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Zion on the Hudson: Dutch New York and New Jersey in the Age of Revivals (Rutgers University Press, 2000)

"As a person of ancestry largely Dutch, I am proud to take my Dutch blood to a Dutch church every Sunday, and as a minister of Christ I am proud to stand in this pulpit and preach the same doctrines and use the same sacramental forms that have been used on the soil of New York since New Amsterdam was a trading post."

--Rev. Henry Du Bois Mulford, Syracuse, N.Y., 1893

Introduction:

As English Puritans called the Massachusetts Bay Colony their "City set upon a Hill," so Dutch Reformed Calvinists in New Netherland referred to their new home as their "Reformed Zion," a place as surely their own to practice their form of Protestantism as the Bay Colony was to the Puritans. And practice it they did. When the Reverend Henry Du Bois proclaimed his pride in his Dutchness from his Syracuse, New York, pulpit on a Sunday morning in October 1893, Reformed people had been practicing their faith in America for 269 years.

Although the Dutch came to the New World in the seventeenth century as explorers and traders in the service of the Dutch West India Company, religion soon followed, for it was accepted in the Netherlands that state and church were mutually advantaged by advancing the "true Christian religion." (By the time of the Reformation, when Dutch Calvinists spoke of the "true" Christian religion, they referred to the doctrines and practices of the Reformed Dutch Church as established at the Synod of Dort in 1619.) The first permanent settlers to New Netherland, equipped with Psalm books, the Reformed creeds and confessions, and the Heidelberg Catechism, arrived in 1624, accompanied or at least soon followed by a lay pastor known as a ziekentrooster or comforter of the sick. By 1628 an ordained Reformed Dutch minister had organized a congregation and was conducting worship services in a room constructed for the purpose over the horsemill near the fort at the Battery (Exchange Square today). Three hundred years later, in the early 1900s, H. L. Mencken and other scholars found Dutch dialects still spoken within the boundaries of the original New Netherland, Dutch material culture and folkways were abundantly evident, and the Reformed Dutch Church was flourishing on the banks not only of the Hudson River, but all over New York and New Jersey, as well as in the Midwest.

There is, however, a paradox. Dutch culture and the Reformed faith appeared in the New World almost contemporaneously with Puritanism in New England. But 300 years later, when H. L. Mencken estimated there to be some 200 persons still speaking the Jersey Dutch dialect in Bergen and Rockland counties, the faith the settlers brought with them was the smallest of the mainstream Protestant denominations in America. It will be one of the objects of this book to consider why, when it was endowed with the myriad advantages of having been first on the ground in the seventeenth century, the Reformed Church, the dominant cultural institution of the Dutch in America, failed to become the dominant religion in the Middle Colonies, or even nearly as prominent as its sister Protestant faiths....

The narrative lends itself to convey a parallel story, that of the evangelical age itself. As Zion on the Hudson relates the experience of Dutch Calvinists in nineteenth-century New York and New Jersey, it tells it perforce against the background of the unfolding age of revivals, a story now mostly forgotten, although it took place to a great extent in public and was minutely reported in the public press.

It is at a metaphorical door, in fact, a construct between indoors and outdoors, prayer closet and parlor, private worship and public, that the reader of this book will stand, looking in, into pious hearts and minds where religion sank its deepest roots, and looking out into the streets and fields and auditoriums where so much of religion took place in the nineteenth century. In private, Reformed Dutch people attempted to teach their children the rudiments of their faith in their homes, confronted themselves in their diaries and journals as they recorded their spiritual struggles, doubts, and unbelief, and retired to pray in secret over the state of their souls and over the souls of their loved ones.

But in public, along with thousands of their pious fellow evangelicals, they also flocked to crowded revival meetings in the open air, to Sunday school picnics attended by a thousand children and adults, to public funerals on a scale unimaginable today, to weddings so crowded some could barely see the heads of the bride and groom over the spectators. In droves they joined an array of moral reform societies and benevolent associations and missionary organizations, all determined to make the whole world a Christian place. On Memorial Day, they gathered in cemeteries en masse with evangelicals of their sister persuasions to dress the graves and pray over the dead. In the fashion of the day, they even learned to die in public, with dozens of onlookers assembled around their deathbeds to hear their dying words, to catch perhaps a gasping phrase hailing the first glimpse of paradise.

Ministers published their sermons by the thousands, and Reformed evangelicals by the thousands read not only the sermons of their own clergymen, but also those of other denominations. In this way, they came to be able, like their fellow Christians in all branches of the evangelical world, to debate with ease arcane theological points in the columns of the religious press. In time, they also came to be able to think of themselves as more American than Dutch, and finally as not Dutch at all or as one of them put it, as no more like their Dutch progenitors than a windmill was like a steam engine.

This fresh look at the religious culture of New York and New Jersey in the nineteenth century will reveal that it, too, was no more like anything that had gone before than the eighteenth century world of the Dutch Pietist minister Theodorus Jacobus Frelinghuysen resembled the world of the evangelical preacher Charles G. Finney and his New Measures in the flamboyant Age of Revivals.

Zion on the Hudson concludes with the suggestion that even a denomination as formalist and doctrinally conservative as the eastern branch of the Reformed Dutch Church sincerely believed itself to be was obliged to rethink itself in order to survive. In the social tumult and revivalistic atmosphere of nineteenth-century America, it adapted in spite of itself to the evolving religious needs and desires of its own membership. Although change sometimes occurred at a glacial pace, it occurred because of a progressive, forwardlooking, and Americanizing element within the ranks of both clergy and laity.

As it describes the efforts of the Dutch in nineteenth-century New York and New Jersey to preserve the standards of their church, while developing a taste for a new kind of theology and a preference for an American identity, it will, finally, document how Dutchness, at the end of the nineteenth century, at last became only a historical memory in New York and New Jersey.