Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Nicholas the Prophet

Joshua Hauck-Whealton is a curatorial intern at Clermont State Historic Site. His prior research into the Livingston family and other prominent New Yorkers gives him some additional perspective on the Livingston's early days in America.

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

Of all the characters that pass across our stage, none have quite the same level of oddness as Nicholas Van Rensselaer (1636-1678). It's a shame that he remains merely a footnote on our tour - “Nicholas – First husband of Alida Schuyler Livingston.” His impact on the colony of New York is profound but indirect. However, you have to know his story before you can understand the outcome.

Nicholas was clearly the black sheep of the Van Rensselaer family. Unlike his father - Kiliaen, the first patroon (1596-1640s) - or his siblings - including Jeremias, the fourth Patroon (1632-1674) - Nicholas had no head for business. What's more, he had no interest in it, though that didn't stop him from racking up a huge amount of debt.

What he did have was religion. Which would have been acceptable, if it were the pious, straight-laced Dutch Reformed Christianity of his family. But instead Nicholas was a mystic; he had visions, he spoke of receiving messages from a "spirit of truth", he prophesied.

He wrote several books on religion that his family considered "nothing but foolishness." They thought him crazy. They thought him a Quaker. To them, these seemed to mean the same thing. At one point, the Van Rensselaer family went so far as to have Nicholas confined for his apparent insanity.

Life turned around for Nicholas when one of his prophecies came true in a big way. Nicholas had somehow escaped his family and gone to Antwerp in 1658. There he met Charles II, King of Scotland and once the King of England, now in exile following the Glorious Revolution.

In Antwerp Nicholas apparently had another of his visions. He gave Charles II the good news: he would soon be restored to his throne. There's no record of exactly what was said or how the King responded, but it's hard to imagine the King being all that impressed with this odd merchant's son from Amsterdam.

That is, until a year and a half later when the English Parliament invited Charles back to England and reinstated him as monarch. The seemingly impossible had happened, and suddenly word was starting to spread about Nicholas' prediction. Charles II rewarded Nicholas with patronage, and Nicholas picked up unofficial title of “prophet to the King of England.”

Among the rewards that Charles II granted Nicholas was the official title of an Anglican minister. So here we have Nicholas, raised as a Dutch protestant, possessing "Quaker" traits, and now an Anglican minister. This confusing situation would come back to haunt Nicholas during his time as a minister in New York.

The Van Rensselaer family suddenly found themselves with a dilemma. While it's possible that they had reconsidered their earlier opinion of Nicholas, that seems unlikely. More probably, they were still embarrassed by their errant son and his odd ways. But now that he had the ear of Charles II, things would have to be different.

The Van Rensselaers wanted a few things from the new English monarch. First, they wanted some kind of assurance that Rensselaerwyck wouldn't be taken way from them by the British governors. Next, they really wanted to regain the sort of control over the inhabitants of Rensselaerwyck that they'd enjoyed before the British took over, and being given English-style manorial rights over the property would be just the thing. Finally, they really really wanted control of Albany, which was the center of the waning but still profitable fur trade.

And so, in 1675, Nicholas stepped off the ship in Albany. Over the protests of the Albany branch of the Rensselaer family, Nicholas was made director of Rensselaerwyck following the death of his brother. He also carried a letter from the Duke of York appointing him a minister of the Albany Dutch Reformed Church. And very likely he carried instructions from his family to use his influence with his new friend to secure Rensselaerwyck and Albany.

1 comment:

  1. Just one minor quibble:

    "There he met Charles II, King of Scotland and once the King of England, now in exile following the Glorious Revolution."

    The exile of Charles II was a result of the English Civil War. The Glorious Revolution didn't take place until 30 years afterwards, 1688/89, when William and Mary deposed James II.