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The British and Foreign Sailor's Society Gospel Ship

Date: 19th century
Overall: 430 x 567 mm
Medium: Paper
Credit Line: ANMM Collection
Object Name: Lithograph
Object No: 00045648

User Terms

    This broadsheet or poster titled the Gospel Ship was produced for The British and Foreign Sailor's Society. It depicts a three-masted sailing ship with biblical messages written on the sails and seascapes. In the 18th and 19th century a sailor's life at sea was harsh, hazardous, poorly paid, and unforgiving. To care for the health and welfare of sailors a number of religious societies, including the British and Foreign Sailor's Society (BFSS), were established. They produced and advertised their services through active port missions, journals, flyers, postcards and broadsheets like this one.
    SignificanceThis poster is representative of the British Foreign Sailors's Society, one of the major international sailor friend’s organisations. Now known as the Sailor's Society the BFSS continues its role today with missions in over 100 major ports in 30 countries.
    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.

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