Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Today on the Christian History Almanac podcast, we remember the first Episcopal Bishop of New York and America’s first chaplain: Samuel Provoost.

It is the 6th of September, 2023. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at I’m Dan van Voorhis.


I am fascinated by the transition in American history between the colonial era and the birth of the country. Sometimes, all of this is telescoped together into “1776,” but we forget that the period of struggle and the birth of the republic took decades. And there were people who lived through it- were at once English citizens and then orphans and then Americans.

And, being my interest in Church history, I am intrigued, especially by the ecclesiastical side of this transition. You may have heard me tell retold to me by my friend, and friend of 1517, Jacob Smith, the rector of Calvary St. George. An Anglican Church, it was named for King George and then the revolution… so, gone was King George, and in came the mythical “St. George.”

And one man’s life encapsulates this transition- a man who attended King's College only to find himself later an alum of the newly named “Columbia University.” He was Samuel Provoost, the descendant of French Huguenot’s  (Protestants) who fled to the Netherlands and then to New Amsterdam in 1642.

Samuel was born 100 years after his family immigrated in February of 1742 and was baptized in the Dutch Reformed Church. He attended King's College and was the youngest member of its first graduating class. In 1761, he set sail for  England to attend Cambridge. The Dutch Reformed church in New York had been heavily influenced by the local Anglicans, and Provoost felt comfortable in the church of England. In 1766, he graduated from Cambridge, married, returned home, and was appointed as an assistant Minister at Trinity Parish in Manhattan.

However, discontent was prevalent amongst many of the colonists, and tensions grew between the loyalists and the Whigs. Most of the Anglican clergy were loyalists- many of the congregants were, at least by default. Samuel Provoost was anything but. He was an ardent whig who criticized the crown and its policies towards the colonists. This, and his possibly dry preaching style, led to heavy criticism. He was preaching in New York at the same time as Francis Asbury. Asbury, the Methodist preached in an enthusiastic style common amongst some American churches. One contemporary wrote of Provoost: “As a preacher, he was not so happy… [he] rendered the public services of the Church tedious and laborious to himself and to his hearers”.

But his preaching, tinged with a Revolutionary tone, turned many of his colleagues against him. For instance, in one sermon, he said, “We are fighting for our laws and for our liberties, for our friends, families, and country….then will the divine protection be the glory of our land, and upon that glory, there will be a defense”. In 1771, he was forced to resign his position after the church stopped paying him, requiring him to raise his own salary.

For 14 years, he lived on the estate of friends, where he farmed and studied botany.

Burned on account of his political leanings, he tried to distance himself from the cause in 1776. He was invited to preach before the Convention of 1776 but sent a note that he believed in “the justice of the cause.” 

With the end of the Revolution, the Anglican Church became the church of the so-called “Whig Episcopalians”. Provoost was called back to New York and invited to be its first Bishop. But how would this work amongst a people with a distaste for English customs? The Anglican Church in England allowed for the consecration of Bishops in the new country and permitted, among other things, the dropping of certain titles by the Americans and the adoption of an American Book of Common Prayer.

Provoost is credited with deftly handling the situation- as a man who lost his job for supporting the Revolution, he had clout. He was invited to preach at the church service to accompany the inauguration of George Washington and was the first person to be named chaplain to the Senate.

Personally, he underwent other tragedies. This is from a contemporary source: “The death of Mrs. Provoost, in August 1799, after a long illness, was a great blow to the Bishop; In the ensuing July, he followed to the grave his younger and favorite son, who came to a most distressing end, while his cup of misery was filled to the brim by the conduct of his only surviving son.”

Provoost retired in 1801 and kept abreast of affairs in the church and convention until his ill health prevented him.

Samuel Provoost, the first Episcopal bishop of New York and Senate Chaplain died on this, the 6th of September in 1815. Born in 1742, he was 73 years old.


The last word for today is from Matthew 12:

After healing a demon possessed man and being criticized:

25 Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. 26 If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? 27 And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. 28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. 


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 6th of August 2023, brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a man whose favorite Columbia alumni include Provoost, Tommy Boy’s Brian Dennehy, the real Grandpa Munster, and the fictional Jessie Spano, who declined Stansbury to go to Columbia. He is  Christopher Gillespie

The show is written and read by a man who will never tire of Saved by the Bell references. I’m Dan van Voorhis

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be OK.

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