This Day in Jewish History / Jews Struggle to Settle in the New World

In 1655, a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church in New Amsterdam tried and failed to keep Jews out of the "the colony that would later become New York.

On March 18, 1655, Johannes Megapolensis, a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church living in New Amsterdam, wrote to the senior leadership of the church asking them to prevail upon the Dutch West India Company to prevent Jews – “these godless rascals” -- from settling in the colony.

A half year earlier, on September 7, 1654, Megapolensis had joined Pieter Stuyvesant, the colony’s governor, on the docks as the ship the St. Catherine arrived, carrying, among others, 23 Jewish refugees from the former Dutch colony of Recife, in Brazil. They had left Brazil when it was reconquered by the Portuguese. Stuyvesant and Megapolensis tried to stop the Jews from disembarking from the vessel. Stuvyesant also wrote to his superiors at the West India Company asking what to do with the newly arrived Jews, whom he described as a “deceitful race” whose members practiced an “abominable religion.”

The directors of the company, some of whose investors included Jews, wrote back, in early 1655, instructing Stuyvesant to allow the Jews to remain. Objectionable as they were, the Jews should be permitted to “quietly and peacefully carry on their business … and exercise their religion within their houses.” At the same time, it declared that the Jews would be responsible for their own poor, and would receive no assistance from either the company or the colony.

When Dominie (a clerical title in the church) Megapolensis made his written appeal to his superiors, a month after Stuyvesant had received his response, he claimed that the Jews who had arrived the preceding summer had in fact become wards of the community, and that his institution had already “had to spend several hundred guilders for their support.” Megapolensis – who had arrived in the New World in 1642, and had distinguished himself as a missionary to the Mohawk Indians of New York, preaching to them in their own language – went on to describe his unpleasant encounter with some of his Jewish neighbors: “They came several times to my house, weeping and bemoaning their misery. When I directed them to the Jewish merchant [apparently Jacob Barsimson, a Dutch Jew who had arrived in New Amsterdam in August 1654, and is widely recognized as the colony’s first Jew], they said, that he would not lend them a single stiver.”

The minister expressed his concern that more of their co-religionists were on the way to New Amsterdam, and that this had caused “a great deal of complaint and murmuring” among his congregants. “These people” – that is, the Jews -- “have no other God than the Mammon of unrighteousness, and no other aim than to get possession of Christian property, and to overcome all other merchants by drawing all trade towards themselves.”

Considering that the colony already had to contend with the presence of “Papists, Mennonites and Lutherans … also many Puritans or Independents, and many atheists and various other servants of Baal among the English under this Government, who conceal themselves under the name of Christians,” argued Megapolensis, having the additional presence of Jews would be a source of “still greater confusion.” For that reason, he requested from “your Reverences to obtain from the Lords Directors that these godless rascals, who are of no benefit to the country, but look at everything for their own profit, may be sent away from here.”

In fact, the Jews were not expelled from New Amsterdam, although they had to contend with – and they often challenged in court – a number of restrictions concocted by Governor Stuyvesant. But the Jews fared better than other objectionable religious groups, such as Quakers and Lutherans, whom Stuyvesant expelled without requesting permission from Amsterdam. And as early as 1655, the Jews of the colony asked for and were granted permission to establish a cemetery there, a major step in making their presence permanent.

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