Life's Stormy Sea: Maritime Images In 19th Century Hymnody
Life's Stormy Sea:


Maritime Images In 
19th Century Hymnody

By John Townley

Presented at the 12th Annual Mystic Seaport Museum Maritime Music Symposium, June, 1991

Maritime images, metaphor, and subject materials have been a major part of popular and folk music throughout history, especially during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries when sea exploration and trans-oceanic conquest were changing the political and social structures of the world.  The exploits of ships and sailors were favorite topics for songwriters and poets throughout this period and especially toward the end of it, as the tall ships faded from everyday humdrum reality into the mists of surreal romanticism.

The 19th century also saw the heyday of the sailor's work song, or shanty, from about the time of Napoleon until the late 1870's when steam began to replace wind and muscle power as the main operative power sources aboard ship.

During the hundreds of years when sea songs of all sorts flourished, maritime imagery was almost entirely lacking in one important musical area:  Christian hymnody.  Considering how important this area has been in influencing and cross-germinating pop, folk, and classical music, this would seem to be quite an anomaly.  Hymns focusing on maritime images and metaphors really only enjoyed a very short period of popularity, from the middle of the 19th century until the end of World War I.  Yet, during that time, the genre was very prolific and its writers produced many excellent and moving hymns based on the spiritual imagery of the sea.  Perhaps even more anomalistic, almost none of these hymns have survived in current usage, and hymn books of the current mainstream church denominations --  Catholic, Episcopal, Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Lutheran, Unitarian --  rarely contain more than one hymn with a maritime theme.

As a maritime music historian who has also been extensively published wearing another hat in the area of spiritual matters and the generally ineffable, a special musical interest of mine for many years has been sea hymns, and I have amassed a large collection of hymn books which contain them.  The attached data base lists the 120 or so which occur at least once (though some many times) throughout the collection.  A glance at the dates show the very narrow temporal distribution of the songs, with even those rare earlier tunes often brought into hymnody by words written at a later date.  I have noted in earlier papers ["Songwriter Charles Dibdin & 18-19th Century Maritime Music" (Mystic, 1985) and"The Influence of 19th Century Popular Song On Maritime Music"(Mystic, 1987)] that popular and folk music of the sea were rife and intermingled constantly for a much longer period of time.  Why not hymnody, which otherwise mixed regularly with pop and folk music across history?  And why, when maritime imagery did enter the field, did it happen so intensely and then end so quickly?

The reasons may be several.  First, up until the 19th century, the texts of hymns were by custom (and in some cases by church regulation) taken from the Bible alone, and other sources were excluded.  Thus, the astonishing semi-monopoly on hymn words held by Isaac Watts, who translated virtually the whole Bible into suitable, rhyming hymn quatrains.  Under this sort of stricture, the only maritime imagery available will have had to occur originally in scripture.  As the Israelites were not noted for their maritime proclivities, there is very little of this in either Old or New Testaments.  In fact, Noah's flood, Jonah and the whale, Jesus's appearance with the Apostles on the Sea of Gallilee, and St. Paul's shipwreck pretty much cover it, with the exception of an occasional reference to the sea in Psalms and Ecclesiastes.

One would think at least these incidents would have cropped up in hymnody, and especially during its brief heyday, but they do not.  There is to my knowledge only one hymn about Noah's flood, and none about Jonah or St. Paul's shipwreck, despite their detailed descriptions in the Bible.  The Sea of Gallilee incident, however, spawned at least a dozen or so, but only in the brief, aforementioned period.  Why and how did this come to pass?  And what did maritime hymn authors write about if not these Biblical incidents?

In a search for answers it is logical to turn to the sea itself and briefly look at the role of the church in the life of the sailor in recent historical times.  Up until the 19th century it may be safely said that organized religion had little impact on the common seaman, nor did it attempt to have much.  The sailor was pretty much viewed as a creature beyond the pale and of little interest or profit to the church.  Sailor songs, pop and folk alike, in general contain almost no Christian imagery.  For instance, among the over 1500 sea songs England's most famous pop sea song writer Charles Dibdin penned, God or Christ is mentioned in only one of them.  Although Dibdin and others deified the sailor and the sea in mythic neo-Classical images, about as close to the Christian God as they get is in occasional references to Providence.  Folk songs of the sea also showed not much more gravitation to churchgoing.

In the 1820's and '30's, however, the attention of evangelists turned toward the sea and soon a large network of seaman's churches or "bethels" came into being at many of the world's major port cities.  Whatever their spiritual benefits, the material benefits of these organizations to the common sailor were great indeed.  They provided special, safe haven boarding houses where sailors would be free from predatory landlords and land sharks, and they encouraged the traditionally profligate sailor to restrain his appetite for hard liquor and loose women and save money for the sake of creating and supporting a family.  The same clergymen helped the fight for decent wages and humane treatment of seamen, the abolition of the lash, and on-board education of seamen in the form of free libraries donated to merchant ships -- the "full fathom" of books, literally two three-foot shelves stocked with a variety of literature and instruction, not just religious in nature.  At sea, the sailor could thus pursue his individual education while off watch, and when in port, even when he had no shore leave, floating bethels (in some cases, literally whole church buildings put on barges) would come out to his ship to pursue his moral and spiritual betterment.           

One of the more noteable leaders of the seaman's bethel movement was Boston minister Phineas Stowe, pastor of the First Baptist Bethel Church.  He published the first all-maritime hymns in 1845, entitled Ocean Melodies, and Seamen's Companion -- A Collection of Hymns and Music;  For the Use of Bethels, Chaplains of the Navy, and Private Devotion of Mariners.  The collection contains 64 tunes, with several sets of lyrics to each tune, providing an extensive variety of hymns tailor-made for the sailor.  The tunes are mostly traditional hymn tunes of well-known origin or simple folk tunes with new sailor lyrics set to them.  The thrust of most of them is the personal image of the sailor tossed upon the sea and calling for God's mercy and deliverance from the perils of the briny deep.  The approach is strictly from the point of view of the sailor and the sea imagery is usually literal and not metaphorical, as opposed to the later and much more popular gospel hymns of post-1870.  Except for the specifically maritime content of the lyrics, the approach of the hymns is very much in the mainstream church tradition.

If there is any one distiguishing quality about Stowe's collection, it is how undistiguished it is lyrically.  The imagery, although maritime, is very literal and largely uncompelling, with the tunes by old-time greats like Thorley often overshadowing the wide variety of trite and banal lyrics.  Heavyweight hymn tunes like Boylston, Coronation, Duke Street, Old Hundred, and Portugal require the likes of Isaac Watts to match words to them, and Stowe, who wrote a majority of the lyrics, wasn't up to it, even when working with pop tunes like Mary Derby's "Bounding Billows" whose original, tragic words of 1792 are so much more moving than Stowe's little sailor's prayer.  Similarly, adaptations like "When marshalled on the raging main" for James Millar's 1782 "When marshalled on the nightly plain" deviate just enough from the original to feel somehow counterfeit and thus lose their intended impact.

Perhaps because of this cut-and-paste approach to creating hymns for the sailor, no memorable ones were created here or anywhere within the sailor's bethel movement, with one notable exception.  That is "Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me," the all-time great which appeared as a poem by New York City Church Of Sea And Land minister Edward Hopper in The Sailor's Magazine in 1871, found its tune later that year, and has graced nearly every evangelical hymn book since.

In general, the mainstream approach to hymn-writing produced very little in the way of memorable sea hymns, though here again, the exception proves the rule in the form of "Eternal Father, Strong To Save," the U.S. Navy hymn penned in 1860 by William Whiting and set to music (Melita) by none less than English composer John Dykes, author of all-time great tunes like "Holy, Holy, Holy"(Nicea), "Calm On The Listening Ear Of Night"(St. Agnes), and "Lead, Kindly Light"(Lux Benigna).  The Navy Hymn and "Jesus, Saviour, Pilot Me" remain virtually the only sea hymns included in mainstream hymnals today.

Far and away the most -- and best -- sea hymns were created not by mainstream hymn writers creating pieces within the fairly static stylistic boundaries of the traditional church but by charismatic, high-energy evangelist writers and composers who created the "gospel" revival church tradition beginning in the 1870's.  Their musical and poetical approach to the subject was radically different than earlier writers, and it freed them to fully bring the breadth of spiritual symbolism to be found at sea into the world of hymnody.

Musically, the gospel hymn movement, led by internationally-known evangelists and evangelical composers like Charles Moody, Ira Sankey, P.P. Bliss, Fanny Crosby, William Bradbury, Billy Sunday, and Aimee McPherson, made a radical departure from traditional hymn writing.  Since their purpose was not to induce spiritual peace but to stir and arouse an audience, their tunes usually featured a strong beat and often a pop verse-chorus format.  The sedate church organ was supplanted by the tambourine, brass band, and concertina, and church music started sounding suspiciously secular -- but, as several composers were quoted as saying in their defense, ""Why let the Devil keep all the best tunes?"

The result was church music that swung and sometimes was positively toe-tapping.  Hymns in 4/4 generally had a march beat overtone, and 3/4 tunes were often seriously danceable.  Some, like "Remember Me, O Mighty One," arranged by German pop composer Johanna Kinkel, even changed the time signature in the chorus for effect.  Musically, this also freed writers of sea hymns to achieve more rhythmic effects that could mimic the feel of the rolling sea.  Many mainstream denominations looked ill upon the new hymns, as they saw them for what they were:  pop music in religious guise.  Indeed, gospel hymns were cranked out at a great rate for half a century, creating hit hymns and best-selling hymn collections marketed in a very similar fashion to the new-born Tin Pan Alley.

More important, however, was the new lyrical approach the gospel hymn writers adopted.  Instead of singing about the sea and its perils, they sang about life and its spiritual dangers as if it were the sea.  The earlier, strictly limited approach of asking for protection from the perils of the waves now expanded to a giant metaphor of life imagined as a storm-tossed sea.  Along with it went a host of sea metaphors, not all consistent but always picturesque.  Most usual were:

The Pilot = Christ
The Anchor = Christ, God, Faith
The Rock = the Rock of Ages
The Ship = the mortal body, though sometimes the Church.  Only in one song, however, is a "ship" used, curiously.  It's almost always a bark, though rarely a lifeboat or rowboat.
The Lifeline = the gospel message
The Lighthouse = the word of God
The shoals and rocks = sin
Waves and currents = temptation
Storms = the trials of sin
The Port, the far shore, the Harbor = heaven

Sometimes writers seriously disagree on their metaphors, with humorous results.  I have ten songs about "drifting," most of which feel it's a bad idea (drifting away from the Lord, drifting down on the rocks of sin) but some of which extol it (drifting along to heaven, toward the golden shore).  It's hard to know exactly what to do!

The evangelists were not the only ones to try their hands at hymns featuring sea imagery, but they were the most successful.  Northern Civil War pop songwriter and publisher George Root (of "Battle Cry Of Freedom" fame) tried his hand at it -- "Along The River Of Time" -- and failed miserably.  Arthur Sullivan, without Gilbert, also tried -- "Safe Home In Port" -- with mediocre results.  Even Harriet Beecher Stowe got in on the act -- "When Winds Are Raging" -- without lasting results.  Others picked poetry that was already a hit and set it to music.  There are three settings for Alfred Tennyson's "Crossing The Bar," one of them quite beautiful.  But by and large, despite forays from famous pop writers and poets, the best sea hymns were written by the gospel evangelists.

Although these writers were not composing for an audience of sailors like Stowe, they were not entirely unacquainted with the sea and many of their best hymns came from personal experiences at sea which they translated to a higher, spiritual octave in their songs.  One such example is the shipwreck incident which led P.P. Bliss to write "Pull For The Shore."  In his own words:

"We watched the wreck with great anxiety.  The life-boat had been out some hours but could not reach the vessel through the great breakers that raged and foamed on the sandbank.  The boat appeared to be leaving the crew to perish.  But in a few minutes the captain and sixteen sailors were taken off, and the vessel went down.

"'When the life-boat came to you, did you expect it had brought some tools to repair your old ship,' I said.

"'Oh, no;  she was a total wreck.  Two of her masts were gone and if we had stayed mending her, only a few minutes, we must have gone down, sir.'

"'When once off the old wreck and safe in the life-boat what remained for you to do?

"'Nothing, sir, but just to pull for the shore.'"

Bliss was no mariner, but he got the point. See the complete words above, right.

Since revival meeting leaders depended upon hitting especially personal and responsive chords in their audiences, their subject matters necessarily reflected the emotional attachments of the day.  What was it about this period that caused so many people to be moved by sea imagery, other than its obvious effectiveness as a metaphor?  I believe there may be three reasons.

First, the period in question covers the creation of more new sects of Christianity (and other religions as well) than at any other time in modern history.  Furthermore, most were built not on doctrinal differences, as during the Reformation, but on mystic and emotional revelation, of being swept away by the spirit.  Of all available metaphors, emotion and spirituality are most often connected with water and water imagery throughout literature, poetry, and scripture.  Thus, for a period of intense religious revival, the very stuff of the sea suggested the flow of the water of the spirit which was the basis for the revival itself. 

Second, the audience for evangelical meetings during this period of time had a unique attachment to ships and the sea.  This was the period of greatest migration to America from Europe, and for several generations of millions of people, ships and the sea literally meant a personal salvation and a new life.  Even if you had not just come over on the boat, chances are your parents had or you knew many others who had.  (It might even be noted that this raised maritime consciousness in the Midwest and Western states, where not many these days can identify an oar, to its all-time high, since that was where so many immigrants settled). It was simply a step further to connect those emotions born of experience to the spiritual world.  The number of sea hymns being composed peaked with the greatest flow of immigration at the turn of the century and curved down to virtually nothing as immigration was radically curtailed by the end of the 1920's.

Third, during this period developed the first regular, safe use of ships for passenger transport and for a reasonable place to work and ply the sailor's profession.  Like never before, ships and the sea were a part of everybody's life.  Not only was a sea voyage an opportunity to bring passenger or merchant personal or economic redemption, the sea and ships were viewed as a kind of career leveller or clean slate for the sailors who signed on board.  Tales of bootstrap success starting in the forecastle by the likes of Dana and Melville painted the sea as new opportunity to try again, whatever your life had been before, facing the challenges of God and nature instead of the polluted vicissitudes of the city ghetto.  One step further, and life itself could be viewed that way, which perfectly fit the contemporary view of Christian salvation. 

Together, these three reasons helped make the imagery of the sea a "hot button" for over half a century, after which its special relevance no longer applied, sea hymn composition ceased, and most of those which had been previously composed dropped away into obscurity.  Sea hymns never caught the imagination of mainstream denominations, and with the end of the great revival period and accompanying immigration, religious society simply moved on, leaving behind some very beautiful hymns.  This is not to say that they have been entirely lost or forgotten.  Many are still to be found in the smaller collections of hymns in the pews of charismatic and revival churchs around the country, little jewels of devotion beached on the less travelled shores of Christian tradition, particularly in the American South and Midwest.

Although they were not hymns of or for real sailors, they raised the image of the sailor and the sea to a mythical level, very much as the songs of Charles Dibdin had done a century before them.  There is simply so much raw emotional and physical symbolism in the sea that society will always paint it as larger than life, just as does the current tall ship revival today.  It's the very stuff of romance and inspiration, whether spiritual or secular, and for that reason it has and will continue to inspire beautiful music, poetry, and the intense spiritual and emotional feelings songs and hymns are so well designed to express.

Copyright © John Townley 1989. All rights reserved.

For a century or more, the voyage of the sailor became viewed as a metaphor for the voyage of life across the seas of sin and temptation and into the harbor of heaven (above). "The Spiritual Sailor" (top) is a typical shape-note effort from 1835.

Phineas Stowe's Ocean Melodies was one of the first all-nautical hymnals to be issued for the floating bethels.

Vessels were converted to floating ministries to reach sailors on board ship in local harbors.

Lacking a vessel, some floating bethels were actual churches simply put on board of a  barge and towed to reach their harbor flock, holding services tied up along side visiting ships in the harbor

P.P. Bliss was one of the greastest of the maritime gospel hymn composers.

Pull For The Shore

By P.P. Bliss

Light in the darkness, sailor,
Day is at hand!
See o'er the foaming billows fair,
Fair haven's land.
Drear was the voyage, sailor,
Now almost o'er,
Safe within the lifeboat, sailor,
Pull for the shore!

Pull for the shore, sailor,
Pull for the shore!
Heed not the rolling waves,
But bend to the oar!
Safe in the lifeboat sailor,
Cling to self no more!
Leave the poor old stranded wreck
And pull for the shore.

Trust in the life-boat, sailor,
All else will fail,
Stronger the surges dash
And fiercer the gale,
Heed not the stormy winds,
Though loudly they roar;
Watch the "bright and morning star,"
And pull for the shore.

Pull for the shore, sailor,
Pull for the shore!
Heed not the rolling waves,
But bend to the oar!
Safe in the lifeboat sailor,
Cling to self no more!
Leave the poor old stranded wreck
And pull for the shore.

Bright gleams the morning, sailor,
Uplift the eye;
Clouds and darkness disappearing,
Glory is nigh!
Safe in the lifeboat, sailor,
Sing evermore
"Glory, glory, hallelujah!"
Pull for the shore.

Pull for the shore, sailor,
Pull for the shore!
Heed not the rolling waves,
But bend to the oar!
Safe in the lifeboat sailor,
Cling to self no more!
Leave the poor old stranded wreck
And pull for the shore.

Mixed Christian and nautical symbols were a refecltion of the metaphors used in maritime-inspired hymns

The anchor, wheel, and superimposed crucifix is still a popular talisman worn by sailors and their families.


The U.S. Navy still prints its own bible for issue to sailors of Christian persuasion

Sacred Samples

The real experience of maritime hymns is in the singing, and this paper originally had a large collection of example hymns attached to it, for which there is no room here. Fortunately, the Internet abounds with them these days, so here's a list of three dozen to start with. Many are to be easily found, with histories and author biographies, words, music, and MIDI versions of the tunes at the extensive NetHymnal site, some you may have to search for separately: 

Adrift On The Waters
Boundless Salvation
Cast Thy Bread Upon The Waters
Christ In The Storm
Does Thy Savior Pilot Thee?
Drifting Too Far From The Shore
Eternal Father Strong to Save
Fierce Raged The Tempest
Fierce Was The Wild Billow
I Am Anchored Safe
I Feel the Winds of God Today
I've Anchored In Jesus
I've Anchored My Soul
Jesus Lover Of My Soul
Hail Queen Of Heaven
Jesus Savior Pilot Me
Launch Out
Let the Lower Lights Be Burning
Like A Mighty Sea
Lord Be With Us When We Sail
My Anchor Holds
Numberless As The Sands
Oh Lord, Be With Us When We Sail
Old Ship of Zion
Our Life is Like a Stormy Sea
Remember Me, Oh Mighty One
Saved From The Wreck
Send The Light
The Haven of Rest
The Mercy Of God Is An Ocean Divine
The Seaman's Prayer
They That Go Down To The Sea Throw Out The Lifeline
We Have An Anchor

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