Presbyterians of the Past

John H. Livingston, 1746–1825

John Henry Livingston, Reformed Dutch, 6-27-14With this biography the meaning of “presbyterian” is expanded to include other denominations that follow Calvinism and are ordered by connectionalism. Presbyterian means most basically rule by elders, and Presbyterian Churches are associated particularly with the Calvinism developed by John Knox and organized with connectional polity. However, there are other denominations that follow Calvin as his teaching has been finessed by their own key historical-theological personalities. Also, these churches, to a greater or lesser degree, have some form of connectional polity. In the case of the Reformed Dutch, the consistory is a synonym for session, a classis is like a presbytery, and the synod includes a number of classes. In the case of J. H. Livingston, his life and ministry were served in what was known at the time as the Reformed Dutch Church. Other churches can be included in the more generic category of “presbyterian” including the French (Huguenot) and German Reformed.

John Henry Livingston was a fourth-generation descendant of John Livingston, who was a Presbyterian from Scotland that moved to Rotterdam, Holland, in 1633 to escape persecution. John Livingston remained in Holland for the rest of his life dying on August 9, 1672, at the age of sixty-nine. Robert Livingston, the son of John, joined the Christians seeking freedom and new opportunities in the American colonies and settled in New York. John Henry Livingston was born at Poughkeepsie, New York, to Robert’s son, Henry, and his wife S. (Conklin) Livingston on May 30, 1746.

John Henry’s early education was accomplished for about two years under the tutoring of Rev. Chauncey Graham, and then his father hired a private tutor that continued the boy’s studies for another two years. He entered a formal school in New Milford, Connecticut, led by a Rev. Nathaniel Taylor, where he continued his studies for about a year. He entered Yale College as a freshman at the age of twelve in the fall of 1758. Some J. H. Livingston, Title Page, Book on DWS Marriage, 9-4-2015aspects of his studies he found difficult due to deficiencies in his preparatory studies, but this did not keep him from persevering and graduating with honors in July 1762. When he left college he moved to Poughkeepsie, New York, to study law with Bartholomew Crannel, Esq., which he continued until the end of 1764. However, due to health problems, he did not complete his studies. His physical problems made him concerned about his salvation which resulted in some wrestling with spiritual issues and his embracing the Gospel.

When John Henry’s health improved, he did not return to studying for the bar but instead prepared for the ministry. At the advice of a minister acquaintance, John chose to go to Holland for his theological education. He was just shy of his twentieth birthday when he set sail for the land of tulips, May 12, 1766, and arrived in Amsterdam on June 20. With his letters of introduction opening the way, he entered the University of Utrecht where he completed his divinity studies in June 1769. He was examined by the Classis of Amsterdam, became a candidate, and was then licensed. The timing of the completion of his preparation in Holland could not have been better because he was invited to become the Pastor of the Reformed Dutch Church in New York City. Having received from the University of Utrecht the Doctor of Divinity and his ordination by the Classis of Amsterdam he returned to New York arriving in September 1770. Rev. Livingston began immediately his pastoral service with the difficult task of resolving a split within the church. The division was resolved in 1772 when he brought together the two parties, the conferentie Dutch, who wanted to maintain their ethnic distinctions and connection to the Classis of Amsterdam, and the coetus who wanted to organize an American classis.

Dr. Livingston was settled into his pastorate with a few years of experience under his belt when in October 1775, he married Sarah, the daughter of the merchant and patriot Philip Livingston who would sign the Declaration of Independence the next year. The wedding was performed in Kingston, where Philip had moved his family due to the possibility of an invasion of New York by the British. He lived with his wife’s family and went to New York to preach as he had opportunity until September 1776 when the British forces took New York. The hostilities and presence of the British led to Livingston accepting the invitation of the consistory of the Dutch congregation in Albany to minister there until he felt he could return to New York. He ministered in Albany for three years before he had to move his family from the severe climate of Albany back south to his wife’s family’s manor in the summer of 1779. The Livingstons then moved to Poughkeepsie while he preached as stated supply in the local Dutch Church until he returned to New York when the British left in 1783. Dr. Livingston was the only one of four ministers that had ministered in New York before the war that was able to return and resume his labors after independence was obtained.

The end of the colonies and the beginning of the United States impressed upon the Dutch the need for a theological education program in America. At the recommendation of church leaders back in Holland, Dr. Livingston was proposed as the ideal candidate to teach theology, which led to his unanimous election to the professorship in October, 1784. He was inducted on May 19, 1785, and his lecture delivered in Latin was titled, “The Truth of the Christian Religion.” The addition of teaching theology to his already heavy load of responsibilities in the New York church taxed heavily his constitution. With the hope that summers in rural Flatbush (yes, it was rural at one time) on Long Island would reinvigorate his health, he moved there for a few years during the spring and summer and then returned to the city for winter. During this time, an assistant minister was hired by the church which helped lighten his load.

Dr. Livingston was not only a pastor of a congregation and a professor of theology, but he was also an active churchman. In 1787, he was appointed the chairman of a committee to make a selection of Psalms for the use of the Church in public worship. As the Reformed Dutch Church grew and became established in the new nation, it became necessary for the Dutch, like the Presbyterians, to formulate a church constitution. He served on the committee to draft the church constitution. As he worked for the Reformed Dutch Church, the Synod, in 1794, wanted him to have his congregational labors reduced so he could dedicate more time to teaching theology. To help the Synod, his congregation called a minister to assist him with the flock and relieve him of some of the responsibility for his sheep. He then moved to Bedford, a village about two miles from Brooklyn, where he opened his seminary. Shortly, however, problems led to closing the seminary necessitating Dr. Livingston’s return to the city. Subsequently, the Synod, in 1804, reappointed Dr. Livingston as a professor and had him teach theology in New York until a more suitable situation could be located.

On the revival of Queen’s College at New Brunswick, there was a conference held between its trustees and the Synod resulting in an agreement that Livingston’s teaching of theology should take place on the college property. As soon as the necessary funds were secured in October 1810, he was transferred to New Brunswick to fill the double office of seminary professor and president of the college. Dr. Livingston continued in his two-fold position at Queen’s College for the remainder of his life. Upwards of one hundred and twenty young men enjoyed the benefit of his teaching for their ministerial preparation.

In 1816, Livingston published A Dissertation on the Marriage of a Man with His Sister-in-Law, which he had written at the request of the General Synod of the Reformed Dutch Church. The issue had been raised at the Synod’s recent meeting because a lower judicatory had brought to the General Synod a case of a man who had contracted such a union. Livingston’s book developed his view that “a matrimonial connection with a sister in law, whether the wife of a deceased brother, or the sister of a deceased wife, which last is here more particularly the object of inquiry, is proved to be incestuous…[and] gross incest of the highest grade….” (p. 6). In the Presbyterian Church such marriages had been adjudicated on the basis of a sentence at the end of the Westminster Confession, 24:4, that provided the interpretive principle for discerning when marriages of affinity were incestuous; in the Dutch Church, which did not have a marriage article in its Confession of Faith as revised in 1613 and 1619, Livingston developed his case primarily with the Law of God with emphasis on Leviticus 18:16. Thus, in the Presbyterian Church, the Law of God was brought to bear as interpreted by the Westminster Confession, which brought in the sticky wicket of subscription, but Livingston went straight to interpreting the Bible. Livingston also appealed to decency, the interpretations of theologians and documents of the past including not only Dutch, but Lutheran, Roman Catholic, the Church Fathers, Calvin, and others to make his case.

On January 19, 1825, John Henry Livingston retired at the usual hour of night without complaining of sickness, but in the morning, it was found that he had fallen into the sleep of death. His funeral services were conducted by Philip Milledoler, D.D., who was one of the pastors of the Collegiate Church in New York, and several commemorative discourses were preached including those of John Dewitt, Sr., D.D., who was Professor of Biblical Criticism, Church History, and Pastoral Theology in New Brunswick, Rev. N. J. Marselus of Greenwich, and of the Rev. C. C. Cuyler of Poughkeepsie. Mrs. Livingston had died in December 1814, and she and her husband had one child, Col. Henry A. Livingston, who survived his father many years and was at one time a member of the Senate of the State of New York.

To some degree in America, John Henry Livingston was to the Reformed Dutch Church as John Witherspoon was to the Presbyterian Church. Both Witherspoon and Livingston were important influences for the constitutions of their respective churches. Witherspoon’s presidency of the College of New Jersey is paralleled by Livingston’s work with both what became New Brunswick Seminary and Rutgers University. Both men were pastors and popular preachers as well. However, Witherspoon’s considerable involvement in politics and the Revolution were not reflected in the life of Livingston. Both men had a common ancestry in Scotland, so it could be said that many stones in the foundation of American Dutch Reformed Christianity were set by a man of Kilts and Dirks descent named John Henry Livingston.


Notes—This biography was edited for clarification on August 5, 2015. Some of Dr. Livingston’s publications include–An Inaugural Oration in Latin, 1785; A Sermon before the New York Missionary Society, 1799, and another in 1804; An Address at the Commencement in Queen’s College, 1810; An Address to the Reformed German Churches in the United States, 1819; The Psalms and Hymns, with the Catechism, Confession of Faith, and Liturgy of the Reformed Dutch Church in North America, Selected at the Request of the General Synod, New York: D. Smith, 1819; and the full citation for the book mentioned in the biography is, A Dissertation on the Marriage of a Man with his Sister-in-law, New Brunswick: Deare & Myer, 1816, 179 pages.

Sources—Alexander Gunn, Memoirs of the Rev. John H. Livingston, D.D.S.T.P., Prepared in Compliance with a Request of the General Synod of the Reformed Dutch Church in North America, New York: Rutgers Press, 1829; W.B. Sprague, Annals of the American Pulpit; or Commemorative Notices of Distinguished American Clergymen of Various Denominations, vol. 9, New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1869, pp. 52–56.


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