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Peter Stuyvesant’s relentless quest for order in New Amsterdam pushes Africans out of the church

The slavocrats won and the baptism of slaves ceased. For the first time, commercial values in Manhattan trumped faith and moral values.

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Detail from theatrical poster, 1890, Library of Congress


Faced with imminent disaster in New Amsterdam, the West India Company decided to still the troubles in 1647 by sending a preacher’s kid named Peter Stuyvesant as the new Director General of New Netherland. The young man had carried on his duties for the company even while in intense pain from losing a leg to a Spanish cannon blast of big rocks. They also trusted him theologically because his father was a Calvinist follower of the Synod of Dordt, the body that consolidated Calvinism in Holland. His wife Breda was the daughter of a Huguenot clergyman. The new Director General also believed that the Lord had called him to save New Amsterdam. The company made a clean sweep of the leadership by also sending a new pastor. New Amsterdamers believed that the company had heard their complaints about the former Director General Kieft. The Africans in the colony were also hopeful because of their new freedom to enter skilled jobs and the church through baptism.

On May 11, 1647 Stuyvesant arrived with four ships of soldiers, councilors and his wife. New Amsterdam residents gathered to watch him come ashore to relieve Kieft of his job. Anna van Angola, a widowed woman who had recently received rights to a farm, Anthony Congo, Jan Negro and other African residents watched with anticipation as the new Director General assured the crowd that he wanted to treat them "like a father over his children." The crowd hooted as Kieft left. Stuyvesant could see the disorder that he had read about.

Immediately, he ordered an end to the once a week council meetings in favor of every day hands-on governance. He was going to create order, efficiency and peace.



Portrait of Peter Stuyvesant, NY Public Library


On the very Sunday after his arrival, a drunken knife fight broke out. Settlers made light of it as a common occurrence among settlers blowing off steam in all day drinking binges on the their day off. However, Stuyvesant saw the incident as a manifestation of what was wrong with New Amsterdam. He forbade the tavern keepers from selling liquor on Sunday until 2 pm and announced bread and water imprisonment for anyone who drew a knife "in passion or anger." With quick dispatch, the Director General showed who was boss. His administration became a whirlwind of tidying up. Indeed, Stuyvesant instituted some brilliant reforms of the colony’s economy and social order. New Amsterdam revived. More settlers arrived at the port.

To help New Amsterdam’s recovery the company in Amsterdam promoted the colony to Europeans of other faiths. However, this also set up a contradiction between the company’s theology of pluralism and Stuyvesant’s zeal for order and the establishment of the Reformed church, a situation that was not fully appreciated in Amsterdam.

With a new administration in New Netherlands and a pro-immigrant headquarters in Holland the local Lutherans thought that it was an opportune moment to change the religious status quo. In the first place they could appeal to a legal right to the spirit of  religious toleration in their homeland which had been incorporated into the Dutch Republic's founding document, the 1579 Union of Utrecht which stated that "everyone shall remain free in religion and that no one may be persecuted or investigated because of religion." They also hoped to have the support of three directors of the West India Company who were Lutherans. Their numbers in New Amsterdam had also increased to about 70 German and Scandinavian families. So, the Lutherans in the colony moved to end worship with the Dutch Reformed and set up their own congregation. They asked the Amsterdam Lutherans to send them a pastor. But the response to several such requests was always no. On October 19, 1649 the Amsterdam Lutheran Consistory passed a resolution against the request. The leaders of the Lutherans in Amsterdam feared such a move would provoke a conflict with local Dutch New Amsterdam church leaders that could lead to troubles in Amsterdam also.

Indeed, Stuyvesant envisioned that his reforms could extend into a new orderly spiritual life in New Amsterdam. Like many reformers in later New York City history, Stuyvesant was emboldened by the success of his reforms to push them to their extremes. He tried to promote a spiritual revival with a heavy handed policy against non-Dutch Reformed Christians. He called the practice of allowing Lutherans to build their own churches as an invitation to “heretics and fanatics.” He also tried to block more Jews from settling in the colony. Local Dutch Reformed pastors returned the favor by mostly supporting Stuyvesant’s governance.

Simultaneously, a confluence of economic needs of the home country and New Amsterdam’s flourishing created the conditions for an increase in the slave trade. There was a dramatic increase in the number of slaves brought to Manhattan. In 1654 a ship brought 300 Guinean slaves to be sold in New Amsterdam’s market. Although by the mid-1660s 20% of New Amsterdam was slaves, the economy was throttled by a scarcity of skilled labor. This situation created an opportunity for the slaves.

In the late 1650s the company met Stuyvesant’s request for more skilled immigrants with an order to him to train slaves to do the work. As a result, some slaves earned enough to buy their freedom, raise families and join regular Dutch life. However, the "half-freedom" required that the children of freed slaves be raised as slaves. In an effort to protect their unfree children and gain them an education Africans made labor contracts on their behalf that stipulated the conditions of life, labor and opportunities for education. In petitions free Africans identified themselves as Christians when they asked for the freedom of their children also. Paradoxically, the very success of the freed slaves created a backlash that led to restrictions.


First Slave Auction 1655. By Howard Pyle, from Granger Collection

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Christian legalism versus Christian democracy

As the number of people involved in the slave trade increased, there was a growing reluctance to baptize slaves. Among Calvinists, enslaving Christians was not a popular idea. And once baptized the slaves could more easily press their case for freedom. Some merchants worried that they would start to lose the ability to engage in the extremely lucrative slave trade and a supply of cheap labor. The slavocrats' arguments found more ready ears, and the baptism of slaves ceased. Slaves were also were put under more restrictive regimes, and the lines between black and white hardened. For the first time, commercial values in Manhattan trumped faith and moral values.  Perhaps, this victory was possible because a theological legalism was also creeping into the Dutch Reformed church.

By 1664 the New Amsterdam church was led by a pedantic legalist, pro-slave or, at least, anti-African. Pastor Dominie Henricus Selyns wrote in a letter dated June 9, 1664 that the New Amsterdam church had stopped baptizing slaves “due to their lack of knowledge and faith” and because of their worldly aims.” He claimed without proof that the parents wanted “nothing else by it than the freeing of their children from corporeal slavery, without pursuing piety and Christian virtues.” The Dutch legalists discounted Apostle Paul’s admonition that a Christian value for early Christians who were slaves was to become free if they could.

In a letter to Philemon Paul had urged that a runaway slave be received back as a brother in Christ. The apostle also wrote to the slaves living in the Greek city of Corinth that they should seek their freedom whenever possible. The general tone of the apostle toward freedom and equality had immense impact on Western Civilization. The late Benjamin Nelson at the New School for Social Research concluded that Paul established the Western norm of the equality and brotherhood of man with his claim in a letter to the Christians in Galatia (an area in modern day Turkey) that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” However, the moments of freedom in the gospel message were only realized in the flesh and blood fights over what it meant in the real world.


Benjamin Nelson traced the expansion of the idea of universal brotherhood starting with the Apostle Paul in his book The Idea of Usury.


Selyns’ opinion was challenged by other colonials even from within the Stuyvesant’s own household. Judith Stuyvesant, the director general’s wife, was a persistent advocate of the African slaves. She tried to protect her family’s forty slaves and their children by allowing them to attend the family chapel and baptizing their children. When some of the children were sold on the slave market, the seller apologized to her husband for mistakenly selling baptized children.

The reputation of the Dutch for leniency toward other peoples and faiths still continued to attract settlers to New Amsterdam. However, they were met with a battle over religion policy in the colony. Stuyvesant supported an unfriendly policy toward people of non-Reformed faiths. So, when some Jews in Recife, Brazil came to New Amsterdam expecting a similar welcome that they had experienced in Brazil, they were met by the director general’s insistence that they couldn’t settle. Like the Lutherans, the Jews in the colony appealed to the West India Company on September 10, 1654 to reverse the local religious policy.

Stuyvesant’s anti-Semitism was unpopular with Dutch Christians of Israelite sympathies and with businessmen as an uneconomic attack on trade partners. Amsterdam encouraged the presence of Jews to the extent that by 1675 it had promoted the building of a monumental synagogue by the Portuguese Jews.


"Freedom of Worship is the mainspring of the Republic." Opening of Portuguese Synagogue, Amsterdam, August 2, 1675. Etching.


On February 1, 1656 Stuyvesant renewed an ordinance against illegal religious meetings. Family services were allowed but clandestine or private meetings were banned. The director general was particularly incensed by attempts at evangelism by other religious groups.

The company soon indicated its policy to Stuyvesant by their official response to the Jews of New Amsterdam with a decision in March 1656 to let them stay on the basis of "reason and fairness" and also because they still owed the Company money. Living in New Amsterdam, the company argued, would guarantee that they could earn the money to pay their debts. The company said their director general should act toward other groups with more moderation.

Stuyvesant may have felt that his bosses in Amsterdam didn’t have a proper read on the geopolitics of New Netherland. The English were growing stronger and the Germans and Scandinavians more numerous. They were settling in Flushing, Brooklyn and Long Island which were becoming hotbeds of ideas of toleration and dissident religious groups. In the fall of 1656 the Englishman William Wickendam held Baptist meetings in Flushing and baptized people in the river. New Amsterdam’s polyglot population also encouraged a debate about religious pluralism. The Lutherans and the English sect Quakers showed a public assertiveness.

The Lutherans in New Amsterdam thought they had found another way to get a pastor by championing the stay of another new arrival in 1657 to the colony, a Lutheran minister Johannes Ernestus Gutwasser. They hoped that the minister would just be quietly tolerated, which was the practice of the West India Company from its beginning. Indeed, the company had already warned Stuyvesant to be more tolerant and three of the company directors were Lutherans.  But immediately the local Dutch Reformed ministers protested. Stuyvesant ordered Gutwasser to leave but the minister went into hiding on Long Island hoping that the politics in Amsterdam would turn into the Lutherans' favor. On July 14, 1657 the company ordered the pastor deported and finally caught up with him in 1659. He was marched onto a ship and told never to come back.

In August 1657 two Quaker women arrived and started street preaching. According to New Amsterdam minister Johannes Megapolensis: “these began to quake, putting their fury at work, preaching and calling out in the streets that the last day was near. The people got excited and assembled, not knowing what to do;... one called fire, the other something else.” The women were locked up and expelled from the colony after a few days.

In Flushing (called Vlissingen or Vlising at that time) local Christian leaders, who had been providing shelter to Quakers, issued a Biblically-grounded protest on December 27, 1657, later called the Flushing Remonstrance. They argued that God had given the law that prescribed to do good to all men and evil to no one. And they were also following the law enshrined in New Netherland’s founding documents which called for liberty of conscience, which they argued  included the freedom of Quakers and other religious groups to hold meetings.

Stuyvesant’s response was to vacate the local government, arrest the signatories of the document and punish them. (PS 21 in Flushing is named after Edward Hart, the writer of the Remonstrance.) He claimed that he wasn't violating their “freedom of conscience,” only their right to worship outside of their family devotionals. The director general responded to their theological arguments by proclaiming March 13, 1658, a Day of Prayer for the purpose of repenting from the sin of religious tolerance.

The West India Company again overruled Stuyvesant. Responding to the theological arguments of the Flushing protest, the company told him to handle “quietly and leniently” meetings like those of the Quakers.

The freed slaves were the nucleus for the movement to create an independent African American cultural life that became the admiration of African Americans around the country.




Next: New Harlem Village & Church


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  • I'll certainly come back again to this web site. thanks.

  • The process of making a city can be lengthy and fraught with problems.

  • Thanks for this well-researched and well-written article. I find it quite interesting.

    I myself have come out of recent retirement from Northwestern College in the very Dutch Reformed town of Orange City, Iowa to teach for a semester at Westmont in California. We will head back to Iowa soon. Sioux Country voted 83% Republican, but it wasn't enough to carry Iowa for Romney.

    Thank you for your work in documenting the fascinating religious variety today in the Big Apple. It is great to see the effort the churches are making to aid victims of Sandy.

  • New York City has always been a volatile mix of economic interests and social ideals - this essay by editor and journalist Tony Carnes reviews how Africans were at first invited into Christianity and then denied it for the purposes of justifying slavery, how anti-Semitism developed, and how other religious freedoms were yet upheld in what was then called New Amsterdam (now Manhattan).

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