Title: Brooklyniana, No. 9
Creator: Walt Whitman
Date: February 1, 1862
Publication information: Brooklyn Standard 1 February 1862: .
Source: The Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Our transcription is based on a digital image of an original issue. Gaps from damage to the original have been supplied by consulting Emory Holloway, ed. The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman, 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1921. pp. 257–261.
Whitman Archive ID: per.00225
Contributors to digital file: Brett Barney, Janel Cayer, Ashley Lawson, Liz McClurg, and Sarah Walker
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A Series of Local Articles, on Past and Present.
THE religious growth and character of a settlement is by no means the least important part of its record. We will, in this paper, present the statement of some of the first beginnings and subsequent continuations of "the church," especially of one venerable edifice, before alluded to, that stood in Brooklyn for over a hundred years.
The first regularly ordained minister in the settlement of the New Netherlands was the Reverend Everard Bogardus,1 who was brought over with Governor Van Twiller,2 in 1629. Previous to his arrival (and, indeed, for some time afterward), as there was no church built, the congregation carried on their exercises in a barn, said to have been situated at the corner of Broad and Stone streets, in New York. We have, however, authentic records of the Reformed Dutch Church in the colony only back to the date of 1639.
It will be remembered that the English settlers were interspersed with the Dutch, almost from the very beginning. But there was little or no difference of belief. The doctrine generally taught was from the confession of faith adopted by the Assembly of Divines at Westminister in 1642. The congregational form of church government prevailed till the year 1747, when the Presbyterian order was chosen as better adapted to preserve the purity of doctrine. Indeed, from the first, the organization of churches, under authority, in the Dutch settlements here (as among the Puritans to the east), was considered one of the earliest things to be attended to.
During the Dutch administration, and partially during the English afterward, the Governors claimed the sole right of licensing preachers, which was generally acquiesced in as necessary to keep out interlopers and promulgers of false doctrine. Some of these were occasionally treated with severity. During the administration of Governor Stuyvesant,3 a very respectable member of the Quaker faith was arrested, imprisoned a while, and then transported in the next ship to Holland, as a dangerous heretic. Another was confined in the jail in Queens County for over a year. It will be remembered, however, that the Quakers, for a while after the sect originated, were the subject of general persecution and prejudice. In New England they were even condemned to death.
No doubt, according to what has been intimated, the settlers instituted religious meetings of an informal character from the very first. But, for some years, those who desired to attend the ministrations of a regularly ordained clergyman, on the Sabbath, had to cross the river to Manhattan Island. There Dominie Bogardus continued his ministrations till 1647, when he was succeeded by Dominie Johannus Backerus,4 who continued only a couple of years—and he by others, etc.—down to 1654.
Until the latter date there had been no regularly ordained clergyman, with a church to preach in, in Brooklyn. It is necessary to state, also, that the Brooklyn of that period did not cluster toward the great ferries as now, but was situated about a mile inland. All these, and also the inhabitants of Midwout (Flatbush) and Amersfort (Flatlands) had to make the journey, on the Sabbath, over to Manhattan Island, to "go to church."
In 1654, Dominie Johannes Theodorus Polhemus landed here,5 from a visit to South America, and was invited by the settlers in Kings County to stop and preach for them. Upon his acceptance of the call, and the Governor granting the requisite license, a church was built (this was at Flatbush), in the form of a cross, sixty feet the longest way, and twenty-eight the other. It was built by general subscription of all the settlements; and here Dominie Polhemus was duly installed. This may be called the first formal establishment of religion in our settlement. It was the Presbyterian church, of the form above alluded to.
Dominie Polhemus preached every Sunday morning in this new cruciform church, and in the afternoons alternately in Brooklyn (toward the ferry), and at Flatlands. In this condition things remained for six years.
Brooklyn proper had by this time increased to thirty-one families, comprising one hundred and thirty-four souls. In the year last mentioned it is recorded that there were twenty-four specific Brooklyn members of the Flatbush congregation, with one elder and two deacons.
This induced the Brooklynites to set up for themselves, and in 1660, they offered a call to Dominie Selyns, which he accepted; and from that date it was unnecessary to go either to Manhattan island or Flatbush, on the Sabbath.
For a while, the Brooklyn congregation (like the beginning at New York) worshipped in a barn. But the attendance was regular and full, and had many accessions from Flatbush, Gravesend, and from New Amsterdam, across the river. So that but a short time passed before it was determined to build an eligible church.
This was done in 1666. In a former paper we have described this first Brooklyn church, and given some items of its history.6 For it had quite a history. It stood for over a century—indeed for some hundred and twenty-five or thirty years, and for the greater part of that time was the only church in Brooklyn. It stood on what is now Fulton avenue, near Duffield street, right in the middle of the road, which passed by it on either side. It was either a round, or octagonal shaped building, and had a conical roof. Some accounts say that it was pulled down in 1791; but an aged Brooklynite, yet living, who came here in the year 1800, tells the writer of these sketches that it was not destroyed till some few years after he came to Brooklyn.7
This edifice, however, was, as we said, the beginning of the church in Brooklyn. It was the only religious edifice here at the outset of the Revolutionary War. And though, in 1664, the Dutch power in the New Netherlands was yielded up to the British, it was expressly stipulated by the old authorities that the existing forms of worship, and full liberty of conscience and of church discipline, were to be reserved to the inhabitants.
The classis of Amsterdam, which had been from the first the ecclesiastical superior of all the Dutch churches in the New Netherlands, continued to be so over them all, until 1772, when the American Reformed Dutch Church became independent of all foreign authority, yet continued in friendly correspondence with the mother church, for a long while afterward.
The Reformed Dutch Church, which held this edifice, and formed its congregation, determined, soon after the commencement of the present century, on a new and larger building. The location was changed, and placed where it now is (in Joralemon street, south of the City Hall). Here, in December, 1807, a large new church of dark grey stone was opened for public worship—and here it stood, like the oldest son of the patriarch that had preceded it, till 1834. At that time, it had become both too small and too old-fashioned, and the Consistory determined on still a newer and handsomer building. The result of their determination was the present edifice, (which is copied from the architecture of the celebrated Parthenon, the temple of Minerva at Athens.) It is a handsome edifice; but a comparison, in thought, between it and the old round thatch-roofed church that stood in the middle of the road excites some curious reflections.
Many of our readers will doubtless be interested in knowing that Long Island, in the earlier times, (during the 18th century) furnished several Indian preachers, of good Christian repute. The records of the Presbyterian churches of the Island contain accounts of several such preachers. One in particular, named Samson Occom,8 was quite celebrated, having gone abroad and preached in London, it is said before the King and Queen. This Samson was born in 1723, and was thoroughly educated by a New England minister. In 1755 he established a school and church for Indians on the east end of the island. He was regularly ordained, and occasionally travellec to the main land---sometimes visiting Brooklyn and New York, and preaching. It was in 1767 that he visited England. While there he preached in Whitfield's church.9
Here on Long Island, to the Indians, he preached in their own dialect---and accounts say that he was a free, strong and graceful orator.
1. Everard Bogardus was pastor in New Amsterdam until a disagreement with government officials led to his planned return to the Netherlands in 1647. He and about 80 others drowned en route when his ship crashed on August 16, 1647. [back]
2. Walter (alternately Wouter) Van Twiller was the second Dutch governor of New Netherland, succeeding Peter Minnet (or Minuit) in 1633. During his four years in office, he bought several islands from the Kanarsie (Canarsie) Indians, among them the island that is now known as Governors Island. He returned to the Netherlands in 1637. [back]
3. Peter Stuyvesant was the last Dutch governor of New Netherland, serving from 1647 until the British took control of the colony in 1664. [back]
4. Johannus Backerus served as pastor in New Amsterdam from 1647 until 1649. He was replaced by Dominie Megapolensis. [back]
5. Prior to landing on Long Island, Johannes Theodorus Polhemus had served in Brazil. Polhemus served the congregation of the first Reformed Dutch Church until he died in 1676. [back]
6. Whitman wrote about the first Dutch church in Brooklyn in "Brooklyniana No. 1" (June 3, 1861) and again in "Brooklyniana No. 10"(February 8, 1862) and "An Old Landmark Gone" (October 9, 1862). [back]
7. This "aged Brooklynite" is probably Andrew Demarest, about whom Whitman wrote in "Brooklyniana No. 10" (February 8, 1862) and "An Old Landmark Gone" (October 9, 1862). The first Dutch Church in Brooklyn was built in 1666 and was demolished in 1766, the same year a new one was built. The second building was removed in 1807, which is likely the demolition that Demarest witnessed. [back]
8. Samson Occom's preaching tour of the British Isles actually lasted from 1765 to 1768. In 1772, he gave an execution sermon for fellow Native American Moses Paul; the sermon received worldwide acclaim. For more on Occom's oratory, see Sandra M. Gustafson, Eloquence is Power: Oratory and Performance in Early America (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 90–100. [back]
9. Whitefield's church was named for George Whitefield, the British preacher who is credited as one of the founders of Methodism. He made his first preaching visit to America in 1738 and became well-known on both sides of the Atlantic. [back]