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Religion in New Amsterdam
by Donna Speer Ristenbatt

Orange Beads

The Various Dominies

As might be expected the Reformed Dutch Church (Calvinistic in theology) was the predominant church in seventeenth century New Amsterdam. In fact, the Dutch West Indies Company entrusted the care of its colonies to the Classis of Amsterdam, by which body all the colonial clergy were approved and commissioned.

At first the Directors sent out two "Krank-besoeckers" (consolers and visitors of the sick), Sebastian Janszen Crol and Jan Huyck or Huygen, brother-in-law of Peter Minuit. Their job was to visit the sick and conduct religious services.

When the Dutch came to New Amsterdam, religious services were at first held on Sundays in the upper floor of the horse-mill and consisted of reading the Commandments, creed, and occasionally, a printed sermon, as well as the singing of hymns. It wasn't until two years later, in 1628, that the Directors sent out a regular minister, the Rev. Jonas Michiels, or Michaelius, a graduate of the Leyden University, who had ministered to the Dutch in San Salvador, Brazil, and had served as Chaplain of the West Indies Company's Fort in Guinea. He was received well in New Amsterdam by both Dutch and Walloons alike. His knowledge of French made him popular with the latter. He even began to study the language of the Indians in order to qualify for missionary work. Dominie Michiels was aided by two elders, Director Minuit and Huygen. Crol was sent to Fort Orange. It is thought that Dominie Michiels returned to Holland with Peter Minuit in 1633.

New Amsterdam's next minister was Dominie Everardus Bogardus who arrived with Director Van Twiller. Rev. Bogardus arrived as a widower, but in 1638 he married the rich Anneke Jans, widow of Roelof Jans. Around this point in time, the subject of a church building came up. Commander Kieft collected money for the new church at the wedding of Hans Kierstede and Sara Roelofs, after everyone had had about five or six drinks. In 1642 the new church was built. It was of stone with a roof of oak shingles, had a tower, a weather-cock and peaked roof. It was seventy feet long, fifty-two feet wide, and sixteen feet high.

Dominie Bogardus was not considered the ideal pastor. He quarreled with both directors, Van Twiller and Kieft, and denounced the latter from the pulpit as a tyrant. On the other hand, Kieft charged him with habitual drunkenness, even at the communion table, and absented himself from public worship. His ungodly example was followed by his fiscal Cornelis Van Der Hoyckens; his counselor Johannes de la Montagne; the ensign, Gysbert de Leeuw; his secretary, Cornelis Van Tienhoven; Oloff Stevenson (Van Cortlandt), deacon; and Gysbert Van Dyck.

To his credit, Kieft was tolerant towards the Jesuit missionaries, Father Jogues and Father Bressani, as well as to many Anabaptist, including Mrs. Anne Hutchinson and Lady Deborah Moody. In 1643, John Throgmorton and thirty-five Anabaptist families received permission to settle at a spot in the Bronx called Throgg's Neck.

In 1647, Dominie Bogardus and Director Kieft both met their death on the Princess, by shipwreck in the Bristol Channel.

The Company had been very troubled by the dissensions between Bogardus and Kieft and made wise regulations in 1654 about general conduct - no swearing, no disturbing in any way the minister, prayers to be said both morning and evening, God's Word to be read, etc.

When Governor Stuyvesant came from Curacao, he was accompanied by the Rev. Johannes Backerus, who was only one year in New Amsterdam. Upon his departure, the Rev. Johannes Megapolensis was transferred from Fort Orange to New Amsterdam, and remained there until his death in 1669, assisted as of 1652 by the Rev. Samuel Drisius.

The Dutch on Long Island were without a minister until the middle of the 1600s. In order to attend public worship previous to this, they travelled three hours to New Amsterdam. The Dominie did visit them from time to time conducting services in homes. Finally a church was erected in 1654 in Flatbush, with the Rev. Johannes Theodorus Polhemus from Brazil installed as pastor. (The four other villages on Long Island - Gravesend, Middleburgh, Vlissingen and Heemstede - were established by the English. At Gravesend there were Mennonites; at Flushing, Presbyterians; at Middleburgh, there were mostly Independents; and at Heemstede some Independent Presbyterians. Another English village, Oostdorp, was inhabited by Puritans, alias Independents.)

During the time of Megapolensis, there was dissension with Lutherans, Quakers and Anabaptists. Lutherans, however, alarmed the Dominies the most. (They were the faster growing group of the three mentioned.) The Lutherans petitioned on October 24, 1656 that they might not be prevented from continuing their religious exercises. They received persecution from the Dominies to which the Directors of the Dutch West Indies Company replied with great displeasure. Stuyvesant, however, supported Drisius and Megapolensis, not wanting other church groups.

Governor Stuyvesant was, in particular, intolerant of the Quakers, resulting in the banishment of John Townsend and John Tilton from the province, and finally the well known John Bowne. In April 1663, however, the Lords and Directors censured Stuyvesant for banishing John Bowne, the Quaker.

The entire Quaker issue met with great difference of opinion. It seems the Quakers were either liked or disliked intensely.

On December 22, 1659, the Directors of the West Indies Company wrote to Stuyvesant a letter disapproving of the narrow views of himself and his subordinates. They regarded themselves "as a trading corporation, not a body of sectarian propagandists, and therefore discouraged intolerance."

About this time, Dominie Hendricus Blom returned from the Netherlands with Dominie Henricus Selyns, who was installed on September 7, 1660. Dominie Selyns was to be primarily the pastor of the Breuckelen[sic] congregation. (Dominie Polhemus was discharged.) In addition, he preached at Esopus and Fort Orange. Also, Governor Stuyvesant paid him two hundred guilders to preach every Sunday at the Bowery.

Unfortunately Dominie Selyns had to return to Holland in 1664 to visit his aged father. The schoolmaster, Charles Debevoise, conducted services after his departure. (While in New Amsterdam, Dominie Selyns had married Machtelt Specht, daughter of Herman Specht of Utrecht.)

In 1664, the English conquest put an end to the exclusive sway of the Reformed Dutch Church. Freedom of worship was allowed to all congregations who cared to pay their own ministers.

In 1669, Megapolensis the Elder died. The Rev. William Nieuwenhuys became the sole pastor in 1671 of the Reformed Dutch Church of New York on the death of Dominie Drisius. After the death of Nieuwenhuys, Dominie Selyns returned in 1681, receiving a warm welcome.

Religious Practices

Under Stuyvesant and Drisius, the people were compelled to strictly observe the Sabbath, although not as strictly as in New England. An ordinance was issued April 29, 1648, and said in part:

"No person shall be allowed to do the ordinary and customary labors of his calling, such as Sowing, Mowing, Building, Sawing Wood, Smithing, Bleeching, Hunting, Fishing, or any works allowable on other days, under the penalty of One Pound Flemish;.... much less any idle or unallowed exercises and sports, such as Drinking to excess, frequenting Inns or Taphouses, Dancing, Card-Playing, Tick-tacking, Playing at ball, Playing at bowls, Playing at nine-pins, taking jaunts in Boats, Wagons, or Carriages, before between, or during Divine Service......"

An ordinance in 1667, however, shows that the people, at least a vast majority, were engaged in just such activities as mentioned.

There were also, however, special days of fasting and thanksgiving frequently set apart. The first day of fasting occurred under Director Kieft's rule, on March 4, 1643, in consequence of the Indian trouble. A Thanksgiving Day was set apart on September 6, 1645. During Stuyvesant's administration, a special day was the New Year, and on March 24, 1653, the first Wednesday of each month was appointed a fast and prayer day.

Superstition was general in all creeds and classes. People believed in omens, signs, prognostications, and in such antidotes as charms, amulets and scapularies. Comets and eclipses of both sun and moon filled everyone with fear, while earthquakes and thunderclaps were thought to be displays of God's wrath. In almost every house was found the Wheel of Adventure or the Spiritual Truth Sayer, Planet books, and the works of Ludeman. There were also fortune-tellers. People believed in ghosts, haunted places, in changelings, and in witches. However, from the middle of the seventeenth century and during the Long Parliament (1640-1660), no witches were persecuted in New Amsterdam. The Dutch and French churches of New Amsterdam protested, asserting that "the apparition of a person afflicting another is very insufficient proof of a witch, and that a good name, obtained by a good life, should not be lost by mere 'spectral accusation'."

The only witchcraft trial ever held on the island was that of Ralph Hall and his wife of Seatalcott, Long Island in October 1665, and both parties were discharged.

For more information on these customs, check the source for this material:

Dutch New York by Esther Singleton, published by Dodd, Mead and Company (originally), 1909.

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