Huidekoper, Harm Jan

Harm Jan Huidekoper
Harm Jan Huidekoper

Harm Jan Huidekoper (April 3, 1776–May 22, 1854) was a businessman, philanthropist, essayist and lay theologian, a vice president of the American Unitarian Association, and a founder of the   Meadville Theological School. Not well-known in the annals of American Unitarian history, he was nonetheless acquainted with many prominent Unitarians in his time. His church, the Independent Congregational Church, at Meadville, Pennsylvania, was among the earliest Unitarian churches west of the Appalachian Mountains.

Huidekoper was born in Hoogeveen, Province of Drenthe, Holland, to Anne Jans Huidekoper and his second wife Gesiena Frederica Wothers. Religiously, his paternal family were Mennonites. According to his son Alfred, the Mennonites, “ in their practical views resemble in many respects the Quakers.” Harm Jan was educated at first in a dame school and later in the Hoogeveen village school. At age 10, he was sent to a boarding school at Hasselt, Holland, where he remained until he was 17. Before leaving Hasselt, he was admitted to the Dutch Reformed Church, admission to which required reciting the Heidelburg Catechism verbatim with scriptural supports. Huidekoper next attended college at Crefeld, Germany, thanks to the aid and influence of his half-brother John. Here Harm remained until 1795. Upon leaving Crefield, his brother John offered him the opportunity to either work at his Amsterdam mercantile house or of immigrating to North America. America, Huidekoper felt, “offered plenty of scope for individual exertion.” After spending a year at home, Huidekoper left from Amsterdam in August 1796.

He would spend 63 days at sea. During the sail, Huidekoper spent his time learning English. Finally, in October 1796, his ship landed in New York harbor. He soon made his way into the hinterlands. He spent his first winter at Cazenovia, New York with the intention of becoming a farmer come the spring. He found, however, the winters horrible and the lands inhospitable. That next summer (1797) he served as a clerk for John Lincklaen, the Holland Land Company agent for the vicinity. Thus began Huidekoper’s nearly forty year affiliation with the Holland Land Company. By the next fall he had relocated to Oldenbarneveld, where several Dutch families resided. His relocation proved fortuitous. In Oldenbarneveld, he became acquainted with Francis Adrian van der Kemp, a political refugee and also a Unitarian; and Adam Mappa, a soldier and friend of van der Kemp with whose family Huidekoper boarded. In time, Mappa would become the local land agent for the Holland Land Company. Huidekoper became his clerk in 1799.

As Mappa’s clerk, Huidekoper made a name for himself and in 1802 was called to Philadelphia to become the bookkeeper for Paul Busti, Agent General for the Holland Land Company. Around the same time, he was selected to become the bookkeeper for the Population Land Company as well. Upon Busti’s removal from Philadelphia, Huidekoper was nominated to replace him. The year also saw him travel west to his future home, Meadville, Pennsylvania, for the first time. Huidekoper was unimpressed with the community, noting “the place has little importance, and the houses . . . do not present a very attractive appearance.” Huidekoper spent nearly a month here sorting the records for the local Holland Land Company agent, Roger Alden, whose bookkeeping skills were lacking. On his journey back to Philadelphia, Huidekoper visited his friends at Oldenbarneveld whom he had not seen since his removal.

In 1804, Huidekoper was joined at Philadelphia by his brother Pieter. That same year, Roger Alden, the Meadville Holland Land Company agent, resigned his position. Seeing an opportunity in the west to better provide for his brother and to settle down, he applied for and received the position. He left for Meadville that September and, after some delay, arrived in early November to assume the agent duties. His immediate duties at Meadville included clearing the squatters from the Holland Land Company land, a matter which was eventually decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in Huidekoper’s Lessee v. Douglass in February 1805.

Harm Jan Huidekoper
Harm Jan Huidekoper

Despite the demands of the land company, Huidekoper was able to settle down as he sought. In 1805, Huidekoper purchased nearly thirty acres of land near the edge of town and arranged to have a house built. This was the beginnings of the Pomona estate, vestiges of which still dot Meadville in place names. As he arranged his estate, Huidekoper was undoubtedly planning his future. He had already been attempting to woo Rebecca Colhoon, of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, but with little success. With persistence, however, Huidekoper eventually won her heart and they were wed on September 1, 1806. Seven children were born to the Huidekopers: Anna Appolina (1807–1808), Frederic Wolthers (1808–1816), Alfred (1810–1892), Edgar (1812–1862), Anna (1814–1897), Frederic (1817–1892), and Elizabeth Gertrude (1819–1908).

As it was closest to his religious upbringing, Huidekoper attended—but never joined—the Presbyterian church in Meadville. His wife was a member of that church. Lack of membership did not prevent him, however, from taking different leadership roles to support the church. He was among the “committee of sale” who organized the auction of pews to finance the building of a brick church building for all the Meadville congregations to worship in; Huidekoper himself purchased twenty pews in the church.

It is unclear when Huidekoper converted from the Calvinism of his youth to the Unitarianism that would define his later life. According to Huidekoper, his conversion came about through his own scriptural study that he undertook to give his children religious instruction. It is likelier, however, that Huidekoper’s conversion had multiple sources. Both places where Huidekoper had resided before Meadville—Oldenbarneveld and Philadelphia—were sites of early Unitarian churches.

More importantly for Huidekoper, however, was his friendship with the Pittsburgh glass manufacturer Benjamin Bakewell. One senses from reading their correspondence that Bakewell was critical for Huidekoper’s conversion to Unitarianism. While most histories date Huidekoper’s conversion to hearing Rev. Campbell’s dedication sermon at the Pittsburgh Unitarian church in 1823, Bakewell and Huidekoper’s letters reveal that Huidekoper was entertaining Unitarian beliefs prior to this time. Moreover, it is Bakewell who suggested specific Unitarian books for Huidekoper’s study. Later, after the American Unitarian Association (AUA) was founded in 1825, Bakewell sold Huidekoper his first tracts for distribution. Huidekoper’s friendship with Bakewell would last until the latter’s death in 1844.

Huidekoper’s Unitarianism was an anomaly in the predominantly Methodist and Presbyterian Meadville. Despite his Unitarian beliefs, Huidekoper continued attending the Presbyterian church. He also served as a trustee to Alleghany College in 1822. (Alleghany College—later changed to Allegheny College—was founded by Presbyterian minister Rev. Timothy Alden in 1815.) After a change in the ministry at his church, Huidekoper found himself the subject of attacks from the new Presbyterian church minister and from the Rev. Timothy Alden, both of whom shared strict Calvinist interpretations of Christianity and the trinity. Seemingly, it was at the insistence of the new minister that the Erie Presbytery moved to expel those congregants with Unitarian or Universalist ideologies. In protest, Huidekoper closed his pews at the Presbyterian church and he resigned from the Alleghany College board of trustees.

The Alleghany College library in Meadville was the largest in the the west. In 1819, William Bentley, Unitarian minister of Salem, Massachusetts willed his “. . . classical and theological books, dictionaries, lexicons and Bibles” to the library. Bentley’s donation included works by Theophilus Lindsey and thirteen works by Joseph Priestley. A second collection was donated by William Bentley’s friend, Harvard librarian James Winthrop. After reviewing a copy of the Catalogus bibliothecæ collegii Alleghaniensis (1823), Thomas Jefferson said the donation “. . . of Dr. Bentley is truly valuable for its classical riches, but Mr. Winthrop’s is inappreciable for the variety of branches of science to which it extends. . . . “

For the first time in his life, Huidekoper was called upon to defend his Unitarian faith. Aside from attacks at church, he was also being attacked in the local Meadville newspaper, the Crawford Messenger. The newspaper debates lasted through 1826. In the meantime, he had sent to the east and secured a Bowdoin College student John Mudge Merrick to come west to tutor his children. Merrick would lead the first Unitarian services in Meadville, usually biweekly in the brick Presbyterian church, from October, 1825, until returning east in October, 1827. It would be over a year before another Unitarian minister would come to Meadville. Merrick’s pastorship was just the start for the emergent congregation; more families joined Huidekoper in his liberal Christianity. Finally, on May 21, 1829 a constitution, entitled “Fundamental Principles,” was adopted and the Independent Congregational Church was founded under Huidekoper’s guidance.

The 1830s proved a fruitful decade for Huidekoper. His land speculations continued to profit and by the end of the decade, he bought out the remaining lands from the Holland Land Company. The decade was also intellectually fruitful in that Huidekoper focused more of his attention on Unitarian apologetics. He began the decade in a debate with the pseudonymous “Petitioner” in the Crawford Messenger over the religious nature of Sunday mail delivery. Writing under the name “Oberlin,” he refuted “Petitioner’s” claim that Sunday constituted a mandated day of rest. Such a view, he argued, amounted to making Christianity an established religion under the Constitution and for this reason he opposed it. The debate lasted from April until November in 1830 when he was confronted by a different writer styling himself as “A Presbyterian.” “Presbyterian” called Huidekoper’s Unitarian beliefs into question.

Huidekoper responded, in kind, with a 14-page pamphlet called, A Letter on the Unitarianism of the First Three Centuries of the Christian Era, later republished in his Unitarian Essayist and the first issue of The Unitarian in 1834. By the beginning of 1831, he had joined with Ephraim Peabody, the minister at the Meadville church, to write a series of essays defending Unitarianism. The result, in January 1831, was The Unitarian Essayist, believed to be the first Unitarian periodical published west of the Appalachian Mountains. With Peabody’s removal to Cincinnati in July 1831, Huidekoper continued the Essayist until December 1832, when his “private affairs” made it impossible to continue. Despite his business affairs, he was still able to write occasionally. The Universalist Adin Ballou reprinted and reviewed Huidekoper’s article “On Man and His Destiny” in his newspaper, the Independent Messenger, in late 1833. Huidekoper wrote a reply for the Independent Messenger that appeared in July 1834.

Huidekoper returned to regular writing soon after. In March 1835, Ephraim Peabody invited him to submit articles to a new magazine to be published at Cincinnati, under Peabody’s editorship: the Western Messenger. Throughout its six year run, he contributed a total of 28 articles to the Western Messenger, even as the editorship changed from Peabody, to James Freeman Clarke, and finally to William Henry Channing. Huidekoper watched with disdain as the Western Messenger increasingly took on a Transcendentalist bent. Despite this, he was able, in 1840, to publish a review of Orrestes Brownson’s essay on the laboring classes, though the editor issued a statement disagreeing with his arguments.

Meadville Theological School from Nina Moore Tiffany and Francis Tiffany biography, 1904
Meadville Theological School from Nina Moore Tiffany and Francis Tiffany biography, 1904

The 1830s also proved rewarding for Huidekoper’s relationship with the AUA. After his exchanges in the local press, Huidekoper was made the Meadville agent for the AUA and the overseer of the AUA Meadville auxiliary. Huidekoper held this post from 1830 until at least 1834; the 1835 and 1836 AUA annual reports do not list auxiliary members. Huidekoper was able to recruit ten members for the auxiliary who help distribute AUA tracts. The year 1836 was a seminal year for Huidekoper. In this year, he purchased the remaining 58,300 acres of land from the Holland Land Company for the sum of $178,400. The year also saw the completion and dedication of a new brick Unitarian church in Meadville, aided by Huidekoper’s philanthropy. The next year, he was selected as one of the fifteen vice presidents of the AUA, a position he held for 10 years until the AUA reorganized its constitution.

By all accounts, the 1830s were some of the most productive and progressive in Huidekoper’s lifetime. He had made his mark in the AUA, managed to increase his landholdings in Western Pennsylvania, and his family was increasing through marriage. His sons, Alfred and Edgar, both married and had children within the decade. His youngest son, Frederic, had entered Harvard University in 1834, studying mathematics. Poor eyesight forced Frederic to abandon his studies until 1841 when he returned to pursue a private study of theology. In August 1839, his eldest living daughter, Anna, married James Freeman Clarke. Yet the decade did not end well for Huidekoper. Exactly two months after Anna wed, Huidekoper’s wife Rebecca, who had become an invalid in her later years due to ill health, died. She was buried alongside their deceased children in the family burial plot on the Pomona estate.

The 1840s were a time of transition for Huidekoper. Well established in business, he sought new avenues for his life as his family flourished. From the time of his wife’s death until 1843, the historical record is surprisingly quiet for Huidekoper. After his wife Rebecca died, his daughter Anna returned to Pomona to be with him and her sister Elizabeth. James Freeman Clarke came to Pomona soon after. By 1841, however, the Clarke family had removed to Boston where James set about founding a new church, to be known as the Church of the Disciples. Huidekoper’s son Frederic left for Europe in 1839, returning to the United States in 1841 to continue his Harvard studies; Frederic would finish but not graduate in 1843.

Huidekoper published only once on Unitarianism after the Western Messenger ceased publication in 1841. The circumstances of this publication involved a crisis at the First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh, the church of his friend Benjamin Bakewell. The Pittsburgh church had struggled to maintain a minister after the death of their first minister in 1824. This issue appeared to be allayed in 1839 when Benjamin Bakewell’s cousin or nephew, William, moved to Pittsburgh to assume the pulpit. By 1843, however, the membership of the church had fallen. Worse yet, William Bakewell soon renounced his Unitarian belief and joined the Episcopal church. He did so publicly first by writing an article for The Episcopal Recorder entitled “Unitarianism Renounced,” then more locally in an expanded pamphlet entitled Unitarianism Untenable.

It is unclear whether Huidekoper was asked to or whether he felt duty bound to respond, but within a couple months, he had issued a response to William Bakewell’s pamphlet. His response was published first in the Christian Register and Boston Observer in August 1843, then reprinted in The Monthly Miscellany of Religion and Letters in September. Huidekoper then expanded his essay to a 47-page pamphlet entitled, Unitarianism the Doctrine of the Bible. In it Huidekoper, in his typical style, responded point-by-point to each of Bakewell’s claims. On one point, however, he had to admit that Bakewell’s argument was correct. Bakewell had noted that while other Christian denominations were expanding in the west, Unitarianism was still confined largely to the east coast. This Huidekoper could not refute, observing that among Unitarians, “the standard prerequisite theological training is much higher; and hence there is a constant deficiency of proper ministers for the missionary service.” These words proved telling for Huidekoper’s next endeavor.

Around the time Huidekoper responded to Bakewell’s pamphlet, he met the Rev. Jesse E. Church, a local minister of the Christian Church. At the time, some members of the Christian Church still sympathized with Barton Stone’s rejection of the trinity, despite the merger of the Stonites with the Trinitarian Campbellites in 1832. Huidekoper asked Rev. Church several questions about the Christian Connexion, including whether the denomination had seminaries for training ministers. Finding the connexion did not, Huidekoper is said to have suggested to Rev. Church that there was a need for a school to train ministers. Thus the seeds for the Meadville Theological School were sown.

On October 12, 1843, Harm Jan Huidekoper watched, in the brick church he had helped finance, as his son Frederic Huidekoper was ordained as a missionary or minister-at-large. Frederic’s active ministry did not last long as his father and the Rev. George W. Hosmer, who had come from Buffalo to preach the ordination charge, encouraged him instead to undertake the creation of a theological school. Frederic would be the brains of the operation, purchasing books for the curriculum and garnering support of the American Unitarian Association, while Harm Jan Huidekoper would be the financier.

To promote the school’s success, Huidekoper provided his son with $500 for books and other expenses related to opening the new school. He also provided funding to support his son so that the theological school would not have to pay Frederic for his teaching. In addition to this support for Frederic, Huidekoper also purchased the first “Divinity Hall” for the school. It was a former Cumberland Presbyterian Church, and he also ensured the building was remodeled for instruction. In less than a year following Frederic’s ordination, the first class of the Meadville Theological School commenced, October 1, 1844, in the basement of Alfred Huidekoper’s house, the “Divinity Hall” still yet uncompleted.

Huidekoper was seventy years old in 1846. For the next eight years, Harm Jan Huidekoper actively oversaw the operations of the Meadville Theological school as chairman of the board of trustees. During these years, he would watch as 47 students graduated from the school. He died on May 22, 1854. Death came suddenly, as James Freeman Clarke noted in an obituary in The Christian Examiner and Religious Monthly: “After a happy day, he retired early, in his usual health. In about an hour his children were called to his side, and in another hour, the spirit, well taught by life’s experiences, had taken a step onward, and passed the veil.” He was interred next to his wife and children in the family cemetery at Pomona (later the graves were moved to the Huidekoper plot at Greendale Cemetery in Meadville). After the funeral, a mourner remembered Harm Jan Huidekoper in a verse from the Scottish poet John Wilson: “The body in the grave is laid, / Its beauty in our hearts.”


The majority of Huidekoper’s personal letters are held at the Crawford County Historical Society in Meadville, Pennsylvania. Huidekoper’s granddaughter, Elizabeth Kidder, deposited other family papers with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Huidekoper’s correspondence with Benjamin Bakewell is accessible at the Detre Library and Archives, Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Andover-Harvard Theological Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts has Huidekoper’s correspondence with the American Unitarian Association, while the Houghton Library, Harvard University, has his correspondence to Andrews Norton. Lastly, the Crawford County Historical Society deposited Huidekoper’s letters on the founding of the Meadville Theological School with the school; they are available through the Wiggin Library at the Meadville-Lombard Theological School in Chicago, Illinois.

The standard biography for Huidekoper is Nina Moore Tiffany and Francis Tiffany, Harm Jan Huidekoper (1904), accessible through Google Books, the Internet Archive, or through HathiTrust. The Tiffany’s relied on many family letters and Huidekoper’s autobiography, written around 1839. Extant copies of Huidekoper’s handwritten autobiography are held at the Crawford County Historical Society; the Historical Society of Pennsylvania; and the Andover-Harvard Theological Library. In 1951, the Huidekoper progeny transcribed and privately published the Autobiography to honor the 100th birthday of Huidekoper’s granddaughter, Elizabeth Kidder. Huidekoper’s son, Alfred, also authored a brief biography of his father, Biography of H.J. Huidekoper (1879). Huidekoper’s most complete collection of essays is his
Unitarian Essayist
(1832), while his later views are expressed in the pamphlet, Unitarianism the Doctrine of the Bible (1843). The Huidekoper family genealogy is compiled briefly in an appendix to the Tiffany biography listed above. Fuller accounts are given by Huidekoper’s grandson, Frederick Wolters’s pamphlets: Huidekoper: American Branch (1904) and Huidekoper: Holland Family.

Huidekoper’s involvement in the Holland Land Company is dealt in greatest detail in Paul Demund Evan’s dissertation entitled The Holland Land Company (1924). Additional details, albeit from a Marxist perspective, may be found in Robert D. Ilisevich’s article, “Early Land Barons in French Creek Valley,” Pennsylvania History (1981). Huidekoper’s son, Alfred, also penned a brief history of the Holland Land Company that was included as an appendix in Tiffany’s biography. The standard history of the Western Messenger is Robert Habich, Transcendentalism and the Western Messenger (1985). Habich also identifies Huidekoper’s contributions to the Western Messenger in his article, “An Annotated List of Contributions to the ‘Western Messenger,‘” Studies in the American Renaissance (1984). Charles E. Blackburn provides a short history of the Western Messenger in his “Some New Light on the Western Messenger,” American Literature (1954). A brief summary of Huidekoper’s articles may be found in Judith Kent Green’s “Conservative Voices in the ‘Western Messenger:’ William Greenleaf Eliot and Harm Jan Huidekoper,” Harvard Theological Review (1984).

Huidekoper’s contribution to founding the Meadville Theological School is ably covered in Francis A. Christie The Makers of the Meadville Theological School, 1844–1894 (1927) as well as Charles H. Lyttle Freedom Moves West: A History of the Western Unitarian Conference (1952 & 2006). George Willis Cooke also provides a chapter on the Meadville Theological School in his Unitarianism in America (1902). Additional information may be found in Kathleen Parker Here We Have Gathered: The Story of Unitarian Universalism in Western Pennsylvania, 1808-2008 (2010). For more on the Meadville congregation see Earl Morse Wilbur A historical sketch of the Independent Congregational Church, Meadville, Pennsylvania, 1825-1900 (1902). Two articles on Huidekoper’s son are also useful: Henry H. Barber “Frederic Huidekoper 1819-1892” in Heralds of a Liberal Faith, Volume 3 (1910), and Bruce M. Stephens, “Frederic Huidekoper (1817-1892): Philanthropist, Scholar, and Teacher” in Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography (1979)

Article by Andy Pochatko
Posted March 25, 2018