A Brief History of the Old Dutch Church

Tradition says that after the wealthy Dutch merchant Frederick Philipse built his grist mill in the Pocantico Valley, probably about 1683, he sent his workers to a nearby hillside to build a church for the tenant farmers he hoped to attract to the area to grow wheat. But while the workers were laying the church foundation, floods damaged the dam for the gristmill. Philipse withdrew his workers from the church to repair the dam. Then another flood came and the fast-flowing waters broke through again. Repairs began again. One day an enslaved African told his master about a recurring dream he'd had. In the dream God told the slave to tell Philipse to complete the church and the dam would hold. Philipse immediately sent his workers back to work on the church. And, as the legend goes, the next time the dam was repaired it held as long as the mill was in use. 

Legend or fact? We don’t know the answer to that. But there is strong evidence that the church building was completed by 1685. That is the date on the sturdy little bell that was cast in Amsterdam and still hangs in the belfry today. Richly decorated with eagles, owls and dolphins, it bears the comforting inscription, “Si Deus pro nobis quis contra nos” (If God be for us, who can be against us?” Romans 8:31).

The First 100 Years

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Philipse built his church on a grassy knoll about 200 yards from his manor house and gristmill, on a site long used as a burial ground. Constructed of fieldstone, local timber and flat, yellow bricks from Holland, the church is simple in architecture: octagonal at one end, with a Dutch gambrel roof and a belfry. The white-washed walls were fortress-like—more than two feet thick. Small, rectangular windows were placed high in the walls.

Inside is a wooden pedestal pulpit with a sounding board overhead. In the early days, two comfortable chairs or “thrones” for the Philipses’ sat on either side of the pulpit, reserved for the Philipses. In front of the pulpit stood a heavy black oak communion table made in Holland and inlaid with ebony . During communion, silver beakers inscribed with the lord and lady’s names were placed on the table. The original table is still in the church. The first congregation of about 75 people sat on backless oak benches underneath two large beams traversing the width of the ceiling. An L-shaped balcony ran the width of the church along the west wall and partway along the north side.

When the congregation was officially organized in 1697, its first pastoral call went out to Dominie Guiliam Bertholf, a well-known Dutch Reformed minister. He consented to come over three or four times a year from his home in Hackensack to preach and administer the sacraments. The rest of the year, services were led by lay clergy.

Philipse died in 1702. His second wife, Catherine van Cortlandt, willed the communion table, silver beakers and a silver baptismal bowl to the congregation upon her death in 1730. The lord and lady are buried along with about 14 family members in a crypt beneath the communion table.

War Ends and the State Grants Title

The church continued in the hands of the Philipse family until the Revolutionary War. Since it was located between the American and British lines, and the local tenant farmers—mostly patriots—were subject to raids from the British in New York City, regular services were interrupted during the Revolution for the only period in the church’s history. Yet the congregation continued to exist.

In 1779 the New York Legislature accused Frederick Philipse III of treason because he had chosen the British side. The third lord soon fled to England, and his Manor was confiscated. In 1785 his property was sold at public auction, but the State conveyed the church and graveyard to trustees to be held for the congregation. In 1787, the Commissioners of Forfeiture of the State of New York granted title to the property to the “Ministers, Elders, and Deacons,” who remain the legal owners.

rctThe Congregation Grows; An Amicable Parting

The year 1837 brought major changes. The congregation built a larger house of worship, a Greek Revival-styloe building, later called Second Reformed Church, in Tarrytown proper to meet the needs of the expanding village. It was served by the Pastor of the old church. In the same year, during the worst financial panic the country had yet seen, the membership raised another $2,000 to repair the Old Dutch Church, which had been damaged by fire and decay. The old pulpit. sounding board, and north gallery were removed; the door was moved from the south to the west side; the present backed pews and a new pulpit were installed; six large neo-Gothic glass windows were put in; the ceiling and inside walls were plastered. Most of these changes are visible today.

In 1851 the "southern" group parted amicably from the "northern" to form the independent Second Reformed Church. Members of the old church continued the organization, taking the name First Reformed Protestant Dutch Church of Tarrytown and in 1854 moved into a gothic-style new building on Broadway and Beekman in what later became North Tarrytown (and is now named Sleepy Hollow). Old Dutch was used for summer services and special occasions, such as Christmas, Easter, and for weddings, memorial services and concerts.

On May 5, 1991, The Reformed Church of the Tarrytowns formally came into existence, reuniting First and Second Reformed Churches. The 2nd Reformed building was retained for worship services in fall, winter and spring, with summer services held in the historic Old Dutch Church. Christmas Eve and Easter services are also held at the Old Dutch.

A Major Landmark and Still a Worship Center

The Old Dutch Church has been designated a Registered National Historic Landmark since 1961. As such, Old Dutch officially has been judged to be of national significance.The true significance of the Old Dutch Church derives from a combination of factors, old and new, spiritual and cultural, national and local. One of the oldest churches in America, it continues today as a Protestant house of worship for a congregation that takes as its motto the inscription on the 326-year-old bell: "lf God be for us, who can be against us?"

Through special community services on religious holidays, Old Dutch provides a place of fellowship among local residents and strengthens community identity. Because of its prominence in Irving's ''The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," it is a central monument of the Sleepy Hollow locale. Imagine what the Hudson region and the nation would be like without the Old Dutch Church, and you have the best measure of its religious, historical, and cultural importance. By Rich Hessney, with additions