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
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,40 BILLY BUDD
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.