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The Sailor's God

PREACHED TO SAILORS AT A LITTLE FISHING VILLAGE IN CORNWALL, 1843.

"They that go down to the sea in ships, and occupy their business in great waters; these men see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep."--Ps. cvii. 23, 24.

My brothers--for though I do not know most of you even by name, yet you are still my brothers, for His sake in whose name you were baptized--my brothers, it has been often said that seamen and fishermen ought to be the most religious men in the country. And why? Because they, more than any set of men, see the works of the Lord, and His wonders in the deep.

The cotton-spinner, who is shut up in a factory all day long, with nothing before his eyes but his loom, and nothing to look at beyond his own house but dingy streets and smoking furnace chimneys--he, poor man, sees very little of the works of the Lord. Man made the world of streets and shops and machinery in which that poor workman lives and dies. What wonder is it if he forgets the God who made him--the God who made the round world, and set it so fast that it should not be moved, and has given the sea its bounds that it should not overflow them at any time? How much better off are you seamen than such a man as that!

And you are better off too, even, than most field labourers and farmers. They are not shut up in towns, it is true; they have God's beautiful earth to till and keep: but they are too safe on shore! Yes; it may seem a strange thing to say; but you ought to thank God that your trade is a dangerous one--you have more to put you in mind of God than the labouring man!

And why? In the first place, as I said, fishermen and sailors see more of the wonderful works of God than any other set of men. Man may cut and change the earth--mining and quarrying and building--till it hardly looks like God's earth, but he cannot change the sea! There it is, just as God made it at first. Millions of rivers have run into it, yet it is not over full; cliffs have been wearing away and falling into it for six thousand years, yet is it not filled up. Millions of vessels have been sailing over it, yet they have left no mark upon it; it seems unchangeable, like God who made it. What is the use of my praising the sea to you? Do you not all know it, and fear it, and love it too? and does it not put you in mind of God who made it? who made that mighty water for the use of men, and filled it with thousands of different kinds of fishes, and weeds, and wonderful things for your use and comfort; and who has made it so strong that it shall keep you always in awe and fear and watchfulness, looking to God to save you--and yet so gentle and calm that you can sail upon its bosom, and there find food for your families. Which of you, who has any godly heart in him, can help feeling, sometimes at least when at sea, that he is seeing the wonderful works of God!

I said that you ought to thank God that your trade was a dangerous one, and I said that the sea should always keep you in fear and watchfulness, and looking to God to preserve you. Now, do you not see how these two sayings go together, and make each other plain. You seamen and fishermen are in continual danger; your lives are in your hands every moment--the belaying of a sheet, the strength of a bit of canvas, the toughness of a deal board, may settle your fate in a moment, and make all the difference between life and death. If they are sound, you may go back to a happy home, and see wife and children coming to meet you when you run on shore at morning from your honest labour; and if they fail--if that weak cordage, and these planks, and thinner canvas, on which your lives depend, do but give way, what is left for you the next moment? what but a grave in the deep, deep sea, and your wives widows and your children orphans, and your bodies devoured by ugly creeping things, and your souls gone--gone where? My good men--you who sit around me now so strong and full of life and skill and happiness--where would your souls be if you were drowned at sea to-morrow?

What a question! Oh, ask it yourselves honestly! I have been out in gales myself, and I cannot understand how you can go out, in thirty feet of timber, upon that mighty sea, with the wind howling over your heads like a death-bell, and the great hungry waves chasing you for miles, each one able and willing to swallow you up into the deep, and the gulls screaming over you as if they were waiting to feed upon your floating carcases, and you alone, in a tiny boat, upon that waste, howling wilderness of waters!--I cannot understand, I say, how, when a man is in such a case as that, day after day, year after year, he can forget his God, the only friend who can save him from the sea! the only friend who can send him safe out to his work in the evening, and bring him home safe to his wife at morning. One would think that when you went down to the shore in the morning, you would say, "Oh, God! without whose help I am no stronger than a piece of sea-weed floating up and down, take care of me! Take care of my wife and my children; and forgive me my sins, and do not punish me by calling me away this night to answer for them all!" And when you come home at night, you would say, "Oh, God! who hast kept me safe all this day, what can I do to show how thankful I am to Thee!" Ay! what can you do to show how thankful you are to God for His care? What ought you to do to show your thankfulness to Him? What must you do to show your thankfulness to Him? He has told you. "If you love me, He says, keep my commandments. Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God."

These, my friends, are the holy and thankful thoughts which ought to be in your hearts every day and hour. This is the thought which God meant to put into your hearts when He made sailors of you, and brought you into the world, by the sea-side, to take up your business in great waters. You might have been born in Bristol or Liverpool or London, and never seen anything but streets and houses, and man's clumsy work. But God has been very good to you. He has brought you up here, in this happy West country, where you may see His wonderful works day and night; where you ought never to forget that you have a Father in heaven who made the sea, and who keeps you safe at sea by night and day. God has given you a great deal. He has given you two books to read--the book of God's Word, the Bible, and the book of God's earth, the sky and sea and land, which is above you and below you and around you day and night. If you can read and understand them properly, you will find in them everything which you want; you may learn from them to be holy in this world and happy in the next. God has given you, too, fathers, mothers, wives, children, a comfortable home, a holy trade--the same which the apostles followed. God has given you England for your country, and the West country--the best place in England for your home. God has given you a good Queen, and good magistrates and landlords. God has given you health and strength, and seamanship, and clear heads and stout hearts. And God has made you seamen and fishermen, and given you a business in which you can see God's mighty power and wisdom day and night, and feel Him taking care of you when you cannot take care of yourselves.

Therefore you ought to thank God that yours is a dangerous business, because it teaches you to trust in God alone for safety. And what are you to give Him in return? What does God require of you? You cannot pay Him back again for all His mercies, for they are past counting, but you must pay Him back all you can. And what must you pay Him back? First, you must trust in God; for he who comes to God and wishes to walk with God through life, as a good man should, must believe that there is a God, and that He will reward those who look to Him.

I never heard of a sailor who did not believe in God; for how can a man look at the sea, and not say to himself, God made the sea! But I have seen a great many sailors who did not trust in God. As long as it is fine weather, and everything goes right, they will forget God, and fancy that it is their own seamanship, and not God alone, which keeps their boats afloat, and their own skill in fishing, and not God alone, which sends the shoals of fish into their nets; and so they are truly fine-weather sailors--men who are only fit for calm seas and light breezes, when they can take care of themselves without God's help; but when a squall comes their hearts change, by God's mercy. For when a man has done all he can to save himself, and all he can do is no use, and his nets are adrift, and his boat on her beam ends, and the foaming rocks are on his lee, then he comes to his senses at last, and prays. Why did he not pray before? Why did he not save himself from all that misery and trouble and danger by thanking God for taking care of him, and praying to God to take care of him still. "Foolish men are plagued for their offences, and because of their wickedness. They that go down to the sea in ships, and occupy their business on great waters; these men see the works of the Lord, and His wonders in the deep; for at His word the stormy wind ariseth which lifteth up the waves thereof; they are carried up to heaven, and down again into the deep; their soul melteth away because of the trouble; they reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wit's end." And justly they are punished for forgetting God. God made the calm as well as the storm. Could they not remember that? But look at God's mercy; for when they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, He delivers them out of all their distress. For He makes the storm to cease, so that the waves are still; then are they glad because they are at rest, and so God brings them to the harbour where they would be.

Is there an old man sitting here who has not had this happen to him? And what did you do, my friend, when God had saved you out of that danger? It is easy to tell what you ought to have done; you ought to have gone home and fallen on your knees, and prayed to God; you ought to have said, Oh, Lord, I am a miserable, foolish sinner, who can only remember Thee when Thou art angry; an ungrateful son, who only thinks of his father when he beats him! Oh, God, forgive me, I ought to have trusted in Thee before! I deserved all my danger and punishment and more. I did not deserve to be pardoned and saved from it! I deserve to be at the bottom of the sea at this moment. But forgive me, forgive me, loving and merciful Father, for the sake of Thy dear Son Jesus Christ, who died on the cross that I might be saved from death!

And when you had prayed thus, the next thing you ought to have asked yourself was--What does God require of me? how can I try to pay Him back--how can I show that I am thankful? My good friends, what does God require of you? "To do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God." I told you He required of you first to trust in Him at all hours, in all weathers. This is the next thing which He requires of you--To do justly, to cheat no man, not in the price of a pilchard; to love mercy; to love your neighbours, as Christ loved you; to help your neighbours, as Christ helped you and all mankind, by dying to save you; and as Christ has helped you, night after night, when you might have been buried in the waves, if Christ had not prayed for you that you might have time to repent, and bring forth fruits fit for repentance. To love mercy; to forgive every man who hurts you, for they are all Christian men and your brothers. Christ loved every one! Why should not you? If your wife or friend loved anything, you would be kind to it for their sakes; and so, if you really love God, and are thankful to Him for all His mercy and kindness, you will love every man you meet, for God's sake, who loved them and gave His Son for them.

"To walk humbly with your God." That is the beginning and end of all--you must be humble; you must confess that you are foolish, and God alone is wise; that you are weak, and God alone is strong; that you are poor fishermen, whom any squall may drown, and that God is the Great, Loving, Almighty God, who made heaven and earth, and the sea and all that is therein, and who helps all those who put their trust in Him. This is what God asks you to do in return for all He has done for you! To pray to Him, to praise Him, to put your trust in Him, to keep His commandments like thankful, humble, obedient, loving children. They who do these things, and only they, shall never fail. By night and day, in summer and winter, in storm and calm, in health and sickness, in richness and poverty, God will be with them. Christ will be with them. He sat in a fisherman's boat once, on the sea of Tiberias, and He will sit in your boats if you will but ask Him. He will steer you, He will save you, He will take care of your wives and children when you are far away, and He will bring you through the troublesome waves of this mortal life, so that, having faith for your anchor, and hope for your sail, and charity for your crew, you may at last land on the happy shore of everlasting life, there to live with God, world without end. God grant it may be so!

My good brothers--for I am a Christian like you, and an Englishman like you, and a west countryman like you--I thank our Father in heaven that He has brought me from the other end of England, and put this message into my mouth, to remind you of who you are--that you are the men who see the works of the Lord, and His wonders in the deep; and that God will say to every one of you at the day of judgment,--I taught you all this, I gave you all this, I did all this for you, what have you done for Me in return?

Go home--read over these verses in 107th Psalm, and think over what I have said. Do it to-night, for the weather has broken up--there are gales coming. Which of you can say that he will be alive next Sunday?


Charles Kingsley