The Influence of Calvinism on the Dutch Reformed in New York
In this third part of our series, we will examine Calvin’s influence on the Dutch Reformed community in New York. Thanks to the exploration of Henry Hudson under the patronage of the Dutch West India Company, Dutch colonists began to settle in the territory known as New Netherlands (aka New York). The bustling city we know today as New York City was actually a Dutch Reformed colony known as New Amsterdam.
Here they established outposts and forts to facilitate commercial enterprises. And while religion may not have been the primary reason for establishing New Amsterdam, the directors of the trading company who settled there were devout Calvinists. And they expected the inhabitants to conform to Protestant norms.
Calvin and the Dutch
Many historians agree that the Dutch Reformed Church played a central role in shaping the religious, economic, and cultural landscape of New York. The Dutch Calvinists brought their traditions and institutions to the region, contributing to the growth of the vibrant trading hub. It’s crazy to think that the metropolis we know today could have gained its success from Calvinists.
But John Calvin’s teachings brought the Dutch massive economic success centuries before New York ever became the world’s financial capital. Indeed, John Calvin’s influence on the Dutch population during the Protestant Reformation was profound, even though he never set foot in the Netherlands.
Calvinism arrived in the region in the 1540s, gaining converts among the nobles and the common folk. This adoption of Calvinism coincided with a period of intense persecution by the Spanish government, led by Phillip II, who saw Protestantism as a threat to the royal government.
When the Calvinist population faced persecution, they didn’t just sit back. They rebelled because they wanted to be free from the Catholic Spaniards who were causing trouble. The rebellion led to the Eighty Years’ War, which started in 1566 by a guy named William the Silent, who was a devout Calvinist. This war helped set the Calvinist Dutch free and made Calvinism even stronger in the Netherlands.
The Dutch Reformed Church emerged as the largest Christian denomination in the Netherlands from the onset of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century until as late as 1930.
The Netherlands and Beyond
Calvin’s teachings didn’t just stay in the church. They had a significant impact on how the Dutch people lived their lives. People from other countries noticed that the Dutch were hardworking, frugal, and straightforward. Calvin taught people to be diligent, moderate, and honest, and the Dutch took those lessons to heart. Calvinism shaped their religious practices and influenced their everyday values and behaviors.
The rise of Calvinism in the Netherlands played a significant role in launching the Dutch Golden Age, a period from 1588 to 1672 characterized by remarkable achievements in trade, science, art, and the military. The strong work ethic and frugality instilled by Calvinism contributed to the economic prosperity of the Dutch during this era.
However, economic prosperity wasn’t the only thing that occurred. Calvin inspired a whole generation of leaders to go out and proclaim the beautiful truths of the Reformed faith. Around 1,000 Calvinist pastors joined Dutch trading companies, seeking not only economic success but also the opportunity to spread the message of Christianity to diverse lands in the Americas, Africa, and Asia. These Dutch ministers believed that preaching the authentic, biblical version of Christianity would convert Muslims, Jews, and people of all faiths.
While Calvin’s doctrine of predestination may seem counterintuitive to missionary efforts, the Dutch Calvinists knew that preaching the word of God was the means by which the elect would respond to God’s promise of salvation. This missionary zeal and belief in spreading their faith to diverse lands motivated the Dutch Calvinists to venture to New York. There they established a strong presence and made enduring contributions to the region’s religious, economic, and cultural development.
Settling in the New World
As we said earlier, the Dutch Calvinists made their way to New York through the exploration of Henry Hudson in 1614, sponsored by the Dutch West India Company.
As soon as the Dutch immigrants came into the city, they got started setting up the Dutch Reformed Church, with its presence being established as early as 1628 in New Amsterdam. Among the various Calvinist immigrant, including the English, Scots, Dutch, and Germans, the Dutch were particularly active in creating churches and related institutions such as schools, banks, trade ports, and more.
In 1664, New Amsterdam came under English control and was renamed New York after the Duke of York. This transition marked a significant turning point in the region’s history. However, the Dutch had already left their mark.
This is because the Dutch settlers played a pivotal role in the early establishment and development of New York. With the founding of New Amsterdam as a trading outpost, they brought their Dutch customs, language, and institutions to the region. The Dutch presence in New York was characterized by a strong sense of community and a commitment to their Calvinist beliefs. This is why the early establishment of the church was so important. Everything flowed from that.
They also established a system of governance that reflected their Dutch heritage, focusing on trade and commerce. The Dutch influence in New York laid the foundation for the diverse and vibrant cultural landscape that still resonates in the city today.
Calvin in New York
John Calvin’s influence on the Dutch settlers in New York was significant and far-reaching. His teachings and principles, as cultivated by the Dutch Reformed Church, played a central role in shaping the religious, social, and cultural fabric of the Dutch community in New York. Calvin’s emphasis on hard work, honesty, and frugality resonated deeply with the business-oriented Dutch settlers, who were instrumental in transforming New York into a thriving trading hub.
The Dutch Reformed Church, following Calvinist teachings, provided a sense of community, moral guidance, and social cohesion among the Dutch settlers, leaving its mark on the development of New York as a prosperous and vibrant city. Calvin’s influence laid the groundwork for the enduring legacy of Dutch Calvinism in New York, which can still be seen in the city’s religious institutions, cultural traditions, and strong work ethic.
Here are some specific examples of the Dutch Reformed Church’s impact on New York:
● The church established the colony’s first schools, which helped spread literacy and education. They even founded the University we know today as Rutgers University.
● The church also founded hospitals and orphanages, providing social services to the community.
● The church’s ministers played a leading role in government, serving as advisors to the governor and helping to shape the colony’s laws.
● The church’s architecture can be seen in many of New York’s oldest buildings, including the Old Dutch Church in Sleepy Hollow and the Collegiate Reformed Dutch Church in Manhattan.
Working From Joyful Rest
The Dutch Reformed community in New York was extremely diligent and productive. But they knew how to rest.
Like many of the Reformers, they passionately believed that Sunday should be reserved for rest and worshiping God. Known as the “Sabbath day,” Sunday was a day set apart for spiritual rejuvenation and communion with the Creator, a gift from God. Calvin himself taught, “the usage of this day which has been instituted in order that we might withdraw from all earthly anxieties, from all business affairs, to the end that we might surrender everything to God,” (Calvin’s Sermon on Deuteronomy 5).
This observance of the Sabbath actually motivated their diligent work ethic and contributed to their prosperity. The Dutch Reformed saw the Sabbath as a foundation for productivity, believing that working from a place of rest and spiritual renewal would lead to more tremendous success in their endeavors. This unique perspective helped shape their approach to work, as they saw it as a means to honor God and steward their resources responsibly.
By prioritizing the observance of the Sabbath, the Dutch Reformed community found a harmonious balance between work and rest, recognizing that true prosperity stemmed not only from tireless labor but also from taking time to worship the One that gave them every good gift.
As Calvin put it, “And when we have spent Sunday in praising and glorifying the name of God and in meditating on his works, then, throughout the rest of the week, we should show that we have benefited from it,” (Calvin’s Sermon on Deuteronomy 5).
Today, the legacy of Calvin’s teachings can still be seen in the strong work ethic, frugality, and vibrant Dutch Reformed traditions that continue to influence the cultural fabric of New York. Calvin’s impact on the Dutch and their observance of the Sabbath served as a guiding force, shaping their lives, and leaving a lasting imprint on the development and success of the Dutch community in New York.