Words To Remember

"The truth is this--genealogy is our living, and we are busy every minute, [and we] could use more hours." --Jane Wethy Foley, 1942

Monday, January 17, 2011

Biography of Rev. Mr. Henricus Selyns

It was difficult to prevail upon any settled clergyman to leave his charge in Holland and brave the trials of a newly settled country of Nieuw Amsterdam, yet two newly ordained ministers--Hermanus Blom and Henricus Selyns--did just that.

Blom, a candidate for the ministry, had been induced to come out to Nieuw Amsterdam. Arriving about the last of April 1659, he received and accepted a call from the prosperous village of Esopus (now Kingston, NY). He soon returned to Holland to pass his examination and received his ordination before the Classis [the governing body of the Reformed Dutch Church].

Meanwhile, the people of Breuckelen on the western end of Long Island were left virtually without pastoral leadership. The badness of the roads to the closest congregation at Flatbush severely limited travel in those days.  That, coupled with the Rev. Mr. Joannes Theodorus Polhemus' inability to minister to them--on account of his age and infirmity--drove the church membership into an intense argument between the Dominie and his congregation over the forced payment of his salary, upheld by a special tax levied by Gov. Pieter Stuyvesant.

Denied pastoral care, the congregation had petitioned the Governor and Council for permission to have a minister resident in their town.  That application was favorably regarded, and on 1 March 1660, when Blom left Holland on his return to New Netherland aboard the ship Beaver, he was accompanied by the Rev. Henricus Selyns, under appointment to preach at Breuckelen.

Henricus Selyns was the son of Jan Selyns and Agneta Kock, of Amsterdam, Netherlands, where he was born in 1636. He was educated for the ministry and his ancestors were clergymen in the Reformed church in Holland for a century previous to his birth.

Letters of accreditation in hand, the two young ministers arrived in Nieuw Amsterdam in the spring of 1660.  However, Gov. Stuyvesant, by whom alone all public appointments--ecclesiastical as well as civil--could be accredited, was then absent at Esopus [Kingston], negotiating a peace with the Indians.  And when that had been concluded, he paid a visit to Fort Orange. To both of these places the two young clergymen followed him to deliver their letters.  So it was not until 7 Sept. 1660 that Rev. Mr. Henricus Selyns was formally installed into the church at Breuckelen.

To supplement his salary, Rev. Selyns was also permitted to officiate on Sunday afternoons at Gov. Stuyvesant's farm, Bouwerie (now Bowery), New York, where he taught Negroes and the poor whites. The Bouwerie was a "sort of stopping-place and pleasure-ground of the Manhattans." Here, his audiences consisted mostly of people from the city, and, besides Stuyvesant's own household, about forty negroes who lived in that neighborhood, in what was known as the "Negro quarter." After Selyns' installation at Breuckelen, Dominie Polhemus confined his services to Midwout and Amersfoort.

Church members residing within this vicinity, numbered in all 27 persons, inclusive of one elder and two deacons. The population of the village at this time was 134 persons, in 31 families.  The bounds of the new Dominie's charge included " The Ferry," "The Waal-boght," and "The Gujanes." Measures were taken for the speedy erection of a church and, in the meantime, the congregation worshipped in a barn. 

Under the able ministrations of the new pastor, the church in Breuckelen increased until, in 1661, it numbered 52 communicants, many of whom were admitted on certificates from Nieuw Amsterdam and from churches in the Netherlands. In the same year, the village of Breuckelen received from the West India Company--on the request of Rev. Mr. Selyns--a bell for their church, which "might also be used, in time of danger, to call the county people thereabouts together."

It would seem that the Rev. Mr. Selyns had not, as late as 1662, become an actual resident of the town over which he exercised a pastoral charge.  In a petition to Gov. Stuyvesant and the ruling Councilors, the congregation "had promised to contribute as their share towards the Rev. Mr. Selyns' salary; and they find that the community would be more willing and ready to bring in their respective quotas, if the aforesaid Rev. Mr. Selyns would come to reside within their village, inasmuch as they have already been at the expense of building a house for him."

The outcome of the petition is not recorded, but Rev. Selyns in all probability moved to Breuckelen not long afterward.  He married at Nieuw Amsterdam on 9 July 1662 his first wife, Machtelt, daughter of Hermann Specht of the city of Utrecht, "a young lady of rare personal beauty and worth." {his own description of her}  The couple had one child, a daughter, born while he was at Breuckelen.

In 1664, the church of Breuckelen was called upon to part with its beloved pastor, Selyns. His time having expired, he yielded to the urgings of his aged father in Holland. Having obtained permission from the Lords Directors of the West India Company, he was respectfully dismissed from his church on the 17 July 1664, and sailed for home on 23 July in the ship Beaver, the same vessel which had conveyed him to America.

Selyns remained unsettled for two years and, in 1666, took charge of the congregation of Waverveen, near Utrecht, a rural village of no fame. In 1675, he became a chaplain in the army of the States; but with the exception of this temporary office, he passed the next 16 years of his life in obscurity at Waverveen, usefully and even contentedly employed.

In 1670, upon the death of Rev. Johannes Megapolensis of New York, Selyns declined a call from that church to become associated with Rev. Mr. Samuel Drisius in its charge. The Rev. William Nieuwenhuysen took the place Selyns declined but, subsequently, upon the death of both Nieuwenhuysen and Drisius, the call was so urgently renewed to Selyns that he accepted and again left his native land to spend, as it proved, the remainder of his life in America. He arrived at New York in the summer of 1682, and was received "by the whole congregation with great affection and joy."

But the church to which he returned was not the one he had left. During his absence in Holland, the political and ecclesiastical relations of the province had entirely changed. British rule, while it allowed the Dutch to enjoy liberty of conscience in divine worship and church discipline, gave no legal sanction to the special authority of the Classis of Amsterdam, the Dutch Church's governing body, over the churches of the Reformed Dutch faith. Just as in his earlier tenure, Rev. Selyns would still be under the control of the English government.

Dominie Selyns was, however, on terms of friendship with the heads of the government and his colleagues in the other churches in New York and in correspondence with distinguished men in the neighboring colonies. He was probably known to the ministers at Boston at the time of his first residence in New Netherland, as among his poems one in Latin, upon some verses addressed by the Rev. John Wilson, the first minister of Boston, to Gov. Stuyvesant.

Trouble came to Dominie Selyns with the revolutionary outbreak which placed Jacob Leisler at the head of the government. It was natural that Selyns, as well as the other ministers, should look upon Leisler as a usurper, and that they should throw all the weight of their influence against him and his party. But they committed the error of continuing their opposition to Leisler after his power had been fully established, thus themselves becoming traitors to the government.

And Leisler fully took his revenge.  One Reformed Dutch minister barely escaped to Boston; one was massacred at Schenectedy in February 1690; another was imprisoned, tried, convicted of treason, and sentenced to be deposed from his ministerial functions;still another, the pastor at Kingston, had been previously stripped of his position. So in effect, Selyns was--for a considerable time--the only Dutch clergyman on duty in the province.

Dominie Selyns "had committed no overt act, rendering himself amenable to the law; but he was in such close communication and sympathy with the leaders of the opposition that he was constantly watched. He was suspected of concealing Bayard, and his house was searched by public officers, for the purpose of discovering him. His service in church--of which Leisler was a member--was interrupted by Leisler himself, who there threatened openly to silence him. His letters to Holland and elsewhere were stopped in transit and opened by order of the government...."

His own continued opposition to Leisler, though taking a mild form, led to a serious rift with his congregation. Rev. Selyns preached a pointed sermon against Leisler, who by this time, was languishing in prison and being persecuted by political authorities. In short order the congregation let Selyns know in no uncertain terms what it thought of its pastor: they refused to pay his salary and, under fresh provocation, continued to withhold his salary for several years.

He appealed to the Classis to interfere and even sought the mandate of King William, supposing that, as a Dutchman, the King could be induced by the ecclesiastical authorities at Amsterdam to compel the payment of Selyns' arrears. He intimated that he would, in consequence of withholding the salary, be forced to give up his ministry and return to Holland. The Classis, in a proper spirit, advised him "to pacify and win back the alienated hearts of his flock, and to suffer and forget all in love." Eventually, Rev. Selyns and the congregation made peace.

Upon the death of his first wife, in 1686, he married the widow of Cornelius Steenwyck, Margaretta de Riemer, whom he himself describes as "rich in temporal goods, but richer in spiritual." This lady survived him by several years. Of his daughter no trace can be found; but from all omission of her name in his will, it may be inferred she died while he was in Holland.

The great object of Selyns' labors, during the later years of his life, was the establishment of the freedoms of his church by securing of a royal charter confirming its rights and privileges. This was finally accomplished on 11 May 1696 by a charter under the royal seal for the Reformed Protestant Dutch church in the city of New York, which is still in full force, and was virtually the charter of the Low Dutch Church in America.

During the years of his ministry, the church had increased from 450 to 650 members and in 1699, an assistant was finally appointed to work with him.  In July 1701, Rev. Henricus Selyns died at New York, in his 65th year.

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