The Bowne House: A Story of Religious Freedom
Located in Flushing, Queens, the house is considered the birthplace of American religious action.
This is , a monthly column by Adrian Shirk on the history of buildings in New York.
In the heart of Flushing, Queens is a saltbox-style Dutch farmhouse preserved from the mid-seventeenth century, where John Bowne, an English farmer and merchant, performed a famous act of civil disobedience: He allowed Quakers to worship in his kitchen.
Peter Stuyvesant, the totalitarian governor of New Netherland, had banned the observance of all religions other than the Dutch Reformed Church. When Bowne refused to desist or pay a fine for hosting the Quakers, he was arrested and banished to Holland, where he then carried out a letter-writing campaign and appealed before the Dutch East India Co., who upheld his arguments for freedom from religious persecution, expunged his record, and returned Bowne to his family, in his little house, whereby the governor was ordered to lay off.
That was about 350 years ago. The house is now considered, at least by some historians and certainly by the Flushing Chamber of Commerce, to be the birthplace of American religious freedom. And like all historical interpretive sites, there are gaps and omissions. For instance, there is some evidence that John Bowne might have owned slaves.
The summer I was fourteen, my grandmother hired me for ten dollars an hour to help file all of her genealogical research, which she had been carrying out at no one’s behest for three decades. She spent a lot of those afternoons telling me about the Bownes, a family from whom she was especially proud to descend: They’d produced New York City mayors, Yankee abolitionists, suffragists, and above all, John Bowne, whose single act created, as the story went, precedent for the protection of religious liberty that would one day end up in the Bill of Rights.
I did not spend much time that summer retaining my grandmother’s stories about the Bownes, absorbed instead by whatever plans I had for the evening: an Agnostic Front show at the Crystal Ballroom, The Escaped at the Paris Theater. I pulled at the sweaty hem of my pegged Misfits T-shirt as I knelt by her filing cabinet. I occasionally pulled out a comb to tease my bright pink hair. As I was leaving her apartment after the final filing session, she reminded me that I was eligible to join the Daughters of the American Revolution, which she was very proud to be able to pass down to me.
Later I moved to New York. An aunt encouraged me to go to the Bowne House in Queens, just over the river—my birthright, my grandmother’s pride, think of her, all her cherished clippings. But I never went. I was wary. Or I was apathetic. I thought, C’mon, we all know now that anything in America perceived as a human rights victory happened at the expense of a thousand human rights violations.
It nagged at me nonetheless. This house had survived the ages, after all, a fact that is always moving to me in a country where so many, if not most, old things have been paved over. We Americans seem to endeavor to live in a millennial present, like Sylvie in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping: “To her, the deteriorations of things were always a fresh surprise, a disappointment not to be dwelt on.” The cheap and poorly-made for the new and perpetually refreshed—another country somewhere paying for our excesses—so that our buildings, and the histories they tell, never have to last, but can disintegrate, fade, be forgotten, erased.
But this house persisted. I understand, of course, the ways in which white affluence can assert itself to keep its buildings standing, to make itself remembered. While the house did hold nine generations of Bownes, the most prominent Bownes in the generations after John were so rich and powerful—governors, printing press barons, etc—there is no way that they were actually living in this house, or even cared about it. The house was more likely, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, filled with country bumpkin cousins, “spinsters,” left-behinds in the family tree—which is to say, a lot of women.
That the final residents in 1947, before the house was donated and made into a museum, were two single sisters tells me something: It was probably always women keeping it afloat, intact. Women who were proud to be Bownes, proud of the men of great accomplishment to whom they were related. Women who wanted to attach to a life rich with meaning. Women like my grandma. Women like me.
It is the summer of 2017. I’ve lived in New York, off and on, for ten years. An email from the nonprofit Journey Through NYC Religions appears in my inbox: “Bowne House Museum conversation about religion in NYC.” Tony Carnes, the publisher, will be facilitating an interfaith roundtable at the house itself, with religious leaders and scholars from all around Flushing, to talk about their respective traditions’ histories in the area.
I am a big fan of Journey, a reporting platform endeavoring to explore “the postsecular city” by literally traveling “down all 6,374.9 miles of our city’s streets, every alleyway and quite a few hallways, to map and photograph every religious site and to interview clergy and lay leaders at the sites.” There’s a graphic at the bottom of the email repeating the invitation, superimposed over a faint sketch of that little old Dutch farmhouse.
I drive out there. The house is standing near a busy intersection not far from the I-678 exit. As I roll past it looking for parking, I’m alarmed by how old it actually looks; it’s not like some lacquered-over historical site, which has been reconstituted to such an extent as to almost be fake, a mirage. Rather, there is something extremely human about it. It bears its age, a little slouching, a little moss on the roof, aloof, brown and beige, scrubbed clean for visitors, of course, but gently cared for as though by the habits of an actual family living inside, rather than, say, by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation—which is now technically the owner.
I park in a cul-de-sac behind a playground and between two giant apartment buildings. I approach the property from behind on foot, through a park where a bunch of Chinese men are playing a card game, and beyond that is a high fence, above which pokes that pitched Dutch roof, over the gates and brick public restroom.
Out of the park, and around the corner onto Bowne St., “Flushing Freedom Mile.”
Through the gate is a beautiful tidy garden, old growth trees, and the house. A woman welcomes me quietly through the split doors, and I’m surprised to find that it’s like a crowded foyer of a real home, as if in use: A packing box lays open and sifted through on the stairs; a broom and dustpan leans against a corner; the room next to me holds a computer desk, as well as a few pieces of period furniture and decorative objects partitioned off in a corner for viewing.
Before me is a small table holding brochures, underneath which lies a pile of shoes.
The woman quietly asks me to remove mine, too. The floors are old, fragile, protected by sheets of plastic. She offers me booties, but I decline, and then I go through another door, barefoot now, and slip into the circle of chairs where the discussion has begun.
There are men and women, in more or less equal numbers, positioned in a lopsided circle around the room. Folks introduce themselves: a Catholic priest, a rabbi, two Hindu priests, a Buddhist monk, a member of a Korean Presbyterian church, several lay people of various associations, several scholars of religion and material culture and, of course, some Quakers.
The Catholic priest starts to discuss the history of the church’s charitable contributions to Flushing, their advocacy for immigration reform and education accessibility in the mid-20th century. The Hindu priests talk about South Asian immigration before and during Urban Renewal. A rabbi talks about the migration of Jews to Flushing after the construction of the Major Deegan in the Bronx. Another woman talks about an interfaith photography show she coordinated at Queens College, and hands out flyers.
A Quaker woman says, “I believe they used to worship in the kitchen,” to which another woman, the Bowne House historian, tells us that the room we’re currently in—a plain, period-looking parlor, with a giant brick hearth on the west wall—was the original kitchen.
Here we are, having our own Quaker meeting, the light cool and dim and brown and protective from the summer afternoon heat.
There is no particular outcome that is supposed to happen, no stated goal. We are just there to talk, or not talk, and to see each other. I think of the Quaker approach to worship, the silent meeting. What is transformative about the silence of these meetings is that, in terms of communion with God and humanity, silence is a “process of identification rather than persuasion,” finding your ways into the light, together, rather than begging for the light to come to you.
During his banishment in the Netherlands, John Bowne thought, Isn’t there a precedent for religious freedom in the New World already? Didn’t we already go through something like this? Granted an audience with the Dutch East India Co., he argued his case by citing a petition that some of his Flushing neighbors—farmers, mostly—had put together years back and served Stuyvesant: The Flushing Remonstrance.
The Flushing Remonstrance was written in 1657, a couple of years before Bowne even moved to the neighborhood. None of the signatories were Quakers themselves. In this petition, those farmers argued that the God under which they all lived was in opposition to the kind of religious purity Stuyvesant was trying to police. The petition excoriates Stuyvesant for persecuting Quakers, but the document goes on to implore the inclusion of Presbyterians, Baptists, “Jews, Turks, and Egyptians,” all of whom are “sonnes of Adam” under this same principle.
Hannah Bowne was nursing her baby by a frosty window looking out into the deeps of the Flushing Forest. She heard hymns, saw a flicker of candlelight between the trees—hulking oaks and big, stalwart tulip trees pointing straight up to heaven. She put her baby in the cradle and walked out the door in her white nightdress, the poplin cool against her skin, feeling strange and beautiful in the evening light. She followed the voices, found the Friends missionizing by a stump, off in the distance, who took her in their arms, and sung her back to camp.
I feel extremely moved sitting in on this interfaith conversation at the Bowne House. It’s not especially amazing to be in a room in New York with people from five different religious backgrounds, but perhaps it is not especially amazing in part because of this thing that happened so long ago, in this room, even though Bowne, nor the signatories of the remonstrance, knew that in 300 years there would be Hindus and Catholics and Buddhists sitting around in his kitchen.
The gathering feels so gentle, fragile, everyone so deferential to one another and so amazed that we were all sitting there, across time and space and history and origin, and maybe wondering if something might go wrong, and wanting to preserve this as best as possible, for as long as possible. Even to just be sitting and breathing together is astounding; barefoot, vulnerable, some of the older folks wearing the booties loaned by the museum.
Some comments do bristle, of course. An elderly white woman complains that because of immigration, no one cares about saving the old-whatever-theater in Queens anymore—they just let it decay! Carnes diplomatically offers that “Perhaps because it wasn’t part of their story, their history.” The Hindu priests sit in the second row, and are mostly silent—though they chime in jubilantly, mostly to make jokes, or to correct our egregious generalizations about Hinduism.
A man who identifies himself as a religion scholar says that William Penn visited the Bowne House once.
Someone else announces that the house was a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Later, I walk across the street to the Queens Historical Society, which is housed in a large eighteenth-century farmhouse that was transported to this spot for the purpose of including it as a part of the Flushing Freedom Mile. Inside, the docent shows me a painting for an auction being held at a bustling port, and tells me about how in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Flushing port was among the largest slave-trading sites in New York.
I go back to the Bowne House a second time, later that summer. I push open the split door and enter into the foyer. A pretty young woman in bare feet crosses the room.
“I’m here for . . . a tour?” I say.
“Sure,” she says, and comes out to the porch, having slipped on her Crocs.
I give her a five dollar bill and we talk a few minutes about my being a Bowne descendent, which I realize is probably a common experience for them—the descendent acting as though they are delivering a gift, or are a prodigal ‘haven’t-you-been-expecting-me’ daughter?
A Dutch couple joins our small tour. They seem to know a shocking amount about Flushing—or Vlissingen, they say—though it’s their first visit to New York. They ask the historian questions about Stuyvesant and other historic buildings they might check out. “This is almost the oldest structure in New York, by far,” the historian says, clearly used to declaring this as a point of pride, but pre-empting her European guests’ disappointment.
I can’t recall the context, but at one point, standing in the side yard of the house, she says, “You know, people came to America, looking for Utopia . . .” I think about how this literally means looking for “no place,” but contextually means “the place.” We look at fine china that archaeologists recovered from the old latrine. We hear about journals and logs that indicated the presence of slaves or indentured servants, or both, during and after John Bowne’s life. I watch a robin divebomb a squirrel.
As I’m leaving the property, back on the sidewalk, I look in the window facing the street, and it is the same window some people I am related to looked into or out of many times. It is a dark window. I can see the cupboards, the bassinet, the hope chest, the intern working at a computer.
Here we are, the site of the first known American religious freedom action—though, presumably, it was at the expense of American Indians’ freedom, religious or otherwise, and then the ongoing slave trade all around them—which the Quakers don’t intervene on until well into the eighteenth century. But then they do, eventually, big time. And then Queens, and Flushing in particular, actually becomes among the most religiously diverse places in the country—by a far margin, more so than even the other boroughs. It becomes this singular, miraculous spiritual heterotopia, beyond what Bowne, or the writers of the Remonstrance, or the writers of the goddamn Bill of Rights ever imagined, or could imagine.
Preservation is strange. Sometimes we don’t know what it is we’re saving. The house is more than a shrine to religious liberty—it’s not just embalming the act of a particular man or family. It lasts, maybe, because it is a kind of oracle for what would happen, what could happen—for what was possible, what is possible. It preserves something in us, a glimmer, a vision, something we can barely see in the present.
Adrian Shirk is the author of And Your Daughters Shall Prophesy, a hybrid-memoir exploring the lives of American women prophets and mystics, named an NPR ‘Best Book’ of 2017. She's currently working on a manuscript about utopian communities. Shirk was raised in Portland, Oregon, and has since lived in New York and Wyoming. She's a frequent contributor to Catapult, and her essays have appeared in The Atlantic, among others. Currently, she teaches in Pratt Institute’s BFA Creative Writing Program, and lives on the border of the Bronx and Yonkers with her husband Sweeney and Quentin the cat.