American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

FATHER MAPPLE. Herman Melville* identifies the powerful preacher of the Whaleman’s Chapel in Moby-Dick* (1851) as “the famous Father Mapple,” a former sailor and harpooner and a favorite among seamen. Prior to going whaling, Ishmael,* the novel’s narrator, visits the chapel and listens to Father Mapple preach. Although Melville may have based the character of Father Mapple on the Reverend Enoch Mudge, pastor of the New Bedford Seaman’s Bethel* during the time of Melville’s visit to New Bedford, the characterization is enriched through reference to the better-known Father Edward Taylor of the Boston Seaman’s Bethel, whose eccentric and invigorating sermons were praised by such writers as Richard Henry Dana Jr.,* Catherine Maria Sedgwick, Charles Dickens, Walt Whitman,* and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Mapple notwithstanding, Melville’s description of the Whaleman’s Chapel and of Mapple’s sermon appear largely imagined. Melville places Mapple in a lofty pulpit resembling a ship’s prow and reached by a rope ladder, suggesting not only his elevated position as a spiritual leader but also his aloofness and isolation. With dramatic rhetoric, descriptions of the sea’s terror, and analogies of the sea to extreme psychological states, Mapple’s mesmerizing sermon takes the Book of Jonah as its text, focusing on Jonah’s refusal to obey God and his consequent encounter with the Leviathan. Interpreted for many years as a testament of Christian faith and a foreshadowing of Captain Ahab’s* audacious, defiant behavior later in Moby-Dick, the sermon has been interpreted by critics since the 1950s to be an ironic commentary on the difficulties of knowing the truth.

Elizabeth Schultz