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"A Pedigree Partly Indian, Partly Batavian"

The Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow

From a photograph by F. Ahrens

The following is taken from "Chronicles of Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow," by Edgar Mayhew Bacon., Pulished by The Knickerbocker Press, N.Y. & London, 1916 pgs. 39-65.:

The Story of the Old Dutch Church

The story of the old Dutch church is one which the sensitive historian commences with caution and misgiving, since an antiquity of only two centuries has already hidden the end of its perspective in a mist through which nothing very definite can be seen; but as men are more apt to do battle for their opinions than for the matters that they know beyond peradventure, it is impossible to hazard a conjecture upon the date of the erection of the church without being halted and belabored by the clubs of a score of antiquaries.

Near Flypse's castle, hard by the millpond, between the Pocantico and the graveyard, Vredryk Flypse and one, or both, of his wives built a sturdy stone church with gambrel roof and an octagonal rear. Surmounting the front a belfry, quaintly misfitting the structure below it, pointed its dumpy spire heavenward with a sturdy consistency that was as uncompromisingly Hollandish as the sermons that the Dominie droned from the bell-flower pulpit to the drowsy farmers of Philipsburg.

When the church was new there were seven windows where there are now but six, and a door on the south side instead of at the west, as at present. The walls were thirty inches in thickness, and the sills of the windows more than seven feet above the floor, so that the savage foemen who lurked in the woods could not look in upon the little congregation.  Iron bars traversing these openings gave still greater security to the building which could in time of danger have been converted into a fortress, impregnable against any weapons or engine that the Indians could produce. Between the door and the middle south window, outside, a bench used to stand, and there the old folks rested while waiting for the dominie's appearance; for it was long a custom to follow the black gown into church as a flock of sheep follow the bellwether.

The interior of the church showed evidence of taste and skill; but its furniture testified without equivocation to the recognition of class distinctions even under the shadow of the pulpit. The dominie, from that ornate octagonal perch, with the pendant hexagon of mahogany that hung over him like an extinguisher, giving emphasis to his sonorous periods, expounded the word of God as endorsed and interpreted by the Synod of Dortrecht. Before him sat a congregation of solidly constructed Dutchmen, whose anatomy could stand the strain of a long service while seated on backless benches of unyielding oak. The farmer who tilled his acres or cut his wood lot in Sleepy Hollow was not carried to the skies on beds of flowery ease, by any mean; but his lord, who, in the divine ordination of degrees, had been made to enjoy all the softer delights of life, was edified while reposing in a cushioned and canopied "throne." Such luxurious boxes, somewhat resembling those of a modern theatre, were arranged for the lord of the manor and his family at the minister's right and left.

The humble retainer, slaves, and redemptioners, sat in the gallery with the boys and the singers, and a precentor to keep them all in order. From the top of the walls great oak beams crossed the church, and above these extended an arched ceiling of whitewashed oak, from the west end of which the lower part of the belfry intruded like a great white box set against the wall. The belfry-box had a ladder leading to it from the gallery, and a round window from which the bellringer could see when the dominie was in the pulpit.

Nowhere was the local color of Philipsburg more strongly brought out than at the church.  The character of the peaceful community of Philipsburg must have been for a while something between Acadia and Eden, with a dash of Holland to flavor it. The people gathered about their head for council and for protection as in some earlier patriarchal government, but there was no overstepping the bounds of caste; men had not yet begun to be born free and equal. But something more nearly approaching equality obtained on the Sabbath day at the church. Doubtless there were great and influential sinners, and miserable sinners, even as there are big fish and little fish, and the salvation of the proprietor was a very different matter from the salvation of a tenant; but still, when they were all gathered at the manor church on a Sunday, while Dominie Ritzema, or Dominie Mutzelius, dealt faithfully with their souls, there must have been at least the semblance of a fellow-feeling.

There came Flypse with his family and guests, gorgeously arrayed in purple and fine linen.  The women wore splendid stomachers, laced and pearl trimmed, with short gowns of rich brocade or stiff silk, quilted and padded, and cut short to show the neat ankles in their red, clocked stockings. The men flourished in long-skirted blue coats, with buttons of silver and gold, over silken small-clothes and hose. Their tie wigs, and their buckles, showed that neither head nor feet were considered beyond the pale of adornment. The children were miniature parodies on their elders; and the dominie, who belonged to the upper ten, appeared in his suit of respectable black. Next were the farmers, dressed in home-spun, linsey-woolsey, and all manner of durable stuffs, the girls trying humbly to imitate the splendors of the great dames. After the farmer folk came the negro slaves and the poorer white hangers-on of the place and the few aboriginal landholders who lingered as paupers where their sires had lorded it once.

A well-known character of those days was old Wolfert Ecker, who was the builder and proprietor of the "Wolfert's Roost," which Washington Irving has made familiar to all the world, as Sunnyside. Wolfert Ecker was a man to be trusted both by his neighbors and his landlord, and his name appears third on the list of elders of the church. He was elected to that office in 1698, a year before the building was completed, if we are to take the word of several clerical authorities.

With this mention of Ecker and the date of his election the unhappy historian brings the hornets about his head, for the antiquary who believes that 1699 was the true date of erection, as placarded on the front of the church, is immediately up in arms against his brother-antiquary who holds that the Wolfert Ecker election in 1698 casts a doubt upon it.  I may as well, having made this plunge, do a little splashing in these vexed waters. First, the date on the tablet in the front or west wall of the church states that the building was erected in 1699 by Frederick Philips and Katrina Van Courtlandt. This statement, which, so far as I can discover, is entirely unsupported by a shadow of other testimony, is inscribed in English, a language not used in the church till some time subsequent to the war for Independence. The character of the letters is one comparatively recent, and there is every probability that the tablet was put up at the time of the repairs in 1837; that is to say, nearly a century and a half after the church was built. Certainly this tablet does not afford very strong or convincing evidence.

On the other hand, the date on the bell is 1685. This bell was not one which would be likely to be picked up in stock in a foundry or a store. It is of fine workmanship, and is ornamented with a pattern in relief and the raised motto, "Si Deus pro nobis quis contra nos." In the will of Katrina, the second wife of Lord Filipse, that good lady refers to "The church which my husband, the late Lord, etc., built."

The first minister of whom we have record was called to the Dutch Church of Philipsburg in 1697; this is, of course, suggestive. But perhaps one of the strongest arguments that can be offered by those whose happiness depends upon adding a few years to the antiquity of this church is found in the character of the people. Though not fanatical, the Dutchmen were great church-goers, and it seems improbable that the rich proprietor, surrounded by a rapidly growing tenantry, having built for himself a house which won the denomination of "Castle," and a mill that has survived even the inattention of its owners for two centuries, should have waited fifteen years or more before building a church. There is no reason to suppose that any great delay was made in building it, except an incongruous tablet erected about 1837 by some people who about the same time proved their stupidity by turning the rare old inlaid black-oak communion-table out of the church and afterwards selling it to Judge Constant for twenty-five dollars. By the way, this table, which, with the silver communion-service and the baptismal-bowl, were the gift to the church of the first lord of the manor and his last wife, are now in use in the First Reformed Church, which is the daughter of the old Dutch church. The table was returned to the church, and now bears a silver plate with an inscription stating that it was the gift of James K. Paulding.

Beyond the Rev. William Bertholf, first stated minister of God's Word in the manor of Philipsburg, there is a mist, if not of antiquity, at least of real ignorance. If any one preached to this people, married them, christened their babies and buried their dead (and we suppose that someone must have done some of these things which even savages do not fail entirely to celebrate), neither history nor tradition has made a note of it.

In the year 1697, according to the records begun by Abraham de Revere in 1715, an invitation was given to, and accepted by, "the very learned and pious Guillaume Bertholf, minister at Hakensack and Hagquackenon, to preach for them and administer the sacraments three of four times in the year; and the continuance of these ordinances until the 2d of November, 1715; also the payment of the minister for these services; and of Mr. Van Houten, who carried him on those long journeys from and to his home in Hakinsack."

Mr. Bertholf was an American by birth, who had been educated for the ministry in Holland and returned to his native land to labor in what would now be considered a home missionary field. His successor was Frederick Mutzelius.

Johannes Ritzema was the next preacher. It is not known at what date he commenced to minister to the people. He was a man of exceptional ability, it is said, having been honored with positions of trust in the church. Educated in Holland, he labored in New York City from 1744 to 1784. In 1755, he was pastor of Harlem, Philipsburg, Fordham, and Courtlandt. He continued to fill the pulpit of the old church, at how frequent intervals we do not know, till the Revolution. In 1717, the congregations of Courtlandt and Philipsburg had united to support the religious services in the latter place.

With the new era after the Revolution came the Rev. Stephen Van Voorhees, who was identified with the new movement by which the Dutch Church in America finally separated itself from its parent in Holland. Mr. Van Voorhees was the first candidate licensed by the independent American Synod in 1772. During the struggle for independence the church at Tarrytown had been frequently, if not entirely, closed. The weddings waited, and the babies were unbaptized, and the converts unwelcomed; this we gather from the records.  After that memorable struggle the little handful who survived resumed their church-going habits and began by renovating the house, which had fallen somewhat in need of repair. In the first enthusiasm of victorious republicanism they attacked the "Thrones" of the Lord and Lady of Philipsburg, and tore down the hangings of silk and the luxurious seats, substituting boxes for the elders and deacons. "No more Lords and Kings," they cried.  But under this rampant radicalism still slumbered Dutch conservatism. They had reached the limit of innovation when they established back for benches that had hitherto been backless; comfortless oak boards supported on stanchions so placed that it only needed a heavy weight at the end to convert one into a perilous ballista. Reform had gone as far as decency permitted; any one who should propose more was a dangerous radical.

From a photograph by F. Ahrens

Interior of the Old Dutch Church prior to its restoration in 1897.

The offender was the Rev. Stephen Van Voorhees. After they had secured his services, the worshippers in the old church began to suspect that he was liable to explode, and they watched him jealously. He was a new-party man and they belonged--the more they thought it over the more they were sure they belonged--to the old party. Revolutions would do well enough in State, but in Church they would have none of them.

Now, let us picture a scene in the year 1785 or 1786. On the benches under the church windows the old cronies sit and gossip in the sun. A group of hardy men--men who have had experiences ranging from the Sugar House to Yorktown--loiter near the door, where a retinue of small boys mimic their attitudes in worshipful silence and gravity, cocking one foot over the other and expectorating mightily, while they listen to what these great men have to say, belonging, as they do, to the original guild of hero-worshippers. Along the road come young men and maidens, without prudery or affectation, carrying their Sunday shoes in their hands. They stop at the Pocantico and having washed their dusty feet and put on their shoes, ascend the bank painfully to join their elders.

Finally the dominie appears and saluting gravely to right and left, he leads the way into  the church; the congregation, with much rustling and squeaking and stumbling in the unaccustomed shoes, are settled in their accustomed places. The choir has scrambled up the gallery stairs and the service begins. Several of the people, mothers in Israel especially, turn their heads towards the door now and then to scrutinize a little group of late comers. There is Solomon Hawes with Lovine Hammon, his wife (she is of the family of General James Hammon, or Hammond), and their infant, with one or two others.

After the prayer the dominie breaks an expectant hush with the customary formula, inviting those parents who have children to be baptized to present them and Solomon Hawes and his little family gather about the altar. Heretofore, there has been noting strange, but as the clergyman takes the infant out of her father's arms and proceeds, "Lovinia, I baptise thee," etc., a thrill of something deeper than surprise goes over the congregation.

St. Nicholas defend us, and the States General of Holland and the Synod of Dortrecht and all other things Dutch defend us. He is baptizing little Lovine Hawes in English.

The offense was one which the people did not easily forgive. The first plunge is usually remembered, and, although English gradually superseded Dutch in the services of the Church, Mr. Van Voorhees was not popular in Philipsburg. He also began to keep the church records in English, thus turning the weapon in the wound. His term was short.

Mr. Van Voorhees lived on the north side of Main Street at its intersection with Broadway.

Following Mr. Van Voorhees came Rev. John F. Jackson, who preached at Tarrytown and Harlem, beginning in the fall of 1791 and continuing till 1806. He died pastor at Fordham thirty years later. Rev. Thomas G. Smith followed. He was a man of strong physique and strong mind, celebrated as a martyr and a prophet, because of a scandal which arose during his term at Greenburg. From 1812 till 1820 he had kept this church full to overflowing, and his popularity seemed to be great till, in the latter year, he was arrested on a charge preferred maliciously by some of his people. Having been tried and acquitted, he returned to the church to preach his last discourse, using as a text the words, "Your house shall be left unto you desolate." Within a very few years the congregation had dwindled to nothing, and the house was closed.

Of all the dominies Mr. Smith seems to have afforded the largest fund of anecdote to the antiquary. His eloquence and geniality made him popular even while his eccentric habits exposed him to criticism. With a carelessness that amounted to slovenliness in his personal habits, he exhibited a degree of energy and zeal in his professional work that silenced his critics. Mr. Smith organized the church at Unionville; built up the church at White Plains largely by his own efforts; preached in private houses at Dobbs Ferry till a public house of worship was erected there; and drew hearers for miles around when he filled the pulpit at Philipsburg.

Tradition does not leave us in doubt as to the figure that he cut in that pulpit, when, having regaled himself from his ample mull at the end of the hymn before the sermon he trumpeted vigorously throughout the collection and rose to his discourse with the unmolested snuff in driblets staining the front of his not otherwise immaculate waistcoat.

But when he preached, as his eloquence began to thrill this bearers, his own personality seemed to change, and those who listened to him could not remember that he was "slovenly in dress and careless in manners."

It sometimes happens that at harvest time, when a farmer congregation is worked to the limit of its physical endurance, its members find it impossible to keep their eyes open at church for the length of a sermon, though it should happen to be delivered with all the eloquence of a Beecher or a Smith. An anecdote, sometimes related of other ministers, but original, I believe, with the Dominie Smith, is to the effect that upon one such occasion of general somnolence he startled his sleeping flock by a cry of "Fire ! Fire !"  There was instant consternation in the church. Women screamed and men scrambled to their feet.

"Where? where?" was the excited outcry. The dominie regarded his awakened people sternly for a moment, and then with the mien and accent of delegated authority he thundered:

"In hell! for such sleepy Christians as you are."

Less was thought at that day of excess in the use of alcoholic stimulants than now, yet there has been no whisper of undue indulgence on the part of the popular, careless, convivial pastor, though when a parishioner paid his respects at the manse, the bottle of Jamaica rum was always forthcoming. It is thought that the dominie's wife might have driven a man of less pliant temper to drink; for if ever a Xantippe lived in these latter centuries to harass a philosophical husband, Dame Smith was that woman. On one occasion, having some difference of opinion either with her careless lord or his elders, it does not appear which, she locked him securely in his study before church and left it to the distressed consistory to discover and liberate him long after the hour for the commencement of the services. Another prank of peculiarly feminine ingenuity consisted in bringing a pillow to church and ostentatiously settling herself for a nap during the sermon. A peculiarly scandalous exhibition of emotional insanity or general cussedness, or whatever it was that ailed her, was in driving the minister's horse at breakneck speed up and down in front of the church while the worshippers within were no doubt casting sidelong glances through the door, and wondering whether the quiver of lightnings was empty.

As we remember these things we begin to forgive the dominie his use of tobacco in every form, and his careless personal attire, his frayed wristbands and rumpled stock and soiled waistcoat. We plead extenuating circumstances when his general slouchiness is mentioned. Perhaps Brummel would have been a slouch if he had been wedded to Xantippe.

Dominie Smith's body lies at the rear of the church where he labored, and the people who laid him there remembered only that he was their faithful and much loved pastor.

When the Rev. George Du Bois came to Tarrytown it was to gain rest after eighteen years of sermon-writing and pastoral work in a city parish. He officiated at the old Franklin Street Church in New York City. The call to the Reformed Dutch Church of Tarrytown was accompanied with a promise that a new church edifice should be built. In 1837-38 $2032.86 was paid for repairs on the old church, and between $6000 and $7000 expended upon the South Church and parsonage. Mr. William Landrine was one of the prominent parishioners at that time, and by his personal efforts raised $761.75 out of the $2032.86 required for repairing the old church. Mr. Smith had received but $300 per annum for his services. This salary was raised to $700 for Mr. Du Bois, whose labors included a service in the old church in the morning and in the South Church in the evening. At this time the Sunday-school of the old church used to meet comfortably in the gallery. In 1844, Mr. Du Bois followed his predecessor, and was buried in the old churchyard.

In 1845, Joseph Wilson came and filled the joint pulpits till 1849, when he was succeeded by John Mason Ferris, who, in three or four months after settlement, refused to preach at all in the old church, and confined his ministrations to the South Church. This move necessitated the employment of an assistant, at an expense partly met by Mr. Ferris, and for a year the Rev. John W. Schenck filled that position, but was never installed.

With the division of the church into two congregations, worshipping in separate building, for that was necessarily the outcome of the erection of the South Church, there came in a short time a complete separation of interests which led to divorce. The division of church property followed. The North Church, or old organization, retained the old building, graveyard, name, seal, records, and plate; and the South Church assumed a debt of $1000 and gave to the North Church $20000. All other realty was released to the South Church.  Church Street, south of the Benedict property, owes its name to having been built upon a portion of this estate.

It was to the pastorate of over sixty families and one hundred and fifty members that remained to the old church after the division that the Rev. Abel T. Stewart was called in 1852. It was during his ministry that the removal was made by the congregation from the old building to the "new" one it at present occupies.

But before Mr. Stewart came the Rev. William Brush was called. According to the chronicler, "He came, saw the state of things, and in three months resigned without being installed."

A man of more than ordinary strength was the Rev. Abel T. Stewart; the last preacher at the Old Dutch Church. Of his clerical labors I shall not speak here, except to say that he was an earnest if not pre-eminently an eloquent preacher. To the man, outside of his pulpit, a tribute of admiration may justly be paid. Those who only knew him casually--the later comers to the town--remember a somewhat serious divine, whose courage, impetuosity, and natural humor were repressed by his sense of what was due to his sacred calling; but the men who grew up under his care, the members of his Sabbath-school at an earlier day, recall incidents that show him to have been an example of what modern slang calls "muscular Christianity."

He was an enthusiastic follower of Isaac Walton's gentle craft, angling for trout in the Gebney brook and the Carl brook and down the Pocantico at a day when Salmo Fontinalis was not a rarity in the neighboring streams. Mr. Amada Bryant is one of those who recollect how the "domine" used to get the cream of the spring angling, appearing frequently with a full creel when some of his less fortunate parishioners were laboriously whipping the stream over which he had gone. No matter how early in the morning one started, he was apt to prove himself, for that occasion, as unlucky a fisherman as Simon Peter, if it chanced that Mr. Stewart had selected the same day and the same stream for his fishing.

Members of Mr. Stewart's Bible-class have told how the athletic pastor excelled in jumping, running, and throwing quoits. A famous jump, by which he cleared the body of a farm wagon, in a line over the high rear wheels, was long the admiration of the youth of the neighborhood. Well-knit, tall, and muscular, he was the ideal of an athlete in his younger days, recalling vividly Lowell's line:

"He was six foot of man, A I, clean grit and human natur'."

On one occasion when the Sunday-school children were proceeding on foot along the railroad track to a place selected for the annual picnic, the entire company, scholars and teachers alike, were panic-stricken at the near approach of a train. The road was then a single track, and at that point occupied the crest of an embankment, on each side of which the ground sloped precipitously. The one person who did not lose his head was the minister. Putting his long, athletic legs and arms in motion, he rushed like an animated windmill through that little crowd of juvenile humanity and cleared the track effectually, rolling his charges right and left down the slope. I give this story as I got it from several reputable witnesses, though I confess I never could quite understand how he did it.

There was an incident in Abel T. Stewart's life which entitles him to be ranked among the heroes. When, during the troublous times of the Civil War, the terrible outbreak which we speak of with a shudder as "the 63 riot," taxed the strength of New York's defenders to the utmost, a band of several hundred rioters was reported to be on the road to Tarrytown. There was consternation in every home. Word came from unquestioned sources that the torch was to be applied to Tarrytown, and men armed themselves and secured the defences to their houses as well as they were able to do. Over the hills a long line of negroes fled to the woods to escape a threatened massacre. I am not now speaking from hearsay. I saw this.

The rioters were within a short distance of the town, and no man in the community dared put himself in their way till Abel T. Stewart, minister of God's Word, accompanied by one faithful companion, Captain Oscar Jones, a soldier home on furlough, marched out with splendid audacity to meet them. There were, indeed, several citizens who would have gone but were providentially detained by appointments and other devices of a faint heart, long before the enemy came in sight. Mr. Stewart and his one companion did not dream of turning back. The chances were overwhelmingly against them; neither they nor any of their townspeople could have reasonably expected that they would return alive; and yet the man of peace and the soldier just returned from the front went on their way as quietly as they would have gone to church. Nowhere is there a record of a braver forlorn hope.

Mr. Stewart met the rioters and reasoned with them. He told them that their reception would be warm; that a gunboat, which had just arrived in the river, would shell the houses of their sympathizers without mercy if they persisted; he used cogent reasoning, convincing even to such a bloodthirsty mob of anarchists; and in the end he succeeded in turning them back. Then he went quietly home and began to write his sermon or do whatever duty lay nearest.

You imagine no doubt that the people at least thanked this man who had offered his life as a buffer between them and mob violence? No. They discovered, from the narrative of his companion, that Mr. Stewart, in addressing the rioters, had called them, "My friends," and their indignation ran so high (remember the partisan prejudice of war times and try to forgive them) that they could see no bravery nor goodness in this man. He was a Democrat; as such doubtless a secessionist, and therefore, of course, a friend of the rioters: ergo, there was no possible danger to him in facing them.

The world is full of people who have missed their opportunities; a class of people whose number was greatly added to when the population of Tarrytown neglected to recognize and to honor A. T. Stewart, whose story, I think, has never before been told in print.  There is only a line to add. Partisan animosity and misunderstanding were so strong that the usefulness of the minister of the First Reformed Church was greatly curtailed, and at last it seemed wiser for him to seek new fields of usefulness, and to labor in some town that he had never saved.

With the close of Mr. Stewart's ministry in 1866, properly closes the history of the Old Dutch Church as a place of worship. Though it is opened on Sunday afternoons in summer for service, and many eloquent men have spoken from its quaint pulpit, yet its value is rather as a relic than a house of worship today. The effort which is at present being made to repair and preserve it is the result of a strong and worthy popular sentiment.


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