Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Nicholas and the Apocalypse

The second post in a series on Nicholas van Rensselaer...

When last we left our intrepid hero, Nicholas Van Rensselaer, he was just stepping off the boat at Albany in 1675. He had gone from being the black sheep of his family to being the director of the family's great holdings in the new world and an ordained Anglican minister. He was destined to have only three years to enjoy these titles.

But let's take a step back. Nicholas had attained all of this by making the correct prediction that Charles II would regain the throne of England. But Nicholas had made a second prediction at the time which had garnered him even more attention. Nicholas had predicted that either Charles or his son would be the one to lead the Jews to Christianity.

By our standards this is an odd, even offensive, prediction. But at the time, it had a specific apocalyptic meaning. It was widely believed that the Second Coming would be signaled by events in the world, and one of the foremost of those would be the mass conversions of the “heathens”. Nicholas had essentially predicted that either Charles II or his successor James II would bring about the beginning of the End Times and the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Not that is was an uncommon prediction. Apocalypticism was always just beneath the surface in that time, and several others had made similar predictions about Charles or his line. But Nicholas' paired predictions, with the first having come true and the second being so portentous, made him a prophet to watch.

Of course, there was some bitter irony to his prediction. The return of Charles II – called the Stuart Restoration - put an end to a rich stream of apocalyptic speculation centered on the Commonwealth and Oliver Cromwell. With their hopes crushed, many Puritans fled to Holland or New England. Others would follow as Charles applied pressure to the church, including the Rev. John Livingston in 1663, fleeing to Rotterdam with a nine-year-old Robert in tow. It's notable that there were enough expatriates there that the Reverend was quickly able to resume his role as pastor.

But for all that, Nicholas had inadvertently allied himself with a different stream of speculation. There was a popular theory making the rounds in America that the Native Americans were actually descendants of the Jews. This theory – which lived long enough for Joesph Smith to pick it up in 1830 – was popularized by a missionary named Thomas Thorowgood in a pamphlet entitled Jews in America. In the introduction to the second edition of the pamphlet, published in 1660, some of Thorowgood's followers make a direct connection between their missionary work and Nicholas' prediction.

Nicholas was also publishing some pamphlets of his own. Around 1665-1666, a time of increasing apocalyptic foment, some of his predictions were published in a series of pamphlets. Mostly these were typical prophetic utterances, promising decline or destruction for nations that did not repent from their sinful ways. These pamphlets were in his native Dutch, and focus on the social and political situations of Amsterdam, which Nicholas compares to Jerusalem.

While this materials seems to have been popular in his native land, little of this popularity seems to have crossed the Atlantic. Nicholas' odd status as Anglican minister and visionary put him at odds with the Dutch Reformed churches in the region. The influence of the British monarchy got Nicholas a position in the Albany church, but there were immediate objections from the existing minister. At one point, Nicholas even found himself confined to his house because of a controversial sermon he delivered on the nature of original sin.

Nicholas was finally removed from the ministry by Governor Andros in 1677, an inglorious ending to his bizarre religious career. But Nicholas had one prediction left in him. A year later, as he was dying of some unknown cause, his young secretary rushed to be by his side. According to legend, Nicholas ordered him to be removed from the room, declaring that this young man would marry his widow. Sure enough, the young Robert Livingston would marry Alida Schuyler Van Rensselaer within a year of Nicholas' death.

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