The Charter of 1696 was the first granted to any religious body by the English government in New York. By this charter the Reformed Dutch Church in New York, now known as the Collegiate Church was incorporated under the name of "The Ministers, Elders, and Deacons of The Reformed Protestant Dutch Church of the City of New York. The members of the Church were given freedom of religion; perpetual succession of ministers in the church was assured and the Church's property was confirmed to it. The charter, in great detail, gave the Church a right to elect officers, call ministers, assess members for the maintenance of the Church, sell or rent property, have a private income, and to sue and be sued.
The possession of a charter did not completely protect the Dutch Church from English Governors, particularly Governor Cornbury. Attempts on the part of the latter, to control the appointment of a minister to the Dutch churches in Long Island led in 1706 to the migration of many members of the Dutch Church in New York to New Jersey. They settled in the Raritan and Millstone valleys of New Jersey, and founded many churches in a section later known as "The Garden of the Dutch Church." In spite of these temporary setbacks, at the opening of the eighteenth century, the Dutch Church in New York was the largest, as well as the oldest religious group in the colony.
As the Church developed and required new ministers, the problem of ecclesiastical control grew larger. The Classis of Amsterdam still examined and licensed all ministers in the Reformed Church in America, and arbitrated all ecclesiastical disputes. The demand for new ministers to supply the American churches could not be met by the Classis of Amsterdam, as the salaries were small, and prospects of preaching in the wilderness were not alluring. The churches of America sent some of their promising men to the Netherlands, but this was not a solution to the problem of supplying a ministry for America. Accordingly a movement developed in the American Reformed Dutch Church for freedom from Dutch control.
One step in that direction was the formation, in 1747, of a coetus, permission for the institution of which was obtained from the Classis of Amsterdam. This Coetus was a national church body composed of a minister and elder from each church. Its function was to consider ecclesiastical matters, which lay beyond the sphere of individual churches, and which formerly had been dealt with by the Classis of Amsterdam. For consideration of local questions, the Coetus was divided into local bodies, called "circles," the churches of New York City, Long Island, and Poughkeepsie comprising the Circle of New York.
Although the organization of the Coetus was an important step toward independence for American churches, it did not resolve their problem of supplying ministers. In that matter, the Church was entirely subordinate to the Classis of Amsterdam, which retained the power to license candidates for the ministry. Opposition to this limitation led to a struggle between two groups in the Reformed Dutch Church in America; the Coetus group which sought the power to license and ordain its own ministers; and the Conferentie group, which favored subordination to the Classis of Amsterdam. The lack of unity in the Dutch Reformed Church resulted in the dissolution of the Coetus in 1754.
The conflict in the Church continued unabated until the question of installing an English speaking minister in the Reformed Dutch Church arose. The importance of this problem overshadowed the dispute between the Coetus and the Conferentie groups.
A strong movement for an English speaking ministry in the Dutch Church of New York had arisen by the middle of the eighteenth century. English was the language of the courts in New York and was spoken by the young people at their place of work. After having previously denied several requests by communicants for an English speaking ministry, the New York Church, with the concurrence of the Classis of Amsterdam, selected Domine Archibald Laidlie, in 1763, to preach in English. This innovation was opposed by a group of conservative Dutch, who appealed to the Classis of Amsterdam to forbid English sermons in the Church on Manhattan Island, but the body refused to do so.
While studying for the ministry in the Netherlands, John H. Livingston presented to the Classis of Amsterdam a plan of union for the American Reformed Dutch Church. According to this plan, each Reformed Dutch church in America was to form a part of a local group called a coventus, similar to the old circle. Delegates from each coventus were to compose a general coetus, a national body which was to meet each year. The Generally Coetus was to have power to examine and ordain prospective ministers, provided that the Classis of Amsterdam was notified of these proceedings. The bond between Holland and America was not to be broken, nor were the American Churches to be allowed to use the names Classis and Synod.
Upon completion of his studies in the Netherlands, Dr. Livingston, a graduate of Yale College, and the last minister to study and receive his license from Holland, accepted a call of the Manhattan Consistory to fill the pulpit of a new church. Under his direction, a conference was held in New York at which the plan of union was adopted. Slight modifications were made in the proposed plan, such, as the substitution of the term "general body" for coetus and "particular body" for coventus. Upon approval of these modifications by the Classis of Amsterdam, the American Reformed Church now became free of Dutch control.
The church, in the main, supported the American Revolutionary movement and two of the Church's prominent ministers were outspoken champions of the colonists' cause. When the British troops occupied New York City, after the Battle of Long Island, the pastors of the Reformed Church in New York City fled for safety, leaving their congregations without services from 1776 to 1783. The British commandeered for their use the Reformed Dutch Churches on Manhattan Island.
The New (later Middle) Church was first used as a prison, and later a as a riding academy. The North Church was stripped of its furniture and used as a hospital. A group of Loyalist Church members was allowed to use the old Garden Street Church, where they listened to Domine Lydekker, a Loyalist minister from New Jersey. In 1779, the Garden Street Church was also used as a hospital and Domine Lydekker accepted the offer of Trinity Corporation to use the St. George Chapel.
Under American Rule
Dr. Livingston was the only one of the four ministers of the Collegiate Church, who had been in service at the outbreak of hostilities, to return to his charge in New York City. Immediately after his return to the Garden Street Church on December 7, 1783, he set to work to clarify the legal status of his church, gather his scattered congregation and rebuild the churches.
Despite the fat that all charters which had been granted by the English government to ecclesiastical bodies were guaranteed in the Constitution of 1777, the Reformed Dutch Church petitioned the legislature for a ruling on its 1696 charter.
In 1784 the legislature reaffirmed the charter of 1696 granted to the Reformed Church in New York City, thus putting at rest any doubts concerning the charter's validity. By this reaffirmation, the Collegiate Church retained its original powers, except that of assessing members to pay for Church salaries and repairs. In 1784, the state legislature also passed a general act for the incorporation of religious societies of all denominations.