franchise in Manhattan to lay underground gas pipes. Leggett’s home was the first house in New York to be lit by gas lights. Merchants Robert Murray and his son, John Murray, Jr., (married to Catherine Bowne), helped found The New York Society for the Manumission of Slaves and the Free School Society. The Free School Society provided the first public school instruction in New York City. John Murray, Jr. was also known for his acts of benevolence. Both of these men are buried in the graveyard in back of the Meeting House. Murray’s brother, Lindley Murray, was a well known grammarian whose publishing business was extremely successful. The Parsons family developed a thriving nursery which introduced a number of plants to America, including the Japanese Maple, the flowering dog-wood and the Weeping Beech. Samuel Parsons, Jr., a partner of Calvert Vaux, became the Landscape Architect for the City of New York and provided many of the plantings for Central Park and Prospect Park. He also helped design many important parks and common areas in New York City and across seventeen states.
Transition and Social Action
Beginning in 1828, the Religious Society of Friends experienced a deep doctrinal schism which split the society into two factions. The detrimental effect of this schism on the Society was profound. Flushing Meeting was no exception. The”Hicksite” faction, being the majority at Flushing, retained the Meeting House, but part of the property was given to the “Orthodox” faction and they built their own meeting house next door. The “Orthodox” meeting house was later torn down, but the Religious Society of Friends did not heal its internal division until 1955.
Toward the end of the 19th century, membership in Flushing Meeting dwindled to about twenty members, many of them elderly. They attempted to continue their charitable efforts by inviting groups of immigrant children out to the meeting house for afternoons of “hospitality” and by forming a work group to sew clothing for the poor. The Flushing Female Association also continued its charitable efforts, although by now the school had been closed.
During the First World War American Friends supported the formation of the American Friends Service Committee, an organization which, along with the British Friends Service Council, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947 for their efforts to promote peace and eliminate ignorance and deprivation around the world. Flushing Meeting supported the AFSC by devoting the energies of its sewing group to making clothes for refugees, an activity taken up by Quakers all over the U.S.
Beginning in 1939, Flushing Meeting began to take a more active involvement in peace activities. Members protested against conscription and supported conscientious objectors. After the Second World War, one member hosted a young woman from Hiroshima who came to the US for medical care, and the meeting sponsored a Ukrainian refugee applying for admission to the United States. For a time during the ’40s and ’50s, the Meeting became a favorite spot for families of the United Nations, which was initially established at Flushing Meadows. A large, active First Day School evolved and delegates to the UN frequently came to Flushing Meeting to speak on aspects of their work. Robert Lea, a member of Flushing Meeting, hosted many of these delegates in his home. The relaxed atmosphere and hospitality of a home proved to be so attractive that when the United Nations moved to Manhattan, New York Yearly Meeting opened Quaker House, a place of quiet refuge for delegates to meet and discuss issues privately.
Flushing Meeting vigorously supported the desegregation efforts of Martin Luther King, Jr. by holding vigils outside the Meeting House and fund raising. Flushing Meeting members were among the hundreds of thousands who attended the historic rally at the Washington Monument. Locally, Flushing Meeting members established a neighborhood storefront which provided poor children with after school activities, field trips, and tutoring. Later, members were active in a Quaker neighborhood house in Harlem.
During the Vietnam War, Flushing Meeting protested through weekly peace vigils, brochures and inter-faith coalitions on behalf of peace and justice. The meeting co-sponsored the first of the Fifth Avenue Peace Parades, held on October 16, 1965. Flushing members often got on buses for the long ride to Washington, D.C., for the many peace rallies held there. The Meeting supported a number of groups such as the Queens Peace Council, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (who had held their National Board meeting at the Meeting House in 1952), and Vietnam Vets Against the War. The Meeting’s work of supporting conscientious objectors continued, with Flushing Meeting providing a draft clinic twice a week, the only draft counseling available in northern Queens.
During the 1970s and 1980s, the Meeting House was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was declared a National and City Historic Landmark. The Meeting House and graveyard provide an opportunity for visitors to see a rare, original building which played an important role in American history, as well as learn about Friends’ faith and practice. However, it became clear that Flushing Meeting would henceforth have to expend considerable time and resources on maintaining the property. In 1970, as the Meeting House approached its 300th Anniversary, an extensive restoration of the building was undertaken. In 1998 the grounds were cleared of debris and replanted in order restore the graveyard to the lovely, tranquil setting of the Meeting House it now is.
Today and a Hopeful Tomorrow
As it has for over 300 years, Flushing Meeting continues to welcome worshipers to share in First Day at the Meeting House. We have members actively involved in Peace & Social Action Committee, a book discussion group, the Library Committee, gardening, and other endeavors.
Members are also involved in the effort to manage and raise funds for the Meeting House and graveyard, one of the oldest and most fragile places of worship in America. Recently, the graveyard was severely damaged by illegal construction activity by a neighboring development.
Yet Flushing Meeting remains hopeful. We have many extraordinary ancestors to draw inspiration and strength from, both for our own struggle to maintain the property and for the greater struggle for peace and justice in the world. We attempt to remain, as Lucretia Mott urged, “Cheerful about the past, hopeful for the future, and fair to the present.”
For more information, contact:
Queens Historical Society
143-35 37th Avenue
Flushing, New York
Bowne House Historical Society
37-01 Bowne Street
Flushing, New York
New York Yearly Meeting
15 Rutherford Place
New York, New York 10003
For the early records of the New York Quakers, contact:
Special thanks to James Driscoll of the Queens Historical Society, Helen Garay Toppins of New York Yearly Meeting, and Christopher Densmore of Friends Historical Society for their help in researching this history.