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Chapter 38

THE CHAPLAIN AND CHAPEL IN A MAN-OF-WAR.


The next day was Sunday; a fact set down in the almanac, spite of
merchant seamen's maxim, that _there are no Sundays of soundings_.

_No Sundays off soundings, _indeed! No Sundays on shipboard! You
may as well say there should be no Sundays in churches; for is
not a ship modeled after a church? has it not three spires--three
steeples? yea, and on the gun-deck, a bell and a belfry? And does
not that bell merrily peal every Sunday morning, to summon the
crew to devotions?

At any rate, there were Sundays on board this particular frigate
of ours, and a clergyman also. He was a slender, middle-aged man,
of an amiable deportment and irreproachable conversation; but I
must say, that his sermons were but ill calculated to benefit the
crew. He had drank at the mystic fountain of Plato; his head had
been turned by the Germans; and this I will say, that White-Jacket
himself saw him with Coleridge's Biographia Literaria in his hand.

Fancy, now, this transcendental divine standing behind a gun-carriage
on the main-deck, and addressing five hundred salt-sea sinners upon the
psychological phenomena of the soul, and the ontological necessity of
every sailor's saving it at all hazards. He enlarged upon the follies
of the ancient philosophers; learnedly alluded to the Phiedon of Plato;
exposed the follies of Simplicius's Commentary on Aristotle's "De Coelo,"
by arraying against that clever Pagan author the admired tract of
Tertullian--_De Prascriptionibus Haereticorum_--and concluded by a
Sanscrit invocation. He was particularly hard upon the Gnostics and
Marcionites of the second century of the Christian era; but he never,
in the remotest manner, attacked the everyday vices of the nineteenth
century, as eminently illustrated in our man-of-war world. Concerning
drunkenness, fighting, flogging, and oppression--things expressly or
impliedly prohibited by Christianity--he never said aught. But the most
mighty Commodore and Captain sat before him; and in general, if, in a
monarchy, the state form the audience of the church, little evangelical
piety will be preached. Hence, the harmless, non-committal abstrusities
of our Chaplain were not to be wondered at. He was no Massillon, to
thunder forth his ecclesiastical rhetoric, even when a Louis le Grand was
enthroned among his congregation. Nor did the chaplains who preached on
the quarter-deck of Lord Nelson ever allude to the guilty Felix, nor to
Delilah, nor practically reason of righteousness, temperance, and judgment
to come, when that renowned Admiral sat, sword-belted, before them.

During these Sunday discourses, the officers always sat in a circle round
the Chaplain, and, with a business-like air, steadily preserved the
utmost propriety. In particular, our old Commodore himself made a point
of looking intensely edified; and not a sailor on board but believed
that the Commodore, being the greatest man present, must alone comprehend
the mystic sentences that fell from our parson's lips.

Of all the noble lords in the ward-room, this lord-spiritual, with the
exception of the Purser, was in the highest favour with the Commodore,
who frequently conversed with him in a close and confidential manner.
Nor, upon reflection, was this to be marvelled at, seeing how
efficacious, in all despotic governments, it is for the throne and altar
to go hand-in-hand.

The accommodations of our chapel were very poor. We had nothing
to sit on but the great gun-rammers and capstan-bars, placed
horizontally upon shot-boxes. These seats were exceedingly
uncomfortable, wearing out our trowsers and our tempers, and, no
doubt, impeded the con-version of many valuable souls.

To say the truth, men-of-war's-men, in general, make but poor
auditors upon these occasions, and adopt every possible means to
elude them. Often the boatswain's-mates were obliged to drive the
men to service, violently swearing upon these occasions, as upon
every other.

"Go to prayers, d----n you! To prayers, you rascals--to prayers!"
In this clerical invitation Captain Claret would frequently unite.

At this Jack Chase would sometimes make merry. "Come, boys, don't
hang back," he would say; "come, let us go hear the parson talk
about his Lord High Admiral Plato, and Commodore Socrates."

But, in one instance, grave exception was taken to this summons.
A remarkably serious, but bigoted seaman, a sheet-anchor-man--
whose private devotions may hereafter be alluded to--once touched
his hat to the Captain, and respectfully said, "Sir, I am a
Baptist; the chaplain is an Episcopalian; his form of worship is
not mine; I do not believe with him, and it is against my
conscience to be under his ministry. May I be allowed, sir, _not_
to attend service on the half-deck?"

"You will be allowed, sir!" said the Captain, haughtily, "to obey
the laws of the ship. If you absent yourself from prayers on
Sunday mornings, you know the penalty."

According to the Articles of War, the Captaln was perfectly
right; but if any law requiring an American to attend divine
service against his will be a law respecting the establishment of
religion, then the Articles of War are, in this one particular,
opposed to the American Constitution, which expressly says,
"Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of
religion, or the free exercise thereof." But this is only one of
several things in which the Articles of War are repugnant to that
instrument. They will be glanced at in another part of the narrative.

The motive which prompts the introduction of chaplains into the
Navy cannot but be warmly responded to by every Christian. But it
does not follow, that because chaplains are to be found in men-
of-war, that, under the present system, they achieve much good,
or that, under any other, they ever will.

How can it be expected that the religion of peace should flourish
in an oaken castle of war? How can it be expected that the
clergyman, whose pulpit is a forty-two-pounder, should convert
sinners to a faith that enjoins them to turn the right cheek when
the left is smitten? How is it to be expected that when,
according to the XLII. of the Articles of War, as they now stand
unrepealed on the Statute-book, "a bounty shall be paid" (to the
officers and crew) "by the United States government of $20 for
each person on board any ship of an enemy which shall be sunk or
destroyed by any United States ship;" and when, by a subsequent
section (vii.), it is provided, among other apportionings, that
the chaplain shall receive "two twentieths" of this price paid
for sinking and destroying ships full of human beings? I How is
it to be expected that a clergyman, thus provided for, should
prove efficacious in enlarging upon the criminality of Judas,
who, for thirty pieces of silver, betrayed his Master?

Although, by the regulations of the Navy, each seaman's mess on
board the Neversink was furnished with a Bible, these Bibles were
seldom or never to be seen, except on Sunday mornings, when usage
demands that they shall be exhibited by the cooks of the messes,
when the master-at-arms goes his rounds on the berth-deck. At
such times, they usually surmounted a highly-polished tin-pot
placed on the lid of the chest.

Yet, for all this, the Christianity of men-of-war's men, and
their disposition to contribute to pious enterprises, are often
relied upon. Several times subscription papers were circulated
among the crew of the Neversink, while in harbour, under the
direct patronage of the Chaplain. One was for the purpose of
building a seaman's chapel in China; another to pay the salary of
a tract-distributor in Greece; a third to raise a fund for the
benefit of an African Colonization Society.

Where the Captain himself is a moral man, he makes a far better
chaplain for his crew than any clergyman can be. This is sometimes
illustrated in the case of sloops of war and armed brigs, which are
not allowed a regular chaplain. I have known one crew, who were
warmly attached to a naval commander worthy of their love, who have
mustered even with alacrity to the call to prayer; and when their
Captain would read the Church of England service to them, would
present a congregation not to be surpassed for earnestness and
devotion by any Scottish Kirk. It seemed like family devotions,
where the head of the house is foremost in confessing himself
before his Maker. But our own hearts are our best prayer-rooms,
and the chaplains who can most help us are ourselves.


Herman Melville