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Born in Matlock, Derbyshire, on 9 March 1627, Bowne emigrated with his father and sister to Boston, Mass. in 1648. Bowne became a merchant and married well, his wife Hannah Feake (ca.1637–1678), whom he married in 1656, being a great-niece of Governor John Winthrop of Massachusetts. Bowne and his bride, however, soon became adherents of the new doctrine of Quakerism, which was then being actively repressed in most of the English colonies of New England. Accordingly by 1661 they had relocated to Flushing, 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.
In 1662 Bowne was arrested on orders of Governor Stuyvesant for allowing a Quaker meeting in his house. Refusing to pay the assessed fine, or to depart from the province, he was sent to Holland for trial before the Dutch West India Company. There, he successfully exonerated himself by appealing to the guarantees of religious liberty contained in the Flushing patent of 1645 granted by Governor William Kieft; see Flushing Remonstrance. Winning the respect of his judges by his uncompromising stance, he was released, and returned triumphantly home in 1664, Governor Stuyvesant being ordered to extend tolerance to all religious sects.
Although the New Netherland was soon to become the English colony of New York, the ideal of religious freedom for which John Bowne had stood up was upheld by the province's new rulers, serving as an example for the other English colonies in North America, and ultimately to the framers of the American Constitution as well.
A 1672 letter from Bowne and other Quakers to the Governor of New York explaining their conscientious refusal to contribute funds for the repair of the fort of New York is one of the earliest examples of American Quaker war tax resistance.
John Bowne later served in the provincial assembly of New York, dying in Flushing on 20 December 1695.
John Bowne's second wife was Hannah Bickerstaff (married 2 Feb 1679/80) and had 6 children (2 died soon after birth).
John Bowne's third wife was Mary Cock (married 26 June 1693) and had two children.
A park, high school and an elementary school in Flushing, Queens are named in his honor.
- Gross, David M. American Quaker War Tax Resistance (2008) pp. 7-8 ISBN 1-4382-6015-6