clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A 19th-century Brooklyn church plays witness to a changing borough

New, 3 comments

The Flatlands Dutch Reformed Church has been a borough staple since the 17th century

At first glance, the intersection of Flatbush Avenue and Kings Highway is fairly non-descript. Aside from the ever-present congestion, this vista is fairly typical of south Brooklyn: prominent thoroughfare, local business district, brick apartment buildings and houses developed from the early- to mid-20th century. But a short walk east along Kings Highway reveals the Flatlands Dutch Reformed Church and historic graveyard, a remnant from the area’s early Dutch colonial history.

The Flatlands Dutch Reformed Church, along with the Flatbush Reformed Church and the Old First Reformed Church in Park Slope, was established in 1654 by the order of Peter Stuyvesant, the Director General of the colony of New Netherland. The Reverend Johannes Megapolensis was selected by Stuyvesant to be the chief minister of the Dutch church in New Amsterdam. Prior to this position, he was a missionary to the Mohawk Indians in Fort Orange (present-day Albany). In fact, some research credits him as being the very first Protestant missionary to the Native Americans. He became fluent in the Mohawk language and authored A Short Account of the Mohawk Indians, their Country, Language, Figure, Costume, Religion, and Government, which was based on correspondence written to friends in the Netherlands describing his experience with the tribe.

After his missionary work he had planned to return to the Netherlands, but Stuyvesant requested he relocate to New Amsterdam (present-day New York City) to serve as head of the church. Years later, "he was among those who counselled Governor Stuyvesant in the surrender of New Netherland to the English in 1664. Like many successful Dutch colonists, he subsequently took the oath of allegiance to the Duke of York." As a result, he remained in New York and was active in helping to "establish the rights of the Reformed Church under English rule."

This historic congregation has always worshipped on this present-day site, though within three separate church buildings. The first, octagon-shaped building was erected in 1663 and was covered in shingles; it was replaced in 1794 with the second building. And the third, present-day structure was built in 1848. The Greek Revival church building has a stone foundation and features white clapboard siding, multi-paned windows, and a tall steeple. According to, the church bell, which weighs more than 450 pounds and replaced an earlier, smaller bell originally from the Netherlands, has particular historic significance: it has been rung to mark the death of every President since George Washington as well as "rang to mark the signing of various peace treaties and the close of every war the nation fought following the Revolutionary War." The churchyard also features an administration building that was built in 1904 and enlarged during the 1920s.

However, the site’s history is not just within its built structure, but also on—and underneath—its grounds. Within the churchyard is a cemetery, containing 1,500 burials dating back to 1660. It is the eternal resting place of local residents of the time who bear Dutch names that are now synonymous with Brooklyn streets and historic homesteads: Lott, Voorhees, Sprong, Schenck, Kouwenhoven, Wyckoff. According to the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission designation report, one resident is Reverend Ulpianus Van Sinderen, "the outspoken Revolutionary War minister known as ‘The Rebel Parson’" and "beneath the pulpit lie the remains of Pieter Claesen Wyckoff", who helped to establish the church.

History and architecture lovers alike are fortunate that this building still stands; it was struck by lightning in 1952 (causing minimal damage) but a fire in 1974 destroyed much of the its interior. The church was heavily restored in 1997. This building’s designation report from 1966 states the following regarding this site: "the whole presents a living image of rural worship of a type which has all but disappeared from the City"—and 50 years later, this statement still rings true.