WHEN the Van der Kemps lived on Esopus Creek, they were near the Dutch Reformed Church at Kingston. Francis had long outgrown his youthful antagonism to that church, but he remembered Adams’ warning to stay out of religious controversy when he settled in New York. Knowing he could not avoid expressing his opinions if he took an active part, he probably attended church only occasionally, but more often held religious services in his home for his family and the hired hands. On Oneida Lake no church was near and the family services were continued. Oldenbarneveld also had no church when the Van der Kemps settled there. Houses and cleared fields, mills, roads and schools came first on the frontier.
In 1802 the Reverend John Taylor recorded observations made during a missionary journey to the Mohawk and Black River region. Whitesboro and Clinton were the most prosperous settlements, with Clinton having the most prosperous church. The report for Floyd, some six miles southwest of Oldenbarneveld, was unpromising, even to a missionary:
I know not what remarks to make upon the inhabitants of this town—a half a dozen excepted, they seem to be the fag-end of man in disorder, and confusion of all kinds. The baptists have some regularity; but the methodists are producing the scenes which are transpiring in Kentucky. Women here methodists, pray in their families instead of ye men—and with such strength of lungs as to be distinctly heard by their neighbors. … In fact, this is a most miserable place,—as to inhabitants. The land is good—too good for such inhabitants.1
The missionary was looking for Calvinists. He regarded those of other sects with various degrees of disfavor. He was much interested in the “falling down” of several of the fervent religionists at Floyd in a two-day outdoor meeting. He preached to the people, visited the school and left books and tracts to save the inhabitants. At Remsen, just a few miles north of Oldenbarneveld, Taylor described the people as a “broken society,” “very ignorant and very wicked.” He found what he believed to be a “notorious villain” preaching in the schoolhouse. No church organizations existed in any of the villages. In Norway he found a mixture of Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Universalists and Deists.2
When Taylor went to Oldenbarneveld he stayed with “the Revd. Mr. [Peter] Fish, a gent. who was once settled in Connecticut Farms in N. Jersey, and is now employed part of the time by the people of this town.” The Reverend Mr. Fish was a “sensible, judicious man” and appeared to be doing “great good” but with a “poor reward.” Taylor reported that a majority of the people were Presbyterians with some Baptists, Methodists and “persons of no religion.”3 Perhaps Taylor placed the Van der Kemps in this latter classification.
Taylor visited the school, a hundred yards from the Van der Kemp cottage, and found fifty students with a good instructor. However, many of the children had no catechism and some had no school books. Taylor left for distribution “4 bibles, 10 catechisms, 4 of Janeway’s Tokens, and 10 of Dodridge’s Addresses.”4 Janeway’s Tokens were religious tracts written by a non-conforming English clergyman over a century before, and frequently reprinted: “Token for Children … Account of the Conversion, holy and exemplary Lives and joyful Deaths of Several young Children, &c.”
The missionary represented the Presbyterians and Congregationalists of Hampshire County, Massachusetts. He respected the Reverend Fish and tried to help him rather than taking away his followers. Both of these men may have inspired and assisted in the society started by Van der Kemp, Mappa and Guiteau. The society that was organized had the imprint of Van der Kemp indelibly upon it and was different from all the new congregations within the immediate area except that which developed at Whitestown in 1805 as a Universalist society.
In the late summer of 1803 a meeting was held of those interested in a religious society. No record exists of the action except a list of twenty-three men in attendance, with the name of Francis Van der Kemp first. Also listed were Adam and John Mappa, Thomas Hicks, and John Van der Kemp. They subscribed to a resolution that they would unite in the promotion and support of a religious society.5
At a second meeting on September 19, 1803, sixteen additional persons were listed, with a few more in succeeding months. On October 22, these earnest people met at the school house and agreed to incorporate themselves into the United Protestant Religious Society of Trenton, for the purpose of providing religious instruction. Van der Kemp and Jacob Hochstrasser were chosen to receive the ballots and three trustees were elected. A charter of incorporation drawn up by Van der Kemp and Hochstrasser was registered at the court house the following June. Van der Kemp had successfully averted denominationalism. The probability is that the Bible was read, commentaries were made occasionally by Van der Kemp himself, and itinerant preachers such as the Reverend Taylor addressed them.
In the summer of 1805 the Reverend John Sherman came to Oldenbarneveld to visit his brother-in-law, Joshua Storrs. Sherman, pastor of the First Church in Mansfield, Connecticut, had displeased some members of his congregation. Although he had been an orthodox Calvinist in 1797, he had been swayed from the Trinitarian concept by the writings of Joseph Priestley and others. A series of meetings and letters in the Mansfield area about his preaching made Sherman’s situation uncomfortable. He came to Oldenbarneveld for a vacation.
He was asked to preach, and the village people were impressed and pleased. “He was quick in his perceptions, ready in his utterance, and had the power not only of commanding his thoughts and feelings on any sudden emergency, but of rising under the pressure of an occasion.”6 Shortly after Sherman returned to Mansfield, the society made its decision, duly publicized:
NOTICE—At a meeting of the Inhabitants of the town of Trenton, holden at the Schoolhouse in the village of Oldenbarneveld on the 11th Aug. 1805, the REV. JOHN SHERMAN of Mansfield, (Con.) was unanimously elected Pastor of the United Protestant Religious Society in said place.
By Order of the Society,
LUTHER GUITEAU, CL’K.7
A letter was sent to Sherman written by Van der Kemp and signed by a committee of Guiteau, Hicks and Storrs. It said that the Christian Revelation had greatly influenced the lives of the inhabitants of the “new settlements.” But they needed regular public worship to “purify our hearts and to enlighten our understandings.” While members of the society differed in religious convictions, they agreed heartily on calling Sherman as pastor because they believed he would allow differing views.
The letter than stated basic beliefs. As Protestant Christians they believed in Christ and in a life to come. They believed the Sacred Scriptures to be the only true guide of faith and conduct, “without intervention of any human authority whatsoever.” They observed the Reverend Sherman to have great zeal, piety, talent and prudence. They expected him to teach the children, hear the doubts of the adults with patience, “explain our difficulties with meekness, comfort us in our afflictions, and reprove firmly and sincerely our follies, transgressions and weaknesses.” They hoped he would come as soon as possible because they were “a flock without a shepherd, newly brought together, wandering at random in the wilderness.” Citizens of Holland Patent, a nearby village, agreed to help support the Reverend Sherman in return for his preaching to them once a month.
Sherman accepted this call after he was released from his Mansfield church. His recommendation by a committee of pastors noted his anti-Trinitarian views. On February 18, 1806, he accepted the new appointment for three years at $600 per year, with four weeks’ vacation. The society immediately took steps to form a church. A committee of four drew up the plan—Van der Kemp, Mappa, Storrs and Ithamar Morgan. Eight articles were submitted and accepted on March 8, and the pastor was installed the following day.
The articles mirrored Van der Kemp’s experiences and beliefs in a remarkable manner. The first declared the Old and New Testaments to contain the revelation of God’s will to mankind, to be used as the only standards of doctrines and rules. Article two accented this idea by applying to baptism only the Scriptural demands, which were cited. Article three was surely written by Van der Kemp:
Liberty of conscience shall be preserved inviolate. Every member shall be maintained in his right of free inquiry into the doctrines of Scripture; in publishing what he believes the Scriptures to contain, and in practising according to his understanding of his duty. This liberty shall not be abridged as to his understanding and practice respecting the ceremonies, ordinances, or positive institutions of Christianity.
Article four established the church’s executive authority in the minister, elders and trustees but provided for a referral by request to the congregation at large, while article five stated that the church officers were to be chosen by ballot. Number six made membership a matter of character rather than creed, remindful of the days at Leyden when Pastor Van der Kemp successfully resisted establishment of a creed requirement:
The mode of admission to the Church, shall be, that any person wishing to become a member, shall make known his desires to the Consistory, the Minister, Elders and Deacons, who shall, if the applicant be a person of good moral character, refer his case for decision to the Church at large.
Article seven provided for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper twice a year at each village. The last article gave the name as the Reformed Christian Church (meaning “formed again” in the likeness of the original church). Van der Kemp would probably have joined a church such as this at any time after his withdrawal from the Dutch Reformed Church at Groningen. His friend John Adams would also have fit easily into this company. Though this church adopted Universalist-Unitarian practices in later years, in the beginning it was designed only to be free and Christian.
Nothing could have been more fitting than the arrangements for the installation on March 9 when Francis A. Van der Kemp gave “a suitable lecture” in the morning and the Reverend John Sherman delivered his introductory sermon in the afternoon. The free church was under way.
The controversy over Sherman’s beliefs in Mansfield did not end with his move to Oldenbarneveld—and Van der Kemp became involved as a staunch supporter of his minister. Sherman had written and published a book in 1805 with the title, One God in One Person Only: and Jesus Christ a Being Distinct from God, Dependent upon Him for his Existence, and his Various Powers; maintained and Defended. William B. Sprague in Annals of the American Pulpit called Sherman’s work “the first formal and elaborate defence of Unitarianism that ever appeared in New England.”8 In the summer the work was noted and reviewed in a respectful, though somewhat non-committal, manner in the Monthly Anthology. Van der Kemp wrote a letter of praise to the editors about the May and June issues in general and commented on the Sherman review in particular. He admired the candor of the reviewer and thought the criticisms just. He felt publications of material such as this would encourage deserving authors and promote learning while discouraging the “stupid block-head” who wrote only to be agreeable to editors. A few further comments were made including an exception to the use of the word “childish” in reference to Sherman’s work.9
The Reverend Daniel Dow of Thompson, Connecticut, soon published a pamphlet of criticism of Sherman, Familiar Letters to the Rev. John Sherman, Once Pastor of a Church in Mansfield, in Particular Reference to his Late Antitrinitarian Treatise. The sixteen letters attacked Sherman’s character as well as his doctrine. Van der Kemp answered this attack with as severe a castigation as a religious man could write. He had not lost the spirit that long ago led him to attack the stadholder and the aristocrats in the Estates General. The pamphlet was entitled A Wreath for the Rev. Daniel Dow, Pastor of a Church in Thompson, Connecticut; on the Publication of his Familiar Letters in Answer to the Rev. John Sherman’s Treatise of One God in One Person Only &c. and was published in Utica in 1806, anonymously. His authorship is revealed in a later letter to John Adams.
The introduction describes the immediate affection and respect for Sherman felt by the congregation of the Oldenbarneveld church:
When the Rev. John Sherman visited our neighborhood in the course of last summer, and preached to us for several weeks, the gospel of salvation, numbers of us were struck, at seeing various important doctrines of our holy religion placed before us in a new point of view. His unassuming modesty and candor—his uncommon, plain and nervous diction—his pure scriptural language—… his devout prayers breathing and [an] ardent love towards his God and fellow creatures; his amiable manners and instructive behavior in the ordinary walks of life, occasioned a wish in the bosom of every one of us, to hear more of this worthy young man.
Van der Kemp explained that Sherman had held nothing back. He had told his new friends about his change of views in Mansfield and about the activities against him. When he had accepted the unanimous call to be pastor at Oldenbarneveld, he had presented his treatise in favor of the Unitarian doctrine. It was accepted by some members of his congregation, rejected by others—but all were pleased to have him preach from the Scriptures. After this introduction Van der Kemp berated Dow for fifteen pages and ended by giving the articles of the new church.10
Van der Kemp joined in another phase of religious activity in 1806. A society for “promoting the knowledge of the Sacred Scriptures, and the practice of the Gospel Doctrine” was formed in the town of Trenton. One of its first activities was to cooperate with the General Synod of the Reformed Dutch Church in a religious study project. Records indicate that the organization was formed by members of the new church. One newspaper notice was signed by the Reverend John Sherman, secretary, and included the name of Colonel A. G. Mappa as treasurer. Perhaps Van der Kemp was president. The following year the society proposed three questions as subjects for an essay contest. The writer of the winning essay would receive fifty dollars and have his essay published. The questions are similar to some of the statements in Van der Kemp’s Wreath:
- What are the principle causes of the increasing fanaticism, enthusiasm and infidelity, within the limits of the Middle and Eastern States?
- What are the most potent remedies for these moral diseases?
- In what manner may these remedies be the most successfully applied?
The question for 1808 was, “What degree of knowledge in Oriental and Greek literature, Jewish antiquities and Ecclesiastical History is requisite to qualify a minister of the Gospel to silence the cavils and successfully to refute the objections of ancient and modern infidels against the Jewish and Christian revelations?”11
The society also proposed to collect money, books, tracts, and Bibles to promote the knowledge of the Christian doctrine. It was planned that similar groups could be formed to join in the work of the Trenton society.12 Van der Kemp persuaded Jedidiah Morse to publish the question for 1808 in the Panoplist, an orthodox religious periodical. Van der Kemp asked Morse if they could unite “against the common enemy of infidelity” represented by the writings of Paine and Volney (Count Constantin Chasseboeuf) which were being spread through the distribution of tracts by peddlers in wilderness regions. How could this be stopped?13
Neither the Reformed Christian Church nor the community of Trenton prospered during the next few years when trade was disrupted by the Embargo. It was difficult to pay Sherman, but at the end of his three-year appointment, he accepted reappointment upon the request of the committee of Van der Kemp, Ephraim Perkins and Benjamin Brayton. Church pledges were allowed to include produce and Sherman was encouraged to preach at a third place, probably Newport. Financial conditions became worse and Sherman submitted his resignation February 6, 1810, to the trustees, Van der Kemp, Hicks and Brayton. The liberal clergyman established a successful private school and in later years set up a hotel at Trenton Falls with continued success. He remained a faithful member and firm financial supporter of the church.
The church was determined to continue, even without a pastor. The congregation held meetings every Sunday and had Communion service whenever a visiting pastor was available. Luther Storrs and Jacob Hovey continued to lead the singing, while Francis Van der Kemp, John Mappa (son of Adam), Canfield Coe and others agreed to read sermons. Van der Kemp wrote to a friend in England, “Some of us have engaged to read in turns so we are edified sometimes by Clarke, and Tillotson, and Blair, sometimes Lindsey, Priestly, Price, Toulmin.” These informal programs held the church together but only with difficulty. In November, 1810, Van der Kemp was the only person to appear at a scheduled meeting to elect a new trustee. In the succeeding months a growing sentiment to dissolve the organization led to arguments. At a meeting in October, 1811, words were spoken against the leadership of Van der Kemp and on the next day he resigned in a letter to his fellow trustee, Ephraim Perkins. He declared that the opposition was “lawless” but that Perkins still had influence with them. Van der Kemp said he would resign as the “only obnoxious person” in the hope that Perkins would succeed in keeping the organization together. On November 8, 1812, Van der Kemp wrote that he had resumed worship in his home since the meeting house (school) had been taken from the society, apparently through the efforts of the discontented members of the church.14 For two and a half years the church and society were both rather unsettled. There was not enough wealth in the little community to allow liberal contributions to the church. The whole nation was suffering because of the dislocation of trade caused by the struggle between Napoleon and the British. In most of central New York prices for products were high but prices for the things the residents had to purchase were even higher.
After the war, church members once more regained the old feelings of fellowship and cooperation. In October, 1814, Isaac B. Peirce, a licensed reader who was visiting Sherman, was asked to preach. He met Van der Kemp and others and shortly was asked to serve the church on behalf of the “liberal minded Christians” in the vicinity. Peirce was installed the following March. Van der Kemp took part in the planning and rejoiced at the revival of Olden-barneveld’s free church.
The time was right for the important step of erecting a church building. Economic conditions were better, the Reverend Peirce was vigorous, and his congregation happy. Money was raised, a building lot contributed by the Holland Land Company, and the building erected—a near copy of King’s Chapel in Boston. When the pews were auctioned, the Van der Kemps took the fifth on the left for $46.50. Only thirteen families paid more; Francis was generous with his limited funds. He could not know that one day the church was to receive from his daughter his own cottage to be used as a parsonage.
As for now, Van der Kemp was content. He had helped to establish a free church in America.