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The Gospel Ship

Date: 19th century
Overall: 1575 x 2290 mm hanging system: d-latches.
Medium: Linen, charcoal, paper
Credit Line: ANMM Collection
Object Name: Drawing
Object No: 00044264

User Terms

    This charcoal on linen drawing depicts a three-masted sailing vessel and has been decorated with biblical messages on the sails, hull and seascape. Life for sailors in the 18th and 19th centuries could be dissolute and dangerous leading Christians to produce depictions of the Gospel Ship to teach passages and concepts from the bible. This drawing was salvaged from a hotel in Hobart, Tasmania prior to its demolition in the 1970s.
    SignificanceReligious art made by sailors is extremely rare. This drawing demonstrates the enthusiasm of missionaries and religious societies in the 19th century to spread Christianity.
    History'No man will be a sailor who has contrivance to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in jail, with the chance of being drowned', so wrote Dr Samuel Johnson in Roald Kverndal's 'Seaman's Missions: Their Origins and Early Growth'. These sentiments expressed by Dr Johnson in the mid-18th century although harsh are an accurate, and some would argue an underestimation, of the sailor's lot. For sailors in the 18th, 19th, 20th and even the 21st century were and still are faced with many hazards including appalling working and living conditions, unsafe ships, sickness, suicide, depression, piracy, war and brutalisation. When Johnson wrote these words the mortality rate of sailors in certain trades was as high as 20% - with one in five sailors not surviving the voyage.

    Although many sailors survived the hazards of the sea they and their families were not safe even when the sailor arrived back at port. After long months at sea, sailors looked forward to a stay in port. With plenty of cash in their pockets, they always had plenty of friends. Many sailors off duty set out to have a good time, usually involving alcohol and women. The dosshouses, pubs and brothels of the port districts offered all sorts of services to the visiting sailor - but at a price. At best, the sailors would simply blow their hard-earned wages in a drunken binge, and the friends would disappear as quickly as the money. At worst, they could be cheated, robbed, press ganged onto a Royal Navy vessel, be crimped or even murdered.

    To assist the sailors and their families, from the mid-18th century religious clerics notably Wesleyans and Methodists, had attempted to protect the sailors when ashore from the more unsavoury aspects of shore life by establishing churches, missions and bible societies. Although well meaning these attempts were ad hoc and often resisted by sailor and shipowner alike.

    Inspired by missionary activities overseas and his experiences as a former Royal Navy sailor (he was onboard HMS AGAMEMNON during the Mutiny at the Nore in 1797, served at the Battle of Camperdown in 1797 and the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801) in 1814 Methodist preacher George Charles Smith (1782-1863) started regular prayer meetings for merchant seamen in the port of London. 'I am now training up to begin God's work among sailors, as a sailor myself, who has been in storms and battles, and hells afloat and ashore...' (George Charles Smith, 'The Boatswain's Mate' 1817). The first recorded meeting was held on the brig FRIENDSHIP in June 1814 and others quickly followed, some onshore, others on board what Smith called 'floating sanctuaries, floating chapels or bethels'.

    The term 'Gospel Ship' can be traced back to at least mid-18th century England where it featured in some of the earliest free forms of 'Primitive Baptists Hymns' and according to music folklorists at Kent University (USA) the term is still found today in Baptist hymns and White Spirituals such as 'The Gospel ship has long been sailing, Bound for Canaan's peaceful shore; All who wish to sail to glory, Come, and welcome, rich and poor...' or 'I set my foot On the gospel ship, And the ship it begin to sail, And it landed me over On Canaan's shore, And I'll never come back anymore', which are sung in the churches of Arkansas, Virginia, and eastern Kentucky in the United States of America.

    Besides music the term 'Gospel Ship' can also be found in religious tracts which were produced especially for sailors in the early 19th century such as Rev J Lenfest's 'The locker containing some precious and glorious truths from the great store-house of God's word. Served out by an unworthy steward on board the gospel ship for the benefit of his brother seamen' (New York, 1845) and Rev J H Vincent's 'Curiosities of the Bible' (New York, 1888) which used an illustration of a three-masted barque, called The Gospel Ship' with religious quotes and texts to explain teachings from the bible.

    Additional Titles

    Assigned title: The Gospel Ship

    Web title: The Gospel Ship

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