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Rt Rev. Samuel Provoost

Annals of the American Pulpit;
Or Commemorative Notices of Distinguished American Clergymen of Various Denominations

Edited by William B. Sprague.

New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1859.

Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, 2008

SAMUEL PROVOOST was a descendant of William Provoost, of a Huguenot family, who made his escape from France at the time of the massacre of St. Bartholomew, and came to New York, then New Amsterdam, in the year 1634. He was the son of John and Eve (Rutgers) Provoost, and was born in the city of New York, on the 26th of February, (O. S.,) 1742. After going through his preparatory course, he entered as one of the early students of King's (now Columbia) College, then occupying a frame building in Trinity Church yard; and was one of a class of eight that graduated at its first Commencement, in the year 1758.

His ancestors, for several generations, had belonged to the Reformed Dutch Church. At what time, or under what circumstances, he joined the Episcopal Church, is not known; but it has been supposed that he may have been somewhat influenced in making the change, by pursuing his collegiate course under President Samuel Johnson, who was a vigorous advocate of Episcopacy, and by afterwards residing, for some time, at an English University: and it has been suggested also that a reason for his leaving the Dutch Church might have been the pertinacity with which the Consistory refused to have part of the services conducted in the English language.

In the summer of 1761, he embarked for England. He arrived at Falmouth in September, and in November following entered Fellow-Commoner of St. Peter's College, Cambridge. Though, as was common at that time in the English Universities, he mingled freely in scenes of gaiety, he was by no means lacking in due attention to his studies. His father allowed him a private tutor,--the celebrated Dr. Jebb, with whom he formed an intimate friendship, and continued in correspondence as long as Dr. J. lived.

Soon after he commenced his course at Cambridge, he seems to have resolved on entering the ministry, and to have kept that in view in the subsequent prosecution of his studies. On the 3d of February, 1766, he was admitted to the Order of Deacon, at the Chapel Royal of St. James' Palace, Westminster, by Dr. Richard Terrick, Bishop of London; and on the 25th of March following, was admitted to Priest's Orders, at the King's Chapel, in Whitehall, by Dr. Edmund Kean, Bishop of Chester.

While at Cambridge, Mr. Provoost became an intimate friend of his fellow-student, Benjamin Bousfield, of a wealthy Irish family, who afterwards became distinguished as a member of the Irish House of Commons, and even ventured to engage in a controversy with Edmund Burke. On a visit of his widowed mother and her daughter Maria to Cambridge, while the two friends were there, a mutual attachment was formed between this young lady and Mr. Provoost, and they were married on the 8th of June, 1766, in St. Mary's Church, Cambridge, by one of the Senior Fellows of Trinity College.

Soon after his marriage, Mr. Provoost returned to New York with his bride, and in December, 1766, accepted a call to become Assistant Minister of Trinity Church, which embraced also St. George's and St. Paul's Chapels; the Rev. Samuel Auchmuty being Rector, and the Rev. John Ogilvie and the Rev. Charles Inglis, Assistant Ministers.

In 1768, Mr. Provoost visited his wife's relatives in Ireland. He returned the following year, and, shortly after, a difficulty arose between him and the Vestry, the result of which was a dissolution of his connection with Trinity Church. One ground of this difficulty was that a portion of his hearers charged him with not being sufficiently evangelical in his preaching. Another was that his views of the contest which was then just opening between the Colonies and the Mother Country, were not in accordance with those of the majority of his parish, and were regarded as indicating disaffection towards the government, and a tendency to rebellion.

Suffice it to say that, under all the circumstances of the case, he thought proper to quit the parish, and soon after, the city; removing to a small farm which he purchased at East Camp, then in Dutchess County, N. Y. He settled here with his family, in the latter part of 1770, or the beginning of 1771; from which time till the close of the Revolutionary War, he seems to have lived in perfect retirement, occupying himself chiefly with literary pursuits.

Mr. Provoost's political opinions, which were adverse to his comfort and usefulness in the city of New York, operated very differently in other parts of the country, and especially in the neighbourhood in which he lived. His name was placed, by some of the leading politicians of the day, at the head of a list of persons who were to be delegates to the Provincial Congress; but he could not be induced to accept the office. He had also the offer of a settlement over several parishes, where his politics would have been rather a recommendation; but he uniformly declined, on the ground that he was unwilling to appear to avail himself of his politics for acting towards his brethren who differed from him, in a manner that "might be imputed to mercenary views, and an ungenerous desire of rising on their ruin." He also declined the office of Chaplain of the Convention, which met at Kingston in 1777, and formed the first Constitution of the State of New York.

After the British had burnt Esopus, in September, 1777, Mr. Provoost, and a number of his neighbours, hearing that a detachment of English soldiers had landed on their side of the river, armed themselves for the defence of their property, and set out in search of the enemy. They found themselves in a situation, however, in which the concealment of their persons became essential, if not to the safety of their lives, at least to their security from capture. Their discretion prevailed, and they experienced no injury.

On the termination of the War, Mr. Provoost's condition and prospects underwent a favourable change. It was claimed by those members of the church, who had been driven from their homes during the War, that no election of Vestrymen, while the city was in possession of the enemy, was valid; and the question being referred to legal adjudication, it was decided in their favour. The consequence of this was that, early in the year 1784, a new Vestry was chosen which unanimously elected Mr. Provoost their Rector. He accepted the office, and shortly after returned with his family to the city. One effect of this was that his property was restored to him: and from this time he was not only relieved from pecuniary embarrassment, but was rendered so independent that he was able to indulge the disposition he had always had for a generous hospitality.

In November, 1784, Mr. Provoost was appointed a Regent of the University of the State. On the removal of the Continental Congress from Trenton to New York, in November, 1785, he was elected its Chaplain.

After the re-organization of the Episcopal Church in the United States, subsequently to the Revolution, Mr. Provoost, on the 13th of June, 1786, was chosen Bishop of New York; and, three weeks after, was honoured with the degree of Doctor of Divinity by the University of Pennsylvania. Early in November following, he embarked, in company with Dr. William White, Bishop elect of Pennsylvania, for England, with a view to obtain Consecration to the Episcopate. They were, accordingly, consecrated on the 4th of February, 1787, at Lambeth Palace, by Dr. John Moore,-- Archbishop of Canterbury,--the Archbishop of York, the Bishop of Bath and Wells, and the Bishop of Peterborough participating in the Consecration. Their object being thus accomplished, they returned, shortly after, to this country, and reached New York on the 8th of April. Bishop Provoost received, on his return, a hearty welcome from all denominations.

At the organization of a new Congress, under the present Constitution, in 1789, Bishop Provoost was elected Chaplain to the Senate of the United States.

In August, 1799, Mrs. Provoost died, after a lingering illness; and, in the ensuing July, he followed to the grave a favourite son, who died a very distressing death; and another son, the only one who survived, occasioned him great unhappiness by his erratic behaviour. In the mean time, his own health had become seriously impaired, and he was induced, on the 8th of September, 1800, to resign the Rectorship of Trinity Church, after having held it nearly seventeen years.

His exercise of the Episcopal office continued till the 3d of September, 1801. The Convention was then in session, over which he presided till the moment he made his resignation verbally, and retired. The resignation was accepted and a successor chosen; though the House of Bishops, when the matter came before them, took care to say that they judged it inconsistent with the sacred trust committed to them to recognise the Bishop's act as an effectual resignation of his Episcopal jurisdiction; and that, while they were ready to consecrate a person, to render him competent to all the Episcopal duties, it must be explicitly understood that they should consider such person as Assistant or Co-adjutor Bishop, during Bishop Provoost's life.

The first Consecration of a Bishop in which Bishop Provoost took part, was that of the Rev. Thomas John Claggett, D. D., for the Church in Maryland, in September, 1792; and the last was that of the Rev. John Henry Hobart, D. D., for the Diocese of New York, in May, 1811. His first Ordination was admitting to the Order of Deacon, Richard Channing Moore, in July, 1787, and his last was admitting to the Priesthood the Rev. John Henry Hobart, in April, 1801.

Bishop Provoost suffered occasional attacks of an apoplectic character, in one of which he died very suddenly, on the 6th of September, 1815, aged seventy-three years and six months. His Funeral was numerously and respectably attended in Trinity Church, where an appropriate Sermon was delivered by the Rev. William Harris, Rector of St. Mark's Church.


NEW YORK, June 30, 1855.

Dear Sir: The generation with which Bishop Provoost was more immediately connected, have all passed away. I am among the few who remember him, as a man advanced in life when they were young; and though my recollections of him are neither so minute or extended as might be desirable for your purpose, yet such as they are, they are quite at your service. As I was brought up in the Episcopal Church, I occasionally saw him in private, sometimes heard him preach, and once at least was present when he conferred Orders. I have a distinct recollection of his appearance and manners, and my impressions in respect to his character, though formed more from the testimony of others than from personal observation, cannot, I think, be wide of the truth.

Bishop Provoost, as I remember him, was rather above than below the medium height, and was somewhat inclined to corpulency, though he had, on the whole, a fine commanding person. His face was round and full, and had something of the bon vivant about it; which was not at all strange, considering what were the social and festive usages of that day. He had a strong, intelligent cast of countenance, which was well fitted to command attention and respect. As might have been expected from his early training, and from his having always been accustomed to move in the higher circles, his manners were those of an accomplished gentleman--he was graceful, social, self-possessed, and thoroughly acquainted with all the forms of polished society.

I am not aware that Bishop Provoost was ever considered as greatly distinguished for his intellectual powers; and yet I think he was always looked upon in this respect as considerably above mediocrity. He was a highly educated man, having enjoyed the best opportunities for improvement that could be furnished either in this country or in Great Britain. He was a fine classical scholar, and was thoroughly versed in Ecclesiastical History and Church Polity. Besides being well acquainted with the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, he was a proficient in French, German, and Italian; and it has been said that, as a literary recreation, he made a new version of Tasso. He had a taste also for the Natural Sciences, and especially for Botany. While he was at the University of Cambridge, he gave much attention to this branch, and formed an extensive index to the elaborate Historia Plantarum of John Bauhin, whom he calls "the Prince of Botanists" in a written leaf of his own copy of that work. He possessed a large library, part of which was given by his son-in-law, the late Hon. G. D. Golden, to the New York Hospital, and a part to the New York Historical Society.

As a preacher, Bishop Provoost's chief attractions consisted in a fine, imposing appearance, a good voice, and a felicitous command of language. He had little gesture, and generally no great animation; though there were occasions on which his mind became considerably excited, and he spoke with much more than his usual force and vigour. He did not belong to the straitest sect of theologians, nor was his religion characterized by any great fervour: both his Theology and his standard of Christian character were probably about the same as generally prevailed in the Established Church of England at that day. After his return from Ireland, a short time previous to the commencement of the Revolutionary War, he seems to have found an unpleasant state of things existing in his parish, occasioned partly by the attachment of some of his people to the ministry of Whitefield and his coadjutors. The following extract from a letter which he wrote about that time, may serve to illustrate his own religious views, as well as the general character of his ministry:--"I should think my situation perfectly agreeable, if it were not for the bigotry and enthusiasm that generally prevails among people here of all denominations. Even the Church, particularly the lower members of it, is not free from the general infection. As I found this to be the case, I made it a point to preach the plain doctrines of religion and morality in the manner I found them enforced by the most eminent divines of the Church of England. This brought an accusation against me by these people, that I was endeavouring to sap the foundations of Christianity, which they imagined to consist in the doctrines of absolute predestination and reprobation, placing such unbounded confidence in the merits of Christ as to think their own endeavours quite unnecessary, and not in the least available to salvation; and consigning to everlasting destruction all who happen to differ from them in the most trivial matters. I was, however, happy enough to be supported by many of the principal persons of New York."

Though Dr. Provoost had probably little sympathy with the views and feelings of most other denominations of Christians, his general courtesy was never affected by any considerations merely denominational. For instance, he was in very agreeable, and I believe intimate, social relations, with most of the clergymen of the Presbyterian and Reformed Dutch Churches; and I suspect he rarely made a dinner party but that some of them were among his guests. An Episcopal clergyman from Ireland had come to this country, and I believe, through the Bishop's influence, had obtained employment, both as a teacher, and as a preacher in St. Anne's Church, Brooklyn. As the Bishop was about to ordain one or more persons to the ministry, he invited this Mr. W. to preach on the occasion. Dr. Beach, the Bishop's Assistant Minister, sent invitations to Dr. Livingston, Dr. Rodgers, and some other of the ministers of the city, not connected with the Episcopal Church, to be present. The Irish parson took it into his head to magnify his office that day by a very bold defence of the doctrine of Apostolical Succession, involving rather a stern rebuke to those whom he regarded as preaching without any authority. Though it is not likely that the Bishop dissented from his views, he felt that it was at least an apparent discourtesy to his friends who were present at the service; and he was evidently not a little annoyed by it. Old Dr. Rodgers, in speaking of it afterwards, shrewdly remarked,--"I wonder from what authority the Bishop derived his baptism,"-- referring to the fact that he had been baptized by Dominic Du Bois in the Dutch Church.

Bishop Provoost commanded great respect from the community at large. The public duties belonging to the Episcopate he always discharged with freedom and dignity; and though the number of his Clergy was very small, I believe they generally regarded him with deference and good-will. He was distinguished for his public spirit, philanthropy, and patriotism. He distributed to the necessities of the poor with a more liberal hand, it was thought, than his means would justify. He entered heartily into plans for public improvement, contributing his influence or his money, as either might be called for. His love of liberty made him a Whig in the Revolution, though, in being so, he incurred the displeasure of most of his brethren. He was a man of enlightened and, in many respects, highly liberal, views; and his death made a perceptible chasm in the intellectual and social circles of New York.

Very respectfully your friend
And humble servant,

[Berrian's Hist. Trin. Ch. N. Y.--Protestant Churchman, 1844.--Evergreen, I. MS. from G. B. Rapelye, Esq.]

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