Researching Henry was providing another unexpected benefit - it was turning out to be a
way of getting to know my newest cousin, Steve Thomas. While Steve bemoaned every phone
call of Don's asking if Steve had yet found the poetry manuscript book, I could commiserate by
sharing my own latest task list. Genealogy cousins have the advantage that you can pick and
choose amongst them, so that you end up with an extended family that is just a perfect mental fit.
The assumption that you're both part of the same family makes strangers into instant friends.
And in Steve's case, family that liked hearing about Henry!
Getting to know someone usually takes an equal part of talking about yourself and
listening to the other person. The talking is what you offer as a gift. I share myself with you, and
you give me back yourself. This approach doesn't work when the person you're trying to know
has been dead for over one hundred and fifty years. They won't listen, and they sure won't talk.
What you're left with is eavesdropping on moments of their life, and then trying to weave what
you learn about them into a coherent whole. And there's always the fear that you will,
inadvertently, lay upon them your own prejudices and preconceptions.
This worried me as I got to know Henry. Were my conclusions about him too simplified?
Was I taking one event out of context and generalizing well before I should? Was I letting what
other people said slant my view? Identifying Henry's politics was a good example of this last
problem. I had read William Sturges Thomas's article on Henry,(1) in which he identified Henry
as a Federalist. But try as I might to make the facts fit that interpretation, I just couldn't do it. It
wasn't until I threw out that assumption, that I was able to see the way the facts actually fit
together. Then I could see Henry less as an ideologue than as a person of strong loyalties to those
Every characteristic I discovered in Henry just seemed to open up a vast hole in my own
knowledge that I had to fill before I could build this ancestor into a three-dimensional man who
could stand before me in my mind and be himself. Take religion. I thought I'd been fairly well
educated in the subject. Raised Catholic and graduating from a Catholic high school, I'd been
exposed to the religious thought of Thomas Aquinas and the private meditations of St. Therese of
Liseux. Protestants were well covered. Or so I thought.
Having graduated from the University of Chicago, my instincts are always to find the
original sources and so, as I followed Henry and his family around, I began to build a library of
the sermons of Henry's grandfather's teacher Solomon Stoddard, Stoddard's grandson Jonathan
Edwards, Edward's grandson and Henry's friend Timothy Dwight, and Henry's father-in-law
Noah Welles. Congregational and Presbyterian and Dutch Reformed were swirling together in
my head until I dreamed of an angel who could pull me out of my confusion.
And suddenly the world around me changed. For the first time, I actually understood the
names of the churches that surround our New England town square. This beautiful
Congregational Church with its white spire trying to touch a cloud was suddenly more than just a
piece of architecture to be videotaped against a sunset sky. It was a member of a family of
churches in which someone of my blood once preached. I didn't need to stand where Noah
Welles had stood while preaching revolution to his congregation. I could stand in my own town
and be connected to every member of a church whose services I had never attended.
And that's the gift that studying family gives. Not just the connection to your past or to
the cousins of your blood. It's the connection to the world in which you live. You start with a
nuclear family, become part of an extended family, then become part of mankind. What a trip!
Henry made his own mental trips. Not unexpectedly, he didn't find religion as a youth, a
time when the world was rosy with untasted possibilities. His father's library was filled with
books on religion that must have seemed dry and dull - Bunyan and Dodedridge's Rise and
Progress.(2) It was Henry's brother John Henry, only two and a half years the boy's senior but
aged by his Yale diploma beyond his years, who felt it incumbent on himself to give Henry a
lecture on religion, a lecture which he hoped the boy would hear.
For whatever you may think of religion as being unpleasant
I can assure you the contrary & if you once set out to be religious
in earnest you never will regret concerning it, only that you did not
begin sooner & remember that it is not a thing of Indifference
whether you give your self to our Lord & serve him or serve
yourself for it is do this, or Die. Do this now before you grow
older and get hardened in Sin and then it may be too late. O think
of this, think of it.(3)
Henry did. By 1774 Henry had made his peace with the God of his fiance's minister
When as our hearts have long since been, so then our hands will be indelibly joined; and
may the Almighty Father of Being make us his private care & bless us.(4)
And when the time
came for Sally to deliver their first child, a dangerous time for a young woman, John Henry was
with them still, lending his support and prayers as Henry prepared to leave for war.(5)
Religion gave Henry a foundation for his life. "Happy Henry Livingston" became an
almost cartoon simplification of Henry and yet, in many ways, it was true. Henry joined a
naturally optimistic nature with a readiness to be pleased, and those around him couldn't help but
respond to the pleasure he took from their company. Henry found in religion a validation of the
joy he felt in life. Submitting yourself to God was the right thing to do. And God, in return,
offered to make you joyful throughout all of eternity. Not a bad exchange for doing what you
ought to do anyway.
But MAN! a nobler theme inspires
And Heav'n th' immortal spirit fires!
At nature's rich & ample feast
He sits a not unthankful guest,
Remembering all these goods below
From higher sources still do flow.
Led by Ambition all divine
He sighs for pleasures more sublime!
Nor ought his soul can satisfy
Short of the raptures in the sky.(6)
The way Henry coped with the worst possible pains, the loss of his children, the loss of
his wife, was by focusing his mind on the very, very long view. The eternally long view. When
the wife of his cousin, John Robert Livingston, died - John had been with Henry in
Montgomery's expedition - Henry reached out with the assurance that it wasn't at all against
scriptures to imagine that the loved one would be appointed the guardian for those left behind,
and encouraged his cousin to take comfort that he would be rejoined with his wife in heaven.
Unfettered of our clay, with what ardency will soul meet kindred soul! And Spirit mix with
congenial Spirit! Rapturous the meeting. Rapturous that Eternity where the business is praise and
Love! Love! The unremitting theme.(7)
Henry was talking to John about Margaret, but Henry could have been talking to himself about Sally.
But sometimes the weight bore down too heavily. And when it did, the only solution he
could find was to bend beneath the load and wait for the peace that came from submission.
The writing of Hezekiah king of Judah|
when he had been sick.
WHEN blooming health and chearful days
Far from my tents had flown,
When nature sunk by quick decays
And ev'ry hope was gone.
When yawning dreadful in my sight
Lay the dark dismal tomb,
To tear me from the chearful light
And plunge me in its gloom:
My God and why withhold thy race?
I cry'd in pangs of woe!
No more thy Heav'n - diffusing face
Shall I behold below.
As Cranes that chant in clouds above,
At times I loud complain;
And then like the lone mourning dove
In secret sigh my pain.
Like the Arabians shifted tent,
Departed is mine age;
And as the weavers shuttle spent,
I drop from off the stage.
But what am I, poor breathing clay,
That dare to murmur still?
Asham'd, resigned, I obey
Nor more dispute his will.
By grief and pain, distress and death,
The soul is hush'd to peace:
That when is past th' expiring breath
It may respire in bliss.R.(8)
Henry's poem is based on the biblical verse 2 Kings 20: 1-11.
In those days was Hezekiah sick unto death. And the prophet Isaiah
the son of Amoz came to him, and said unto him, Thus saith the LORD,
Set thine house in order; for thou shalt die, and not live. Then he turned
his face to the wall, and prayed unto the LORD, saying, I beseech thee, O
LORD, remember now how I have walked before thee in truth and with a
perfect heart, and have done that which is good in thy sight. And
Hezekiah wept sore. And it came to pass, afore Isaiah was gone out into
the middle court, that the word of the LORD came to him, saying, Turn
again, and tell Hezekiah the captain of my people, Thus saith the LORD,
the God of David thy father, I have heard thy prayer, I have seen thy tears:
behold, I will heal thee.(9)
In the biblical version, Hezekiah prays to avoid death. Rather than accepting God's will,
Hezekiah attempts, through prayer, to change that will. And he succeeds. Henry's king also cries
out, but not for help. His cry, rather, is horror at his coming fate. Only when the king accepts his
fate, can he see past death to eternal bliss. Henry has turned the verse onto its head!
When Henry published this piece in 1788, he was only forty years of age, but already he
had lost a wife and a child. If he had cried for mercy, his prayers had not been answered. Where
Hezekiah of the bible was able to convince God to change his fate, Henry stood helpless before
the fates of Sarah and little Harry. But he had three more children, and he had to move on. He
did it by accepting that physical death was spiritual awakening. The soul that was "hush'd to
peace by grief and pain, distress and death" was his own.
Henry's belief in God had a solid foundation built by his family. Both his father's and his
mother's ancestors were deeply involved in the life of the church, if not as ministers, then as
deacons or elders. On the Livingston side, Henry was descended from Robert the
through Lord Alexander Livingston, the fifth Lord of Callendar, who was Henry's sixth great
When the fifth Lord died, the title passed to Henry's fifth great uncle. And, as
was common when inheritance fell on the older sons, the younger ones looked for their
livelihood in the armies of kings or the armies of God. Henry's 5th great grandfather Robert died fighting at
Pinkiefield in 1547, and Robert's son Alexander became a minister of Monyabroch, a parish
whose minister was chosen by whoever was the current Lord of Callendar. Almost as an
inheritance, the parish was next given to Rev. Alexander Livingston's son, William. It was with
Rev. William Livingston's son John that things got a bit confusing.
John didn't want to be a minister, he wanted to be a doctor. He'd finished his masters
degree from the University of Glasgow in 1621, and told his father he wanted to go to France to
study medicine. His father said no, so John had to do some rethinking, which he decided to do in
a cave. By the end of the day he had convinced himself that his only chance for salvation would
come from the ministry. "Upon this, I laid aside all thoughts of France, and medicine, and land,
and betook me to the study of Divinity."(12)
John was preaching to crowds in fields before he was even ordained. From the church's
point of view, John looked like a potential troublemaker. Discretion seeming the smarter path,
John took ship for Ireland to stay out of the way until his reputation faded a bit with the Scottish
church hierarchy. He actually would have liked to have gotten farther away, but his one attempt
to take a ship of friends to America ended after just two months, when the ill-fated ship was
forced to return to the same port from which it left. That was Rev. John's last try for America.
Finally ordained a Scottish minister, John settled down to the life of a parish parson and,
over the years, found himself in the mainstream of Scottish Protestant thought. So much so, in
fact, that when Charles II wanted to land in Scotland,
John Livingston(13) was one of the people
sent by the church of Scotland to interview him. Reputations may repair, but souls frequently
stay unchanged. Barely a year later the difficult Reverend was back in trouble again, refusing to
recognize the anniversary of Charles II's restoration as a religious "holiday of the Lord." Knowing
when it was time to hit the road, John went where many religious dissenters had gone when they
needed to follow their consciences instead of the current religious tide. He went to Holland.
The New World had space aplenty for all the various sects, but oftentimes too much room
for the few ministers available. Because the religious doctrine of the Scottish Presbyterians, the
Dutch Reformed, and the Congregational churches were all based on Calvinistic doctrines, there
was a surprising amount of practical cooperation among the congregations. They were all
conservative, strict constructionists in their interpretation of the bible and, to keep their doctrine
pure, the Presbyterians required ministers to be trained and approved in Scotland, the Dutch
Reformed in Holland, and the Congregationalists decided that they could decide the matter of
their ministers very well locally, thank you very much.
Raised in Holland and living now among the New York Dutch, John's son Robert joined
the Dutch Reformed Church. But when Robert's son Gilbert wanted to study for the ministry,
rather than sending his son to Holland, Robert sent him to Northampton Massachusetts to study
under Congregational minister Solomon Stoddard.(14) Stoddard's church had originally belonged
to Eleazor Mather. So had Stoddard's wife, for that matter. When the Harvard-educated
Stoddard took over Mather's church in 1690, it was at a time when church membership was
declining. The early Puritans had built their governments around their churches, with no
separation between church and state. Only church members could vote, but everyone was
required to support the church and its minister - a home grown version of "taxation without
The first New England settlers had come for religious freedom, and the church was the
center of their lives. But because it took so much energy just to survive, and more to prosper,
there was less energy to give to the church. With the coming of the next generation, and the one
after that, the ties to the churches had weakened. Children took for granted what their parents or
grandparents had risked their lives to have, and towns no longer required citizens to support a
particular church. The result was a decline in church membership. Since that also meant a
decline in the power of the churches, it was something the churches wanted to change.
Church membership was originally for "reborn" adults. Children of such redeemed
members were baptized, but not made members until they had their own religious experience.
Since fewer adults were finding God, the churches came up with the idea of the Halfway
Covenant. Until you had your own experience, you were welcome to all of the responsibilities of
the church, without the privileges of voting or communion. Church membership still dropped. It
was Solomon Stoddard who fixed the problem. Not believing in second class citizenship, he
tossed out the Halfway Covenant and invited everyone in. Communion was for all. Church
historians look at Stoddard as setting the stage for the "First Awakening," that would grow under
his grandson, Reverend Jonathan Edwards, the grandfather of Henry's friend, Timothy Dwight.
The ministry didn't take with Gilbert and he returned home to marry Cornelia Beekman, a
descendant of two ministers herself, one of them being the Reverend Gerard Beekman, a
distinguished theologian whose services in translating the Bible were rewarded by King James of
England.(15) Lifelong members of the Dutch Reformed Church of Kingston, Gilbert and Cornelia
were buried in its churchyard.(16)
When the church addition was built over the old graveyard, the
bodies were left behind and only the stones were moved. Practical people, the Dutch.
Their son, Henry Livingston, moved to Poughkeepsie, becoming a Deacon of the church
there in the year that his son, Henry Jr., was born. Or, rather, Herri Libbeston did. So much for
searching for names in computer files. In 1753 Henry, now Senior, was elected a church Elder.
A Deacon's responsibility was financial; he collected money for the needy of the parish
and distributed it, as appropriate.(17)
An Elder had a spiritual oversight responsibility, that is,
seeing to it that the minister preached no false doctrine and, along with the minister, admitting
members into full communion. They also instructed, admonished and comforted church
members, could be sent as delegates of their church to the general church meetings, and were
asked before every communion if they knew anyone who should not receive it.
In 1774, the same year that Henry's father-in-law, Rev. Welles, was chosen a Fellow of
Yale College and received the degree of Doctor of Divinity from
Gilbert became a church Elder. In 1777, Henry became a
Deacon.(19) But the pride of the family
was Henry's older brother, John Henry Livingston.
The ties between the Dutch Reformed Church in Holland and in America were strained to
breaking. Holland insisted on control over doctrine, ministers having to go to Holland for
ordination, and services being held only in Dutch! In America, even though many people still
knew Dutch, many did not. The result was a drop in church membership. The American
ministers felt that something had to give, and give it did. The American Dutch Reformed Church
split in two - one part remaining connected to Holland and accepting Dutch-trained clergy, the
other consecrating their own home-grown ministers. And, as usual, Henry's family was right in
the middle of the action.
Henry's grandfather, Captain John Conklin, had been an Elder of the Church in 1749.
When the split occurred in their own Poughkeepsie church, Conklin took the side arguing that
ministers had to come from Holland. In the middle of the 1760's, the Poughkeepsie Church was
ministerless and both sides of the split called for a new minister. Deacon Conklin and Elder
Peter Van Kleeck, called Domine Isaac Rysdyck from Holland for the Conferentie party, and the
other faction, the Coetus party, called Dominie Henricus Schoonmaker. When Domine
Schoolmaker arrived in 1764 for ordination, he found the church under the control of Conklin
and was ordained under the trees where, for a while, he was also forced to hold
this backdrop of religious conflict, came Henry's brother and Deacon Conklin's grandson, John
John Henry was a studious boy who had wrecked his health by studying too much.
During his convalescence, he thought more and more about his relationship with God. And,
while he was in that state of mind, George Whitefield returned to
New York.(21) Whitefield was
one of the great evangelists of the time. Born and based in England, he traveled many times to
America to preach in all parts of the country. Thousands of souls found God in his sermons and,
even better from a public relations point of view, some who didn't repent died on the spot! When
he would move on from a town, people not wanting to separate from him would follow him to
the next town, singing as they went.
During the summer of 1766, John Henry attended one of Whitefield 's outdoor meetings.
The preacher told the crowd that he had planned to teach one sermon, but felt that he now had to
give another. He thought that this sermon was meant to be "a word in season" for someone in the
audience to hear, and John Henry was listening.
The young man made a decision to devote his life to God, and become a minister of the
Dutch Reformed Church. Seeing for himself the disruption to the church which the split had
caused, it was John Henry's instinct that he could be the force that could draw the church back
together. Henry Sr. approved John Henry's plans, and agreed to fund his son's study at the
University of Utrecht in Holland. After obtaining his Doctor of Divinity in 1770, Reverend John
Henry Livingston returned to New York City as minister of the North Dutch Church, at the
corner of Fulton and William streets.(22)
In time, John Henry fulfilled his dream, and really did
reunite the Dutch and American churches.(23)