Whether mainstream or misunderstood, numerous belief systems have shaped and reshaped communities across Long Island for centuries. Faith has brought people together but also led to discord, and even violence. Explore the stories below to learn more.

Was America’s “Freedom of Religion” Born in New Amsterdam?

Anthony Van Salee, Religious Dissenters, and Long Island

Research into Anthony Van Salee’s New Amsterdam has contributed to the belief that the Dutch embraced cultural diversity and religious tolerance and can be credited with laying the groundwork for the United States’ later constitutional freedom of religion. However, the lived experiences of individuals like Van Salee and other “religious dissenters” tell a different story. 

The Dutch Republic did not endorse religious coercion, but the Reformed Dutch Church was the official, state-sponsored religion in New Amsterdam. When individuals of other faiths worshipped publicly, they inadvertently challenged the authority of the church and thus, the state. These challenges led state officials to persecute certain communities or banish them from Manhattan. Once removed, many dissenters like Van Salee put down roots in the colony’s Long Island frontier.

Map of the western part of the Township of Gravesend, 1800s

Teunis G. Bergen 


Brooklyn Historical Society

In 1645, just two years after Governor Willem Kieft signed Van Salee’s land deed, Van Salee had new neighbors: English noblewoman Lady Deborah Moody and her followers. Moody was an Anabaptist, a member of a radical Protestant sect that believed, among other things, that baptism should only be bestowed upon consenting adults, not children. Those beliefs led to Moody being forced to flee England in 1639, and, in 1643, being forced to abandon the the Massachusetts Bay Colony. 

Following her expulsion from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Moody traveled to New Amsterdam, where Kieft contingently welcomed her. He allowed her to settle in the colony, on 7,000 acres of land on the frontier, on the southwestern tip of Long Island. There, Moody established the settlement of Gravesend, the only one of the six original European settlements on western Long Island not founded by Dutch settlers. Gravesend was also the first American settlement to legislate religious freedom in its founding charter.

Friends Meeting House, Westbury, 1878

Elias Lewis Jr. 


Brooklyn Historical Society

Moody likely opened Long Island to another controversial religious group, the Friends of God, more commonly known as the Quakers. Rejecting all sacraments, liturgies, and paid intermediaries like priests, the Quakers believed that all of the faithful were spiritual equals before God. Dutch Governor Peter Stuyvesant used their public proselytizing to banish the first group of itinerant Quaker preachers from Manhattan when they arrived in 1658.

Journal of Roger Gill, 1698


Brooklyn Historical Society

The Quakers crossed the East River, where they found an ally in Lady Moody and a foothold for their faith on Long Island. In the coming decades, the Quakers established Meetings in Gravesend, Jamaica, Oyster Bay, and Shelter Island, and gained followers. In the process of creating Quaker communities, they also attracted the ire of Governor Stuyvesant, who banned colonists from welcoming any Quakers into their homes. In 1657, the small Quaker community in Flushing, Queens, fed up with the Dutch government’s continued persecution, signed the Flushing Remonstrance, demanding the right to practice their religion freely.

Petitions like the Flushing Remonstrance should be seen as precursors to the United States’ constitutionally protected freedom of religion, not just the “tolerant” policies of New Amsterdam and other colonies.

Christianity and Race on Long Island

Samuel Buell and Samson Occum

The Reverend Samuel Buell encouraged ongoing efforts to convert local American Indian tribes to Christianity. This brought him into contact with one of eighteenth-century Long Island’s most complex religious leaders, Samson Occum (17231792), a Mohegan Indian Christian convert. 

Early historians described Occum as “a heathen reformed,” an example of what they believed to be the civilizing powers of Christianity on the country’s American Indian population. Today, historians view Occum as a man caught between two worlds. While he voluntarily converted to Christianity and became a preacher, Occum was also a tribal leader and a vocal advocate for the rights of American Indians, who then faced systematic dispossession of their ancestral lands throughout the Northeast. 


Seen through Occum’s eyes, eighteenth-century Suffolk County history becomes a story of religion and community, and a window into the history of racial differences in America. 

The Reverend Mr. Samson Occum, 1768
Henry Parker, London (publisher)
The British Museum

Samson Occum was born in Connecticut in 1723 into a Mohegan Indian community. For centuries, Christian missionaries had attempted to convert the Mohegans, to mixed results. Beginning in the mid-1600s, tribal leaders sought alliances with local English authorities to secure their peoples’ safety. These political negotiations sometimes required that preachers be allowed to spread Christian teachings, as did the 1673 contract in the BHS collection between the Mohegan tribal leader Sachem Uncas and Mr. James Fitch, minister of Norwich. While European preachers sought to “civilize” through Christianity, religion may have appealed to American Indians like Occum for the negotiating power it provided.

Contract between Uncas, sachem of the Mohegans, and James Fitch, minister of Norwich, 1673
Mid-Atlantic Early Manuscripts collection (1972.002)
Brooklyn Historical Society

Like Samuel Buell, Occum was swept up in the fervor of the Great Awakening as a teenager. Occum’s conversion and desire to learn brought him to the attention of Eleazar Wheelock, a Yale-educated minister who became Occum’s mentor and oversaw his education in English, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, in addition to ministerial studies. 

In 1749, Occum began the first of his ministries among American Indian tribes, which over the next few decades would include Montaukett, Lenape, Oneida, and Iroquois peoples. Wheelock arranged for groups like the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge to pay Occum, but he received far less than a white itinerant preacher would have. This injustice influenced Buell to recommend Occum’s ordination into the Long Island Presbytery in 1759, a position that provided Occum with a more stable source of financial support.

A Sermon preached at East-Hampton…at the Ordination of Mr. Samson Occum, 1761
BX7233.B7982 E8 1761
Brooklyn Historical Society

Unlike many of his American Indian contemporaries, Occum received a formal education that enabled him to leave an extensive written record of his life. Occum did not see converting as embracing “civilization” but rather as utilizing a platform through which he could achieve some measure of equity with his white neighbors. Embracing Christianity connected Occum to powerful men like Buell, with whom Occum could attempt to negotiate on behalf of his people. 


Years of mistreatment fueled Occum’s disillusionment with the religious establishment, which through its actions reasserted time and again that Occum would never truly be their equal because of his race. In the 1770s, Occum organized a Pan-Indian settlement called Brothertown in upstate New York, where he and many of Long Island’s surviving American Indians immigrated. Occum’s faith allowed him to transform his community, but perhaps not in the way his white mentors had envisioned. 

“A remarkable revival of religion”

Samuel Buell and the Great Awakening in America

Samuel Buell’s deeply lined faced hints at the weight of the spiritual crisis he witnessed throughout his life. His personal religious journey provides a window onto what life was like in colonial America during and after the Great Awakening, a swell of religious enthusiasm that spread from upstate New York across the country beginning in the 1720s. 

Early biographical accounts of Buell’s life indicate that he was not particularly devout until after he turned seventeen in 1733, when for several months, he “was led to the most affecting discoveries of the evil of sin, the plague and total depravity of his heart, the utter insufficiency of his own righteousness.” Sudden onslaughts of spiritual crises were common during the Great Awakening and prompted thousands across America to rethink their faith.

A Faithful Narrative of the Remarkable Revival of Religion, in the Congregation of Easthampton, on Long-Island, 1809
Samuel Buell
Vault B8615f 1809
Brooklyn Historical Society

The fiery teachings of a preacher undoubtedly inspired young Buell’s exploration of his “depravity and sins.” Of those religious figures, Englishman George Whitefield was the most revered. Reacting to what they perceived to be the decline in religious adherence throughout the eighteenth-century Atlantic World, evangelical preachers like Whitefield preached directly to the people, traveling from town to town. Ministering to large crowds in churches and often in open fields, these preachers encouraged laypeople to seek their rebirth into the faith to avoid eternal damnation. Like thousands of other Americans in the eighteenth century, Buell’s acceptance of these teachings changed his life. 

George Whitefield, circa 1742
John Wollaston
NPG 131
National Portrait Gallery, London

Buell life’s mission became promoting “the salvation of souls…[and to] serve God in the gospel of his son.” He graduated from Yale College in 1741 and became an evangelical preacher himself in 1743. Just three years later, he took the position of pastor at East Hampton, where he ministered for nearly 50 years.

“The Most Famous Man in America”

Postmortem Souvenirs and Salvaged Church Furniture

Why are certain artifacts preserved? Some are kept because they are considered works of art; others because of their connection to significant historical figures or events. For this mid-1800s Rococo Revival side chair, its “Beecher” embroidery proudly announces its claim to fame and the reason for its preservation.

Plymouth Church, Brooklyn Heights, 1890–1900

Early Brooklyn and Long Island photograph collection (V1972.1.1040)

Brooklyn Historical Society

Henry Ward Beecher was hand-selected as the minister of Brooklyn’s new Plymouth Church in 1847 by a group of prominent Brooklynites who were attracted to his passionate sermons and progressive stance on issues like slavery. In early 1849, a fire destroyed the original church on Orange Street in Brooklyn Heights. The church that stands today is the second Plymouth Church, equipped with the stage-like platform upon which Beecher moved freely when speaking. The platform did not have a traditional pulpit, preferring this platform with just a desk and a set of chairs, including the one now in the BHS collection.

Plymouth Church Interior (looking North), 1934

Historic American Buildings Survey

HABS NY, 24-BROK, 31–3

Library of Congress

This pulpit furniture “bore witness” to Beecher’s rise to national fame. From his pulpit platform Beecher condemned slavery and supported the Union cause throughout the Civil War. Plymouth Church retired its original pulpit furniture in 1868 and replaced it with new furnishings carved from the wood of an olive tree brought back from Jerusalem by a parishioner. The old furniture moved to storage and was, for a time, forgotten.

[Old Beecher Pulpit Chair], circa 1903

Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims and Henry Ward Beecher collection (ARC .212)

Brooklyn Historical Society

Beecher’s death in the spring of 1887 was national news, his Brooklyn funeral reportedly attended by 50,000 mourners. In subsequent decades, members of the Plymouth Church congregation guarded Beecher’s reputation and memory. At one point, they were determined to build a “fireproof vault” in the church basement to serve as a museum to Beecher. In 1898, when the old pulpit chairs resurfaced in storage, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that “numerous offers on the part of old members of the church to receive them as souvenirs were filed.”

“Beecher Relics at Plymouth Church” 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 7, 1912

Brooklyn Public Library

Preserved as a Beecher relic, this chair stands apart from commemorative Beecher souvenirs that flooded the market following his funeral because of its known connection to the preacher during his lifetime.

Muslims in Brooklyn Today

Anthony Van Salee’s 1643 land deed is definitive proof that Muslims have been a part of American life since before the nation’s founding. From Dutch New Amsterdam to the present day, Muslims, whether born in the United States or newly arrived, have lived, worked, and prayed in Brooklyn, shaping life in the borough. Until recently, however, the stories of Muslims in Brooklyn have been hidden from public view, this gap in knowledge perpetuating the marginalization and erasure of Muslim experiences from the national narrative of the United States.

An Ummah, In Conversation, 2018 

Mohammed Fayaz

In 2017, Brooklyn Historical Society launched Muslims in Brooklyn, a two-year, multi-faceted public history project designed to highlight the stories of Brooklyn’s Muslim communities. The project contextualizes Muslim stories within the broader history of the borough. More than fifty oral histories, collected by BHS over the course of the project, reveal the nuanced lives of narrators and the depth, diversity, and significance of Muslim communities in Brooklyn, past and present.

BHS’s Muslims in Brooklyn project connects compelling histories to real people, humanizing the stories of Muslims in Brooklyn and promoting empathy. Above all, Muslims in Brooklyn helps dismantle the false and dangerous stereotypes of Muslim Americans as foreign “others” that have taken root in today’s fractious political climate. Explore the oral histories collected for Muslims in Brooklyn and reconsider the broader history of Brooklyn and America through the lens of their voices and experiences.

Portrait of Kobir Chowdhury

Photo by Joey O’Loughlin

Kobir Chowdhury was born in 1974 in the Sylhet district in Bangladesh. He immigrated to the United States in 1991 and settled in East New York, where he worked in real estate and banking. Chowdhury attended Masjid Al-Aman in East New York and began to take on leadership roles at the mosque in the 2010s, including serving as an advisor to the executive committee and as president of the mosque’s board. See this narrator’s full biography and oral history.

Portrait of Rabia Ahsin at home

Photo by Joey O’Loughlin

Rabia Ahsin was born in 1991 in the Midwood neighborhood of Brooklyn. While studying political science at Brooklyn College as an undergraduate student, she joined the Islamic Society of Brooklyn College as well as with the Muslim Women’s Educational Initiative, both of which were targeted by the New York City Police Department for religiously motivated surveillance by an undercover officer while Ahsin was a member. She also became an outspoken activist against human rights abuses, including protesting with the school’s newly formed Students for Justice in Palestine and focusing her studies on surveillance in New York City. She went on to work as a special education teacher at an all-girls’ secondary school. See this narrator’s full biography and oral history.