Elie Neau (1662-1722) – Biography

Confessor of Jesus Christ
Mystic of the Galleys
Friend and servant of slaves
Catechist and lay leader

Born in 1662 on the west shore of France, Neau grew up illiterate in a Reformed family and took the sea at a young age as a cabin boy, before becoming a sailor.[1] In 1679, when the persecution of Protestants was increasing in France, he seized an opportunity to sail to the West Indies. In that period preceding the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, the Protestants in France saw progressive restrictions on their religious liberties granted by the Edict, through violence, intimidation, and the destruction of their churches. Neau’s life in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (present-day Haïti) was to be foundational as he experienced there a religious conversion that strengthened his faith and personal piety. However, finding that the repression of Protestantism had also reached the Caribbean, Neau—like many others—relocated to Boston. There he married another réfugiée, Suzanne Paré, with whom he had two children who died young. He also received his letter of denization that made him a subject of the Crown of England, changing his nationality. While involved in the cloth business in Boston, Neau also met with the famous John Eliot who was then ministering to the Native American people in Roxbury and who translated the Bible into their local language. The five years Neau lived in Massachusetts—before relocating to New York in 1691—sowed the seeds to what would later become, during and after terrible years of captivity and slavery, his innovative ministry.

In 1692, while he was commanding a merchant ship on a routine journey to Jamaica, he was captured by a French privateer. The privateer sailed back to St Malo in France with Neau as a hostage. The authorities there soon realized that Neau who told them he was as an English subject was also a Protestant who had fled France without the King’s permission (although the decree that enforced it was passed after Neau’s flight). As he refused to abjure his faith, he was condemned to galley slavery in perpetuity. On May 3, 1693, eight months after his capture, Elias Neau was chained in Rennes together with about two hundred other men who as galley-slaves were condemned to march to Marseilles in a public demonstration of royal power through humiliation. Carrying chains that weighed 50 pounds, the marching prisoners suffered from lack of food, dysentery, and exhaustion. At their arrival in Marseilles, each convict was assigned a number (Neau was 15 717). Neau was chained to a narrow bench with four other men, where they “rowed together, ate, slept, and were obliged to carry out their natural functions.” The convicts were, as Elie Neau relates, “devoured in winter by lice and in summer by bugs and fleas” and “forced to lie one upon another as hogs in a sty.”[2] In this situation they were also under the permanent cruel supervision of the commanders of galleys and subject to the assaults of Roman Catholic missionaries sent to convert them.

Neau’s preaching, singing of the psalms, and successful conversion of fellow convicts on the galley resulted in his imprisonment in the Château d’If, a fortress in the bay of Marseilles. There, Neau got access to an English Bible bound with a Book of Common Prayer and could also at times write hymns and letters to his wife and brothers in Christ. His conditions of detention got worse, and he was transferred to solitary confinement in the pit of the dungeon, without windows nor light, his cloths rotting on him, surrounded by rats and dampness. He described this moment of his life as “une mort vivante” (a living death) yet a moment in his life when he left the extraordinary comforting presence of Jesus Christ with him.

Thanks to his network in England which was actively lobbying, Neau was released in 1698 in the wake of a treaty between England and France. The news of Neau’s Christlike trials and liberation spread quickly throughout the Protestant world where he became an example of steadfast faith. On his way back to America, in London, he published in the English language a very short semi-autobiographical Account. Now a freeman, his efforts were directed towards raising awareness about other galleys salves and prisoners people unjustly detained in France and raising money to secure their release.

Neau sailed back to America and arrived in New York in the fall of 1699. He returned to the French Church who elected him to the position of Elder and retrieved his prosperous business situation. However, things would not be as they were before his liminal and transformative experience of God’s redeeming grace in slavery. In a letter to Benedict Calandrini in Geneva dated September 27, 1699, Neau concludes his account of the warm welcome he received in New York this way: “A present, il ne me reste qu’à me consacrer toute ma vie au service du Glorieux monarque de l’univers.” (“All that remains for me to do now is to devote my whole life in the service of the glorious king of the universe.”) This service meant caring for the about 1,500 uneducated and enslaved people who were living in New York at that time. Afflicted by the situation of the slaves, Neau made a plea to the Society of the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG), a missionary society of the Church of England, asking it to appoint a catechist to slaves. After some discussions, in which Neau’s lay status posed a problem, the position was finally granted to him. He received modest funds to pursue his educational work while also getting support from the New York Assembly. Developing this ministry meant that he had to conform to the Church of England and to set aside his lucrative business activities. In Oct. 1704 he resigned as an elder of the French Church and joined Trinity Church, Wall Street. An Anglican, he understood the reasons why many wouldn’t conform to the Established Church and join Trinity Church the “sole and only” Church of England parish in the City of New-York, established in 1697. The chief factor in his becoming an Anglican was his high regard for the Book of Common Prayer which had sustained him in captivity. He surely also considered the fact that his joining the Anglican Church guaranteed a greater support to his mission from the SPG. Neau taught slaves in the homes of willing masters for the first year, before meeting in the belfry of Trinity Church and later in the evening on the third floor of his house. After ten years he had 154 slave pupils, 44 of whom he sponsored for baptism. After the slave revolt of 1712, he was once again the object of violent persecution by the white residents of the city who blamed him for sparking the revolt by educating the slaves. In order to facilitate this work, he created a catechism and translated the Lord’s Prayer into several African languages. Neau’s school was the first school for slaves in New York, and one of the earliest in America. He worked as an educator until his death in 1722, when he was buried in the Trinity Church cemetery.

[1] See Ruth Whelan’s “The extraordinary voyage of Élie Neau (1662c.-1722), naturalized Englishman and French Protestant galley slave.” in Proceedings of the Huguenot Society XXIX (4) 2011.

[2] Elie Neau. An Account of the Sufferings of the French Protestant, slaves on board of the French king galleys. London, 1699. p. 8. Hereafter referred to as Account.

Other source: https://blackpresence.episcopalny.org/person/elias-neau/