New Netherland's Legacy

"An unhappy schism and controversy had, for several years, subsisted in the Dutch Churches in America, which, unless soon suppressed, threatened the annihilation of that whole denomination. The precise grounds of the dispute, or the best means for reconciling the contending parties, I had not then completely surveyed. The existing facts however were notorious and afflictive and I understood enough to convince me of the inevitable ruin that impending and must soon be experienced if those dissensions were healed."

-- Rev. John Livingston on the 1760s Coetus-Conferentie split in the Reformed Church regarding the formation of an American Classis or governing body.[1]

Religious Legacy: The Dutch firmly established Calvinism (which also includes French (Huguenot) and German Reformed, and Scots and English Presbyterians) as the leading religious creed in the Middle Colonies. The American Reformed church, which remained under the auspices of the Classis of Amsterdam until 1792, is seen as the central institution in maintaining Dutch cultural identity.[2] What is particularly surprising in the post-Conquest period is the rapid growth of that denomination among all ethnic groups. Whereas, at the time of the English takeover of New Netherland in 1664 only three Dutch Reformed dominies oversaw eleven congregations, by 1780, and despite the Anglican church's favored position after 1693, the number of Dutch Reformed congregations in the Middle Colonies soared to 127.[3] Because the Reformed church was the central and often the only public institution in many New York and New Jersey communities, its influence and the impact of its theological disputes between pietist and orthodox strains were wider than just among its communicants. These included issues of political sovereignty, obedience to authority, and the establishment of institutions of higher learning.[4]

Freedom of Conscience: An important legacy of the Dutch is the concept of freedom of conscience in private thoughts as a component of a healthy society. In the Dutch Republic, freedom of conscience was enshrined in the 1579 Union of Utrecht, which grew to be seen as the Republic's basic constitutional document. Article 13 of the Union specifically states, "each person shall remain free, especially in his religion, and that no one shall be persecuted or investigated because of their religion."[5] Although this guarantee applies only to private beliefs and not to public worship, its embodiment as a cornerstone in the foundation of their state came to the Middle Colonies with the Dutch, where it flourished.

1. Memoirs of Rev. John Henry Livingston (New York, W. A. Mercein, printer, 1829), 112.

2. Firth Haring Fabend, "The Synod of Dort and the Persistence of Dutchness in Nineteenth-Century New York and New Jersey," New York History, 77 (July 1996), 273-300, Fabend, "A New Light on New Netherland's Legacy to the Religious Culture of New York and New Jersey," de Halve Maen, 73 (Fall 2000), 51-55, Fabend, Zion on the Hudson: Dutch New York and New Jersey in the Age of Revivals (New Brunswick, N.J., 2000), 214, and Fabend, "Church and State, Hand in Hand: Compassionate Calvinism in New Netherland," de Halve Maen, 75 (Spring 2002), 3-8 ; Joyce D. Goodfriend, "The Social Dimensions of Congregational Life in Colonial New York City," William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd series, 46 (April 1989), 252-278.

3. Edwin Scott Gaustad, Historical Atlas of Religion in America, rev. ed. (New York, 1976), 3-4.

4. Willem Frederik (Eric) Nooter, "Between Heaven and Earth: Church and Society in Pre-Revolutionary Flatbush, Long Island" (Ph.D. dissertation, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, 1994); Joyce D. Goodfriend, Who Should Rule at Home? Confronting the Elite in British New York City (Ithaca, N.Y. Cornell University Press, 2017).

5. A. Th. Van Deursen, "Between Unity and independence: the application of the Union as a fundamental law," in The Low Countries History Yearbook, 14 (1981), 50-55. The text of the Union of Utrecht is in E. H. Kossman and A. F. Mellink, eds., Texts concerning the Revolt of the Netherlands (Cambridge, Eng., 1974), 165-173.

About the New Netherland Institute

For over three decades, NNI has helped cast light on America's Dutch roots. In 2010, it partnered with the New York State Office of Cultural Education to establish the New Netherland Research Center, with matching funds from the State of the Netherlands. NNI is registered as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Contributions are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law. More

The New Netherland Research Center

Housed in the New York State Library, the NNRC offers students, educators, scholars and researchers a vast collection of early documents and reference works on America's Dutch era. More


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