For eight days in January, I had the pleasure to spend time with a group of students on the beautiful island of Curacao, which is part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. As part of our trip, we had the privilege of worshiping in an 18th-century church in the Otrabanda sector of Willemstad. Though Curaçao is part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the historic church we worshiped at was the Basilica of St. Anne, a Roman Catholic Church. In learning about the history and culture of Curaçao, my students and I found that the majority of Curacoan Christians are Roman Catholic. I was surprised by the lack of Black and Reformed people in Curaçao, which led to two questions: What has been the legacy of the Reformed Church among Black people in the Americas? Is it vibrant among Black people in other sections of the Dutch Caribbean? Answering these questions requires historical context. According to the history, the Reformed Church has had a less than significant impact on Black people in the Americas.
THE DUTCH ARE COMING!
During the 1500s Protestantism migrated to the Netherlands in two streams: first, a Lutheran stream during the 1520s, and second, a Reformed stream very closely following. It would be the latter that would take root and spread. By the 1560s the majority of Dutch-speakers were Reformed. Spain, who ruled the Netherlands at this time, attempted to suppress Reformed worship among Dutch-speakers, by oppressing people with hiked taxes. These acts sparked riots. The Spanish king, Philip, sent 20,000 Spanish troops to quell the uprising and from 1568-1578, civil war ensued in the Netherlands between Reformed and Catholics. The result of this war was the independence of seven northern provinces in 1581, which became the Union of Utrecht. In 1609, Spain recognized its independence.
As the Dutch Reformed Church solidified itself, the Dutch became a viable global commercial nation. They began to engage in slave trading in Africa and also established colonies in the Americas. Dutch involvement in the slave trade and slavery in the Americas were generally sanctioned by a majority of Reformed theologians. They asserted that Dutch merchants could purchase Africans and that Dutch-speaking persons could hold slaves owing to the “Curse of Ham,” which falsely claimed that the Divine had cursed African peoples to be slaves for Europeans. So the Dutch in the 17th century had both the economic motivation and the theological support to trade in slaves and to create slave societies in the Americas.
Here in New Amsterdam enslaved men and women saw the promise of freedom in baptism for them and for their children, but ministerial power stole that promise.
The Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (modern day New York) legalized slavery in 1626. In that same year, the Dutch West India Company imported enslaved Africans to help build the infrastructure of the colony. Taking the company’s lead, Dutch-speaking colonists purchased enslaved Africans from Dutch slave traders who landed in New Amsterdam. As the numbers of enslaved Africans working in Dutch households and farms began to increase, the Dutch Reformed Church insisted that slaveholders should seek the salvation of their enslaved Africans. These slaveholders catechized their bonds persons, and some of the latter became communicant members of Dutch Reformed congregations. Owing to this new status, enslaved Africans could marry under the sanction of the church, and present their children for baptism.
Church membership afforded these enslaved persons a special status among other enslaved persons in New Amsterdam; yet, there is no evidence that this led to freedom. In fact, historian Edgar McManus in his 1966 A History of Negro Slavery in New York stated that Reformed ministers would refuse baptism to enslaved Africans if they sought it to gain freedom. According to the Ecclesiastical Records of New York, enslaved Africans sought baptism to gain freedom. This may be a slight exaggeration, but enslaved persons realized that baptism meant Christianization and that Christianization meant freedom as they noticed that Dutch people only enslaved Africans. Owing to this realization, unbaptized enslaved Africans brought their children to the baptismal font, but, again, the ministers refused based on the fact that the parents had to be communicant members of the church. Here in New Amsterdam enslaved men and women saw the promise of freedom in baptism for them and for their children, but ministerial power stole that promise. If there was no possibility of freedom through baptism and church membership, there was little incentive for enslaved Africans to seek only spiritual salvation offered in Dutch Reformed churches.
Because many of the islands the Dutch colonized in the 17th century had been controlled by other countries previously, the Reformed Church was too late to reap a good harvest among enslaved Africans already present on these islands. In Curaçao, for example, the Spanish had administered the island since 1499. Because of that, Roman Catholicism became the official church on the island. By the time the Dutch colonized the island in 1634 much of the enslaved population had become Roman Catholic. A similar story holds on the other Dutch Caribbean islands such as Bonaire, Aruba, St. Maarten, Saba, and St. Eustatius. At one time, Spain had laid claim to them except St. Eustatius; therefore, missionary priests had worked among the indigenous and enslaved persons. According to a 2002 report of the Worldwide Reformed Church, only two percent of the then Netherlands Antilles was Protestant. This low percentage suggests two things: first, the Dutch had little to no interest in evangelizing enslaved Africans; or, two Roman Catholicism was too entrenched on these islands among the enslaved population that there really was little possibility for the Dutch Reformed Church to gain proselytes or converts. Therefore, the average Christian in Curacao and all over the Caribbean portions of the Kingdom of the Netherlands is Catholic today.
Based on this brief history, the Dutch Reformed Church’s influence among Black people in the Americas, whether in the colonial past or at present, had been slight. Though New Amsterdam was more of a settler society with Dutch people living and working in that colony, the Dutch Reformed Church failed to draw good numbers of enslaved Africans. One main reason was that Dutch Reformed ministers perceived that some of the enslaved sought baptism as a means to receive their own freedom or that of their children. In the Caribbean, the Dutch Reformed Church was one of many churches for the enslaved to choose. In most of the islands, the Dutch entered after the Roman Catholic Church or even the Anglican Church. The Dutch felt no need to supplant these churches. That legacy is apparent today.