Works of Power and Grace: The Story of New Netherland

The Christian Reformed ChurchA few weeks ago I happened to drive past a church that identified itself as a “Historic Dutch Reformed Church.”  It was located about 40 miles west of my hometown, on the side of Long Island closest to Manhattan.  Surprised that I hadn’t heard of it before, and curious to know more, I later looked it up on the internet.

“Historic” is almost an understatement, on American soil at least.  This church, I discovered, was established in 1732—that’s the year George Washington was born—and has been in existence ever since that time.  Its website says, “We earnestly seek to know the mind of Christ and strive to be faithful to God and to each other in a changing, complex, and often troubled world.”  Yet as I explored this site further, doubts began to arise in my mind that their worship and congregational life remain Reformed in the orthodox Scriptural sense.  With regard to churches like this one, I had begun to notice a tendency to view the Dutch Reformed title as a historic label more than a continuing commitment.

Just last night I was carrying on some historical research for my church, West Sayville URC, and discovered a booklet describing “A History of the First Reformed Church of West Sayville, N.Y., 1866-1966.”  This was the church founded by the first immigrants from Holland to West Sayville in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and it was the church from which our congregation would split ten years later.  Since then it has changed locations and names a few times, but it remains an active congregation in our community and will soon be able to celebrate its 150th anniversary.

What both of these churches have in common is that they are members in the denomination today known as the RCA or Reformed Church in America.  At first glance, we might automatically line up the Reformed Church in America with some of the other Reformed denominations familiar to us today: the United Reformed Churches, the Christian Reformed Church, the Reformed Church in the United States, and so on.  Truthfully, the RCA has a much longer and more complex history, but it is intimately tied to the origin of our own churches as well.

Dr. Henry Beets

Dr. Henry Beets

That’s why, in the third chapter of The Christian Reformed Church, Dr. Henry Beets pauses in his historical account of the founding of the CRC to explain how the first Dutch immigrants came to North America, and how their first churches worshipped.  This post is loosely paraphrased from the key points in his chapter.

The first wave of Dutch Reformed immigrants came to North America early in the seventeenth century.  The English captain Henry Hudson had discovered the river named after him with the Dutch ship De Halve Maan (The Half Moon), and Holland immediately claimed possession of the New York-New Jersey area, calling it “New Netherland.”  At first the only settlements along the Hudson River and at its mouth were forts; then came trading posts, farms, villages, and soon a city: New Amsterdam.  A conglomeration of Dutchmen settled here in the New World, and practically all of them professed the Reformed religion.  But Beets suggests that not all of these settlers were men and women of high spiritual standards.  Their primary objective was not religious liberty, but material prosperity.

Nevertheless, churches were soon established in New Amsterdam, the first as early as 1628.  (That congregation, now known as the Middle Collegiate Church, is still in existence and is the oldest continuously active church in America.)  Many more churches would be founded both in Manhattan and on “Lange Eylandt,” which explains the origin of the Dutch Reformed Church I stumbled across a few weeks ago.  Another Dutch hub was the town of Albany up the river, which would play a key part in the story of the settlers in Michigan a few centuries later.

The Dutch presence in the New World was seriously impacted when New Netherland was surrendered to the English in 1664, and New Amsterdam became New York City.  Beets says, “Many of the younger element were drawn away by what is called the ‘social pull,’ and joined the Church of England.  Dutch stubbornness, insisting on continued use of the ancestral tongue in church services, increasingly alienated some of the most progressive element.”  Friction also began to arise between the group of churches in America and the parent denomination in the Netherlands.  In 1792 the Dutch Reformed Churches here split from the churches in Holland—hence the denominational title “Reformed Church in America.

Sadly, as Beets points out, the four cycles of church history mentioned in Chapter 2 (construction, systematization, corruption, and restoration) were already at work in this denomination as well.  The principal obstacle to the spiritual health of the churches was the specter of Unitarianism, which became immensely popular as the eighteenth century drew to a close.  This system of belief has been described as “a bold reactionary protest against the leading doctrines of the prevailing Calvinism of New England,” and, says Beets, “it would have been miraculous if the Dutch Church had escaped the ravages of the times unhurt.  Fact is that the Ecclesiastical Records of New York State evidence time and again that religious conditions in that body were far from satisfactory—to put it mildly.”

With corruption, however, comes the opportunity for restoration, and in October 1822 a small group of churches in New Jersey under the leadership of Rev. Dr. Solomon Froeligh vowed to restore the Reformed church to its original purity by declaring themselves the “True Reformed Dutch Church.”  As Beets will mention in a later chapter, these congregations formed the Classis of Hackensack, which would remain independent until it united with the forthcoming Christian Reformed Church in 1890.  This bit of historical information accounts for the strange geographical overlap of the CRC’s Classes Hudson and Hackensack, which can still be noted on a map today, as well as the occasional shuffling of individual congregations between the two bodies.

Whatever may have been the spiritual condition of the Reformed Church in America, this denomination undoubtedly grew in numbers and power.  By 1845 it consisted of 32,883 communicant members comprising 274 congregations.  A Board of Domestic Missions was established in 1831, and a Board of Foreign Missions the following year.  In particular, the Domestic Board would have much to do with the immigration and settlements of the CRC’s founders, as later chapters will show.

Beets’s closing paragraph is worth duplicating in its entirety, since it shows his historical insight, objective approach, and lack of unnecessary animosity towards the RCA.

Dr. J. Van Hinte in his monumental work Nederlanders in Amerika brings out with great clearness that the ‘why’ of the coming of the Hollanders to New Netherland was primarily commercial.  There was no need for any of the Dutch colonists to escape their homeland because of persecution.  While some of those who came across, and many of their descendants, were people of refinement, and nearly all were nominally of ‘the Reformed persuasion,’ not all adorned their profession with a godly life.  For one reason, their spreading out into the wilderness northward, southward and westward, to form new settlements, with not enough preachers and teachers to guide them, seriously affected their religious welfare.  In fact, it is in various respects a wonder that so many of these Dutch pioneers remained so loyal to the doctrines and ways of the fathers, even though their religion may have been largely formal.  Calvinistic principle had more to do with this than some are willing to confess.  And God’s covenant mercy.

Amen to this—for it is only by God’s covenant mercy that the Church continues to exist at all.  May that realization always humble and inspire us as we continue serving Him in spirit and in truth.

–MRK

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3 Responses to “Works of Power and Grace: The Story of New Netherland”


  1. 1 statenislandgenealogy March 21, 2013 at 10:32 pm

    Very interesting post! Just coincidentally I’ve been reading today on the differences between the various Reformed churches. I’m still not sure I’ve got it all straight, even though I was baptized into a church which ended up as RCA.

    The second oldest Dutch Reformed Church (and the oldest Sunday school in America) is on Staten Island, and is still active as well. I just posted on my blog a history of the Dutch Reformed Churches on Staten Island.
    http://statenislandgenealogy.com/2013/03/21/dutch-reformed-church-list/

    • 2 Michael Kearney March 23, 2013 at 3:53 pm

      Thanks for commenting and sharing that link! I have grown up in a URCNA (United Reformed Churches in North America) church and I still don’t have all the differences straight. We split from the CRC (Christian Reformed Church) c. 1996 and the CRC split from the RCA in 1857. There are many branches on this “family tree”!

      I am going to bookmark your site, because I have also been reading up on the history of some of the Dutch Reformed Churches here in the Long Island/New York City area. A few weeks ago I got a copy of Dover’s Exploring Historic Dutch New York. In case you weren’t aware of it, that has been very helpful to me thus far.

      –MRK


  1. 1 Works of Power and Grace: Michigan and Iowa | URC Psalmody Trackback on April 11, 2013 at 7:01 am

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