American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

THE BETHELS. The word “bethel” comes from Hebrew and is translated “House of God.” Seamen’s bethels were floating or land-based churches, sometimes affiliated with a particular denomination, that specifically catered to sailors and their families. In American literature, the most famous bethel scene is the sermon delivered by Father Mapple in the Whaleman’s Chapel, or Seamen’s Bethel, in New Bedford, Massachusetts, which takes place in Herman Melville’s* Moby-Dick* (1851).

“Maritime mission” is the phrase most often used by scholars to describe the whole array of religious and benevolent work directed toward seafarers, of which the bethel was central. After the War of 1812, maritime mission efforts in New York soon overshadowed the infant works in Boston and Philadelphia, and in 1817 the Marine Bible Society of New York was founded; in 1820 Presbyterian minister Ward Stafford founded twenty-three Marine Bible Societies in New England.

Also in 1820 the world’s first shore-based Mariner’s Church was built on Roosevelt Street in New York. Seamen’s Friend chapters, women’s auxiliaries, Marine Bible Societies, and mariners’ churches, banks, and boardinghouses sprang up all along the Atlantic coast at this time. In 1826 many of the diverse efforts to reach seafarers from Maine to New Orleans with the Protestant Christian gospel were brought together under the national leadership of the American Seamen’s Friend Society (ASFS). The ASFS published The Sailor’s Magazine in New York, attempting to keep an individual from each chapter on the board and to represent progress being made all over the world on behalf of seafarers in their literature.

The American Bethel Society was founded in Buffalo to minister to mariners on the Great Lakes,* canals, and western rivers. The ASFS chaplain to the Sandwich Islands, the Reverend Samuel C. Damon, published a temperance newspaper for mariners, The Friend, for almost all of his forty-two years in Honolulu.

Mariners’ bethels supported asylums for aged seafarers, schools for their daughters, savings banks, temperance boardinghouses, proto-workers’- compensation arrangements, and provisions for widows. However, the service with which most sailors were familiar was the loan library. Although loan libraries were put on some ships before 1840, the release of Richard Henry Dana’s* Two Years before the Mast* spurred the public to do more to help alleviate the boredom and lack of constructive pastimes available to the crews of American merchant vessels. Also, as crews were less likely to be native-born Americans by midcentury, libraries represented a way to help Americanize the men in the forecastle with works that could be read aloud. By the time of the Civil War, loan libraries were being placed in a systematic way on ships, and many times they were entrusted to a converted crew member, thereby shifting the burden of ministry from elites to common sailors. The practice of placing loan libraries on ships continued well into the twentieth century, although the books became more secular in their content.

Twentieth-century technology forever changed the methods of maritime ministry. Rapid methods of loading and unloading cargo mean that seafarers remain in port for ever shorter periods of time. Although missions exist in some 900 ports, chaplains may assist sailors for only a few hours, taking them to the store, providing telephone usage, or conducting a communion service. Modern-day seafarers may still suffer from the loneliness of their earlier predecessors, but they have less time in port. Therefore, much modern-day Christian maritime ministry incorporates training lay seafarers how to minister to their shipmates while at sea.

FURTHER READING: French, Thomas E. The Missionary Whaleship, New York: Vantage, 1961; Kverndal, Roald. Seamen’s Missions: Their Origin and Early Growth. Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1986; Seymour, Jack M. Ships, Sailors and Samaritans: The Woman’s Seamen’s Friend Society of Connecticut, 1859-1976. New Haven, CT: Eastern, 1976; Skallerup, Harry R. Books Afloat and Ashore: A History of Books, Libraries, and Reading among Seamen during the Age of Sail. Hamden, CT: Archon, 1974; Webster, George Sidney. The Seamen’s Friend: A Sketch of the American Seamen’s Friend Society. New York: American Seamen’s Friend Society, 1932.

Steven H. Park