The True Reformed Church of Passaic


By Dr. William H. Rauchfuss 
 Passaic County Historical Publication – September 1, 1929

Years ago, situated on Main Avenue, Passaic, on the site of the present Hobart Trust Company’s building, stood a charming old church edifice upon a high bank, which was of great importance in its day, and it is rather regrettable that the encroaches of civilization and improvements necessitated its demolition, for, even had it stood there, with the adjacent real estate booms, what harm would it be to see that house of Good still standing?  Trinity Church, New York, in its present location, is on ground worth millions, but its intrinsic value is nothing compared to its sacred sentiment.

The church referred to in Passaic was called “The True Reformed Church of Passaic, whose history follows.  Incidents of the greatest value and interest could be recited, but we must forego many on account of lack of time

The title will be a trifle puzzling to the average person, but its history occurred in this wise: According to the “History of Bergen and Passaic Counties,” we read:  “This church, like all those of the order to which t belongs, originated in the controversy of 1822-25, in which exceptions were taken by part of the Reformed Dutch Church and ministry to the modified Calvinism promulgated by Dr. Hopkins.  Those objecting to the Hopkinsian doctrine of atonement and natural ability, and adhering to the old confession of the Synod of Dordrecht, styled themselves the “True Reformed Protestant Dutch Church,’ and have since maintained a separate ecclesiastical organization.”


“The True Reformed Church of Acquackanonck” was organized by the Classis of Hackensack in April 1825, with fifty-six constituent members.  The first consistory was composed of Elders Walling J. Van Winkle, Garrit Bush, Abraham Lindford, John G. Van Riper, Deacons Henry Schoonmaker, Garrit Cadmus, Henry Kirk, (and) Andrew B. Van Bussum.

The church was incorporated under the name of “The Ministers, Elders and Deacons of the True Reformed Church of Acquackanonck,” June 15, 1825.  The Rev. Peter D. Froeligh was the first pastor, and remained in that relation until his death in February 1828.  Since then, a period of over fifty years, they have had but one pastor, the Rev. John Berdan.   This venerable minister, who has been in the service of the church of his first choice for more than half a century, was reared as a farmer, and, although not possessing the advantages of a collegiate education, received upon examination by the Classis a high compliment for his self-acquired attainments and scholarship in polemic divinity, and in the Hebrew, Greek, and Latin languages; and, contrary to the usual custom of the Reformed Church, was licensed to preach without the requisite of a college diploma.  His memory and intellect were remarkable in early life, and he still retains them (1882) in an unusual degree for one of his age.  For many years he preached in both Dutch and English to equal acceptance, discoursing from the same text to a Dutch congregation in the afternoon which he had elucidated to an English-speaking congregation in the morning.  Mr. Berdan accepted a call to the pastorate of this church in August 1830, having preached six months as a candidate.  He was ordained in October, and installed in December 1830.


passaic_refchThe church edifice was built of brick and stone, erected in 1825, on a lot that was given for the church and burying ground by Mr. Abraham Ackerman.  The style was of the early period, with its steeple and weathervane pointing its finger toward heaven.  Early in 1892, I made a sketch of its façade, afterward making a drawing of same, a tracing of which is framed and I beg to present it to the society for its archives.

How well I recall the day I stopped at Passaic to sketch and measure the old church.  At that time Dr. Andrew B. Vanderbeek’s father was the pastor, and who resigned at a later time and went to Grand Rapids, Michigan (1889-1892).  As I entered the old church for the first time, I felt rather reverential, for its old pastor for so many years, the Rev. John Berdan, was my mother’s uncle, and this same dear old gentleman had often dangled me on his knee when I was a little boy, and I will always recall him with a feeling of veneration.  At the front of the church, inside, opposite the pulpit, was the choir with a small organ, although “Dominie” Berdan objected to musical instruments, and they used to have a leader facing the congregation who conducted the long metre praises.

There were three doorways at the entrance, three windows on the second floor, with a circular slatted window at the angle of the roof.  Above this was the square wall rising several feet, terminating in a circular dome with a railing around it.

Beneath the middle upper window, right above the center door, was the dedication stone (therefore it could not be called the corner stone).  On it read the inscription:

“EBENEZER, saying ‘Hitherto hath the Lord Helped us.’  1 Samuel 7:12”

It was a dear little church, evoking a spirit of devotional reverence in the breast of many a person.  And to think it is but a memory!  But no one, after all, can prevail against evanescent conditions, for we know, “There is nothing permanent but change.”

In 1890, so many of the church people had died, married or moved away to other places.  Dominie Vanderbeek found it necessary to make a change.  As the majority were living in Paterson, he took it upon himself to call on all the families he knew of, to start here a church.  The congregation had been meeting in the basement of the old home of Dominie Berdan on North Main Street (Still standing), so this was deemed too small.  They hired the Swedenborgian Church, corner of Division Street and Berdan Alley.  That was too small, also, so they built a church on 52 North First Street, where the Lambert Bewkes Shirt Company are now located.  But when it opened, the place so overflowed that they had to send out for folding chairs.  The result was an addition to the building.  However, about 1905 this church was burned.

From this catastrophe, a new church was created, Dominie Vanderbeek being one of the commissioners who undertook an amalgamation of others, and from that the Third Christian reformed Church was formed, of which the Rev. John Westervelt was the faithful pastor, for many years, only resigning recently, and his successor has just accepted and about to assume charge.  For the first two years Dominie Vanderbeck was pastor, followed by Dominie A. Van Houten, and the Rev. Mr. Westervelt came next.


“Dominie” Berdan, as he was always called as a preacher came from early French Huguenots, who emigrated here over two hundred years ago.  The first one landed on Long Island, at what is now Brooklyn.  As the families grew, they scattered here and there, some going to Hackensack, Preakness and Slotterdam, running from Passaic River to Saddle River.  Such names appear as John, Richard, Reynier, Albert, David, Stephen, (and) Jacob.  About 1810, the father of John Berdan, with two other sons, Jacob and Garret, went to Preakness to live.

Rev. John Berdan was born at Slotterdam, Saddle River Township, Bergen County, N.J., on February 5, 1797.  His father Jacob Berdan was twice married – first to Sarah Van Emburgh, who bore him three children, Richard, Charity (who married Peter Vorhis), and Leah (who married Jacob I. Zabriskie).  And secondly to Catherine Bellue, an English lady, whose children were Jacob, John and Garret.

The early life of John Berdan was passed on his father’s farm at Slotterdam, where he was educated at the district school.  Later he moved to Preakness, where his father died in 1815.  He inherited a portion of his paternal farm, and lived there until 1824, then moved a mile south.

July 25, 1816, he married Leah, daughter of David and Annie (Van Saun) Demarest.


In 1828, feeling a special call to consecrate himself to the service of God, he commenced the study of theology under the care of the Classis of Hackensack of the True Reformed Dutch Church, with Rev. James G. Brinkerhoff, of Mountville, Morris County.  After a year and a half of good faithful study, and a prayerful one, he was licensed to preach in April 1830.  That year he preached in the True Reformed Church of Acquackanonck Village (Passaic). Later that year receiving a call to settle as permanent pastor from that church, and also at the church at English Neighborhood and Hackensack.  He continued to preach for fifty-one years in the same pulpit.  Even at eighty-five years of age, he preached at Passaic in the morning and in the afternoon at Paterson.

He lived on North Main Street for many years, coming to Paterson in 1864.  He was a venerable and lovable old gentleman.  He qualified as an ideal minister, strong in the faith, and lived a consistent Christian life.  For years he preached in Holland at Passaic to the Dutch settlers there, and united about one hundred couples of that race in marriage.  He averaged over one hundred sermons a year, with his lectures, and had a wonderful memory, being able to tell the subject of each sermon for fifty-one years and quote the text.

His memory ran back to long before Paterson was even settled, and was a wilderness.  He certainly believed in prohibition, for this is what is written of him:  “He was well preserved, but never used tobacco or liquor in his life, is tall, erect, and well developed – a man of strong nerve, and one of the last representatives of that race of giants that laid low the forests of our virgin country and submitted its soil to the share of the husbandman.”


Surely some anecdotes are now in order, relative to this old Passaic church and the beloved pastor, “Dominie” Berdan.  He was very fond of fun; had a stock of stories, and would laugh heartily when he finished one.  One time, he said, his wife had given him a piece of cherry pie.  He got a cherrystone stuck in a hollow molar, and then stated; “he was so afraid that a cherry tree would grow out of his mouth.”

In the little church at Passaic, as stated, no musical instruments were used, except a tuning fork, and my cousin, Mrs. James Keeley, of Ridgewood, told me that her mother, Mrs. Maria Hellings, often stood up, sounded the keynote on the fork and then they would sing.  They also had to bring foot stoves in the wintertime, for the church was very cold.

When funerals were held there, the corpse was not buried until the day after or so, for the burial took place in the rear of the church, which was stone and this had to be cut out.

In the summertime, when the mourners gathered at a funeral, they brought with them some strong-smelling flower, (p)ansy or tube rose, for they had no ice then and the both was at times very much in evidence to the olfactory gland.

When this old church was torn down, William Spickers, of Paterson, bought the old timbers, which he said were all seasoned and perfect for the making of violins.  So we see that the old church, through its own very life or body, is still charming the world through the violins that are here, there and everywhere.  This seems a blessed thought to m(e).