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African American faith and freedom in pre-colonial Harlem

At the very beginning of Harlem’s life Africans were creating an African American identity rooted in faith and freedom.

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New Amsterdam, c1640

At the very beginning of Harlem’s life Africans were creating an African American identity rooted in faith and freedom.  The Africans were bought as slaves by Dutch settlers who justified their actions by appeals to a singular interpretation of Christianity. But the Africans also quickly moved toward Christianity, found allies in the church, and appealed for their freedom based upon the basic principles of their  new found faith as well as the economic interests of their slave-masters. Faith and money got Africans into slavery, and faith and economics got them out.

The center of African American home life was usually on the northern edges of Dutch New Amsterdam. About 1637, some of the settlers established farms in the Harlem area and brought African slaves with them.

The first sign* that we have of African American religious life in Harlem are church records of marriages. An early register entry recorded that on September 28, 1642 in New Amsterdam "Andries van Angola, Neger, en Anna van Angola, wed van Francisco Van Capo Verde."  The  copy of the Common Register of the Dutch Reformed Church in New York ( 1639 –c. 1700) indicates “Neger,” meaning the husband was of African origin, and for the wife “Angola” which probably means that she was from Angola in Central Africa. Her deceased husband Francisco was from Cape Verde.

Between 1639 and 1664 twenty-seven couples were married in the church. It would be a reasonable assumption that some of these families lived in Harlem. Over the same period, sixty-one African children were baptized (some historians say fifty-six; the actual number was probably much higher because the records are incomplete and baptisms at family chapels were not recorded). In those days Dutch Reformed Christians believed that baptism was a serious agreement, a commitment by the parents to raise their child as a Christian and a commitment by the church to care for the child.


New Amsterdam

African life in the farms in the New Harlem area was an appendage for its first thirty years to what happened in New Amsterdam and the home country of the Dutch Republic.

On the other side is the Blessed Country. By Jan Luyken, 1689

The Dutch West India Company established New Amsterdam, which served as the administrative center of New Netherlands colony, in 1626 with a religiously-tinged optimism. “O this is Eden,” exclaimed the Dutch poet Jacob Steenham. “Sweet and fresh,” wrote Jasper Danckerts who arrived in 1679 as a missionary of the “born again” Christianity of the Calvinst Labidist group.**

A popular Dutch idea was that the exploration of the New World would advance civilization and bring humanity closer to the Kingdom of God. The artist Jan Luyken, who was influenced by Jakob Boehm, made an engraving that captured this almost mystical hope, entitled “On the Other Side is the Blessed Country” (Aan d'overkant is 't zalig land) in 1689.

Presumably, the African slaves encountered America with different feelings. Making the best of a bad situation, we know that they took every opportunity to get freedom, family, and education. Notwithstanding some Dutch claims that the slaves were shiftless liars, the Africans worked very hard to better their situation when they got rewards for doing so. Many joined the Christian faith and evidence from church records and court proceedings indicate that they insisted upon their appropriate treatment as brothers and sisters in Christ.

The insistence of Calvinism that faith should be at the center of all of life also became a hallmark of African American Christianity. In the Dutch Republic the stricter Calvinists who drew upon the Catechism of Dordt prescribed a religious center to social and economic life. The West India Company that governed the settlement of New Amsterdam entrusted the colony’s spiritual affairs to the robustly Calvinist association of churches in Amsterdam. Board members included people like the merchant Johannes de Laet (1581–1649), who in 1621 fled north to the Dutch Republic to avoid religious persecution for his Calvinist faith. He became a religious leader in Leiden and participated in the Synod of Dordt, which established the tenets of the Dutch Reformed Church. After he turned his attention to the New World, he became a director of the West India Company.

From Harlem’s beginning religion and commerce were intertwined. African Christians appealed to Christian theologies of freedom that the Calvinists had themselves utilized against Spanish oppressors. The Protestant Dutch had already won their freedom to worship by defeating the attempts of Spain to impose Catholicism. The first Provisional Regulations (1624) prescribed freedom of conscience (though not freedom of public worship).  However, unlike the Puritans, their motives for founding the colony New Netherland and its administrative center New Amsterdam, which became New York City, and New Harlem, which became Harlem, were commerce and politics. Still, their economic focus was framed by their religious beliefs, a Dutch “Protestant Ethic.”

The settling and commercializing of New Amsterdam coincided with the appointment of Bastiaen Jansz. Korl to a pastoral type role called the “comforter of the sick” and the founding of a congregation. The congregation met in homes and a loft above the first horse mill in Manhattan, a coincidence of religion and commerce that has been a mainstay for much of NYC’s history.  (The colony informally allowed settlers who were not Dutch Reformed Calvinists to privately worship according to their own tenants.)

Peter Minuit buying Manhattan in 1626.

In 1626 the West India Company appointed Peter Minuit to be the director of the colony. The company’s plans included the construction of “a horse-mill, over which shall be constructed a spacious room sufficient accommodation of a larger congregation.” New Amsterdam’s first regular pastor was Dominie Johannes Michaelius.

The church was legally organized in July 1628 as The Reformed Low Dutch Church and built a wooden building in 1633—the year that the colony’s second pastor Everadus Bogardus arrived, and a stone church in 1642.

Only 20 percent of the population were church members, which was a lower percentage than in the Dutch Republic. However, many local residents, who did not want to submit to the sometimes heavy-handed church control over their lives or to identify with Dutch Reformed theology, still attended services. The congregation included Africans, French Huguenots and German Lutherans. Later church records mention the dissatisfaction of some congregants with the lack of French and German language services. Women were in the majority among the members of churches in the colony of New Netherland.

The early decades in the colony were marked by conflicts between ministers and magistrates over whether the church or the government was to be the highest source of moral authority. The leaders also differed on how to treat the slaves. Relations between ministers and magistrates were more stable later on, when Peter Stuyvesant lent a willing ear to the New Amsterdam ministers. The stability however also accommodated a sharp increase in the number of slaves and a decrease in their access to church life.


The peoples of New Amsterdam and New Harlem

Very early in the colony’s history, between 1625 and 1627, the first boat of eleven enslaved Africans captured by Dutch pirates arrived. Among the slaves were those with names that told of their ancestry: Paulo d’Angola and Simon Congo. In 1628 the company imported three African women slaves from the Congo. Starting in 1637, a few slaves probably resided on farms in the Harlem area. By 1639 there may have been  a slave quarters on the East River in the mid-Manhattan area. Some of the slaves may also have been Indians and Portuguese.

A persistent problem of the colony was attracting enough settlers.  New Amsterdam grew slowly, and the New Harlem area was mainly settled by farmers. Since the Dutch had obtained their own religious freedom and were economically flourishing, most of them were satisfied to stay at home in Europe. New Amsterdam grew mainly by attracting a mix of dreamers, missionaries and businessmen, many from non-Dutch countries. There was one mulatto, perhaps a Muslim, called “The Turk,” Anthony Jansen van Salce, of mixed Dutch and Moroccan ancestry.

The Walloons, French-speaking Protestant refugees from Spanish persecution in the southern Netherlands, were offered freedom of conscience if they moved to New Netherland. Consequently, they formed the substantial portion of the colony.  The Director General Peter Stuyvesant, who was himself a Walloon, called his constituency “a motley collection…of various countries.” In 1646 the Jesuit missionary Isaac Jogues observed, “On the island of Manhate, and in its environs, there may well be four or five hundred men of different sects and nations; the Director General told me that there were men of eighteen different languages.” (At Fordham University's Rose Hill Campus in the Bronx, New York, a freshman dormitory—Martyrs' Court—has a section named for  Isaac Jogues, who was killed in 1646 by the Mohawk Indians for practicing bad magic.)

Local leaders periodically turned to Africans to make up for the low immigration from Europe. At first, partly motivated by religious scruples, they tried freeing African slaves so that they could do skilled labor. Christian advocates and opponents of slavery faced off against each other. Later, with the importation of a larger number of slaves, New Amsterdam's leaders opted for a sterner regime for the slaves.


Next: Harlem and the early debates over slavery.


* In the 1940s E. Franklin Frazier and Melville J. Herskovitz inaugurated a debate over whether African American culture is totally unique or reflects African cultural patterns. The debate was hindered from resolution because there is so little historical evidence for purely African cultural practices among American slaves. In Slave Religion: The "Invisible Institution" in the Antebellum South (1979/2004) Albert J. Raboteau argued that African American slaves synthesized African and European religious cultures to create their version of evangelical Christianity.

** Visiting Labadists, who emphasized a born-again experience, met in Jacob Hellekers’ house that is now 255 Pearl Street, near Fulton Street.

For additional reading:

On African Americans in New Amsterdam, see Graham Russell Hodges. 1999. Root and Branch: African Americans in New York and East Jersey 1613-1863. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press; Ira Berlin. 1996. "From Creole to African: Atlantic Creoles and the Origins of African-American Society in Mainland North America," William and Mary Quarterly, 3d series, 53: 251-88; and Joyce D. Goodfriend. 1978. "Burghers and Blacks: The Evolution of a Slave Society at New Amsterdam," New York History, 59: 125-44.

For background on New Amsterdam, see Oliver A. Rink. 1986. Holland on the Hudson: An Economic and Social History of Dutch New York. Ithaca and London; Joyce D. Goodfriend. 1994. Before the Melting Pot: Society and Culture in Colonial New York City, 1664-1730. PrincetonPrinceton University Press; and Russell Shorto. 2004. The Island at the center of the world. 2004. New York: Vintage Press. For later religious developments: Firth Fabend. 2000. Zion on the Hudson: Dutch New York and New Jersey in the age of revivals. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. We utilized some text and translations from the 2009 exhibit "Amsterdam/New Amsterdam: The worlds of Henry Hudson" at the Museum of the City of New York.

Recent scholarship tend to portray Dutch Calvinist policy on toleration in a favorable light. In Religions and trade in New Netherlands (1973) George C. Smith argues that Dutch Calvinist merchants supported pluralism more than the pastors. In The Colony of New Netherland (2009) Jaap Jacobs places New Netherland’s religious policies in the context of theological and political debates of the Dutch Republic. Firth Haring Fabend argues that the Dutch Reformed practiced a “compassionate Calvinism” (in “Church and State, hand in hand: compassionate Calvinism in New Netherlands,” De Halve Maen, Spr 2003, 75, 3-8. In The Huguenots in America: A Refugee People in New World Society (1992) Jon Butler traces the Huguenots who assimilated into the ethnic diversity of New York City.

The previous generations of scholars took a more critical view of New Netherland religious policy. See Frederick Zwielein’s Religion in New Netherlands (1910) and “New Netherland Intolerance,” in Catholic Historical Review (1918, 4:186-216).


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