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Dutch church in Old Bergen Township, 1680.

Voorleser was the title given to a highly responsible citizen in New Netherland and later Dutch colonies, who had semi-official duties in local law, education and religion.

Origin and use[edit]

The word voorleser as used in English texts is a variant of the Dutch word voorlezer, which means "one who reads (to others)". However, both spellings are used interchangeably when referring to the collective official title used by colonial Dutch Americans.[1] It has several different translations or interpretations, such as "lay reader",[2] "public reader",[3] "fore-reader",[4] and "church reader".[5] The title was predominantly used from the mid-17th century[6][7] to the late 18th century;[8] in the small colonial villages of this era,[9] one person could maintain many tasks.

After the English took over the Dutch settlements of New Netherland,[10] the existing Dutch settlers continued relying on the voorleser for maintaining village records and documentation. The last person given the title of voorleser resigned in 1789, where his successor was given the title of "clerk".[11] Documentation in the Dutch settlers' native language, however, lasted until 1809.[8] The title and tasks of the voorleser disseminated after the populations grew beyond the ability of one person to maintain, and the majority of settlers began speaking and keeping records in English.


The voorleser had numerous local duties and was considered a highly important member of the community[9] by the early settlers.[12] Each voorleser had jurisdiction over virtually all legal and religious actions and ceremonies in their community.[8] Voorlesers required scholarly qualities,[7] as they acted as the village clerk and schoolmaster,[9] typically educating the youth in the same building where religious services were held.[6]

As a de facto minister, occasionally reading the scriptures,[4] the voorleser would also be responsible for baptisms, communicants and marriages.[8] When a death occurred in the community, voorlesers were given full charge of funerary tasks, serving as an undertaker, grave-digger, or sexton, and attending the burial of the dead.[9] The voorleser would also lead the congregation in singing during church services,[9] and in the absence of a proper pastor, the voorleser would perform the ceremonies on Sabbath, which consisted of prayers and typically, a prepared sermon by a highly regarded theologian from the Netherlands.[6] They also would read the law and creed, as well as portions of the Psalms.[9]

Notable voorlesers[edit]

  • Stuynhuysen, Engelbert – Old Bergen's first voorleser, gaining the title in 1662.[6]
  • Bertholf, Guiliam – began working in Harlem, New York City on April 24, 1690.[7]
  • Sickels, Abraham – Old Bergen's last voorleser, retired in 1789.[11]

Advisory boards[edit]

Other prominent members in the community of New Amsterdam (which included all the settlements around the Upper New York Bay) were part of councils that advised the Director of New Netherland. Called upon at various times during the colony's existence, they were known as the Twelve Men, the Eight Men and the Nine Men.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Govt. Print. Office (1927). "Volume 1, Issues 1-19." Statistics of land-grant colleges and universities. Retrieved 2010-08-06.
  2. ^ Lurie, Maxine N. and Mappen, Marc (2004). "Bertholf, Guiliam." Encyclopedia of New Jersey. Rutgers University Press. Retrieved 2010-08-01.
  3. ^ "Original 1685 Bell." Friends of the Old Dutch Church & Burying Ground. Retrieved 2010-08-01.
  4. ^ a b Bulletin of the Passaic County Historical Society (1958-03). "The Dutch Church of Totowa." The Passaic County Historical Society. Retrieved 2010-08-01.
  5. ^ "Generation No. 1." Descendants of Jan Tiebout via Genealogy.com. 2009. Retrieved 2010-08-01.
  6. ^ a b c d Van Wincle (1902). "Old Bergen: History and reminiscences with maps and illustrations. J.W. Harrison. Retrieved 2010-08-01.
  7. ^ a b c Riker, James (1881). "The Reformed Church." Harlem (city of New York): its origin and early annals. Retrieved 2010-08-01.
  8. ^ a b c d Taylor, Benjamin Cook (2009). "The Voorlesers, or Choiristers and Clerks." Annals of the Classis of Bergen, of the Reformed Dutch Church and of the Churches Under Its Care. General Books LLC. Retrieved 2010-08-01.
  9. ^ a b c d e f Van Winkle, Daniel (1910). "History of Bergen Village." The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-08-01.
  10. ^ Russell Shorto, (2004). ISBN 0-385-50349-0 "The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America." The Island at the Center of the World (New York, Doubleday). Retrieved 2010-07-15.
  11. ^ a b Holland Society of New York (1914). "Bergen Records." Yearbook of the Holland Society of New-York. Retrieved 2010-08-01.
  12. ^ Nelson, William (1882). "New Barbadoes." History of Bergen and Passaic counties, New Jersey: with biographical sketches of many of its pioneers and prominent men. Everts & Peck. Retrieved 2010-08-01.