Narrows Sunday School: Religious education in 19th Century Brooklyn

Narrows School book 1832The following post was authored by our Spring 2015 Library and Archives processing intern Stephanie Coy. It highlights one of several collections which she has cataloged this spring.

In 1988, Brooklyn Historical Society purchased a manuscript that chronicled the weekly activities of the Narrows Sunday School during the period of 1834–1845. The Narrows Sunday School was founded by Dr. John Carpenter in the Village of Fort Hamilton in 1825. After three years of successful service to the village’s residents, the school moved to a chapel building adjacent to the Dutch Reformed Church in the Town of New Utrecht (located at 18th Avenue and 84th Street in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn) where it enjoyed a larger student body and more patronage from wealthy Dutch families. The Sunday school has been in continuous existence at that location ever since!

This manuscript represents a snapshot of life and religious education in Brooklyn during the early 19th century when urbanization was beginning to take hold. With many notes about the moral beliefs of the students and teachers, weather patterns, techniques used in the education system, and the habits and etiquette observed by the staff, this manuscript offers the opportunity to study the lifestyles and beliefs common to teachers, students, and families of Kings County in the first half of the 19th century. This record book complements a large collection at BHS of other materials related to religious education in 19th century Brooklyn.

Perhaps most remarkable about the manuscript itself is its humor. For example, in the tutorial at the front of the book on how to log entries, it states:

“Thomas Wilson, discharged to-day, is a bad boy: his parents have put him to a farmer in the country.”

And on September 15, 1839, with attendance low, the writer notes that if something is not done, there will be “but little or nothing for the poor secretary to make minutes of than the number of flies that lite on the ceiling.”

Narrows School 1839-09-15

May 17, 1840:

“Miss Sarah Van Brunt committed matrimony & removed from the place,” and “the school has by this catastrophe lost one of its more efficient teachers.”

At a special meeting May 9, 1841, called to better organize the school, the “only measure proposed & not objected to was a resolution of Miss Jane Cortelyou ‘that hereafter she would not laugh in school – if she could help it.'”

June 27, 1841:

“Very warm. The school seems to be melting away. Some classes entirely gone. Scarcely a grease spot left.”

May 25, 1845, the secretary asserts a visitor came ostensibly to hear the children sing but “more probably to see Matilda Church if we might be allowed to give our own opinion,” with further comments on the topic in the following entry.

Narrows School 1845-06-15

Later, on June 15, there is somewhat sharper criticism of teachers for “laughing and talking” and a complaint the unclean schoolroom is “more like a hogpen than a place for decent people….”

On the more serious side, there are notes on founding a sewing club, raising money for the school, trips to New Utrecht, collections for missions, scholars’ exams at Flatbush, preparations for anniversary events, etc. Sometimes a religious topic is noted, as on May 8, 1842, when the “girls recited proofs to the May subject ‘That the Holy Spirit is the author of our Sanctification.'” There are also frequent notes on weather, especially as it influences attendance at the school.

This manuscript record reveals the individual personality and social outlook of teachers in southern Kings County in the mid nineteenth century. It documents the early history of a Brooklyn based religious education institution that still remains active to this day. Finally, it is also an important portrait of the early Dutch settlers in Kings County, especially as pertains to the more influential families of the van Brunts and the Bennetts.


“New Utrecht Notes: Interesting History of the Reformed Sunday School at Fort Hamilton.” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, NY), Jun. 10, 1894.

About John Zarrillo

I am an archivist at Brooklyn Historical Society. My job is to make the historical records of Brooklyn openly available to students, scholars, and anyone else interested in the borough's past!
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