Religious Life on the High Seas
One of our strangest holidays is today, international “Talk Like a Pirate Day.” While the history of this strange excuse to bandy about terms like “yardarm,” “mainsail,” and “shiver me timbers” is fairly arbitrary, it makes a great excuse to talk about some other history, namely maritime history.
For millennia, cultures around the world have used the oceans for transport, trade, and freebooting theft. And wherever people went on the high seas, they took their religions and beliefs.
We were curious about the religious lives of seafarers and about the maritime history of Christianity more generally. Stephen Berry wrote a book on the topic, published in 2015, A Path in the Mighty Waters. Lynneth Miller, PhD candidate in history at Baylor University, recently spoke with Berry about religion, seafaring, and, of course, pirates.
First, since it’s international “Talk Like a Pirate” Day, were there pious pirates? Does the academy at large neglect the religion of pirates? Has anybody studied them yet that you know of?
I wouldn’t say there has been purposeful neglect of pirates’ religion. There’s just not much primary source material which would allow an investigation into the religion of pirates. There’s been a tremendous amount of scholarly interest in pirates in the last 20 years or so and a lot of great scholarly work. But the difficulty when it comes to studying pirates—whether it’s their religion or their sexuality or whatever parts of pirate culture you’re interested in—you’re always coming at the pirates not through their own words but through words about them.
There are pirate memoirs, written later when they were in a position to talk about their younger days, talk more about the kind of exciting details of piracy that would sell books. In the 1830s, a popular American bestseller was called The Pirates of Books, which was a collection of stories about pirates. Even sailors themselves were choosing to read about pirates.
Pirates have been popular for a long time, but it’s hard to know what they were actually like, in their own words.
In your research in the maritime world, have you run into similar issues with sailors? Or are those narratives a bit easier to come by?
I’ll say their narratives are slightly easier to come by, but getting the voice of the common seamen is still a challenge. Sometimes it’s a case of literacy. There’s definitely a class divide aboard ship between officers of a ship, [who] had to be better educated to do their jobs, and the common sailors, who generally didn’t. Literacy was part of that divide.
To give an example, one sailor I came across started a voyage to Asia as a common seaman. While crossing the Pacific, one of the mates died and he got promoted. It was his first voyage, so he wasn’t being promoted because of his experience. He was being promoted because he was literate.
So there’s a fairly stark divide, and it’s a class divide, a literacy divide between master and common seamen. And so you tend to have more accounts from the quarter deck then you have from regular sailors.
But as you get into the 19th century, more of the regular sailors started to publish, especially after Richard Henry Dana Jr., a Harvard-educated Bostonian who went to sea on his doctor’s recommendation to restore his health. He sailed as a common seaman and then came back and published a book on it called Two Years Before the Mast, which was, again, a 19th-century bestseller that sparked lots of imitators. In fact, Melville rode the kind of wave of popularity that came from an American culture interested in seamen.
I really wanted the common seamen’s perspective, but it was kind of pieced together.
Do you see this class divide play out in accounts of the religion of sailors as well?
Somewhat. It [was] definitely easier for people in the cabin, like officers, to be openly religious because they would usually have some degree of privacy. Even if they were sharing a berth, it would only be a couple of men sharing one tiny space. It was far more difficult for common seamen. They’re all sharing one common bunking space. There was no privacy. And if you’re going to read your Bible, for example, you’re going to read it with an audience around you.
One sailor in particular, John Nichols, told himself on his first voyage, “I purpose to read my Bible every day.” But because of the jeering peer pressure of his crewmates, he ended up giving up. That and it was hard to avoid all the other kinds of bad habits that sailors pick up, cursing and gambling, things like that.
It’s much more common to find a religious officer because he had the kind of privacy that enabled him to read religious passages. So, you can definitely see a class divide in that regard.
You’ve been working on the maritime history of religion for a while now, both with A Path in the Mighty Waters and for your next project. What do you see as distinctive about the relationship between maritime history and religious history?
In [A Path in the Mighty Waters], I was struck by how people behave differently when they travel. People have conversations while they travel that they would never have at home. The idea for the book, which is focused on the 18th and 19th centuries, actually came from a few 20th-century stories I found.
One example that I remember is from the life of Charles Hodge. He talks about these intense conversations that he had with a Roman Catholic priest during his one trip to Europe aboard ship. Literally, the Catholic priest was the person that Charles Hodge—a famous Presbyterian theologian—bonded with during the several weeks it took to cross the Atlantic. In the rest of his life, Hodge’s interaction with Catholics was in prayer or academic work, but it was on a personal level aboard ship.
That made me ask what brought this about, which led to my research for the book. What intrigued me was the kind of interaction that ships made possible. Even people of very different religious backgrounds could have conversations like this traveling aboard ship.
Are there other connections between religion and seafaring beyond engaging conversations?
What I’m working on now is thinking about sailors being the first English speakers to encounter world religion. Seeing the different religious festivals that they describe in their journals and letters had an effect on them. So the idea is to study how they describe and navigate all these different kinds of cultural spaces, exploring the ways that sailors helped shape our understanding of what I call world religions.
The idea came from a reference I ran across from 18th-century writer Hannah Adams, from Salem, Massachusetts. She created one of the first compendiums of religion—a dictionary of world religions, basically. There’s a lot of change between her first and second editions. She filled out a lot of the Eastern religions in her compendium’s second edition because, at the time, Salem was at the forefront of United States trade with the Indies and Asia.
After the American Revolution, Asia opened up to American shipping. A lot of the first Americans ships in India, China, and the Philippines came from Salem. So these American sailors were literally going around the world and encountering cultures for the first time. This became important for another American export: missionaries.
A kind of weird symbiotic relationship developed between sailors and the first American missionaries. The missionaries needed ships to get to these far-flung places, but they often had kind of a combative relationship with sailors. The most notorious case being a United States naval officer who actually threatened to bomb the mission in Honolulu over the missionaries trying to enforce restrictions on sailors’ sexual practices.
So I began thinking of ships as vehicles to bring people of very different persuasions together. In this new book, I’m a little more focused on ports than ships, but the ships are still the engines that made these interactions possible.
Do truces develop between the missionaries and the sailors while they’re at sea and then things change in port? Or is it kind of a little bit contentious the whole time?
It’s a mix. I don’t want to make it sound too contentious when they’re in port. We’re talking about an age when the United States doesn’t have a diplomatic corps, for the most part. So the sailors needed missionaries as well.
If you’re sick in a foreign port, a local missionary might be your best chance to get help for your present situation and also a chance to get home safely. So missionaries were kind of de facto American ambassadors abroad. Often there was a missionary who provided negotiating power with locals to help mariners navigate the ports. So it was symbiotic. And you can see that aboard ships as well.
In our current age, we have so many ways to entertain ourselves all the time. We don’t think of religious services as being a form of passing the time or a form of entertainment or intellectual stimulation. But in the eras I’ve been studying when seafaring was big, a sermon or a lecture was a way for people to be entertained as well as receive religious instruction. It was something to pass the time, and so missionaries definitely served on their vessels and some would engage with the sailors.
But, you have that class divide sometimes again. Missionaries tended to stay in the captain’s suite of quarters, so they’re passengers. They’re dining and sleeping in that kind of elevated social state, and so their interactions with sailors aren’t going to be as intimate as if they were traveling in steerage.
An exception to this was John Woolman, a famous itinerate Quaker. For religious reasons, he rejected the kind of ostentation and finery and the expense of taking a cabin passage. So he purposed to go in steerage. As a result he had much more intimate interactions, relationships, and conversations with seamen. And he talks about common sailors in a very different way than someone who only had the more formal interaction with them common for cabin passengers. For those missionaries and ministers who spent time talking to sailors, there’s definitely more appreciation and influence in both directions than for those who stood behind their station and talked down to sailors.
One of your arguments in A Path in the Mighty Waters is that transatlantic voyages permanently changed the people who took them and the religious traditions they took with them. How did researching and writing the history of Christianity and sailors and the sea shape your own historical work or your religious views?
I definitely ended up going different directions than I thought I would.
Marcus Rediker, who is probably the premier American maritime historian, has this heavily Marxist approach to sailors, I’d say, and an almost romantic view of pirates as proto-proletarian, in a sort of class warfare between common seaman and master. And in what you might expect from a Marxist-style historian, he downplays the role of religion.
He describes sailors as intentionally irreligious. I went in shaped by some of that, and I actually found a lot more religion than I expected. I thought I wouldn’t get anything religious out of common sailors, and actually ended up finding quite a bit. I would not characterize sailors as an entire class as irreligious. There’s certainly an antipathy to organized forms of religion, but definitely lots of sailors tried to maintain some degree of religious faith and practice aboard ship.
As a scholar, I don’t have time to read a lot of devotional literature, so every [piece of] literature I read, I read devotionally. I take lessons from everything I learn, and so I really developed a high degree of admiration for these men who persisted in religious practices. They faced enormous peer pressure or cajoling between the decks of the ship and often got reputations as Bible thumpers and things like that. I was really struck by their persistence of faith in an environment that could be very hostile to faith. I admired those who had the gumption to be faithful Christians and yet still have this calling of maritime work.
I have seen from my years as part of a confessional tradition that confessional traditions can get kind of trapped in their own thinking. I came out of this research appreciating the need for adherence to one faith but also this kind of openness and acceptance of other faiths. Even if you come off the ship still disagreeing and thinking someone’s views are wrong, you come out with a different understanding because you lived with them for sometimes months at a time.
And so I would say that was the main lesson that came out of the experience: appreciation for those who developed this sort of ecumenical approach. Even with believers of very different traditions, they could still find some common ground, which is something that I think is really valuable.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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