Thursday, September 7, 2023

Today on the Christian History Almanac podcast, we recount the remarkable life of Elie Neau of New York by way of France and the Caribbean.

It is the 7th of September, 2023. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at I’m Dan van Voorhis.


A truly remarkable story- and there is a good chance you have never heard the tale of Elie Neau or (Naud), who was born on the west coast of France in 1662. Like many on the coast, he was both raised to be a sea merchant and was a Protestant- the French reformed Christians, or Huguenots, made up a majority in the region, and the Edict of Nantes afforded them religious protection.

In 1674, at the age of 12, Neau became a cabin boy aboard a ship and worked his way up to merchant by 1679 and the age of 17. He would settle in Saint Domingue- a French colony in what is today Haiti. He lived life, in his own telling, of pleasure and contributing to the market for those items which necessitated the importation of African slaves.

He was still, nominally, a member of the Reformed church, and while that technically was illegal and not covered by the Edict of Nantes, most colonial governors didn’t enforce the ban. But in the 1680s, King Louis XIV began to crack down on his larger goal of absolute rule. Turning more to the things of God, Elie decided to move to Boston, where other French refugees had set up. There he met his wife, Suzanne. They would have one daughter who died in infancy and then a son. Now more committed to his faith, he moved to New York with his family to be closer to his wife’s family and to attend the French Reformed church there. The English Navigation Acts required that he become a British citizen if he were to continue as a merchant on the Atlantic, and he did.

But it was in 1692, during the War of the League of Augsburg (in which the English and French were pitted against each other), that his ship was taken by a French privateer. In order to keep the ship from being sunk, Elie gave himself up as a ransom and was taken to France. Despite his English citizenship, it was illegal for a Frenchman to flee the country for religious reasons. He was offered the option to convert or face life imprisonment. He would take life in prison and was first sent to the Galleys aboard French slave ships. He made his way from galley to dungeon to prison- often moved because of his influence in ministering to other jailed Protestants. He was given the name “the minister” for his ministering and singing hymns and psalms (many of which he wrote in prison and had to sing to commit to memory). William III- the Dutch king of England, was concerned with imprisoned Protestants, and in 1698, Louis XIV pardoned Neau. He then traveled across Europe trying to have his fellow prisoners pardoned before 1699, when he made it back to New York, where his wife, son, and new daughter awaited him.

But Elie was a changed man. He would still work as a merchant but wanted to work with the English Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. One of the things the society did was set up schools for the poor. Elie sought permission to open a school for Africans and natives- the English society agreed (he would have to join the Anglican Church), but the locals were none too happy. The keeping of slaves in New York was prevalent amongst the Huguenots and others who were scared that if these slaves were catechized and baptized, they could claim personal freedom. The church insisted that even if they were baptized, it didn’t mean a changing of earthly estate. Elie reluctantly agreed to the arrangement, and his school was soon taking in hundreds despite local opposition.

In 1712, a slave riot broke out in New York, and despite Elie and his students having nothing to do with it, he and they were scapegoated as instigators. The school lost much of its support and goodwill. Elie would continue to travel to try and raise funds but was never able to find the same success as before the riots. Both his children and wife would die before him, and he himself would die on this, the 7th of September in 1722. Elie Neau was a merchant, a prison minister, and a teacher of the poor and enslaved- the Church of England- and the church he attended- Trinity Wall Street; remember him especially on this anniversary of his death.


The last word for today is from the daily lectionary and the Scottish Metrical Psalter- Psalm 149:

1  Praise ye the Lord: unto him sing

         a new song, and his praise

      In the assembly of his saints

         in sweet psalms do ye raise.

   2  Let Isr'el in his Maker joy,

         and to him praises sing:

      Let all that Zion's children are

         be joyful in their King.

   3  O let them unto his great name

         give praises in the dance;

      Let them with timbrel and with harp

         in songs his praise advance.

   5  And in his glory excellent

         let all his saints rejoice:

      Let them to him upon their beds

         aloud lift up their voice.


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 7th of September 2023, brought to you by 1517 at 

The show is produced by a man whose favorite “knots” include the Hugo-, the sheet bend, the rolling hitch, and the garlic- he is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man who knows one knot- the one for shoelaces… that’s all I got-  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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