Project Canterbury

The Seaman, His Position and Relations: A Sermon, in Behalf of the Protestant Episcopal Mission to Seamen, Preached in St. Paul's and Christ Churches, Boston, February 5, and 12, 1854.

By George Dudley Wildes.

Boston: Offices of the Witness and Advocate, 1854.


THE age in which Providence has placed our lot, is one strikingly peculiar in its philanthropic aspects; every social deformity seems to be matched by some form of agency for its modification or correction, while no special form of evil is likely to occupy an inferior position in its relation to the aggregate of social evil. The age, too, is peculiar in the fact, that many of its prominent philanthropic features are not identified with what may be termed Church action. How far this fact is the result of the absence of a discriminating, expansive, and energetic practical Christianity, it is not now to our purpose to consider. It may be argued, and we think successfully, that many reforms desirable, nay essential, have concentrated the sympathies, and secured the action of those, whose style of sympathy and mode of action defeat the desired end. It may be further argued, that such sympathy and action are brought into exercise, simply because the Christianity of the age fails to do its proper work; nay, it may be shown still further, that the very evils from which an unchristianized philanthrophy seeks to [3/4] deliver the oppressed and degraded, exist in greater or less degree, because of the presence, not of a pure and active, but of a largely lifeless and inert Christianity. My purpose, however, is to show that the condition of the class of society mentioned in the text, a class least of all contemplated in benevolent action, is in a marked degree a result of this state of things in the professedly Christian community, and in connection with this, to urge some considerations which should lead to prompt, enlarged and earnest action in regard to its spiritual necessities.

“They that go down to the sea in ships." What is this class of society? We believe that much practical ignorance prevails, except in direct commercial circles, in regard to one point at least connected with this question. I refer to that of its numbers. So far removed are the masses of society from any direct relation to the mariner; so entirely disconnected is he with the landward relations, so to speak, of all that is so instrumentally identified with him in its transit from land to land, that we are apt to forget, not only his agency in this, but also his very existence as a mighty element in the world's population. Brought as we are, only incidentally in contact with the too often staggering and reckless seaman, in our streets, we think of him only in relation to the busy and thronging numbers of our land population; we forget that there is the great and wide sea also," with its billowy thoroughfares of stirring and enterprising life! But how easily will a moment's reflection place us right in the matter. Let us put aside statistics, and dwell briefly upon this point, in what may possibly be its more attractive and impressive aspects. Take your stand with me, on some bright morning, on one of the wharves of our own city. As you look around, behold on every side the evidences of an intense life, which your pent-up city view has hitherto failed to place before you. "That leviathan, that taketh his pastime" in the deep, has been matched by those hundred massive structures around you, which, in a beauty unpossessed by him, a strength to breast the surge and storm like his own, and a sublime identity with the works and purpose of man and God, combine to an impression upon the mind unrivalled in its power. Look beyond these seaward, over the face of the rippling waters. Here tall ships are unfolding their white wings for the distant East; there the broad canvass of others is casting its backward shadows, symbolizing the lingering memories of home in the heart of the ship-boy upon the loftiest yard. See, too, how ever and anon, there shoots forth from the interlacing mass of. hull and mast and spar, some gallant bark or some humbler sail contributing to all the changing and wide variety of the seaward view. Look, how for every sail that opens to the early breeze, there is another clued and furled as the homeward bound sweeps to her dock. With every cheerful cry, as pile upon pile lifts itself to the embrace of the favoring breeze, hear the hoarse rattle of the chain, as one and another and another head from the sea to the long-sought mooring. And now reflect for a moment, that precisely this scene of busy life is being enacted, in greater or less degree, in every commercial centre upon our own shores; that across the waters, there are mightier centres still, charged and throbbing with this [5/6] great flux and reflux of mercantile life; that every parallel and meridian upon your world-map is a great highway along which the coursers of the deep are moving in their majestic progress; nay, still further, that the shores of either continent are bounded by a line of' coasting marine, measurable only by the miles of the extent of those shores, and you may form some conception of the multitudinous life that is upon the sea. Add then to this estimate, the marine of the great naval powers: her's, the Island-queen whose flag for a thousand years,

"Has braved
The battle and the breeze;"

his, who beards the Ice-king with his strong ships; his, who with flaunting tri-color almost matches, ship for ship, the ocean-homes of England; his, who fills his “Golden Horn" with slumbering thunder, and waves the crescent in the inmost seas; and her's, our own Land of Freedom, rearing her stars aloft in every port, the radiant emblem of her high destiny, and her protecting care,—and then you may know something of the myriads in whose hands, and by whose energy, this vast result of man's enterprise is directed and controlled.

If I have succeeded in impressing upon your minds any conception of the vast social element represented by those "that go down to the sea in ships," let me now proceed to another point in my subject; I refer to the moral aspects of this class. And when I enter upon this topic, I feel how inadequate is any language of mine to present a faithful portraiture of the real [6/7] condition of this teeming population of the sea. I do not propose to treat this point of my subject in any of the modes usually adopted by the advocate of the cause of the seaman. No man who knows the sailor can have much to do with that sentimental style of apology which addresses itself to Christian sympathy with its tears for the sailor's woes, and its moving appeal for the cause of a being, as it says, "so generous and so noble." Never is a greater mistake made in the cause of Christian benevolence than in the anniversary parade of the sailor's dangers, (depicted often by those who know least of them,) and in the position assigned the sailor on such occasions in the list of Christian charities. The sailor himself, as he listens to such appeals, smiles in far from a spirit of ridicule; his own instincts repel a style of argument for his cause, which places him, as a starting-point, in the position of the suffering beggar at your door. I believe in a higher claim of the sailor for Christian action, a nobler and more Christian style of argument for his cause; and yet my argument must spring in some degree from the array of his degradation.

I start then with the assertion,—based upon many and continued opportunities of observing a state of things, which all that has been effected for the cause of the seaman in late years, has failed largely to remedy,—that, taking into view the relation sustained by the mariner to great commercial Christian nations, the elements entering into the class which he composes, and the indirect agency exerted by him in the conveyance of the blessings of Christian civilization to others, his is the class, the most neglected and degraded in the [7/8] nominally Christian world. I speak not now of individuals, but of the class, and repeat, that as a representative of Christian society, the mariner occupies a position, which casts a broad and dark shadow over, the face of our nominal Christianity. In saying this, I allow for every effort (and there are noble ones) for his moral improvement, and for all that an improved order of naval architecture has incidentally effected for his temporal welfare. Let me again present to you a picture, as illustrative of this point in my subject. "There go the ships" is the language, almost of admiration, used by the Psalmist. There is a noble ship heaving along before the favoring gale for some distant haven. Look at her graceful bearings as she lifts and falls upon the restless wave; measure her beautiful lines as she rests for a moment upon her even keel; see her shake the glistening spray from her crested head as she rises from the embrace of the long swell in her pathway; see, as she springs forward again, how the cloud-like canvass expands for the free wind, and how her delicate tracery of spar and yard and rope, pencil themselves against the blue heavens. Look how the proud flag of her nation sports itself in meteor light, or glittering constellation, almost amid the kindred glories of the skies, and see how, as flag and spar and sail, bend downward to the blast, she spreads to the embracing sunlight, the wave-worn sheen of her coppered bends: and as you see that stately ship pursuing her glorious pathway amid the sunshine, or defiant to the surge and storm, under the close reef of her once broad canvass, tell me, if such a thing of life and beauty is elsewhere to be found. But "there go the ships!" and what now [8/9] characterizes the real life of that noblest product of man's enterprise? Must there not be a moral beauty in the life that is within that splendid architecture? Must we not expect, that if there be life, intellect, heart, directing, controlling, and-animating that form, it shall be that which is pure, that which is elevated, that which shall adapt itself in its moral aspects to so much that is noble and soul-enchanting? Alas, for the answer! Alas, that we should be compelled to say, that with all that goes to render that life one of almost romantic interest, its contrast with the artificial which it controls, is so 'broadly and surely marked. The billow that lifts that noble frame-work upon its heaving breast, lifts with it, in the vast majority of cases, a mass of moral corruption! Within that bow of exquisite symmetry, there is a concentrated and festering mass of moral power,—modified, indeed, by temporary circumstances,—which in hydra shape shall go forth from that ship with a force for evil little estimated among the obstacles to the world's conversion. That ship is the type of thousands upon thousands upon the deep. “There is sorrow upon the sea," but it is not the fell riot of the tempest alone which causes it; it is not to be identified with the varied and terrible elements of destruction incident to a life upon the deep; nay, there is ever a moral sorrow upon the sea, a work of destruction going on in the forecastle, and in hardly more refined forms elsewhere, on shipboard, an awful wrecking of principle in the pent whirlwind of turbulent passions, and a terrible drowning of the best features of our humanity in the circling vortex of vicious associations and indiscriminate companionship! [9/10] Does any one, familiar with the sea), deny this? We tell him he denies from the exception; that he argues from such cases, (and blessed be God there are many such,) as the Gospel would make the rule. We tell him, that for every furrowing keel that parts the bosom of the deep, there are parallels of cursing, and of moral woe,, furrowing the purity of the very skies. We tell him, that every breeze bears upward from myriad ships, the proofs of a depravity in thought, word, and deed, over which angels weep, and Christian men must dwell and pray earnestly, before the ends of the earth can "know of the salvation of our God." If this be not so, tell me why this concentration of depraved forces. rushes with such rapid affinities to its kindred elements upon the shore? Tell me why in every port of the world, there is a quarter, into whose dark and noisome intricacies there haste currents of turbulent life from every docked ship, only to, multiply their debasing pleasures and woes? Tell me why the warehouse and the counting-house in every port, are but the intervening line between the dock and the brothel? Tell me why upon the long voyage, the ship-boy's young heart is made to yearn for the debasing pleasures of the desired haven, and his strained imagination, despite the mother's Bible in his chest, despite her counsels and prayers, made to revel in the syren charms and unrestrained license of a foreign port. We need, not dwell longer upon this point; every seaman knows it. This terrible depravity which is upon the sea cannot be ignored; and they who deny it, can only do so either from modified cases, or from that false sentiment, which makes nothing of the humanity of the sailor, and [10/11] is consequently blind to any moral standard which may be applied to him. It may be said, that the discipline of a ship is left out of sight in this discussion. I shall be told that that discipline is not the law of the sea alone, but has also the sanction of all national law. But I reply that, admitting all this, that discipline is only for temporary purposes; it is by no means in itself conservative of, or influential towards moral ones. Nay, a discipline which, except in some noble instances, recognizes as its instrumentalities the iron, the lash, and the curse—a discipline exerted oftenest by those who afford the example of wickedness in more refined forms when on shore—can only tend to a more forceful expulsion of these corrupt moral forces when freed from restraint. If moral force be not applied to moral evil, no discipline, temporary or permanent, can do more than restrain it. Moral character remains unchanged; nay, it feeds upon itself; it reacts upon its possessor in self debasing practices and self-destructive ends.

And now we say of all this, that it is not a normal or necessary condition of sea-life. Do you tell me that the absence of organized social life upon the sea is productive of all this? Do you say, as is often said, that, with all that you can do, the seaman must be such as he is from the necessity of his position? that the absence of home influences, and the indiscriminate associates of a ship, directly tend to this state of things? This, then, we reply, is rather an inference from that state of things, than from any necessary tendency toward such a state: the condition is one thing; the cause quite another. And we now take the ground, [11/12] that even were these objections true, God has met them by a class of agencies, which, were the seaman's mind and heart properly cared for, would make the ocean to teem with a spiritual and energetic life, more influential toward the conversion of the nations, than all other agencies now in existence. God has made the ocean, with all its splendid variety of sights and sounds, one of the most potently elevating of all the agencies which affect the mind. No man is there "with soul so dead," who does not find its mighty expanse emblematical and mightily suggestive of God's own presence and power. No one is there who has not found its influences stimulant to broader and freer and higher exercise of mind. God has accumulated elements the most stirring over the face and in the changes of the sea, all energetic to holier and purer thought, and higher and nobler purpose. And the real fact is, that it is just because these inherent forces of the sea are not met and preceded by right moral influences, that this result of the moral "sorrow that is upon the sea" occurs.

And this brings me to some considerations of Christian duty toward the seaman, which in the outset I proposed to consider. And first, we say of the seaman, that whatever the outward features of the class or its condition, whatever may be said of that condition as a necessary one, all fail as objections to Christian sympathy and obligation, unless they tend to show that the sailor is not a fellow-being. But with the seaman going forth from the same early homes, the same youthful associations as ourselves, who dare deny that he is a man? He is a man, and his condition a result, [12/13] in the first place, of a view on the part of Christian society, which practically places him beyond the pale of society. He is a man, placed in the relations which he sustains, under circumstances not often taken into view; hence the results to which those circumstances tend, are regarded more as the uniform features of the class, than as the necessary product of the circumstances themselves. The mariner is a man, with mind and heart capable of the same development of character as others, but he is a man commencing life under disadvantages at the start, which would render every other human being precisely as himself. Entering upon his stirring profession at an age and under circumstances calculated of all others to call into play the whole range of the emotional nature, the youthful seaman finds these reproductive of a craving for excitement, to which the evil that is in the world most readily adapts itself. Every phase of his sea-experience is calculated to strain to the very utmost these elements of his nature; and it needs but a slight knowledge of mental phenomena to show, that there is a point at which, under the most favorable circumstances, the strained and stimulated emotions have a fearful tendency toward evil. Analyze, then, the elements of this class of our fellow-men; see that the vast majority in every mercantile and naval marine is composed of the young; nay, that all these enter active life at an age when others are most tenderly guarded by home influence and restraint; think that the seaman's life begins young, and that he generally dies young, and can you wonder, that without the moulding influence of parental care, the constant example of the pure and [13/14] upright, the hallowed associations and the sanctifying power of the Sabbath and the Gospel, can you wonder that the ocean, with its scenes of grandeur and power, the storm, the sunshine, and the calm, the forms of beauty or of terror upon which his eye dwells upon the deep, and the sounds which, while they appal, infuse into his soul a strange and expanding power of delight, that all these become reactively instrumental in forcing him forward into an artificial and stimulated life, into which moral distinctions rarely enter?

The first duty, then, of our practical Christianity, is to recognize the seaman as a man, and to adapt itself, as one of its highest and surest duties, to the circumstances of his life — a man not suffering from any invincible necessity of his position, but suffering and degraded and corrupt, largely from the absence of that regard for his mental and moral necessities, and that provision for his mental and moral elevation, which devolves in God's sight such deep responsibility upon the mercantile classes in nominally Christian countries. L know that the argument in reply to this is oftener one of expediency than of duty. I know that it is said, that if you elevate the class you proportionably diminish its efficiency! Is this ever said of the elevation, of any other elements in society? Has it ever been proved true of any other class? Nay, is it not the great argument of the philanthropy of the age, that the temporal and moral elevation of the lower classes gives dignity and efficiency to labor? And why not with the seaman? Shame upon the weakness, the miserable ill-dealing with the sailor, which can thus reason for the purse of the employer, at [14/15] the expense of the body and soul of the employed! No; regard the sailor as God made him—as a man; send him forth upon the ocean as such; surround him with such appliances as, in the circumstances in which he is placed, an intellectual and moral being should be encircled with, and we much mistake if the highest and most efficient style of man be not developed in the person and character of the mariner. We much mistake if you find not noble deeds of daring, like those recently occurring, the rule instead of the exception. We much mistake if you find not risks diminished, returns increased, society elsewhere elevated in its tone, and the sea and the dwellers therein both ministering to higher and more attractive conceptions of the beauty and order of God's handiwork, because the noblest work of God is thus brought into harmonious alliance with the grandest evidences of his presence and his power?

And the sailor is God's man. If I believe in one thing more surely than another, it is in this, that the class which, as I have said, is practically placed without the pale of our common humanity, was designed in God's Providence to be the most efficient agency in advancing the highest and most enlarged, because eternal, interests of our race. The theory of the relation of modern commerce to modern civilization, has been often most ably discussed, and the practical workings of that relation most wonderfully exemplified in the grand features of the civilization of this century; but another problem, equally capable of the clearest demonstration, has been almost entirely [15/16] omitted in the mathematics of a true progress. The relation of the seaman himself to Christian evangelization, the bringing of "the kingdoms of this world" into the citizenship of the Christian faith, is rarely calculated among the elements of the world's regeneration. And, after all, is not this a point, the omission of which in any summing-up of the antecedents to the conversion of the world to Christ, must effectually reduce all hope of such a result? I would not detract from the value of Christian missions. I believe most fully that the small, nay, almost imperceptible results of their work, are intended in God's will as the tests of Christian faithfulness. Though no progress were ever made in that work, still I believe that the reactive tendencies of the effort, in the cultivation of a spirit of sympathy and benevolence in the hearts of Christians at home, would more than compensate for the toil; but I as surely believe, that with the seaman recognized as intended in God's wisdom as an evangelist, with a diversion of Christian effort, or rather an increase of it, which shall have for its sole object the spiritual elevation of the class, the real work of the evangelization of the world will have its real beginning. I no more believe that God has spread abroad the ocean, and framed the economy of the winds, for the transit of the world's commerce—I no more think that he has permitted the almost miraculous agencies by which this result is facilitated and its thousand incidental ones made to fall readily into. the wake of the world's progress, than I believe that he instituted all these for grander purposes than hath entered into the mind of [16/17] the advocate of human progress to conceive. And the pivot upon which these agencies turn in their true working, is the conversion of the seaman to God, first.

What has been the working of foreign missions since modern organizations were established? How great a spiritual influence has been exerted (through all the time of their operation) upon the heathen world? How many Christian missionaries in all that time have been engaged in the work of the conversion of the nations? When we tell you that so many have not gone forth to the work as go forth to that of demoralization in two line-of-battle ships; when we tell you that in that time the vast majority of the world's population has gone in successive generations to the grave in entire ignorance of the Gospel; nay, when we say that the seaman himself, and those employed in a nominally Christian commerce, are oftenest those who point the finger of scorn at this God-commanded work, you may then judge of the hope of the world's conversion which attaches to the sole use of the present means to that end. The seaman, rely upon it, was intended by God for diffusing the blessings of the Gospel, just as surely as he is now Satan's most efficient one in the destruction, or at least. delay, of any valuable results in that work. Place your missionary where you may in the track of modern commerce, and you may just as certainly count upon the undoing of his work, nay, upon the propagation of that of evil, as you may count upon the Christian duty involved in its performance. Place the best reflectors of our Christianity upon the dark shores of heathenism; bid the flame of love to spring up on the shores of [17/18] Africa or India or China; and then with the ocean heaving in from its commerce an almost wrecked humanity, and that same commerce disgorging its cargoes of liquid fire or drugging death, and its means for the continuance of all that degrades the heathen, I say can you wonder that the heathen ask wherein you differ from themselves? Can you wonder that although "seeing the light" which you have set up, they "hear not the voice?" Can you wonder that if pollution and cursings and crime are discharged from your commerce upon their shores, they ask, “Are these the results of your Christianity at home?" Can you wonder that when, as in some instances, they endeavor to convert your seamen from their depraved practices to their own comparatively pure systems, they cast back upon our nominal Christianity the charge and the proof of its partial and contracted working in its own chosen dwelling-places?

Christian brethren, the seaman must be regarded as God's man peculiarly; he must be elevated by sympathy, by the creation of a right and Christian sentiment toward him, by the furnishing of means which he cannot furnish himself, and by earnest prayer, into the position to do God's work. Then, for every Christian beacon-light which you shall place in the far-off lands, you shall have an answering signal from every ship, casting inward from the sea, its strong reflections for the enlightenment of “them that sit in darkness." Then shall you find the poor exiled missionary of the cross cheered in his labors and less distant from that sympathy and counsel which he needs; then shall you fail to see him like the prophet, sitting amid the ruins, [18/19] and weeping for the sins of his own people; then shall you behold the glorious time approaching when "they that remain in the broad sea" being thus made God's instrumentalities, “all the ends of the earth shall know of the salvation of our God."

One more consideration, very briefly stated, and I have done. The seaman, in this view, cannot longer be neglected, without the incurring of the sin of neglect of God's plans on the part of Christian communities. If the mariner sustained no such solemn relation to the world's conversion as that just stated, it would still be matter of stirring inquiry how so large and influential a class can be longer neglected in their spiritual interests without awful culpability on the part of the Christian church. I am prepared to prove every statement made as to his degradation, and to show still further that even the good work doing by some noble societies, leaves a broad margin for the great and direct work for his cause which is as yet undone. It is high time that we awake to the strange anomaly presented in the nominally Christian aspects of our commerce, and the real heathenism which characterizes the mass of those employed in its service. But take all this in its relation to God's purposes toward this class of our fellowmen; see the evangelization of the world hampered and practically stopped through its agency; nay, take again into view the fact that the class of society upon whom that evangelization so largely depends, is almost entirely left out of the estimate of means; and is there not the sin of awful indifference to God's instrumentalities attaching to our neglect of the spiritual welfare of the seaman? It is not indifference to the salvation [19/20] of his soul only, but to the souls of those also with whom he of all others is of necessity brought in contact—the myriad heathen upon whose immortal interests that contact may be made to act with an almost incalculable sum of results.

God speed the cause of foreign missions! In the language of one of its sainted servants, “Let the work go on;" but God speed also the cause of missions to seamen; for without a Christian marine, unless God shall work a miracle in our times, the millenial glory shall never dawn. I read in that glowing vision of the latter times recorded by St. John, that the day shall come when “there shall be no more sea," and I draw from it an interpretation which I believe in part to be its true one. It is not alone that billowy waste, with its crested surges and its sounding anthems, which shall then cease to exist; it is not alone the end of its stirring and terrible glee which is therein predicted; that consoling Scripture, that “there shall be no more death, neither sorrow nor crying," is not almost associate with the declaration that “there shall be no more sea," that the widow's tears and the orphan's lament over its wide-spread desolation, may have hope of a change to joy "in that day" over the ocean's own destruction; but that Scripture is given also to show, that a great means to a great end shall then be removed; it is given to intimate that the mis-improvement of its agency for the eternal good of millions, shall be reflected back upon the final account of "the children of the kingdom."

Brethren, let us pray more, let us think more, let us do more for the cause of the mariner. Let us do [20/21] more for our own established mission to the seaman in our own city. Let us strive to enlist the hearts and hands of Christian merchants in efforts for these ends. Let us do it for the sailor's own soul; let us do it for the furtherance of God's great purposes to the world. Then shall it be said eminently of these our labors by Him who shall judge the world, "Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye did it unto me."

Project Canterbury