A Biography of Élie Neau
Confessor of Jesus Christ
Commemorated by The Episcopal Church on September, 7th

“Through love become slaves to one another” Gal 5:13

At the foot of the skyscrapers of Wall Street in New York City is a small cemetery with leaning tombstones. It is the cemetery of Trinity Church, now called Trinity Church Wall Street; the oldest Anglican church in the city. Among the graves is that of a Frenchman, a Huguenot by the name of Elie Neau, who died on September 7, 1722. Elie Neau. Elie/Elijah, like the prophet; and prophet he was, in his own way. And Neau, a fairly common name in the Charentes region of France where he was from and where he was born in 1662. He came from a poor Protestant family and took to sea at a very young age. First as a cabin boy, then as a long-distance sailor. It was aboard the ships leaving from La Rochelle or Bordeaux engaged in transatlantic trade with the West Indies that Neau sailed to America for the first time. The life of Protestants in France was increasingly hard as their freedoms were eroded under the successive blows of royal absolutism. Many Protestants abjured, and others fled the Kingdom to take refuge either in the Protestant countries of Northern Europe or their colonies. Like them, Elie Neau took refuge in Boston in the 1680s. There he met Suzanne Paré who became his wife, and who, like him, was a refugee. The couple then moved to New York where Neau was a merchant. Having become a British citizen, he was now permitted to command a ship and it was on board La Marquise, a small ship of 80 tons, that he embarked on August 15, 1694, bound for Jamaica. What was supposed to be a journey without great difficulty, however, would radically change the course of his life. Barely fifteen days after his departure off the island of Bermuda, his ship was captured by a privateer from St Malo who took him prisoner and brought him back to that Breton city. At St Malo, the Judge of the Admiralty soon realized that Elie Neau was a French Protestant who had fled the Kingdom, an act forbidden by royal proclamation. Brought before the court, he defended himself with courage saying that the Gospel commands us, if we are persecuted in one country, to flee to another. But the judge rejected this argument, and accused him of blasphemy.

Neau remained four months in the prisons of St Malo where he resisted many temptations that came in the form of threats as well as promises. He was then sent to Rennes to appear before the Grand Chamber of the Parliament of Brittany. He was asked the same questions. Terrified at first, he responded with the same constancy and the same faith: if he refused to convert it was because his conscience prevented him from doing so. At the end of the interrogation, the judge concluded with these words: “it is a great misfortune for you to be born in that Religion, and that the Holy Ghost has not enlightened you. Withdraw.” Neau was brought back to his prison, and on April 3, 1693 he was attached to a Great Chain gang with 59 other slaves condemned like him to the galleys. Under the rain, for more than a month, barely fed, always tied up, sleeping in stables and suffering from dysentery, Neau and his fellow sufferers crossed France from province to province, picking up others on the way, until they reached Marseilles on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Neau was committed to a galley by the name of La Magnanime. The galleys were floating royal prisons which rarely left the port and into which political and common law prisoners were crammed. Five of them per chiourme, the benches where they were chained. Their heads were shaved; they were malnourished, scantily clad, devoured by fleas and vermin. They suffered under the beatings and the continual violence of the guards. The Protestants who represented a relatively small number of these unfortunates were particularly harassed by the Catholic priests and friars. But aboard his galley, Neau encouraged his co-religionists to resist and even helped to convert a Catholic prisoner, earning him a beating and then a transfer, on May 3, 1694, to the dungeons of the Citadel of Marseilles, the Fort Saint-Nicolas. In his prison where he slept directly on the stones, without straw, the order was given that no one speak to him and he was forbidden to send letters. In this most total isolation, in his sufferings, he prayed and praised God while singing the psalms. And God visited and consoled him.

After a year, the chaplain to the governor of the Citadel visited him. He was horrified, and cried out “Lord, in what condition are you, Sir!” Elie Neau replied: “Sir, don’t pity me, for could you but see the secret pleasures my heart experiences, you would think me too happy.” He sang of the consolation and joy he was finding in Jesus Christ his Savior because he himself was experiencing the Cross. On scraps of paper and stored in his memory, he composed hymns which he published after his release.

A year later Elie Neau was transferred to the Château d’If, a military fort at the entrance to the harbor of Marseille. Even while men and demons were raging against him, even while his clothes rotted on his body, he wrote that his prison was “admirably converted into a place of freedom” because “it is here”, he said, “that is place of battle. I am in the middle of the enemy camp. You must overcome or perish eternally.” The victory finally arrived, on July 3, 1698, almost 6 years after his capture. Thanks to the intervention of the Earl of Portland, extraordinary ambassador of the King of England to the court of France, he was freed with another of his companions in misfortune. He then left Marseille, leaving behind 370 prisoners whom he would not forget, and whose names he would publish as soon as he was released. He left France via Geneva and Holland, welcomed everywhere with honors. He was received in London by the King before returning to Boston, and finally to New York. In a letter he sent to a friend just after his return to his adopted homeland, he wrote: “Now it only remains for me to devote my whole life to the service of the Glorious Monarch of the universe.” He returned to his life as a merchant and also became one of the Elders of the French Church (now the French Church du St. Esprit). But something was troubling him deeply.

In this American colony where almost all the settler families had slaves, the inhuman conditions in which they lived reminded him of his own condition as a slave in France. The majority of the colonists considered Africans as beasts without any need for God. What could he do? Where and how could he devote himself to the service of his Savior who freed him? He then learned of the founding of a new Anglican missionary society, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, to which he addressed a letter. Although still French Reformed, Anglican piety and especially the Book of Common Prayer had sustained him in his captivity whenever he could gain access to a copy. The Society undertook to support him to begin a new work which he considered highly necessary: the creation of a school for the poor of the city, the children, the Indians and especially the African slaves. The governor of New York, Robert Hunter encouraged him, but the hostility and opposition of white settlers was not long in coming. If these African slaves were to be baptized, said the settlers, could they also claim political freedom? Is this English missionary society that supports Neau seeking to enforce judgments already given by several courts in England according to which no Christian can be held in slavery in perpetuity? Elie Neau sought to alleviate their fears by following the line of the Anglican Church in America he had just joined. They supported slavery because, they believed, baptism did not erase the social conditions of noble or common birth, or the condition of slavery. Accustomed to the inhuman conditions of his slavery in France, Neau visited the slaves in their sordid quarters, he encouraged them in their faith and prayed with them when they were sick. Though at first receiving little support from the Rev. Vesey, the Rector of Trinity Church, Neau soon won his sympathy. His efforts also began to bear fruit, and, thanks to an act from the governor confirming the rights of the slave masters, nearly a hundred students met at Neau’s home three evenings a week. In a room in his own house, and then in the steeple of Trinity Church, Neau instructed them in the Christian faith, taught them to pray, listened to them, and prayed with them. More and more of them were being baptized, and African couples started to bring their own children to be baptized. In 1712, however, the situation changed radically. A group of slaves attempted an uprising, the first slave uprising in North America. Five settlers were killed, others injured, twenty-one slaves were executed. Among the white settlers, the rumor spread everywhere that this would never have happened if Neau had not opened his school for blacks and filled their minds with revolutionary ideas. The hatred against Neau was so violent that for several days he could not leave his house. The fact that among the insurgents only two were students of Neau did not change anything. The Rector of Trinity Church became lukewarm in his support of Neau and refused to baptize some of the candidates Neau presented to him. The local clergy had never appreciated the fact that Neau’s responsibilities were entrusted to a layman. He was also criticized for having continued some commercial activities even while receiving a small stipend from the missionary society. Dismissed for a little while from the school, he finally returned to take charge of it. But the revolt and its consequences on the mindset  of the settlers dealt a blow to his enterprise. Sixty years old, 300 years ago, Elie Neau, whom the Episcopal Church recognizes as a saint and who recognized himself as a sinner, died in New York City. A slave, he was the friend and supporter of slaves in Europe and America, making accessible to them the resources of forbearance and friendship that people who are suffering unjustly can find in Christ. His faithfulness through suffering in imprisonment has made him a model for many French Protestants who fought for religious toleration, the rights of minorities, and campaigned for prison reforms. In America, the descendants of the African slaves catechized by Elie Neau continued to worship at Trinity Church until they founded their own parish The Free African Church of St. Philip, which became in 1818 the first black congregation received into the Episcopal Diocese of New York.

The life of Neau is revealed to us through his hymns, his testimonies, his letters, in the places where he lived and suffered, in St Malo, in Rennes, in Marseilles and New York City; his whole lifetime brings us into the presence of the mystery of the Cross: the instrument of torture of the Son of God, reserved for slaves, and which nevertheless gives us life. Neau, the slave is not easily chained and imprisoned because he belongs only to God. French or American? Huguenot or Anglican? Man of the land or of the sea? Mystic or reformer? Moral supporter of slavery or teacher of resistance for slaves? sinner or saint? It is perhaps in the midst of all these identities that he is so much like us, and why he is so close to us today.

Joris Bürmann, MA, MDiv


Short Bibliography

Historical Sources

  • Elie Neau. An Account of the Sufferings of the French Protestant, slaves on board of the French king galleys. London, 1699. (available on Google Books)
  • Histoire des souffrances du sieur Elie Neau, sur les galères, et dans les cachots de Marseille, Édition et présentation de Didier Poton et Bertrand Van Ruymbeke, Paris, Rivages des Xantons, Les Indes savantes, 2014

Translated into English as:  Jean Morin, A Short Account of the Life and Sufferings of Elias Neau: Upon the Gallies, and in the Dungeons of Marseilles; for the Constant Profession of the Protestant Religion. Newly Translated from the French, by John Christian Jacobi, Gent. This Treatise was Printed at the End of The New Book of Martyrs, Lately Published by the Recommendation of the Rev. Mr. Bateman, … London: John Lewis, 1749. (available on Google Books)

Academic Research

  • Cohen, Sheldon S. “Elias Neau, Instructor to New York’s Slaves.” New York Historical Society Quarterly 55 (1971): 7-27.
  • Hewitt, John H. “New York’s Black Episcopalians: In the Beginning, 1704-1722.” Afro – Americans in New York Life and History (1977-1989), vol. 3, no. 1, 1979, pp. 9–9.
  • Whelan, Ruth. “The extraordinary voyage of Élie Neau (1662c.-1722), naturalized Englishman and French Protestant galley slave.” in Proceedings of the Huguenot Society XXIX (4) 2011.
  • Whelan, Ruth. Soul Songs: A Snippet View of Élie Neau’s ‘Hymnes, ou cantiques sacrés’ (1718) in LIAS, Volume: 48, Issue: 1, 2021, p. 63-122.
  • Van H. Sauter, Suzanne. Elias Neau (c. 1662-1722): Also known as Elie Naud: Huguenot, Refugee, Ship Captain, Prisoner, Poet, Merchant, Catechist, Teacher. Presentation to the Huguenot Society of North Carolina, 4/14/2012.