Close this window to return to the main menu

Previous Chapter        Next Chapter

With the establishment of Dutch colonies in Guyana, Christianity also took root since the Dutch setters and traders were also Christians. At first, the state-recognised church, the Dutch Reformed Church, was the only one granted permission to operate in the colonies. This church ministered only to the Dutch setters, and made almost no attempt to convert African slaves and Amerindians.

Naturally, there were some setters who did not believe in the teachings of this state church, but they kept their beliefs to themselves. Nevertheless, by law, all Dutch settlers had to subscribe to its financial upkeep. Even so, persons who were not members of the Dutch Reformed Church - such as Lutherans, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Roman Catholics and Jews - were, until the last half of the eighteenth century, prevented from holding any public office.

The West India Company encouraged Jews to settle in Essequibo, but the few who established plantations apparently treated their slaves badly, thus encouraging small slave rebellions. For this they earned the dislike of the other Dutch colonists who discouraged other Jews from settling in Guyana.

Among the early Dutch settlers in Essequibo and Berbice there were no organised churches established for quite a while. Despite the authorities' preference for the Dutch Reformed Church, persons holding other Christian religious beliefs were allowed to settle in the colonies and establish plantations. These included mainly Lutherans, Presbyterians and Anglicans. The Anglicans were mainly English settlers who migrated from the West Indian islands.

Permission to build Catholic churches was not granted until the eighteenth century. The Dutch authorities, particularly in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, were distrustful of Catholics whose loyalty they felt was in doubt since Catholic Spain was the enemy of the Protestant Netherlands. Further, the Spanish presence in territory just west of Guyana also influenced the Dutch decision.

In addition, it was difficult to find clergymen to serve in Essequibo and Berbice. It was not until 1688 that the first clergyman of the Dutch Reformed Church, Rudolph Deynes, arrived to minister to the settlers in Essequibo. He did not remain for long, and others were appointed in quick succession. In 1730, Herbertus Gravenbroek was appointed to the position and he served in this capacity for thirty-one years. He was succeeded by Isaac Lingius who also served for a lengthy period. His brother, Hermanus, became the first clergyman of the Dutch Reformed Church in Demerara, but he was removed by the French occupiers in 1783. He was succeeded by a Catholic priest, Edward Lindeker, who was very popular among the Dutch residents. Lindeker also ministered to the Catholic population until his death in 1820.

By this time, too, growing Lutheran congregations, which were absorbing the supporters of the Dutch Reformed Church, were established in Essequibo and Demerara. But organisation of religious activities was apparently not given serious regard, and this was reflected by the wide absence of church buildings in Essequibo, Demerara and Berbice, even though religious services were conducted at the homes of some planters. When the British occupied the colonies in 1796, there was no church in Demerara and only Fort Island had one in Essequibo.

Dutch religion in Berbice

In Berbice, the Dutch Reformed Church began to face competition from around the latter half of the eighteenth century from other denominations such as the Lutherans and the Scottish Presbyterians. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, most of the following of the Reformed Church was absorbed by the Lutherans and the Presbyterians. By that time, plantation owners who were Lutherans or Presbyterians formed a large section of the planter class in the Dutch colonies.

It was not until 1738 that the Dutch authorities first allowed another religious group to conduct missionary activities in Guyana. In that year, two Moravian missionaries were granted permission by the Berbice Association to work among the African slaves on plantations owned by the Van Eys brothers far up the Berbice River. But their work of teaching the slave children to read and write brought them into conflict with the plantation owners and they were forced to leave after only two years.

But they did not give up their efforts in Berbice. They moved in among the Arawaks in the area of the Wiruni Creek, a tributary of the Berbice River, and by the time they departed in 1763, they had made a significant documentation of the language of those Amerindians. Moravian missionaries did not return to Berbice until the beginning of the nineteenth century.

The Lutheran Church was first established in Berbice in 1742. From the beginning, it faced severe pressure from the Dutch Reformed Church, but through great determination from its early leaders and followers, it survived and grew in influence.

The growth of the Lutheran Church in Berbice was influenced by a planter, Lodewijk Abbensets, who later became a member of the Berbice Courts of Policy and Justice. Abbensets arrived in Berbice in the mid-1730s and quickly associated himself with a growing group of other Lutheran planters. In 1743, he called a meeting of these planters and they discussed measures to expand their religious influence. They shortly after sent to the Court of Policy an application signed by 60 Dutch settlers in October seeking approval from the Directors of the Berbice Association in Amsterdam to permit the Lutherans to build a church and a school. Based on the recommendation of the Court of Policy, approval was given on the 11 May 1744 by the Berbice Association which also granted freedom of worship to Lutherans in the colony. Lutherans, from this time, could also be appointed to public office.

But this freedom was modified by the Court of Policy which ordered that Lutherans must continue payments for the upkeep of the Reformed Church and that any Lutheran who wanted a free coloured child baptised must agree that the child, on reaching adulthood, could not apply for public office.

Even though the Lutherans were organised as a group with Abbensets as leader, they did not find a pastor until October 1752 when one came from Germany. But by this date, no church was erected and services were conducted in the house of a planter.

Soon after, the Lutherans were granted two lots in the village of Nieuw Amsterdam, which bordered Fort Nassau. A brick building to house the church was built there with the use of slaves, some of whom were skilled in bricklaying and carpentry. Funds to purchase materials were raised mainly from among Lutherans in Berbice. Lutherans in Essequibo - who still did not enjoy freedom of worship - subscribed 200 guilders. The first service in this first Lutheran church was conducted on the 5 August 1753.

Within a short while, another church with clay walls and a thatched roof was erected further up river to meet the needs of planters there.

During the Berbice Slave rebellion, the brick church at Nieuw Amsterdam was the only building in the village that was not damaged. It was probably for this reason that the Governor and the Dutch army took control of it as a defensive position.

The Lutheran Church ran into financial difficulties after 1763 and to offset these it became the owner of a successful coffee plantation named Augsburg on the Berbice River. By this time, too, the Anglican Church began to take roots after it was established by the in influx of English setters from the Caribbean islands.

Abbensets himself encountered stiff political opposition through his arrogance. In 1765 he broke the law when he publicly beat a freed African. He was ordered to pay compensation to his victim and was also expelled from the Courts of Policy and Justice. He died in 1767.

When the capital of Berbice was moved to the new town of New Amsterdam at the junction of the Berbice and the Canje Rivers in the 1790s, the Lutheran Church was given a plot or land there and a church was built on it in 1803.