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Stephen Staggs: Members Only: White Supremacy and the Founding of Erasmus Hall Academy

This talk explores the ways in which ideologies of race shaped ideas of membership in late eighteenth-century Dutch Reformed institutions. In 1786 two members of the Dutch Reformed Church, Senator John Vanderbilt and Reverend John Henry Livingston, founded the first secondary school chartered by the New York State Regents. The members of the Flatbush Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) donated land for the school building while the wealthiest and most powerful citizens of New York—including Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, Peter Lefferts, and Robert Livingston—made financial contributions. In the end, the founders chose to name their private school after Desiderius Erasmus, the sixteenth-century humanist theologian and scholar born in the Burgundian Netherlands. 

Two short years after the founding of Erasmus Hall, baptized “Negro” men petitioned to become members of the Flatbush DRC. Their petitions forced Flatbush pastor Peter Lowe, the members of the congregation, and the denomination as a whole to re-address the relationship between African Americans and full communion in the church and its schools. However, many pastors and members of Dutch Reformed congregations claimed Black people as property. It may come as no surprise, then, that the majority opposed African-American membership in both their churches and schools. In so doing, they poured white supremacy into the very foundations of their institutions.

This event counts as a CCPD activity for Calvin faculty and staff.

About the Speaker

Stephen Staggs teaches in Calvin's History department. His research interests include Early Modern Europe, with a particular focus on the Low Countries, and Colonial North America with an emphasis on Native American history and ethnohistory. A former high school teacher, Dr. Staggs also has an interest in pedagogy for teachers of history. He is currently conducting archival research in Michigan, New York, and New Jersey for a new project funded by the Louisville Institute, a Calvin Research Fellowship, and Frederik Meijer Chair in Dutch Language & Culture: "Members Only: Race & Religion in the Dutch Reformed Church in America, 1772-1827."

This talk is part of history colloquia series. These lectures are open to the Calvin community - students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends - and all are welcomed and encouraged to attend. Come early to enjoy refreshments and conversation, and feel free to ask questions or join the discussion at the end.


October 2019
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