By Captain Franklin Ellis31
A strong characteristic of the old Dutch settlers, who first occupied this country, was their love for and the tenacity with which they clung to the institutions of the mother-country. Especially strong was their regard for the church of their fathers, and they early established its services in the new land, at Albany, and at points lower on the Hudson. From these proceeded missionary efforts towards the newer and sparser settlements, and earlier than 1700 Claverack was visited by the Albany dominie. His occasional ministrations tended to at least keep alive the religious feeling, and prepared the way for future work in this direction. Fifteen years later the population had so much increased that the settlers began to form themselves into independent churches, in order to more frequently enjoy the means of worship without subjecting themselves to the inconvenience and uncertainty arising from a dependence upon neighboring churches. In Claverack this movement seems to have been taken in 1719, and was directly brought about by Patroon Hendrick Van Rensselaer, who urged them to have a church and a settled minister of their own. It is said that an effort to build a house was made, and a call extended to Dominie Petrus Van Driessen by a consistory informally appointed, but that a division of opinion regarding the proposed church caused its formation to be delayed six or seven years. In 1726, the movement took a more tangible form, and resulted in the organization of The Reformed Protestant Dutch Church of Claverack. This is the oldest religious body in the town, and one of the oldest in the county. A building committee composed of Samuel Ten Broeck, Cornelius Martense Esselstyne, and Jeremiah Miller was appointed, which prosecuted its work so vigorously that the house was completed early in 1727. This house and the church customs of that early period are so aptly described by the Rev. F. N. Zabriskie, that we cannot forbear quoting at some length from his account:
"And the people made a curious covenant at the time, actually binding themselves to the church for the accomplishment of the undertaking instead of subscribing a specific amount. The building committee were empowered to determine what each one should give in work or money, and they 'bound themselves to fulfill the agreement under penalty of three pounds current money of the Province of New York.' The names of those who made this compact, as they are the first upon the records of the church are worthy of special mention. They are, besides the building committee, as follows: Henderick Van Renssalaer, Isaack Van Duse, Willem Isselsteen, Stiffanis Muller, Casparis Conyn, Gloudie D. lamatere, Isaack D. lamatere, Harpert V: Duse, Arent Van Der kar, Jacob Isselsteen, Richard Moor, Jacob Essewyn, Robbert Van Duse, Joris Decker, Killeiaen Muller, Cornelis Muller, Junjor Matthewis Is: V: Duse, Isaack Isselstyn, Kasper Van Hoese, Matthewis V: duse, Jan Bont, Isaack V: Arerim, Henderick Bont, Kristoffel Muller, Tobyas Van Duse, Batholomewis Hoogeboom, Jurie Adam Smit.1
"The building was erected near the spot where the court-house was afterwards built. To be more exact, it stood on what is now the road between Peter Best's and Peter Hoffman's, and partly upon the lot containing the tenement-house of the latter. There were just twenty-six pews in it, six of them being long pews ranged all around the walls and occupied by the men, and the twenty others, mostly facing the pulpit, occupied by the women. Each male and each female member of the congregation had his own appointed seat, allotted to him by a committee, consisting, besides the building committee, of Isaac Van Deusen and Stiffanis Muller. So primitive was this ancient edifice that the pulpit was reached by a ladder! On Feb. 7, 1727, the church was dedicated by Dominie Van Driessen, of Albany. From this date commence the baptismal and other records of the church. Among these is the first record of an
'ELECTION OF CONSISTORY.
'June 18, 1727, the were, C
Elders, Cornelis Martense Isselstein, Robert Van Deursen, Jeremias Muller.
Deacons: Caparis Van Housen, Samuel Ten Broeck, Isaack Van Demsen.'2
"These were ordained on the first of August following. On the 25th of November we find the following covenant made with the consistory, and signed by what appears to be the entire membership. The elders and deacons are to be promoters of God's word and exhort the people to true liberality. If any controversy shall arise between the consistory and congregation relating to a misunderstanding of God's word, and they shall be accused of false doctrine, both parties shall be bound to refer the case to the neighboring Reformed church; and if the consistory be found guilty and will not retract, the people shall have the privilege, in full assembly, to choose others in their place: 'On these articles and conditions, we, as a Christian congregation, place ourselves under the authority of our consistory, with promises always to walk as free Christians should do, and promising always to be faithful to our agreements as far as in us lies, and we hereby certify that this has been done with the consent of the whole congregation.' "
On the 1st of August, 1727, Johannis Van Driessen became the first pastor of the church. He was a younger brother of the Albany dominie, and at the time of his settlement was thirty years of age. He was educated in the old country, but was ordained to the ministry by a Congregational council, on a recommendation to the faculty of Yale College, by Patroon Van Rensselaer. His services were shared by the churches in Livingston manor and Kinderhook, and his residence was at the latter place. His connection with the Claverack church was not continued longer than a year, on account of the Coctus and Conferentie controversies, which, also, were the cause of the church being without a pastor for the next twenty-eight years. In this period the church was supplied by the pastors of the neighboring churches, and scarcely maintained an existence. But in 1756 the Rev. Johannis Casparus Fryenmoet was secured as a permanent pastor, and the work became more prosperous. His first service in the Claverack church was held Oct. 3, 1756.
"His call, like Van Driessen's, was a joint one from Claverack, Kinderhook, and Livingston manor. 'It stipulated to pay him, first, the sum of forty pounds each, or about three hundred dollars in all; second, to provide him with a dwelling-house "becoming a preacher," with a kitchen, stable, etc., together with several acres of land for a "garden, pasture, mow ground, orchard," etc., which should be situated in Claverack, the congregation of Claverack to provide these things for the privilege of having the preacher dwelling among them. Third, the three congregations to bear his expenses of moving, each one an equal share.' " He remained with the Claverack church until 1770, and received during his pastorate two hundred and forty-four members, more than half on confession. After 1770 he confined his labors to the Kinderhook church, where he died in 1778. He was a man of great energy, and inaugurated a movement which resulted in building the present church during his ministry. Says the writer before quoted, "The consistory were already in possession of a piece of land, three morgans in extent, bought in 1759 of Cornelis and Jeremias Miller for the sum of twelve pounds. This comprised, doubtless, the most of the parsonage glebe. They now received, on the 13th of February, 1767, a deed for the church grounds (and, we take it for granted, those on which the new parsonage stands) from John Van Rensselaer, of the manor Rensselaerwyck, 'for the building and erecting a Reformed Protestant church according to the Articles of the Synod of Dordrecht.' The lease of this latter parcel of land had been purchased on the preceding 6th of December, 1766, of Hendrick Ten Broeck for one hundred pounds, by Hendrick Van Rensselaer, Jeremiah Ten Broeck, Jacob Philip, Robert Van Rensselaer, Casparus Conyne, Sr., Jacob Harter, Johannis Muller, John Legghart, William Van Ness, Jacobus Philip, and Johannis Haltsappel, for the purpose of a church building. The release of this and of the former parcel of three morgans was the act of Colonel John Van Rensselaer. The choice of a site for their church gives high testimony to the taste of the building committee, Messrs. Hendrick Van Rensselaer, Jacob Philip, and Jeremiah Ten Broeck; yet how often is it that what all posterity will applaud can only be carried through against strenuous opposition! The change of location excited so much disgust among those who never like to see any change, and those who deemed themselves incommoded by it, that some never forgave it, and are not known to have ever entered the new church door. Particularly was the feeling inflamed against Mr. Van Rensselaer, whose elevated and canopied pew thenceforth became so obnoxious to one of his humbler neighbors that she uttered the iconoclastic threat of taking an axe to church and hewing it down. A still more disgraceful tradition has been handed down of personal violence inflicted up Mr. Van Rensselaer by a leading member of one of the other great families of this region. The building long went by the name of the Van Rensselaer church. The church was dedicated on the 8th of November , 1767, by Dominie Fryenmoet, with the simple ceremony of preaching a sermon. The text was Jeremiah vii. 2: 'Stand in the gate of the Lord's house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all ye of Judah, that enter in at these gates to worship the Lord.' Two children were baptized on that occasion, namely, Kommertje, whose parents were Johannis Muller and Fytje Halenbeck; also Johannis, son of Coenrad Mauer and Jeertje Smidt. It was not as long as the present building by some thirty feet, and had not the front tower nor the wings. There was simply a quaint little belfry on the front part of the roof, which contained a diminutive bell, ranging somewhere between a cow-bell and a steamboat-bell." The walls of the church are built of brick,3 which were manufactured in the locality, and the first stick of timber used was brought by Jorvis Decker, from his farm in the present town of Greenport. The house has been enlarged, and made to somewhat conform to the architecture of to-day; but its essentials remain unchanged, and give but little proof of the wear of more than a hundred years. The interior of this church was much like the first, being without a stove and having an elevated pulpit. Concerning this house, as it then appeared, with its worshipers, the Rev. Zabriskie said, at the centennial celebration of the church in 1867, "The early pastors seem to raise the marble doors of their tombs in yonder cemetery and look about for the antiquated pulpit from which they preached down upon their people. The throngs of former worshipers, in their quaint attire, come winding over the hills and valleys in their plain and springless, but capacious wagons, to occupy the high, straight-backed pews. The women, in summer, with their mob-caps and white muslin neckerchiefs modestly folded over their breast, or, in winter, with their stuffed cloaks and ponderous bonnets, and foot-stoves replenished at the parsonage fire; and the men with their suits of homespun, their broad hats and knee-breeches, and ruffled shirts, and buckles on throat and shoon; and the goodly array of children, all baptized and all brought to church, and young and old alike speaking in a foreign tongue, which would be utterly unintelligible to nine out of ten of us to-day.
"And now the tinkling bell has ceased its clatter in the little, old belfry, the neighborly gossip around the doors is over, and the congregation is seated decently and in order, the elders and deacons at the right and left of the pulpit, the Van Rensselaer of the day in his elevated and canopied pew among his army of lease-holders. The men are ranged around the walls, and the women in orderly rows in the centre. Above their heads is a wooden ceiling with prodigious rafters. The walls are plastered and meant to be white; the wood-work is painted blue; if galleries have yet been introduced, they tower even farther above the people than the present ones; the pews differ in shape and size almost as much as their occupants. If prior to 1780, the worshipers depend solely upon salt pork and foot-stoves to save them from freezing. If as late as 1800, a ten-plated [sic] box-stove, which scarcely serves to do more than make the cold more appreciable, stands raised on long legs upon a platform in the very centre of the building, with pipe going out of the window. The pulpit stands at the north end, is painted blue, as if to indicated its celestial origin, shaped like a wine-glass, and surmounted by a sounding-board, on which 'Holiness to the Lord' is appropriately inscribed. At the farther end of the church is a great window, which would look out into the tower were it not for the red curtain by which it is covered.
"There is as yet no occupant of the pulpit, but underneath sits the voorleser (we will suppose William Van Ness, who held the office for thirty-three years, or Stephen Fonda, or William Ten Broeck, or, at a still later date, Robert Van Deusen, father of our present beloved elder of that name). He begins the service by reading the Scriptures, including the Commandments. Then he gives out a psalm, and, in old-fashioned though not unpleasing style of simple music, leads the tune for his choir (who are, as it should be, the whole congregation). All this is in Dutch, of course, and, if the period be not more than sixty or seventy years ago, promotes the amusement quite as much as the edification of the 'Young America' of that day, as they sit hidden away in their high-walled pews. During the singing the dominie enters. We will suppose it to be Dominie Gebhard in his prime. Rather below the medium height and correspondingly slim, with nimble step he advances up the aisles, bowing to right and left after the old German custom, and pausing a moment at the bottom step of the pulpit to reverently hold his hat before his eyes and offer prayer. As he rises to conduct the service, we catch a sight of his mild and cheerful face and small but bright eye, white cravat, and 'baffy'; and soon, with a clear voice and animated gesticulation, he begins his sound and pious discourse, in the Low Dutch or the German, as the case may be. Though not lengthy for the period, our modern taste would doubtless cut it down to one-half its duration.
"Every Sabbath is a baptismal day; and yet, behold the long line of parents and sponsors bringing their children to the Lord! One, two, six, twelve! and next Sabbath shall, perhaps witness as many more infants sealed to Christ. It was no uncommon thing for the baptismal record to be increased by the addition of over one hundred names in the course of a year. An instance is related by Rev. Dr. Currie, where thirty-six children were baptized at one service in the church of Taghkanic by Dominie Gebhard. These, with the parents and godparents, must have made a company of at least one hundred.
"And now the deacons step forth with their money-bags, suspended to long poles, and furnished with little jingling bells that make a suggestive sound as they pass from pew to pew. Or, it is communion Sunday. Rank after rank of communicants are summoned from their seats, and in turn surround the table, where the elements are distributed to each by the hand of the dominie himself. Nor is it necessarily the Sabbath. Christmas, New Year's day, Good Friday. Easter and Whitsunday are feast-days by appointment and usage. Or, it is catechetical exercise. There are no Sabbath-schools yet. Robert Raikes had not gathered his little vagrant neighbors about him till this building was fourteen years old. The dominie is all the Sunday-school the children know, as they sit in awestruck lines before him, and lisp in Dutch the long and intricate answers of the Heidelberg Catechism. He is superintendent, teacher, library, singing-book, and child's paper to them, and I am afraid, picnic and Christmas-tree also.
"Such are some of the scenes which pass before us in solemn and tender recollection as we sit here to-day amid scenes so like and yet so changed. The same blue heaven above us, the same walls about us, the same trees over-shadowing us, the same mountains reposing in the distance, the same church with its doctrine and worship, the same families occupying these seats, bearing the same time-honored names of Van Rensselaer, Van Deusen, Miller, Esselstyne, Ten Broeck, Delamater, Philip, Leggett, Dederick, Livingston, Smith Schumacher, Sharp, Snyder, Sagendorf, Mesick, Ostrander, Race, Myers, Rossman, Holsapple, Poucher, Groat, Fonda, Emerick, Link, Melius, Skinkle, Root, Clapper, Vandeboe, Hess, Ham, Hoffman, Heermance, Williams, Rowley, Cole, Martin, Best, Brown, Coventry, Kilmer, Stickles, Gardiner, Bennet, Niver, Storm, Jordan, Pitcher, Lasher, Milham, Dickie, and more than I can now take time to mention.. And yet the men are changed in person, speech, garb, and largely in their ideas and spirit (whether for the better or the worse we shall not undertake to say); the house itself enlarge, remodeled, and adorned; the apostolic succession of Dutch pastors still maintained, but a voice in the pulpit to which the language of the 'Faderland' were a strange speech. The old red brick parsonage, with its gambrel roof, which used to stand behind the pear-tree in the garden, has given way to yonder embowered residence; the landscape, with its cleared fields and modern houses, the colossal institute, and the swift and thundering railway trains, are scarcely recognizable."
Two years after the building of the meeting-house the church passed through a quarrel, which checked its prosperity and probably hastened the retirement of Dominie Freyenmoet, in 1770, This arose from the organization of the Krum church in Hillsdale, which was made up largely of members from the Claverack church who had withdrawn for this purpose, and which made it burdensome for the mother church to maintain a pastor on such conditions as she desired. A pastoral vacancy of six years ensued, during which Dominie Gebhard, Daniel Cock, of Germantown, and others from neighboring churches, held occasional services.
Meantime, the events of the Revolution had forced John Gabriel Gebhard, the young pastor of a German Reformed church in New York city, to flee to Kingston for safety. From there he came to Claverack, on a call extended by the church, and entered upon his duties as pastor July 4, 1776. He was a man of liberal attainments and sound judgment, and having a kind and affectionate nature, was soon enabled to harmonize the troubles of the church, which then entered upon a career of peace and prosperity, which has been uninterrupted to the present day.
"He shared, as it behooved him to do, the proverbial thrift of the German race. His salary was only one hundred and thirty pounds a year, and never reached more than four hundred dollars with the parsonage. Still he was enabled, by prudent management, with the additional proceeds of a small patrimony, to given seven sons a classical and professional education, and prepare them for eminence in their respective professions, and at least two of them for distinguished honors in public life."
Dominie Gebhard's field of labor was very extensive, and in the troublous times of the Revolution was attended by dangers which often imperiled his life. Besides his own charge, he supplied the Ghent church, and statedly preached in Hillsdale and Taghkanic. "It was his lot to see several generations of his parishioners, and, in several instances he baptized the great-grandchildren of those whom he had united in marriage. His labors were greatly blessed in the ingathering of members into the church, five hundred and fifty-four having been received in all. The most fruitful years appear to have been 1786 and 1808, in each of which twenty-nine confessed their faith.
"Thus the good and well-beloved pastor labored on for nearly fifty years, when he was declared emeritus by the classis, and in about fifteen months thereafter was declared emeritus by a higher authority, and released by gentle death from his earthly work. His sepulchre is among us, his descendants are many of them still around the old homestead, and his works survive him."
Ten years before the close of Dominie Gebhard's ministry, Richard Sluyter, then a young man in the full vigor of life, became his colleague, and afterwards succeeded to the pastorate of the church. He was possessed of an unusual combination of qualities which eminently fitted him to take up the work of his esteemed predecessor. He at once began his labors with great zeal, and instituted revival measures which were prolific of the most gratifying results. He went to every part of his broad parish, holding meetings every night in the week, and visiting house after house during the day. In 1821 commenced a series of revivals, which, with slight interruptions, continued twenty years, and brought constant additions to the church membership. During his pastorate of twenty-eight years nearly eleven hundred were received into the communion of the Claverack church. Through his efforts the church became a member of the classis of Rensselaer, and the house was modernized to conform ot the changes of time. What with English preaching, revival-meetings, and other changes, he may be said to have inaugurated a new era in the history of the church.
"A great work, which Mr. Sluyter did for Claverack was the establishment of Sabbath-schools. Strange to say, he met with opposition in this work, and actually paid from his own funds Mr. Wymans, the district teacher, to take charge of and give instruction. He procured a small building, and taught himself the colored people in the truths of the gospel in language adapted to their capacities on Sabbath afternoons, having first called upon their masters soliciting the privilege. He expended one hundred dollars in having catechisms printed to furnish the different neighborhoods of his congregation with catechetical instruction; and he often bought hymn-books and presented them to the young people to induce them to join the choir. He was himself, like his predecessor, a gifted musician. His voice in singing was so exquisitely soft and melodious as to have become noted even where he was personally unknown, and persons who took no interest in religion would come to church in the most rainy weather simply to hear the dominie sing."
Mr Sluyter's active and successful ministry was closed by his death, July 25, 1843, but the memory of his busy and self-sacrificing life is yet reverently cherished by the church, and by those he assisted in their efforts to secure an education.
In January, 1844, the Rev. Ira Condict Boice commenced his pastoral labors, which continued fifteen years, and which added one hundred and thirteen members to the church. He was an energetic man, and did much to promote the temporal affairs of the church, building a new parsonage whose beauty of situation and tastefulness are seldom surpassed. He followed the examples of his predecessors in taking an active interest in the cause of education, and through his efforts the Hudson River Institute, with its extensive purposes and broad aims, was founded.
In 1859 the Rev. A. P. Van Gieson, a graduate from the theological seminary at New Brunswick, in the class of 1852, became the pastor of the church, continuing with it until 1865. He was succeeded May 3, 1866, by the Rev. F. N. Zabriskie, who remained until March, 1872. The present pastor, the Rev. John W. Schneck, became connected with the church in September, 1872. The aggregate membership of the church since its organization numbers several thousand, and from its fold have gone members to form seven distinct churches of the Reformed denomination, and many to other churches. At present there are two hundred and twenty-five members, having the following consistory: Elders, Stephen Rossman, John Sharp, Frederick Snyder, Sylvester Milham; Deacons, Nelson Sagendorph, Edward A. Best, Charles Myers, and Benjamin S. Mesick.
The church has one thousand sittings, and with the adjoining parsonage and glebe, containing twenty acres, is estimated worth thirty thousand dollars.
Four Sunday-schools are maintained by the church, which are at present superintended by A. J. Bristol, Peter S. Finger, Peter E. Sagendorph, and Nelson Sagendorph.
The cemetery north and west of the church was set aside in 1767; the new part, on the east, in 1861. It contains the graves of Dominies Gebhard and Sluyter, of the talented William W. Van Ness, and of hundreds from the Van Rensselaer, Livingston, Bay, Jordan, Esselstyne, Van Wyck, Delameter, Hoffman, Miller, Philip, Sharp, Mesick, and other distinguished families of the town. The cemetery is controlled by the consistory of the church, and is a very quite and beautiful spot, although not so neatly kept as some other cemeteries in the county.
1 The names are given in the exact spelling of the Record.
2 These names are also given in the exact spelling of the Record.
3 It is hardly probable that these bricks came from Holland, as some claim, since their appearance is just like the bricks made in this country.