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Cortland Van Rensselaer

Cortlandt Van Rensselaer Sr. by Jacques

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Cortland Van Rensselaer, son of General Stephen Van Rensselaer III and grandson of Philip Livingston, signer of the Declaration of Independence, was born in 1808 in the Van Rensselaer Manor in Albany NY. The Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society gives an account of his life and reads,


“Cortland’s early days were spent under circumstances of peculiar privilege; while, at the same time, the possession of an independent fortune, and the atmosphere of abundance and wealth which he breathed from his birth, necessarily involved a subjection to some very strong temptations. Happily his father was a man, not only of high character in general, but of distinct and decided religious faith in Christ when he was not quite twenty-three years of age, and remaining a consistent communicant in the North Dutch church of Albany to the end of his life.” Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society (1901-1930) Vol. 1, No. 3 March 1902, p 215. 


Cortland, obviously influenced by his father and consistent religious life of his mother, later, changed his originally chosen vocation of law and pursued religious studies. His letter to his mother was published in the Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society. 

Dated September 10, 1830, he wrote:

“This is not a sudden thought, nor the result of a capricious and unreflecting moment. I have deliberated much and weighed the consequences.  I can’t reconcile my present course and profession with my views of duty. It is in vain that I imagine to myself that I am better qualified for public life and the contests of the political world. I feel their vanity and unsatisfying pleasures, and my mind is only at ease when I contemplate my future course as a course of usefulness in the immediate service of God. Who would have thought that I, the most unworthy of all your offspring, would ever have entertained serious thoughts of dedicating himself to his Maker? But my past life, foolish as it has been, ought not surely – nor will it – deter me from aiming at higher things. It is by the grace of God alone that I am what I am; and it is upon the same grace that I rely to bless and prosper my good intentions. The reasons which have influenced my mind in inducing me to abandon my present profession are these:

  1. I consider that every man is under obligations to his Maker to pursue that course in life in which he thinks he can be most useful.

  2. A man of property, who has not the troubles and anxieties of business to divert his mind, is under peculiar obligations to make himself useful.

  3. I consider and firmly believe that those men are the happiest who devote themselves most to God.

  4. My experience leads me to believe that it is almost impossible for me to retain proper religious feelings if I am occupied with the ordinary vanities and pursuits of the world.”

Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society (1901-1930) Vol. 1, No. 3 March 1902, p 217.  



                  Yale University, Woolsey Hall via wikipedia                        Princeton Theological Seminary via


Cortland left his law studies at Yale University and attended Princeton Theological Seminary for two years, he would have graduated from there had it not been for his burden for the slaves in the South. He transferred to Union Theological Seminary in Virginia and preached the Gospel to the slaves in that region. Later, he married Catherine Cogswell, daughter of Dr. Mason Fitch Cogswell. Cortland Van Rensselaer became a Presbyterian minister.  He was a regular preacher at the Second Presbyterian Church of Washington D.C.  and preached for President William Henry Harrison.  When the president was taken ill, Dr. Cortland Van Rensselaer was there. He held a service for the family at the house to offer consolation immediately after the President passed.  


Much of Cortland Van Rensselaer’s large fortune was given to charity and causes he was passionate about. He raised a sizable endowment for Princeton Theological Seminary. He was elected as director of the seminary in 1848 and the following year made a member of the board of trustees. After this, Van Rensselaer began what was called the ‘greatest work of his life’ as he worked to promote Christian education and schools dedicated to religious studies. The result was the establishment of 150 parochial schools, 50 academies and a few colleges.  His productive pen resulted in many books, letters, articles and papers. He established the ‘Home, School and Church’ magazine, devoted to the cause of Christian education. He also was responsible for ten issues of the ‘Presbyterian Magazine’ and the formation of ‘The Presbyterian Historical Society’. He gave the eulogy of Daniel Webster and others, including the funeral sermon of President William Henry Harrison, ‘Man’s Glory Fading but God’s Word Enduring’.

Rev. Cortland Van Rensselaer, 1808 - 1860

Owned by Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts

accessed at sparedshared4 blog.

Dr. Cortland Van Rensselaer died on July 25, 1860.  When news of his illness and impending death reached the members of the Presbyterian Assembly, they wrote a letter sharing their testimony of his work and contribution and gratefully thanked him for his life of labor and sacrifice.  The letter by signed by the officers of the Assembly. Dr. Charles Hodge said that when the letter “…was read to the Assembly in the midst of tears and sighs, and was adopted by the whole Assembly rising to their feet, the oldest minister present gave utterance in prayer to the feelings which swelled every heart. He adds, ‘This is an incident unprecedented in our history.’” Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society (1901-1930) Vol. 1, No. 3 March 1902, p 230. 

Generations later, his great great grandson, Cortland Van Rensselaer Halsey would graduate from Yale. Though I doubt the first Cortland ever regretted leaving to pursue his true calling. 

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