I’m continually fascinated by the characters in my family tree. When I look at some of the amazing things that they accomplished, I feel like my own life is pretty underwhelming. Take Hannah Feake and her husband John Bowne, for instance…
Hannah was practically early colonial royalty, being the great-niece of John Winthrop, the founder and Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Her mother was Winthrop’s niece, Elizabeth Fones Winthrop Feake Hallett. (You can read about her amazing story here.)
The thing is, though, the people who were a part of this culture would have cringed to hear themselves described in those terms, especially Hannah and her husband John Bowne. They were just ordinary people who happened to respond to difficult situations in extraordinary ways. The question that I constantly ask when I read the various stories of my ancestors, is, would I step up to the plate if I were in their shoes?
Their story centers around the idea of religious freedom, and what that would have looked like in 1600s New Netherlands. The whole concept of religious freedom is filled with so many ironies that I think that would be a topic for a completely separate blog post. So let’s get back to the story at hand, which took place a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…
Okay, so it was in Flushing, Queens, New Netherlands, in the mid-1600s…
Originally known by the Dutch name of Vlissengen, the village of Flushing was first granted its charter by the Dutch West India Company in 1645. It became part of the Dutch colony of New Netherlands, and as such, was subjected to the laws of that colony. And okay, let’s just say it, to the whims of Governor Peter Stuyvesant. To be fair, when it comes to religious freedom, Stuyvesant was just towing the party line. The leadership of the colony was deeply influenced by the heads of the Reformed Dutch Church, who didn’t approve of Quakerism. Stuyvesant 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”. Pretty strong words, considering the fact that the colony was home to a large number of Quakers, from Southampton to Gravesend.
In direct defiance of the Governor’s orders, a gutsy Flushing colonist, Henry Townsend, held a Quaker meeting in his home, and was promptly fined and banished.
What followed was the religious freedom equivalent of the proverbial butterfly beating its wings off the west coast of Africa and causing a hurricane hundreds of miles away.
The townspeople of Flushing rallied behind Townsend, and presented Stuyvesant and the colonial government with a document that has gone down in history as “The Flushing Remonstrance”. The document was drawn up and signed by Edward Hart, the town clerk, and Tobias Feake, the local sheriff. It was dated December 27, 1657. To quote the heart of the letter:
“…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.”
The writers then go on to gently remind the Governor what their original town charter had to say on the matter, the fact that the residents had the right:
“to have and Enjoy the Liberty of Conscience, according to the Custome and manner of Holland, without molestation or disturbance.”
BAM! In your face, Peter Stuyvesant. But wait, not so fast.
Stuyvesant had Hart and Feake thrown in jail, and fired the entire town council, replacing them with men of his own choosing. Sounds a LOT like modern day politics to me.
Enter John Bowne, and his young wife Hannah Feake. Tradition holds that Hannah became a Quaker after hearing one of their messages and being intensely moved by it. Her husband quickly followed suit, and sometime in 1662, knowing full well the risk that he was taking, he invited the Flushing Quakers to hold a meeting in his home. Stuyvesant wasted no time arresting Bowne and throwing him in jail. Hannah is said to have conducted meetings in his absence.
Bowne refused to pay his fine or to admit any wrongdoing, even refusing to escape when his cell door was conveniently left open for him. By this time, a no-doubt exasperated Stuyvesant felt that he had no choice but to banish Bowne and to send him packing on the next ship bound for Holland. But, wink-wink, he told him that he was free to get off the ship at any point before it reached its final destination.
Bowne disembarked in Ireland, made his way to Holland and presented his case before the Dutch West India Company. He must have been quite persuasive, because the burghers in Holland replied immediately to Governor Stuyvesant with a letter establishing religious liberty in the colony. I love this quote, and think I might even cross-stitch it on a pillow:
“The consciences of men at least ought ever to remain free and unshackled.”
A big win for “liberty of conscience”, indeed. Let’s substitute “people” for “men”, and I think you’ll see what they’re saying. Even if we are bodily chained and shackled, at least we should have the right to believe whatever we want, in our own minds. Welcome to America. What a country. This crazy idea, my friends, may have made its way to the shores of Manhattan via Holland, but I for one am glad that the government has retained it and that it’s stood the test of time. You can worship your coffee table if you want to, just don’t stop me from worshiping the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob if I want to. Like it or not, we must allow each other the right to hold personal beliefs. Of course we can’t forget the part that says “do unto all men as we would have them do unto us”. Be nice to each other, people. History (and current events) is littered with plenty of examples of what happens when we’re not.
The Bownes and people like them paved the way for the rest of us.
So what’s the rest of the story? According to several sources, John returned to New York (New Netherlands had become New York under English rule in 1664) and to his wife, who had kept the home fires burning while he was away. Quaker meetings were held twice at week at the Bowne house, pictured above, for the next thirty years. Hannah, who found time for missionary work when she wasn’t busy raising her eight children and hosting meetings, on occasion traveled to Ireland and England in order to pursue fundraising for the Quaker movement. It was during one of these visits that she became ill in London, and died there in 1677. She is buried in the Bunhill Fields Burying Ground in London.
Hannah Feake is my 9th half great-aunt.
(relationships 7 – 12 are proven via DAR documentation):
Name: Hannah Feake (1637 – 1677)
Parents: Elizabeth Fones and Robert Feake
Spouse: John Bowne
Relationship to SK Roots: 9th Great Aunt (half)