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- Discipline and Other Sermons - 3/28 -


(Preached at St. Olave's Church, Hart Street, before the Honourable Corporation of the Trinity House, 1866.)

PSALM cvii. 23, 24, 28.

They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; these see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep. Then they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, and he bringeth them out of their distresses.

These are days in which there is much dispute about religion and science--how far they agree with each other; whether they contradict or interfere with each other. Especially there is dispute about Providence. Men say, and truly, that the more we look into the world, the more we find everything governed by fixed and regular laws; that man is bound to find out those laws, and save himself from danger by science and experience. But they go on to say,--'And therefore there is no use in prayer. You cannot expect God to alter the laws of His universe because you ask Him: the world will go on, and ought to go on, its own way; and the man who prays against danger, by sea or land, is asking vainly for that which will not be granted him.'

Now I cannot see why we should not allow,--what is certainly true,-- that the world moves by fixed and regular laws: and yet allow at the same time,--what I believe is just as true,--that God's special providence watches over all our actions, and that, to use our Lord's example, not a sparrow falls to the ground without some special reason why that particular sparrow should fall at that particular moment and in that particular place. I cannot see why all things should not move in a divine and wonderful order, and yet why they should not all work together for good to those who love God. The Psalmist of old finds no contradiction between the two thoughts. Rather does the one of them seem to him to explain the other. 'All things,' says he, 'continue this day as at the beginning. For all things serve Thee.'

Still it is not to be denied, that this question has been a difficult one to men in all ages, and that it is so to many now.

But be that as it may, this I say, that, of all men, seafaring men are the most likely to solve this great puzzle about the limits of science and of religion, of law and of providence; for, of all callings, theirs needs at once most science and most religion; theirs is most subject to laws, and yet most at the mercy of Providence. And I say that many seafaring men have solved the puzzle for themselves in a very rational and sound way, though they may not be able to put thoughts into words; and that they do show, by their daily conduct, that a man may be at once thoroughly scientific and thoroughly religious. And I say that this Ancient and Honourable Corporation of the Trinity House is a proof thereof unto this day; a proof that sound science need not make us neglect sound religion, nor sound religion make us neglect sound science.

No man ought to say that seamen have neglected science. It is the fashion among some to talk of sailors as superstitious. They must know very little about sailors, and must be very blind to broad facts, who speak thus of them as a class. Many sailors, doubtless, are superstitious. But I appeal to every master mariner here, whether the superstitious men are generally the religious and godly men; whether it is not generally the most reckless and profligate men of the crew who are most afraid of sailing on a Friday, and who give way to other silly fancies which I shall not mention in this sacred place. And I appeal, too, to public experience, whether many, I may say most, of those to whom seamanship and sea-science owes most, have not been God-fearing Christian men?

Be sure of this, that if seamen, as a class, had been superstitious, they would never have done for science what they have done. And what they have done, all the world knows. To seamen, and to men connected with the sea, what do we not owe, in geography, hydrography, meteorology, astronomy, natural history? At the present moment, the world owes them large improvements in dynamics, and in the new uses of steam and iron. It may be fairly said that the mariner has done more toward the knowledge of Nature than any other personage in the world, save the physician.

For seamen have been forced, by the nature of their calling, to be scientific men. From the very earliest ages in which the first canoe put out to sea, the mariner has been educated by the most practical of all schoolmasters, namely, danger. He has carried his life in his hand day and night; he has had to battle with the most formidable and the most seemingly capricious of the brute powers of nature; with storms, with ice, with currents, with unknown rocks and shoals, with the vicissitudes of climate, and the terrible and seemingly miraculous diseases which change of climate engenders. He has had to fight Nature; and to conquer her, if he could, by understanding her; by observing facts, and by facing facts. He dared not, like a scholar in his study, indulge in theories and fancies about how things ought to be. He had to find out how they really were. He dared not say, According to my theory of the universe this current ought to run in such a direction; he had to find out which way it did actually run, according to God's method of the universe, lest it should run him ashore. Everywhere, I say, and all day long, the seaman has to observe facts and to use facts, unless he intends to be drowned; and therefore, so far from being a superstitious man, who refuses to inquire into facts, but puts vain dreams in their stead, the sailor is for the most part a very scientific-minded man: observant, patient, accurate, truthful; conquering Nature, as the great saying is, because he obeys her.

But if seamen have been forced to be scientific, they have been equally forced to be religious. They that go down to the sea in ships see both the works of the Lord, and also His wonders in the deep. They see God's works, regular, orderly, the same year by year, voyage by voyage, and tide by tide; and they learn the laws of them, and are so far safe. But they also see God's wonders--strange, sudden, astonishing dangers, which have, no doubt, their laws, but none which man has found out as yet. Over them they cannot reason and foretell; they can only pray and trust. With all their knowledge, they have still plenty of ignorance; and therefore, with all their science, they have still room for religion. Is there an old man in this church who has sailed the seas for many a year, who does not know that I speak truth? Are there not men here who have had things happen to them, for good and for evil, beyond all calculation? who have had good fortune of which they could only say, The glory be to God, for I had no share therein? or who have been saved, as by miracle, from dangers of which they could only say, It was of the Lord's mercies that we were not swallowed up? who must, if they be honest men, as they are, say with the Psalmist, We cried unto the Lord in our trouble, and he delivered us out of our distress?

And this it is that I said at first, that no men were so fit as seamen to solve the question, where science ends and where religion begins; because no men's calling depends so much on science and reason, and so much, at the same time, on Providence and God's merciful will.

Therefore, when men say, as they will,--If this world is governed by fixed laws, and if we have no right to ask God to alter his laws for our sakes, then what use in prayer? I will answer,--Go to the seaman, and ask him what he thinks. The puzzle may seem very great to a comfortable landsman, sitting safe in his study at home; but it ought to be no puzzle at all to the master mariner in his cabin, with his chart and his Bible open before him, side by side. He ought to know well enough where reason stops and religion begins. He ought to know when to work, and when to pray. He ought to know the laws of the sea and of the sky. But he ought to know too how to pray, without asking God to alter those laws, as presumptuous and superstitious men are wont to do.

Take as an instance the commonest of all--a storm. We know that storms are not caused (as folk believed in old time) by evil spirits; that they are natural phenomena, obeying certain fixed laws; that they are necessary from time to time; that they are probably, on the whole, useful.

And we know two ways of facing a storm, one of which you may see too often among the boatmen of the Mediterranean--How a man shall say, I know nothing as to how, or why, or when, a storm should come; and I care not to know. If one falls on me, I will cry for help to the Panagia, or St. Nicholas, or some other saint, and perhaps they will still the storm by miracle. That is superstition, the child of ignorance and fear.

And you may have seen what comes of that temper of mind. How, when the storm comes, instead of order, you have confusion; instead of courage, cowardice; instead of a calm and manly faith, a miserable crying of every man to his own saint, while the vessel is left to herself to sink or swim.

But what is the temper of true religion, and of true science likewise? The seaman will say, I dare not pray that there may be no storm. I cannot presume to interfere with God's government. If there ought to be a storm, there will be one: if not, there will be none. But I can forecast the signs of the weather; I can consult my barometer; I can judge, by the new lights of science, what course the storm will probably take; and I can do my best to avoid it.

But does that make religion needless? Does that make prayer useless? How so? The seaman may say, I dare not pray that the storm may not come. But there is no necessity that I should be found in its path. And I may pray, and I will pray, that God may so guide and govern my voyage, and all its little accidents, that I may pass it by. I know that I can forecast the storm somewhat; and if I do not try to do that, I am tempting God: but I may pray, I will pray, that my forecast may be correct. I will pray the Spirit of God, who gives man understanding, to give me a right judgment, a sound mind, and a calm heart, that I may make no mistake and neglect no precaution; and if I fail, and sink--God's will be done. It is a good will to me and all my crew; and into the hands of the good God who has redeemed me, I commend my spirit, and their spirits likewise.

This much, therefore, we may say of prayer. We may always pray to be made better men. We may always pray to be made wiser men. These prayers will always be answered; for they are prayers for the very Spirit of God himself, from whom comes all goodness and all wisdom, and it can never be wrong to ask to be made right.

There are surely, too, evils so terrible, that when they threaten us- -if God being our Father means anything,--if Christ being our example means anything--then we have a right to cry, like our Lord himself, 'Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me:' if we only

Discipline and Other Sermons - 3/28

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