Sunday, September 9, 2012

Rev. Johann Polhemus' deadly scrapes

© 2012 Christy K Robinson

He survived war, bubonic plague, trans-Atlantic travel, 20 years in the equatorial rainforest, two pirate attacks, two years' separation from his wife and children, and he was the first minister of the first Dutch church on Long Island.

Johann Theodorus Polhemus (or Polheim), born in 1598 near Wolfstein, Bavaria, was a Protestant minister who trained at Heidelberg University and ministered as a young man in or near his native town. The Spanish (Catholics) besieged and then held the Bavarian Palatinate (Protestant Calvinists) where Johann’s family lived during the 1620s. A woodcut of the era shows Protestants being hanged in their shirts and underpants by Catholics (note the priests), with their uniforms, boots, and hats heaped on the ground.

Johann married in the 1620s, and his first wife bore him a daughter, who was baptized in the Netherlands in 1629. Nothing more is known of the mother or baby; they could have died of childbirth complications, or perhaps contracted the bubonic plague, which was spread by troop and refugee movements. The plague flared across central Europe during the Thirty Years War, and hopped the Channel to Britain, as well. Plague killed 30,000 Londoners in 1630, and thousands more across the country, but it was much worse on the Continent.

Rev. Polhemus, now a widower, returned briefly to minister in Bavaria, before accepting an assignment by the Dutch West Indies Company, to minister to Recife or Itamarac√°, on the easternmost cape of equatorial Brazil. He was aged 37 when he moved to South America in January 1635 as minister to the sugar planters, traders, and Dutch military forts there. 

The Dutch West Indies Company (WIC) set up company towns in Brazil, New Netherland (New York/New Jersey), and of course in the Caribbean. These were settlements primarily for farming, development, and trade for profit, and the territories were owned by the company. The governors were administrators of the business of the WIC, and the pastors, like Polhemus, were meant to minister to the employees of the WIC. Polhemus wasn't "called" by a congregation, but sent by the company who employed him.

Johann Polhemus' important locations:
A. Amsterdam, Netherlands
B. Recife, Brazil
C. Flatbush, Brooklyn, New York
At this time, and throughout the 1600s and 1700s, civilizations all over the world were experiencing the worst effects of the Little Ice Age, when seaports froze and extreme weather caused famine and then disease. It must have been an absolute shock to Johann's system to end up in the tropical rainforest eight degrees south of the equator!

The 17th century was a bloody era. With Spain at war with the Netherlands, thousands of people emigrated from Europe to North and South America. Spain and Portugal were under a united reign until 1640, and ruled Brazil; the Dutch invaded and took over the Recife region for several decades, but the area was far from peaceful. European wars and repression followed refugees to the New World. The Dutch were well known for religious tolerance, and they allowed Jewish refugees from Inquisition Spain and Portugal to practice their faith and culture as they wished, both in European Netherlands and in New Holland, Brazil (not as much in American Dutch settlements). After the Dutch governor was recalled by the WIC board in 1643, Portuguese planters organized a revolt against the Dutch and took control of the plantations and colonies.
Portrait of a Scholar, 1631, by Rembrandt.
This could be how a Dutch minister dressed.

Rev. Polhemus probably didn't wear velvet and lace
in the tropics, though!

In 1643, the 45-year-old Johann Polhemus married 19-year-old Catherina Van Werven, a Dutch woman living in Recife, Brazil. (Her father was Johann’s age.) She bore four children to Johann at their home on the island of Itamarac√°, between 1644 and 1649. Then there was an 11-year gap before she had three more children. Perhaps she miscarried several times in the 1650s; in addition, she and her husband were separated by economic circumstances, she in Amsterdam and he on Long Island, for two and a half years. The last three children were born a year apart in Brooklyn, New Netherland.

Johann preached in Dutch, French and Portuguese while in Brazil; he also knew German and Latin, and probably other languages.

In December 1653, the Dutch lost Itamarac√°, and the next month they surrendered Recife to Portuguese domination. In January 1654, they’d been given three months to convert to Catholicism and become Portuguese citizens—or leave. Mevrouw (Mrs/Mme) Catherina Polhemus and the little children sailed for the safety of Amsterdam, to collect on Johann’s overdue wages from the Dutch West Indies Company. (Perhaps her father took her there and she lived with him.) Reports there said that “She is a very worthy matron, has great desire to be [with] her husband, and has struggled along here in poverty and great straits, always conducting herself modestly and piously.” I suppose the reference to poverty means she was unsuccessful in her quest to collect wages from the WIC.

Johann Polhemus and the company of Portuguese Jews were
detoured by pirates twice on their journey from Recife to Brooklyn.
 At the same time, Johann Polhemus sailed on a Dutch trader bound for New Netherland (New York), to minister to the Dutch people on Long Island. However, as the ship sailed up the coast of Brazil, or along the Caribbean windward islands, a Spanish privateer (a pirate with licensed wartime powers from his government) took the Dutch ship, its sugar cargo, crew and passengers and their freight, captive to the Cape Verde Islands, off Mauritania in Africa! It’s unknown how long Rev. Polhemus was held for ransom or when he was released, but when he resumed his journey, the ship that carried him and 23 Portuguese/Brazilian Jews was again pirated by a French man-o-war, the St. Charles, which arrived at New Amsterdam in September 1654, four to five months after the refugees’ departure from Brazil. In a September 1654 lawsuit, the French captain sued the Jewish refugees for their "passage" on his ship, but Dominie [Master] Polhemus and other Dutch passengers had already paid their ransom. 

One genealogical website writes that 
“The Dutch dominie [Johann Polhemus or a colleague] complained to the authorities in Holland, asking them not to permit any more Jews to come to the New Netherlands as there was plenty of trouble already with the Quakers, Mennonites, and Catholics. Governor Stuyvesant was told by the Dutch West India Company to leave religious issues alone and to permit the Jewish emigrants to trade in furs in any part of his province, provided they looked after their own people.”
That's very interesting to me because if it was Johann Polhemus, the founding pastor of three Dutch Reformed churches on western Long Island (why not--he wrote other letters to the WIC and church leaders in Amsterdam), his grandmother's maiden name was Hammerstein. Perhaps her family was from the nearby community of Hammerstein Castle. Many Jews have that place name for a surname, too. Did the town give its name to Jewish families later, or did it take its name from them? At the time, Jews didn't usually use surnames, but patronymics, like the Scandinavians: Per Svensson (Peter son of Sven). Jews often used Isaac ben Avram or David ben Jakub--or they used a place name.

The Long Island town where Johann was installed as minister was called Midwout, but is now known as Flatbush, Brooklyn. Johann was the first minister of Flatbush's, Flatlands/Amersfort's, and Brooklyn's first Dutch Reform churches. Dutch Reform beliefs were Calvinist, which (in broad terms) held that the faithful person showed he was part of those predestined to be saved to eternal life, by perfectly keeping God's law. Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians were also Calvinist.
Rev. Polhemus' parishes are at the left (west) side of Long Island
on this 1660 map..

Director-General Pieter Stuyvesant, an employee of the Dutch West Indies Company, ordered the Flatbush church to be built so the residents wouldn't have to travel to Manhattan for religious services, and the structure was finished by about 1658. From Johann's letters, it looks like the Dutch WIC loaned the congregation the construction funds, but they paid it back in church tithes and taxes before 1663. The church was 60 or 65 feet long, 28 feet broad, from 12 to 14 feet under the beams, and built in the form of a cross. The minister's dwelling was at the rear of the church. The Flatlands and Brooklyn Dutch Reform churches were organized and built a few years later, and were also Polhemus’ congregations.

Apparently, clergy and missionaries, both ancient and modern, have entered their profession or answered the gospel commission for the promise of eternal reward--not to get rich in this life! Johann couldn’t afford to bring Catherina and children to America for two years. They arrived in September 1656. In 1658, he wrote to his ministerial governing board in the Netherlands.

Rev. Johann Theodorus Polhemus to the Classis of Amsterdam.

Reverend, Very Learned, Most Pious Gentlemen, the Ministers of the Classis of Amsterdam:
Tendering to you my fraternal and respectful salutations, I would express my affectionate regards, with thankfulness to God. I still continue in the discharge of my appropriate duties, seeking to build up the Church of Jesus Christ in this place. We daily trace and observe with increasing clearness, the blessing of the Lord, in the increase of members, and the prevailing good order. We hope you have received favorable reports and testimonies in relation to us. This will comfort me in my old age. I must also, through the advocacy of your Rev. body, secure the provision from the Hon. Company for the satisfaction of my salary yet remaining due for services in Brazil; and for the reunion and support of myself, wife and children. My salary in the new church here, is also so small that it will go a very little way. I cannot keep silent about it any longer. I commend your Rev. body in general, and each member in particular, to the blessing of Almighty God.
Given at Midwout [Flatbush] in New Netherland, June 4th, 1658.
Your Reverences much obliged brother,
J. T. Polhemus.

The Classis (a religious governing division of the Dutch West Indies Company) tossed the salary matter around for several years upon appeals from Polhemus and even Pieter Stuyvesant, but ultimately refused to pay the salary from 1654-1657, saying that Polhemus was no longer in their employ! Even so, Polhemus addressed his reports and letters to the Classis (who also ruled the New Netherland colony) just as he did the above letter: with respect. 

1660, Sept. 29th.
Rev.  J. T. Polhemus to the Classis of Amsterdam.
Rev., Very Learned and Pious Sirs, the Ministers of the Rev. Classis of Amsterdam: —
After offering you all, collectively and individually, my respectful salutations, I would inform you by this of my welfare. I still continue in the discharge of my duties, in my church at Midwout and Amersfort, in New Netherland. I regularly preach every Sunday morning at Midwout, and alternately at each place in the afternoons. I thank God who gives me strength and bestows his blessing upon me, and upon my brethren in the ministry in this country. If it please God to assist me, I shall continue in my work, faithfully performing my service according to the forms and customs of the parent church of the Netherlands. I remain meanwhile
Yours affectionately,

Johannes Th. Polhemus.
When Johann was 72 years old and still preaching part-time, Stuyvesant ordered "forebear ye taxing or levying any sum upon any parte of ye Estate of Domine Paulinus [Polhemus] your Minister until further order." His ministry was still a valuable service to the churches. He died at age 78 in the summer of 1676, when a fellow pastor wrote to the Classis, "The death of Domine Johannes Theodorus Polhemus, the aged minister in the churches of Breukelen, Midwout and New Amersfoort, all on Long Island, gives us occasion to trouble you again" for more pastors to be sent. The congregation had grown to more than 300 members (not counting attendees) during Polhemus' tenure. 
Polhemus Place street sign

Catherina Van Werven Polhemus lived until 1702. Johann and Catherina were buried in the churchyard at Flatbush, 890 Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn, New YorkThe site holds the record for the longest continual use by its congregation and is now listed as a New York City landmark. There are several streets named Polhemus in Brooklyn and Queens, in honor of Rev. Johann Polhemus. 

If you enjoyed this article, you'll probably enjoy the author's books, as well.
http://amzn.to/18zlbtt (Amazon author page)

Author of the books:
·          We Shall Be Changed (2010)
·          Mary Dyer Illuminated (2013)
·          Mary Dyer: For Such a Time as This (2014)
·          The Dyers of London, Boston, & Newport (2014)
·          Effigy Hunter (2015)
·          Anne Hutchinson, American Founding Mother (2018)

Johann and Catherina Polhemus are my ancestors, 11 generations back on my paternal lines. I descend through their eldest child, Adrianna, who was married to Jan Roelof Seibring in her father's church at Midwout/Flatbush.
Polhemus section of the author's pedigree. Click image to enlarge.