DR. VINTON’S SERMON
CHURCH MISSIONARY SOCIETY
SEAMEN IN THE CITY AND PORT OF NEW YORK
PREACHED AT THE ANNIVERSARY OF THE
P. E. MISSIONARY SOCIETY FOR SEAMEN,
THE CITY OF NEW-YORK,
THE FIRST SUNDAY AFTER EASTER, APRIL 30th, 1848
ALEXANDER H. VINTON,
RECTOR OF ST. PAUL'S CHURCH, BOSTON.
PUBLISHED BY REQUEST OF THE SOCIETY.
"They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters."--Psalm cvii. 23.
THESE are the persons of whom I am to speak to you this evening. In God's name, whose way is in the sea, and whose path is in the mighty waters; in the name of the incarnate Son, whose first and holiest intimacies were with mariners; and in the blessed Spirit's name, who has often brooded on the bosom of the deep, and has caused many a soul to be born to life everlasting; in the name of society and its interests; of humanity and its sufferings, I plead the cause of them "that go down to the sea in ships, and do business in great waters."
You are aware that we are this evening to offer our alms for the support of the Seaman's Mission in this city. And, in order that we may give understandingly, give with our hearts, it may be well to review the character, condition, and prospects of the class of persons for whom our interest is demanded. They go to make up the great family of our brothers; and yet by the singular allotment of their life, they are practically aliens from all that adorns and strengthens [3/4] the bond of brotherhood. They are strangers to the genial influences of home--strangers in the yet larger circles of social intercourse--unknown in the parlor, in the public assemblies, on the exchange, in the Church. Where citizens congregate, the sailor is not found. The wharf is his landing-place, and his starting-place, and the only resting-place of his untraveled feet, for his short sojourn on shore. Neither is the ship his home. It is to him as it is to others, only the vehicle of his restless wanderings. All the images of quiet, of repose, of sympathy, of oneness, which enter, as elements, into our favorite idea of home, are strange things to the minds of these world travellers. These images find no answering things on ship-board. A crew of strangers thrown together by mere accident--unchosen and unloved--bound together by nothing stronger than the influence of position, and this of the most transient sort; voyagers together for a year, never, perhaps, to meet again--there is little or nothing to blend many hearts into one, nothing to imbue the soul with tenderness, or inspire it with those steady purposes of labor and perseverance for others' good, which are born only amidst the loves of the household, warmed at the domestic hearth, and disciplined by the forbearance and concession to others as dear as our other selves. The deck, the forecastle, or the yard-arm, is no trysting place, no rendezvous of loving hearts to which the thoughts turn many times in the din of the day, and where the whole man can repose in the sober rest of the evening.
The seaman has no day, no night, no sure repose. His life is not measured thus--his toil may be hardest [4/5] in the night time, and unintermitted for days and nights. He is the quick, obedient servant of the most capricious power on earth. He is unchangeably bound to nothing, except that which is the most changeful of all things. The tossing waves and the shifting breeze, are the signs, as they are the means, of his unsteady love. Such a condition as this, baffles all man's instinct for home and its joys, until he loses both the longing and the conception. The heart grows to be a travelled and a wandering heart; and from being an effect, becomes in its turn a cause, until the seafarer never can have a home. There may sometimes be a remembrance not yet died out, of a home where the boyish heart used to love, and revel, and laugh, the image of a blest mother, of a play-mate sister, of long winter evenings of contentment, and long summer days of happy labor. All these, garnishing the sunny scene of home, with its out-spread green fields, hills, woods, and waters, may draw themselves out before the memory of some thoughtful mariner, as he lies aloft in the rigging, or walks his watch on deck, and fill him with the distinct assurance that these once made a part of his daily life. But yet with this, there is not less distinct assurance that they can never become his again. And, although with these restored images of his boyhood, there will be a resurrection of his boyish tenderness, yet, he feels he cannot always be a boy. The home that he remembers so touchingly, is not a thing that does or can belong to his present condition. It forms no part of his future, nor of his present, and, therefore, it influences not his practical life. He wipes it away from his memory, as he wipes away its tear from his eye, and rouses the man within him, to attend to the duties [5/6] which he feels are, and are to be his whole mortal condition of homelessness. This isthe saddest feature of a sailor's condition, and one which has attracted most powerfully the thoughts of philanthropy, that he has no home; nothing to make a home of, no wife, no children, no domestic fraternity, no snug harbor for his heart to rest and anchor in. I do not speak thus of all, but of so great a majority as to make it safe to say it is true of the body of common seamen as a class.
The effect of this condition has a twofold mischief. It reacts unfavorably upon the sailor's condition, and it operates to produce some of the worst vices of his character. In consequence of the sailor's homelessness, he has no place, no rank in the social scale. The world, says an old writer, is divided into three classes, men, women, and sailors. A wanderer on the face of the deep, he is no less a wanderer upon the land. Every part is equally, because not at all, his home. While society at large is constantly reaping the benefit of his labors, it never recognizes the hand whose agency procured them all. The luxuries of the table, of the wardrobe, of the parlor; the outward comforts of our common subsistence; the refinements of art; the refreshment of literature; every thing in fact, which is the fruit of the highest civilization, all the advancement of mind and character, springing from the collision and communion of national intercourse, the emulation of foreign example, and above all, the enlargement of the human sympathies, to embrace the world in the feeling of brotherhood and philanthropy, these which are the dignified results of commerce--are all of the sailor's procuring. He may [6/7] seem the uninterested agent--a mere machine in the work--and as society is now arranged, he is, indeed, nothing more. For society does not recognize him as one of its members. She has no place for him on shore. She leaves him to be entrapped by the first villain that takes him by the hand. And he is entrapped. No sooner does his foot touch the shore--nay, no sooner does the anchor rest in the bed of the bay, than he is assailed by some of the agents of wickedness, of both sexes, offering him the temptations of what is now only the vile substitute for home. Herding only with his shipmates, as unrestrained and desolate as he, or with others far more wicked, whom society has sloughed off like a gangrene; he lingers on shore only long enough to be stripped of his gains, as a sheep is shorn of his fleece, still unrecognized as one of society's living things, until he is needed again for the labors of commerce, and then the active men of the community seem to know that there is such a thing as a sailor. The only point, I will not say of contact, but of approach, which the common seaman bears to the great body of the community, is, then, by his unthought of, unanswered labors for the general weal. He does not even come near us as an object of charity, to make us feel that he is our brother. Neither our alms nor our taxes are made higher on his account. He is a stranger every where, on the land or on the deep. If he die on the water, the great oblivious sea buries him out of sight no more effectually than he was already buried out of mind. If he die on land, his own company of strangers bury him where they may. If he live and grow old, the hospital which his own taxed earnings has built and [7/8] endowed, receives him to his last living abode, but still not a home. Every where he is unrecognized, and every where unmissed. His life is typified by the ship in which he sails, cutting its way through all waters, but leaving no track in any.
Now, the character of the seaman cast in the mould of such a lot as this, must be singularly, all his own. We look upon him unconsciously as a strange being, whose impulses and feelings are unlike those of all other men. The peculiar isolation of his condition, while it prevents the sober, steady love of domestic life, does not rob him of the power of feeling. Nature has a rule of compensation, and the fires of his being, if they cannot burn gently at the family hearth, and smoulder away easily as his life goes out amidst the daily endearments of the household, will burst out at some other vent when the pressure is removed, and glare up fiercely and fitfully. All his unspent energies will gather themselves into every action. His freedom from restraint makes him reckless, daring, impulsive. While his vices will be more flagrant than other men's, his virtues will be more open. He is apt to be heartlessly cruel or dashingly generous, courageously good or boldly bad. His gifts are bounties, his kindness is self-sacrifice. His piety is intrepid as a martyr's. While, on the other hand, his resentments are apt to be murderous, and his profaneness is blasphemy. Remember I am speaking of them as a class. I make all due allowance for the difference of natural constitution and early education. I am now estimating the professional character which is produced by the circumstances of their peculiar life, such as in every profession stamps a likeness upon all its members. [8/9] It is in this respect that the sailor is what he is, always and every where. I have already ascribed this peculiarity to that most remarkable feature of his life, his want of a home. But I do not mean to deny the power of other influences in shaping his character. And they are certainly very powerful. The very spirit of adventure, the lust of seeing which made the boy a truant, in the first place, from his mother's side and the house of his birth, has not died in his bosom yet; and it is an enlarging thing of itself. It turns the boy into a premature man, and makes the man himself taller than other men. The mind and will that determine a life of enterprise, must have no small influence on all the subsequent character. And the very fact of enterprising, stiffens all the ambitious energies of the youth into a hardy shape. It inures him to toil, to self-denial, and patient endurance. It makes him indifferent to danger, either by shutting his eyes to it, or nerving him to brave it with his eyes open. It developes, in a word, the whole manhood to a pitch of courage and skill which few circumstances beside can induce. Battling with polar frosts or resisting tropical heats; sailing among icebergs or in a simoon; becalmed or bestormed; floating freely before a fair gale or drifting disastrously before a foul; now in deep water, now in shoal and rock; lying idly upon the basking deck with every faculty unstrung, and presently stretching to the perilous yard-arm, with every energy agonized with effort; now tossed up like a mad thing to kiss the clouds; then suddenly pitching as if to be embraced of the black gulf--this is the seaman's life, and it is not strange if it should create a sailor character. Hung, as he seems to be, [9/10] by a single cord always over the grave, it must be that his feelings and impulses will be such as no other men have. The most dependent of all men upon hidden causes, he seems the most independent and free. The sport of alternate hope and fear, he knows more variations of feeling than all men beside. The victim of sudden changes, the fluctuations of feeling grow to be no less sudden. Dealing with the mightiest powers of the world, the wind and the sea, the very types of omnipotence, he borrows from them an infusion of a power not born with him, and when he comes forth to our survey we find him, in all that belongs to our common nature, the manliest of men. Subject to such powerful formative influences, he must be very bad or very good. His is evidently not a character for tame mediocrity, but for extremes. We hear of him in the way of vice, as very vicious. If he be intemperate or licentious, he is excessively so. If he be mirthful, he is noisy and turbulent. If he be unwilling, he is rebellious. And in the way of virtue he is no less conspicuous. Free-hearted--forth putting, unchecked, he speaks right on the confession of his guilt, or the exulting pride of God's mercy, and is willing all the world should know that he is a Christian.
There is something in such a character that is very engaging. An air of romance seems to gather about it, of chivalrous heroism and generosity, such as belongs not to the familiar types of manhood. In every thing that pertains to him, we seem to see something borrowed from the mystic depths of the mighty waters, on whose bosom his character is nursed--something that we landsmen know nothing [10/11] of. We look at him with a curiosity always new, as if he had been more familiar with the Almighty than any of us. We set him down in our minds as a peculiar being, and so he is.
And now a question comes, what are the prospects of the sailor, as viewed in the light of Christianity and of God's great purpose of converting the world? A very important question, and bearing directly upon the object of this discourse. Can the sailor be evangelized like other men? Is it a promising undertaking? Ought it to be done? I take the affirmative side of all these questions. In the first place, it ought to be done, if it can. It ought to be done out of regard to the great interests of Christianity, in evangelizing the rest of mankind. The Christian Church has undertaken the great work of missions to the Heathen. She has sent forth Christ's ambassadors to the near and the remote lands of Heathendom. She has addressed her best energies to this as her chief work on earth. I am not going to defend the propriety of Christian missions. I take this as an axiom of all true Christian practice. But if it be right to prosecute this great work, it is our duty to remove all obstacles and hindrances to its success, and one of the chief of these is the influence of seamen in foreign ports. There are, it is estimated, 2,000,000 of sailors in the world, of whom 150,000 are from our own land. On the great highway of the world, they traverse up and down, and leave no port unvisited. They mingle with the people on shore; they carry, wherever they go, their characteristic vices, and they vent them with characteristic violence. They, themselves, conduct forth the ministers of the Gospel, and set them down [11/12] on unchristianized shores, and then by their protuberant vices do all they can to neutralize their influence. The standard of the cross is erected in the sight of the nation, and they are the first to defame it. The minister opens his lips to proclaim a religion of holiness, and their practice gives it the open denial. The simple minded people turn from the Christian preacher's words to the Christian sailor's lives, and they shake their heads in suspicion and doubt. They cannot distinguish between professing and non-professing Christians. They judge of the tree by what they suppose to be its fruits, and they condemn both the teacher and his doctrine, and refuse to be saved. They have been known to declare, that if the sailor is going to the Christian's heaven, they have no wish to go. One foreign missionary in a frequented port has felt himself obliged to resign his proper work, of converting the Heathen, and devote all his labors to the reforming of foreign seamen. Another informs us that the instructed Heathen who are under his charge, have organized a society to improve the character of the seamen from abroad. A missionary in the northern part of China, congratulates the friends of missions that ships from Christian lands are excluded from their ports. The grand commissioner of China inquires of the British Ambassador, if something cannot be done to improve the character of seamen; for, says he, "they corrupt our people, and our people abuse them." Capt. Wilkes of our own Navy has uttered, as the fruit of his large observation, this strong declaration, "that if a tenth part of the labor, means, and prayers, which are bestowed upon the missions, were given to the seamen themselves, the [12/13] benefit to the cause of missions would be far greater in every missionary station, than now it is;" and in his opinion, the missionary enterprise can never have full or marked success, until seamen be generally improved and christianized.
These facts, and the declarations they have given rise to, are enough to illustrate this first point,--the imperative necessity of evangelizing the sailor before we can evangelize the world. We cannot afford to squander our energies upon an undertaking retarded by so many, and formidable hindrances. The church of Christ is too poor to waste the little substance which Providence puts into her hands, to be dispensed to the soul perishing. It ought not to be, that the same ship which carries out the saving balm, should diffuse more widely the potent, death-dealing contagion. Christian nations have no right to contradict and blacken the holy profession, of Christ's agents and messengers. The cause groans with its tremendous disadvantage, and calls out for relief in the conversion of sailors. And see what relief the cause would gain by his conversion, not only relief, but strength and vigorous impulse. Just suppose the thing possible, that 150,000 American seamen could be converted to God, and become genuine, heart-changed followers of Jesus Christ. Suppose the impressible energies of the sea-faring character, trained into indomitableness by coping with wave and breeze, and all the thick perils of the sea; suppose those energies twisted into stout cords like the rigging of his own ship, to endure the tug and strain of any enterprise; suppose them, instead of spending themselves in the service of wickedness, to be sanctified for the employment of grace and godliness. [13/14] Suppose that all the exuberance of life and power that now flows over in streams of vice, polluting and damning all that it flows upon, should be purged at its fountain and spread abroad in a living flood of piety, purifying and blessing every spot that it washes. Suppose that, instead of being a living contradiction to the Gospel of Christ in the eyes of the nations, the seamen should be the Gospel's living witness; and when the preaching missionary would confirm his words by example, he might point to the crews of our ships, and say, behold the Gospel alive. Nay, suppose again, what would be most natural to the forth-putting tendencies of the sailor, that every one of them should become himself a lay preacher at every port where he lands, and use his influence not only to illustrate, but to enforce the grace of Christ. Can you conceive of any better and stronger coworkers with the missionary? What an impetus would be given to this best of causes, when not only the dead negation of the sailor's example should no more block its way, but the long pull, and the strong pull, and the pull altogether, of our converted and sanctified marine, should be laid out to speed the Gospel through the world. Every ship that sails would be a winged messenger of life and salvation, every sailor an untitled and unsalaried herald of mercy to lands beyond our reach, fulfilling the word of "many running to and fro, and knowledge being increased." Every exploring expedition would be like the feeling forth of God's right hand of rescue to the nations. Every new nautical discovery would be matter of jubilee around the throne of God. Ah! you say, it is fancy's idle sketch.
Then listen a moment, while, in the second place, I [14/15] show not only that the sailor ought to be converted if he can be, but God has promised it. Jehovah's way is eminently in the sea. His brightest path has been in the mighty waters. He has once and again, carried his chosen people through the cleft waves. He once built a ship in which there sailed, above the drowned world, all the godliness there was.
The prophetic singer has called upon the coming generations of sailors to glorify God. "Sing unto the Lord a new song, and his praise from the ends of the earth, ye that go down into the sea." And another Prophet foretelling the grace of redemption exclaims, "the abundance of the sea shall be converted unto thee." And again, "the isles shall wait for me, and the ships of Tarshish are first to bring thy sons from far unto the name of the Lord thy God, and to the Holy One of Israel, for he hath glorified thee." We appeal then to the Christian faith, to receive the assurance of this fixed promise of God. The sailor ought then to be converted if it be possible; and it is certainly possible, because Heaven has declared it shall be. May it not be, then, when we consider the apparent impossibility of supplying all Heathendom with educated and trained missionaries, may it not be that this is in fact, the chosen agency by which the world shall be most largely evangelized. It is only by our navigation that all lands can be reached, and why may not that navigation be the sanctified instrument of grace to all lands? Since Christian ships were the first to make the Heathen know our vices, why may they not be the last and completing agency, to spread equally wide our restoring piety. So far is this from an impossibility, that it has already begun to be. The [15/16] roused mind of Christendom has already learned to calculate the power of this agency, and not without results. In most, if not all our sea ports, a system of effort has been begun by means of houses of worship, well named Bethels, because the wanderer has there often met his God, and wrestled in saving prayer for his soul. Boarding houses have been established, directed by religious influence, where the sailor may be free from the seductions of intemperance and licentiousness, and find the best substitute on earth for that which he has not, a home. And God has blest these means. The sailor's tough heart, it is found, can be penetrated by God's truth and grace; and when it is, it always gushes with fervent love, like molten iron from the furnace. He has carried his piety aboard, and there are instances in which one holy seaman has converted a whole ship's crew. On many a ship the flag at the mast head is a Bethel flag. The Sabbath is sacredly observed by prayer, and praise, and scripture-teaching, and the ship's crew is a pious household in which the sailor has found no poor apology for a home, but a home in its best sense--a Father tenderer than any of earth--a Saviour dearer than any mother of his human life--a band of brothers closer to his heart than any natural tie can bind them--a home in the exalted meaning of that word--a home for his soul--an anticipation of his immortal home. It is a blessed work bringing the vagrant sailor to this home. Try it and see. To use the words of a clerical brother, "if you have no heart, he will give you one. If you have a cold one, he will make it warm. If you have a warm one, he will make it burn."
For the extension of this happy enterprise, our [16/17] church, following as usual in the wake of other pilot churches, yet with not inferior strength and effectiveness, has, in several of our cities, reared her own Bethel flags, and invited our seamen to Christ. The same work has been begun among us. For nearly four years, your devoted missionary of the Floating Chapel, has labored amidst the encouragement which always stimulates, as well as the indifference that freezes so many well-begotten undertakings. And although the interest which arises from conviction has begun to grow general, betokening a better promise, yet the unpaid expenses of the past year make it necessary to call for the aid of the churches, that their servants may have their just contracted dues. The appeal we make is suggested by the Board of Missions for Seamen. To those of you who have attended the services of the chapel, and witnessed how much good is possibly done, I need say nothing. But others may be willing to learn some of the statistics of the Mission. The number of seamen who have attended the services of the chapel, is at the smallest estimate, 4000. The number of public services, 250. Bibles distributed in several languages, 500. Testaments in various languages, 300. Prayer books, 550. Other bound volumes of religious works, 3500. Religious tracts, 30,000 pages. Here is a mass of religious influence floating on the world-tide: silent, but mighty, through God; passing from hand to hand, and mind to mind: pondered in the quiet hours of a fair breeze, and sinking unconsciously into the heart, and then coming up again with a resurrection of power in the waking thoughts of the sailor's berth, and the meditations of his night-watches--working, it may be, mighty spiritual [17/18] changes, which we cannot estimate, simply because it is God's truth; but which eternity may reveal in the salvation of many a ship's crew, who else had been everlastingly wrecked. The question which our contribution this evening will determine, is, whether this congregation are ready to lend their efficient aid to the pious work; which recommends itself, not only by all the sacred arguments of the Gospel, but by the prudential consideration that it is directed on a most economical plan, by a Board of Laymen, who are some of them practically interested in the sailor's welfare.
Is it too much to hope that you, from whom the Christian community have learned to expect no stinted charity, should give substantial demonstration that a cause so near, yet so far-spreading, so good, and promising of greater good, has not appealed to you in vain. Let the work go on. Let your willing and sufficient aid be as a thank-offering to God, for the good it has already done to them that "go down to the sea in ships, and do business in great waters." And let all the praise be ascribed to the adorable Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, now and always. Amen.