WHEN Van der Kemp visited Boston, his warm reception by the clergy, particularly the Unitarians, was due in part to his religious writing. Some of the Massachusetts religious leaders knew that Van der Kemp had helped to found the Oldenbarneveld church and most of them had read his defense of John Sherman. His learned contributions to the religious magazines, Panoplist and the General Repository, were known and appreciated.

It was natural for Van der Kemp to write on religion in the western woods, as he had written and published a great many sermons and religious essays back in Holland. It was also easier, because he had brought with him to America a large volume of religious notes as well as some of his religious books. History gave a framework to his religious knowledge as it did to his political and scientific knowledge. He used history extensively as a method of studying religion.

The Panoplist, or the Christian’s Armory was a religious periodical that began in 1805. Van der Kemp read it regularly. Contributors included many well-known writers of the day in the field of religion. In the early issues appeared biographies of such divines as David Tappan, Archibald Maclaine and Dr. Samuel Finley. Articles dealt with proofs of the universal deluge, the wickedness of skepticism and experimental religion. However, in October, 1805, two articles criticized John Sherman’s book. Soon afterwards appeared “The Doctrine of the Trinity Universal,” “Remarkable Conversion of a Deist,” and a favorable review of Dow’s Familiar Letters to Sherman, the same Dow whom Van der Kemp later castigated so severely in his Wreath. The “Life of Martin Luther” ran in several instalments. Then in October, 1806, came an account of Calvin’s approval of the execution of Michael Servetus, taken from Jean Senebier’s history.

This was as much as Van der Kemp could endure without expressing his strong opinions. He wrote to the editor of the Panoplist, Jedidiah Morse. First he offered his services in the projected revision of Morse’s geography books, suggesting that Mappa would know the Black River country and that he might add some information on Europe, presumably Holland. Then he reacted to the Panoplist article:

Having prepared for a friend a Short Literary Sketch of Servetus … I was engaged in giving him an account of that transaction of the deplored hate of that man at Geneva, when I received the last number of the Panoplist—in which I met an Extract of Sennebier by which—I candidly confess—my indignation was roused—You cannot approve it. I now intend to publish a genuine account of this transaction—and have pointed out the defects of Sennebier’s relation. If you approve it, or rather I must say, if propriety and delicacy permits the Editors of the Panoplist, and I cannot see why not, the insertion of this Review—I am willing to prepare for them the next—and conclude all with the Litt. Sketch of the Restituto Christianismi—The whole shall thus be three articles of about the same lenght [sic].—[Signed “Candidus”]1

This letter was sent to an incorrect address and received no recognition until March, 1807, when a note appeared in the periodical, “Candidus is just received but is too late for this month.” In the meantime, Van der Kemp had sent a “query” or “letter to the editor” commenting on a different article, which appeared in the February issue.

In a past issue of the periodical a set of rules for preaching had included the advice, “Discover no more of your plan than needs must.” The author said that if “plan” meant system of doctrine, it was important to disclose it candidly. If “plan” meant the particular points to be treated in the development of the sermon, the preacher “must needs state them explicitly, if he would hope to gain the attention of his hearers.” Van der Kemp had recently heard a clergyman begin with a statement that he should disclose no more of his plan than was necessary. After listening to the complete sermon, Van der Kemp concluded that the plan was still undisclosed. If the preacher took his method from the Panoplist, then that periodical should explain that the subject should be “placed in a lucid point of view” and discourage this “ambiguous mode of preaching.” This also was signed, “Candidus.”2

This insertion caused no evident stir among the editors or readers but the criticisms of Senebier roused a conflict. In the April issue the editors answered “Candidus” by declining to print his account of Servetus on the grounds that it was not concise enough and did not list sufficiently its authorities. They were not convinced that Senebier was wrong, especially since the extract had received the sanction of the late Dr. John Erskine. Two of Van der Kemp’s remarks were quoted:

It cannot be contested that the reformers were pretty generally [“we should say in too frequent instances,” ed.] actuated by a blind, intemperate zeal against all, whom they suspect to be enemies of the gospel of truth, and embraced, too often, improper methods for its support, which by the more candid and Christian sentiments of our day, are disapproved. … It becomes us to state historical facts fairly; then we may try, as far as truth will allow, to lessen their faults, who greatly sinned through ignorance….

Had Sennebier, to extenuate Calvin’s guilt, fairly acknowledged this instance of human weakness, and expatiated on Calvin’s piety, … [writings and modesty]; had Sennebier delineated with few strokes, the turbulent spirit of democracy rankling in every breast at Geneva, Calvin’s high authority in that city, with his uncontrolled power in the church, as president in the assembly of the clergy and ecclesiastical judicatory; had he shown this reformer exasperated by the virulent invectives of his haught antagonist, and urged his irritable temper unused to brook opposition, he might have induced his readers to deplore the frailty of Calvin, and to avert their eyes from a foul spot in such a bright character….

The editors added that if the writer wished to submit further materials, they would be treated “with the respect due their author.”3

Van der Kemp had recently read Hermann Venema’s Ecclesiastical History in seven volumes, Michel de La-Roche’s Bibliotheque Anglaise ou Histoire Literaire de la Grande-Bretagne, Johann Von Mosheim’s Life of Servetus, and Frederic Samuel Bock’s History of the Antitrinitarians. In a cordial letter to Morse, he asserted that these authors used authoritative documents rather than often unreliable secondary material. Van der Kemp hoped to send “Exegetical or Historical Scraps” to the Panoplist from time to time. He was “fully satisfied” with the remarks of the April issue but went ahead with comments critical of Senebier’s history. He said he would prepare a life of Calvin with a short statement of “what did happen to Servetus.” His closing lines classed Calvin as a demagogue.4

In the June issue the editors said the letter of Candidus led “into too wide a field of discussion” for the purpose of the periodical. They respected the writer and would wait for his comments on Calvin and Servetus before they wrote the life of Calvin for the Panoplist. They promised that Candidus would have no reason to complain of their treatment of the “transaction in question.”5 Van der Kemp was disappointed with this answer. He believed he had given good sources and that only the approval of Erskine was given by the Panoplist for its support of Senebier.6 If the editors had withheld his “strictures” until he gave proofs, it would have been fairer than by trying to overwhelm him by the mention of Erskine.7

Van der Kemp finished the sketch of Calvin’s life and sent it to Morse in October. He requested Morse’s editing and offered the essay to the Panoplist in part if they could not use the whole. He believed that his sources were proof of the historical truth and the falsity of Senebier.8 The editors replied in the December issue with evident pleasure, thanking Candidus for his sketch which manifested his “learning, diligence and fidelity”; they hoped to use the sketch in a manner corresponding to his wishes. They also stated Candidus had sent an article on the authorship of the Epistle to the Hebrews which would be printed in the next issue.9

Van der Kemp was pleased and by the end of the year had the short essay on Servetus almost completed. It was composed chiefly of compilations from printed books and manuscripts and was valuable chiefly “for its authentic materials—brought together in one point of view.” He was not afraid of Morse’s rigidity against such a point of view, believing him to be liberal to outsiders even though he was a leader of orthodox Calvinism. Van der Kemp asked the Panoplist to give an account of the church in Marietta and suggested that one of the editors should expose the incoherence of the Unitarian constitution drawn up in Philadelphia.10

Van der Kemp’s short article on the authorship of the Epistle to the Hebrews appeared in the Panoplist in January, 1808. It contained eight persuasive points taken from the works of Venema showing that Apollos wrote the letter. Although the editors accepted the article for publication, they felt their responsibilities called for a note of warning. The readers should use great caution because some of the arguments were “easily exposed” and some of the ideas tended “to diminish the authority of the Epistle to the Hebrews.”11

Also in this number appeared the first instalment of “Sketch of the Life and Character of John Calvin,” “taken from the Religious Monitor, with the addition of several extracts of a communication received from a learned and ingenious correspondent” (Van der Kemp).12

Francis waited for the magazine’s publication of his material on Servetus with the description of his trial. Instead, only a repetition of Senebier’s account was given. He wrote to Morse, “I am sorry that the nature of your work—perhaps your delicate situation too seems to prevent an insertion of my letters on Servetus—more so—as now you have sanctioned with your credit an indefensible account.” He argued that a great man like Calvin did not need to have one error whitened. If Morse were writing about David, would he condone his murderous acts because he was great? On the other side, Servetus, too, was a great person. Though he was in error in some ways, he should not be painted black because of Calvin. The editors were also prejudiced and partial in saying the Socinians of old and the modern Unitarians had placed Calvin in an odious light. Van der Kemp knew that the Socinians opposed Calvin but also opposed Servetus, and that the latter was not the ancestor of Unitarianism. Again he insisted Senebier had misrepresented the facts of the Servetus case.13

After these sharp remarks Van der Kemp praised several recent articles in the Panoplist and commented extensively on a letter by “Timothy” on Van der Kemp’s “Authorship of the Epistle to the Hebrews.” He particularly thanked him for mentioning the work by Dr. James M. Macknight; he acquired a copy immediately. But “what matters it to a Sincere Christian, if Paul or Apollos or Luke was the writer—provided the book is convince [convincing]—the author an inspired writer?” He offered to send some thoughts of Venema on church government and some ideas of his cousin, J. C. Van der Kemp, an orthodox Calvinist.14 Van der Kemp was too liberal for an orthodox publication. He did not really belong in the Panoplist.

A comprehensive view of his generation of mankind had been gradually forming in Van der Kemp’s mind. Now it came to light in a lengthy outline of a proposed history. It never developed into more than a sketchy outline but the title was descriptive of Van der Kemp’s inclusive view: “Moral and physical causes of the revolutionary spirit in the latter part of the eighteenth century, with their probable issue on both continents.” In the outline Calvin and Servetus were not even mentioned and the Reformation received only two lines.

The first draft of the outline was sent to Adams early in 1811. Adams replied, “Lord! Sir, you have planned more Work … than could be executed by any body in twenty years: by me, not in 50 or 100.” To a suggestion that John Quincy Adams might write the work, the father replied that he would never have the time or the means.15 Adams showed further interest by asking for the principal topics and making a list of eleven topics as possibilities.16

In December Francis sent a more complete draft of the “Sketch” to Adams. With a touch of humor, John asked:

What Title do you intend to give it?

An History of The Decline and Fall of Christianity?


An History of The Improvement of the Human Mind?


An History of The Progress of Society?

He added seven others, all in fun. He also asked why the author omitted such characters as Tom Paine, Voltaire, Luzac, Van der Kemp and a number of others.17 Van der Kemp replied that Adams’ ludicrous titles would be ingredients only. He added that Mappa agreed with him that John Quincy Adams should do the work.18

Van der Kemp also sent a copy to Jefferson and received a lengthy reply. The elder statesman said the outline was “a wonderful mass for contemplation” but that its author was best fitted to develop it. Jefferson hoped it would be “executed in the genuine republican principles of our constitution” including the “only orthodox object” of government—“the greatest degree of happiness possible to the general mass of those associated under it.” Events listed in the outline would certainly prove the need for popular control of those chosen to govern, thereby preventing the rise of aristocracy and oppression, but the Constitution might not contain the “exact degree” of control necessary. Since distance from “the brigand governments of Europe” permitted America to experiment without interruption, Van der Kemp might encourage and nourish the project, might warn his fellow citizens “of the rocks and shoals on which other political associations have been wrecked” so that they might “direct theirs with a better knolege [sic] of the dangers in it’s [sic] way.”19

Van der Kemp also sent a copy to De Witt Clinton and asked if he could be persuaded “to embody this skeleton” and inspire it with life.20 Later it was sent to LeRoy, Bayard & McEvers, an importing house of New York through which Van der Kemp sent and received communications and books from Europe. Van der Kemp wrote that he was including the Sketch, to be sent on to Dr. Joshua Toulmin in England. He wished the gentlemen of the company to peruse it first (probably William Bayard was closest to Van der Kemp), and perhaps show it to Rufus King. The author had no hope of executing the work but expected to copy the outline and send it to friends on the continent who might complete it. He said he would rejoice if a set of Europeans would “favour us with a grand Tableau.”21 At least two others, Paul Busti and Charles Eliot, had copies in 1813.

Adams asked what philosophy was intended for the work since “Every History must be founded on some Philosophy and some Policy.” He said if he were writing a history, he would found it on the “Morality of the Gospel and leave all other Philosophy and Policy to shift for itself.”22 Other comments passed between the two friends having a bearing on the “Desired Work,” such as Van der Kemp’s interest in “the Negotiations of John Adams at the Courts of St. James, Versailles and the Hague” and Adams’ reply that the documents were too scattered for either of them to collect. Later Adams said that his friend took a vast view of civilization and humanity, while his own was usually superficial and narrow. However, he would “guess” that all the wars of the previous fifty years were only a continuation of the wars of the Reformation.23 And in turn Van der Kemp wrote that his idea of history was to compare the reigns of Louis XVI and Napoleon as to population, wealth, finances, arts, sciences, commerce, manufactures, agriculture, laws, police, constitution, liberty, exercise of power, army and navy.24 John was asked to send his copy of the “Sketch” to John Quincy Adams, who was now the ambassador to England, for his perusal and to share with his English friends.25

The Monthly Anthology was published in Boston from 1804 to 1811. This literary and theological magazine frequently came to Van der Kemp’s attention and he therefore was interested in its successor, the General Repository and Review, edited by Andrews Norton. In the first year of publication (1812) Van der Kemp undoubtedly read such articles as “Defence of Liberal Christianity,” “An Important Question Examined” [doctrine of the Trinity], and “Extracts from Madame DeStael’s Memoirs.” In various issues of the magazine were Abbot’s statement on his removal from his church at Coventry, “Lectures and Essay on Comets,” and “Account of Expeditions to the Sources of the Mississippi” by Pike.

The “Sketch,” with a few changes suggested directly or indirectly by Jefferson, Adams and others, was sent to editor Norton and was published in the October, 1813, issue with a short but appropriate introduction.

We insert the following at the request of a very respectable correspondent, who says—“If this sketch deserve your approbation, I shall be gratified if you procure it a place, under the article of Intelligence, in the next number of the Repository. I am tired of copying it, and in my opinion it would be a valuable work if Well executed.”

The sketch was eight pages in length, was truly a sketch outline, and encompassed introductory developments in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment through the Revolutionary Period up to “18—.” Ideas were prominent as well as institutional, social and political developments.*

After his failure to have the materials on Calvin and Servetus properly presented in the Panoplist, Van der Kemp kept these writings on the shelf for a few years. In 1812 he asked Adams if he would “peruse” them. Adams said No. He cared “not a Farthing about either” and he was annoyed by all bigotry.26 However, the crusty and outspoken old gentleman (Adams was now seventy-seven) relented and said he would get one of his granddaughters to read them aloud if Van der Kemp would send them.27 The essays were sent with the request to send them on to Abiel Abbot or Andrews Norton.28

A few weeks later Adams wrote, in a gleeful tone, “I advised you, before you embarked for America, to beware of Religious Prejudices…. Yet you have forgotten them [warnings] again and are becoming the most renouned Heretick and Schismatick in America; …”29

Adams knew well that the religious interest of the “Mennonite preacher” could never be killed, and his liberal views never shaken.

In 1812 the sketches on Calvin and Servetus were published in England. Norton saw the British periodical about the same time that he received, from Abbot, Van der Kemp’s essays and some sermons written for his family.30 In a few months Van der Kemp was informed that his essays on Calvin and Servetus were at last to be published, and that the editors of the Repository would correct them.31 They appeared in the publication in 1813, though not in their original form. With this introduction, Van der Kemp became a frequent and well respected contributor to the Repository.

The magazine was unable to use the sermons and Van der Kemp sent them to the Reverend Henry Dwight for his criticism, also sending the account of his “jaunt in this Western district.” He wrote that his sermons had been intended to impress his children and spur them on to further inquiry.

The polished Thacker [sic] knew that a rigid examination was the only powerful mean to discern truth from falsehood, to confound error and imposture and place truth on an unshaken basis. These means can never be discountenanced, or rejected as insufficient but by those who mistrust the solidity of their principles, intend to profit by the ignorance of others, and are thus interested, that their machinations—artfully concealed from the human eye—remain enveloped in darkness.

Samuel Thacher was one of the editors of the Monthly Anthology.

Dwight was asked to send both sermons and Tour to his brother Edmund, who would deliver them to Samuel Eliot to be placed with his collection of Van der Kemp’s papers.32 Samuel had asked long ago for copies of Francis’ writings, and the scholar had spent much time in copying works destined to go elsewhere to oblige his valued friend.

Henry Dwight was not well and had given up his pulpit in Utica to move to Geneva. He wrote briefly that he did not agree with Van der Kemp’s conclusions on baptism but hoped him success.33

In the April, 1813 issue of the Repository, Norton had an article of controversy in which he stated:

Concerning the manner in which Calvin spake of the sufferings of Servetus, I will give a passage from a manuscript account of the whole transaction, which I have received from a most respectable and very learned correspondent, whose name, with all, to whom he is known, it will do me honor to mention, Fr. Adr. van der Kemp.

A quoted paragraph from Van der Kemp’s manuscript followed.34

In the next number was a long article entitled, “Life of Michael Servetus” taken largely from Van der Kemp’s works on Servetus and Calvin. Most of the credit for the article was given to Van der Kemp and frequent citations were made directly to his manuscripts. The editor criticized Senebier as strongly as did Van der Kemp but added several good authorities to the list used by him. Van der Kemp was asked to put the original articles in the Harvard Library.35

The October issue of the quarterly carried an article by one of the editors that included remarks on Samuel Crellius. One of the sources reported Crellius to have been a Socinian. The editor said he had raised this question with Van der Kemp, “a gentleman every way qualified to give correct information on the subject.” Van der Kemp’s convincing reply in the negative was quoted, about one page in length.36 Van der Kemp’s information about Socinianism appeared in the last issue of the General Repository, as the publication failed. Adams was disturbed and wrote to Van der Kemp, “The Repository cannot live. And why? Thousands of cartloads of Trash foreign and domestic circulate freely and sell well.”37

At about this time a book was published attacking the Christian religion. George Bethune English, a young clergyman, told his reasons for renouncing his ministry. William Ellery Channing and Samuel Carey wrote critical reviews. Van der Kemp, eager to read both the book and the reviews, was grateful to obtain them through the Eliot family. He wrote a reply to English, sending one copy to the Eliots and one to Adams with the remark,

If it is deemed by better judges, that the publication might do good by unwary youth, they are welcome to it—provided the idiom is corrected and my name secreted—as I cannot wish to be compromitted with a man of such a character.38

Adams read the reply hurriedly and did not like it. He said it was too sacerdotal in style and too Calvinistic in spirit. “Free discussion must not be browbeaten: Rail not! Rave not!”39 Van der Kemp decided not to publish it, and Adams was pleased. He knew that English was a fine young man, “from his childhood, Sober, Studious, and without a Stain on his moral character.” If a serious public controversy were aroused, it might well get out of control. He said America had too many such controversies already.40 Edward Everett was not so fearful. He published a reply to English, and English responded with a rebuttal. The young man did not return to the ministry, but turned to the military instead. He joined the Marines and later enlisted in the Egyptian army.

This was not the end of Van der Kemp’s interest in religion and history but his serious efforts to write for publication were near an end. His Sketch of a Desired Work inspired additional reading and study from time to time, first on one point and then on another. He probably did not give up hope of doing the work himself until 1818 when his time was completely taken up by his work as a state translator.

In the religious field he was instrumental in publishing Jefferson’s “Syllabus”; this effort will be related in another chapter. Otherwise he conceived the idea of writing a life of Christ, inspired in part by his correspondence with Jefferson. His interest went as far as sketching an outline. A copy to De Witt Clinton was very brief, but another copy to John Adams was more detailed and four pages in length. Part I, “Preliminary discussions,” contained the general principles of natural religion, an inquiry into the authenticity of the Sacred Scriptures, a history of the Jewish nation with its theism and morality, a general view of the heathen world before the Christian era, and a comparison of heathen and Jewish civilizations. Part II included a scholarly examination of the many questions which had arisen about the life and doctrine of Jesus. Van der Kemp inserted a “general observation” in this part which repeated his previous basic assumption: “All what is necessary to believe and to do to secure our happiness must have been so clearly revealed, as to be understood without any difficulty by any one of a sound judgment and a sincere heart.” At the close of the section was a corollary: “The fundamental part of the Christian Revelation is the divine mission of Jesus—not his person—character.” Part III was the relation of the earthly life of Jesus under four headings; his person, character, views and doctrine, and success of his enterprise. In the last section Van der Kemp considered prejudices among “the great,” the scientific and the vulgar, and pointed out that the doctrine was committed to illiterate disciples. Was Christ an enthusiast and an impostor? 41

If Van der Kemp had written this proposed work on the basis of the outline, he would have redeveloped his natural history discussions of the origin of the earth and the deluge. The treatment of ancient history and philosophy would have been fair and generous. He would have accepted the divinity of Christ but would have rejected or passed quickly over the idea of the Trinity. Van der Kemp would have accented the character and doctrine of Jesus with probably some open criticisms of particular church officials down through the ages. And without doubt he would have digressed here and there.

At about the same time that he wrote the first draft of the outline of the Life of Jesus, Van der Kemp also copied in English for the first time his Tour through a Part of the Western District of New York in 1792. His notes and letters had been in Dutch but well organized. Now he did it in English with an idea that the New York Philosophical Society might publish it. Van der Kemp sent it to De Witt Clinton with this in view and it went on to John Adams. Both enjoyed it. Adams wrote that he read it with “as much Interest Pleasure and Instruction as Coxes or Moores or Crusoe’s or Gullivers,” and added later that it surpassed Scott’s Lady of the Lake which he enjoyed greatly.42 The Tour was published in the Seymour Centennial Address in 1877 and again in 1878 in Durant’s History of Oneida County. Van der Kemp accepted the praises of his friends as sufficient reward for those writings which were not published in his lifetime.

* A recent book which approaches this outline is R. R. Palmer’s The Age of the Democratic Revolution. Van der Kemp would have been fascinated by it and it is belated justice that Palmer attributed a good share of the revolutionary spirit of the Netherlands in the 1780’s to Van der Kemp.

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