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New Harlem Village & Church

The beginnings of church life in Harlem

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1639 map showing location of New Harlem settlements


In the first half of the seventeenth century northern Manhattan was the frontier area with Indian tribes who constantly attacked each other, the European settlers and their free and enslaved African workers. The settlers were not able to withstand the attacks and periodically fled back to New Amsterdam.  When Willem Kieft, the director general of the colony between 1638 and 1647, clumsily provoked a large scale war with the Indians, north Manhattan became a war zone and was abandoned by the colonists and Africans. Kieft tried to recouped his losses with a plan to resettle a beefed up buffer zone between the colonists and the Indians in the areas of northern Manhattan and across the river in what is today Queens and Brooklyn. These farming settlements could also provide agricultural products and low cost manufacturing products to New Amsterdam. He did not get to complete his plans because the West India Company recalled him to the Netherlands.

By 1658 Director-General Peter Stuyvesant and the Council of New Netherland were ready to endorse a plan by New Harlem land owners. He wanted a policy of peace with the Indians and an orderly growth for the colony.  The council agreed to help the landowners to re-establish New Harlem (Niew Haarlem) by building a road and providing economic support. The settlers argued that they also needed more money for a church which was the ethical and religious ballast of their commerce. The New Netherland government agreed to pay one-half of the cost of a “good, pious, orthodox minister.”

The colonial government provided the infrastructure for the expansion by using African slaves to build a road from south Manhattan to the New Harlem area. This road took the path of today’s Broadway up to mid-Manhattan and then veered across the island up to the northeast part of today’s Harlem. The boundaries of New Harlem included all of the land above today’s 74th street with population centers at 74th Street and 125th Street. Over time, the lower boundary moved north to the 110th Street area.

Freed and enslaved Africans, who already lived on the north side of New Amsterdam, moved up to Harlem with the road.  Enough Africans came to settle a small farming village in New Harlem. The Africans also participated in the Reformed community in Harlem despite hostility from the pastor at the downtown church.

Independently of the government’s efforts, a young Reformed lay preacher, Michael Zyperus arrived around 1660 from the West Indies. Through unordained, he gathered the Protestants together and a church historian notes that he “was instrumental in organizing a church at Harlem.” Most likely, the date of this organization of the Reformed Low Dutch Church was around November 30, 1660. Church records state that the first deacon’s term expired on November 30, 1662. It was customary at that time for Reformed deacons to serve two-year terms. Church records also indicate that the congregation was made of people from Holland and French Huguenots and met in private homes or out-buildings. Church records also indicate that at least one New Harlem African couple were married and their children baptized into the Christian faith at the church. At some point a church-sponsored “Negro Burial Ground” was established.

Unfortunately, the church developed a limp after Zyperus left in 1663. It appears that the congregation couldn’t raise enough money to support him. With no regular minister the church began to meet irregularly. After Zyperus, Arent Evertsen Keteltas filled in as a part-time voorleser  (“forereader,” a chanter of Scripture that could also do certain ministerial activities). After a year of limping along, the congregation decided that it wanted one of their own as a full-time voorleser.

In December 1663 the congregation requested that one of their own, Jean De La Montagne be appointed. The government assented. However, before the congregation could build a church building, the British took over New Amsterdam in 1664 and renamed it "New York."


After the British takeover, commercial interests in slavery still overruled religious objections. In fact the Africans' condition worsened. The British governor changed the law to augment control over slaves by giving them fewer opportunities to gain resources and independence. Slaves could no longer make contracts, get married or bear witness against free men.

Generally, the British were tightening their control while trying not to rile the old New Amsterdamers too much. By 1666 the new rulers officially incorporated New Harlem into Manhattan. As a sop to local sentiments, they gave up their attempt to rename the area as Lancaster.

Harlem residents also undertook to strengthen their own community and Dutch traditions. In the winter of 1665 the Harlem congregation decided to build their own church building. Although early records do not indicate any role for African slaves in construction of the church of New Harlem, we do know that slaves often did most of the heavy farm work. In his History of Harlem (1881) James Riker wrote, “Their help in the heavy farm work was mainly African slaves, who, at this time [in the 1660s] numbered as one to four whites.” Also, some freed Africans were probably baptized members of the church, so they would likely have been involved in its construction.

By 1667 they had built a rough timbered building to serve both as a church and a school on a plot of land north of “Church Lane” (also known by the younger Dutch as “Lover’s Lane) where it ended at the Harlem River, approximately at today’s First Avenue and 127th Street.  The church became such a center of community activities that even the business meetings at this church were pretty enjoyable. Church records indicate that as much as a half of a barrel of beer was provided to the congregation for their congregational meetings. The Africans were part of the church and had their own burial ground.


Courtesy East Harlem Preservation


Church records indicate that the “Negro Burying Ground” was probably north of the church at a spot near where the MTA’s Bush Terminal stands today. The Reformed Christian tradition was to build their churches amidst a cemetery to symbolize that the saints on earth worshipped surrounded by the saints now in Heaven. The implication of the location of the Negro Burying Ground is that Africans were symbolically an integral part of the worship. This symbolism undoubtedly reinforced a Dutch Reformed uneasiness with slavery.



In 1669 an escaped slave fled into the Harlem woods, perhaps because he knew he could get some support from local Africans and a quiet tolerance from other Harlem residents. Uptown rules were not as tightly enforced as they were downtown. The predominately Dutch residents lived in intimate contact with slaves in a lightly populated rural area and relations were more relaxed. New Harlem businessmen and women also appointed their slaves as business managers. An African slave Matthias seems to have run the big inn near the ferry that his owner operated in the area that is today 125th Street and the East River.




However, the slaves, who had in the past looked to the Reformed Church for help, had lost their favorable relations to the church near the end of the Dutch rule. Additionally, even if the Dutch Reformed church in Harlem wanted to advocate for the Africans, they had no special advantage  with suspicious English governors. The church also didn't have a full time minister. The pulpit was supplied with a regular pastor only once a year from downtown. And there was no native English-speaking minister in Harlem until 1774.

As a result of the panic and uproar over the escaped slave, the British once again tightened restrictions on African slaves. They were also tightening their control as England and the Dutch Republic escalated their conflicts.

After a brief re-takeover and renaming by the Dutch as “New Orange” in 1673, the colony fell back with finality into British hands,  and the Dutch New Yorkers gradually assimilated to English culture. In the colony there were about 1500 whites, 300 slaves and 75 freed Africans. The British rule escalated New York's economic success and population.

As Harlem grew and became more prosperous with the times, the congregation needed more space and wanted more refinement. On March 29, 1686 the cornerstone of a second church building was laid at the corner of the location that is today First Avenue and 125th Street, and the first service took place on September 30, 1686. The first church continued as a school building and some records indicate as a worship place for the Africans. In a list compiled in 1686 by the pastor of the downtown New Amsterdam church, six “negroes” were mentioned, five of whom were New Harlem church members. However, we don’t know how many "negroes" attended services. In 1711 a census counted 84 slaves in northern Manhattan and the fact that one-half of the families had slaves.


Illustration: Edgar Tilton. 1910. The Reformed Low Dutch Church of Harlem. New York: published by the Consistory, p. 39.


The name of the church was later changed to Collegiate Reformed Church, the term “collegiate” meaning that the church was a single congregation with multi-sites.

By the 1720s most churches in New York had accepted the English idea that slaves could be baptized without an obligation to free them. However, the presence of a large free African American population and an anti-slavery sentiment percolated into an anti-slavery movement that took off after the American Revolution.

In addition to the unresolved question of slavery, the Dutch Reformed Church also faced ethnic conflicts between Dutch and English speaking generations. The church split first over a dispute over whether French, German and English could be used in the services. The French Huguenots left to establish their church. The English speakers persevered, but by the 1750s a new generation of Dutch mocked pastors who couldn’t speak good English. One unfortunate Dutch-speaking pastor became the butt of jokes about his good-hearted mistakes in English. At an English-language wedding ceremony he stumbled catastrophically through the promise of husband and wife becoming “one flesh” by declaring their marriage, “I pronounce ye two to be one beef.”



Beginning in the 1740s, the Great Awakening had a tremendous impact on Blacks in Harlem. Methodists encouraged Black slaves to participate in religious events on a relatively egalitarian basis. Francis Asbury preached in the city in the 1770s that masters should free their slaves. Although few whites freed slaves after hearing his entreaties, Blacks and certain key White religious leaders utilized the preaching to argue that God wanted the slaves to be free. Some Methodists and Quakers started to agitate for the exclusion of slaveholders from their congregations. Anglicans found additional support for the continuation of their education and baptizing Blacks into their churches.


The Methodists established their first church in NYC in the 1760s at the Rigging House in Lower Manhattan.


An example of the impact of the Great Awakening on Blacks  is the extraordinary African American pastor John Marrant who was born in New York on June 15, 1755. After his father’s death, the family moved south, ending up in South Carolina. As a young musician, Marrant lived an aimless, dissolute life until he happened to come across a crowd listening to evangelist George Whitfield in South Carolina. As he squeezed forward, he came eye to eye with the minister who looked directly at him, proclaiming “Prepare to meet thy God, O Israel.” Marrant recalled that he was struck “speechless and senseless” to the ground. The evangelist came over to the young man and told him, “Jesus Christ has got thee at last.” Marrant started evangelizing his family who didn’t like it and fled in despair out to the wilderness where he was captured by Cherokee Indians. The tribe wanted to burn him death but his prayer beside the fire moved the onlookers. The chief allowed Marrant to tell him of his faith in Jesus and became a believer himself.

Marrant subsequently developed an African Calvinism that envisioned the African community as a Zion under God in a covenant of Grace. What Adam had destroyed, Marrant said, African Christians were called to rebuild. God’s good would overrule the slave masters to fulfill the promises of blessings in the Book of Revelation. The African Calvinist recalled Revelation 21:23, “soon there can be no more…stumbling blocks, no more disquietude, no more unhallowed fire, no more implacable enemies.” Marrant said that God has called Africans to restore Zion as Nehemiah restored Jerusalem.


Francis Ashbury


Such thinking as Marrant’s percolated through the Black community in Harlem creating an expectancy of change. It crescendoed into fervor for the American’s revolution against Britain. Harlem Blacks, free and enslaved, had the most robust idea of liberty when they joined other Americans in the fight.

The first victory for George Washington against the British came in Harlem. After the British occupied downtown in January 1776, Washington built defenses nine miles uptown to cut the British off from going north.  Africans and Whites from Harlem’s church built defense works. Even New Harlem’s lack of a full-time pastor proved useful as a subterfuge to insert a spy behind British lines. Nathan Hale poised as an itinerant Dutch pastor going back and forth between neighborhoods.

By June 1776 Harlem was an armed camp anticipating a fight with the British who had mustered one of the largest invasion forces that it had ever sent out. There were thirty battleships and three hundred supply ships with thirty thousand experienced troops and ten thousand seamen.  Washington had less than half the troops of the British. At dawn on September 16thWashington attacked the British from the west from the heights in Harlem and from the east sallying down Church Lane from Harlem’s church.

In revenge the British burned down Harlem and its church. Harlem was fairly desolate during the war.


Before the American Revolution, the Great Awakening meant fast church growth in NYC as seen in a comparison of the number of church steeples between 1730 and 1771. Clearly discernable in the 1730 engraving are (from left to right) the spires of Trinity Church (Anglican), the Lutheran Church, the "new" Dutch Reformed Church, the French Protestant Church (Huguenots), City Hall, the "old" Dutch Reformed Church, the Secretary's Office, and the church in Fort George. Courtesy Library of Congress.



Next: Harlem Faith after the American Revolution


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