You’ve read rant upon rant about the topics in the title of this post if you’ve stopped here for any length of time or visited now and then over the months.
One runs down.
But there are other voices, better, and stronger. Melville’s, for one, who’s book, White Jacket, is, in the main, about the abridgment of rights, and justification of this abridgment, in a “man-of-war world.”
[CONGRESS SHALL MAKE NO LAW RESPECTING AN ESTABLISHMENT OF RELIGION, OR PROHIBITING THE FREE EXERCISE THEREOF; OR ABRIDGING THE FREEDOM OF SPEECH, OR OF THE PRESS; OR THE RIGHT OF THE PEOPLE PEACEABLY TO ASSEMBLE, AND TO PETITION THE GOVERNMENT FOR A REDRESS OF GRIEVANCES.
But, in one instance, grave exception was taken to this summons. A remarkably serious, but bigoted seaman, a sheet-anchor-man—whose private devotions may hereafter be alluded to—once touched his hat to the Captain, and respectfully said, “Sir, I am a Baptist; the chaplain is an Episcopalian; his form of worship is not mine; I do not believe with him, and it is against my conscience to be under his ministry. May I be allowed, sir, not to attend service on the half-deck?”
“You will be allowed, sir!” said the Captain, haughtily, “to obey the laws of the ship. If you absent yourself from prayers on Sunday mornings, you know the penalty.”
According to the Articles of War, the Captain was perfectly right; but if any law requiring an American to attend divine service against his will be a law respecting the establishment of religion, then the Articles of War are, in this one particular, opposed to the American Constitution, which expressly says, “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or the free exercise thereof.” But this is only one of several things in which the Articles of War are repugnant to that instrument. They will be glanced at in another part of the narrative.
The motive which prompts the introduction of chaplains into the Navy cannot but be warmly responded to by every Christian. But it does not follow, that because chaplains are to be found in men-of-war, that, under the present system, they achieve much good, or that, under any other, they ever will.
How can it be expected that the religion of peace should flourish in an oaken castle of war? How can it be expected that the clergyman, whose pulpit is a forty-two-pounder, should convert sinners to a faith that enjoins them to turn the right cheek when the left is smitten? How is it to be expected that when, according to the XLII. of the Articles of War, as they now stand unrepealed on the Statute-book, “a bounty shall be paid” (to the officers and crew) “by the United States government of $20 for each person on board any ship of an enemy which shall be sunk or destroyed by any United States ship;” and when, by a subsequent section (vii.), it is provided, among other apportionings, that the chaplain shall receive “two twentieths” of this price paid for sinking and destroying ships full of human beings? I How is it to be expected that a clergyman, thus provided for, should prove efficacious in enlarging upon the criminality of Judas, who, for thirty pieces of silver, betrayed his Master?
Although, by the regulations of the Navy, each seaman’s mess on board the Neversink was furnished with a Bible, these Bibles were seldom or never to be seen, except on Sunday mornings, when usage demands that they shall be exhibited by the cooks of the messes, when the master-at-arms goes his rounds on the berth-deck. At such times, they usually surmounted a highly-polished tin-pot placed on the lid of the chest.
Yet, for all this, the Christianity of men-of-war’s men, and their disposition to contribute to pious enterprises, are often relied upon. Several times subscription papers were circulated among the crew of the Neversink, while in harbour, under the direct patronage of the Chaplain. One was for the purpose of building a seaman’s chapel in China; another to pay the salary of a tract-distributor in Greece; a third to raise a fund for the benefit of an African Colonization Society.
The Surgeon is, by law, charged with the business of overlooking the general sanitary affairs of the ship. If anything is going on in any of its departments which he judges to be detrimental to the healthfulness of the crew, he has a right to protest against it formally to the Captain. When a man is being scourged at the gangway, the Surgeon stands by; and if he thinks that the punishment is becoming more than the culprit’s constitution can well bear, he has a right to interfere and demand its cessation for the time.
But though the Navy regulations nominally vest him with this high discretionary authority over the very Commodore himself, how seldom does he exercise it in cases where humanity demands it? Three years is a long time to spend in one ship, and to be at swords’ points with its Captain and Lieutenants during such a period, must be very unsocial and every way irksome. No otherwise than thus, at least, can the remissness of some surgeons in remonstrating against cruelty be accounted for.
Not to speak again of the continual dampness of the decks consequent upon flooding them with salt water, when we were driving near to Cape Horn, it needs only to be mentioned that, on board of the Neversink, men known to be in consumptions gasped under the scourge of the boatswain’s mate, when the Surgeon and his two attendants stood by and never interposed. But where the unscrupulousness of martial discipline is maintained, it is in vain to attempt softening its rigour by the ordaining of humanitarian laws. Sooner might you tame the grizzly bear of Missouri than humanise a thing so essentially cruel and heartless.
[The “modern” Hippocratic Oath, which we ought to recognize is an Oath of Membership and fealty to that Club, has this sneaky “out” in it: “I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.” Vile utilitarianism!]
[“Blessed are the peacemakers…children of God.”]
But once—it was a Sunday afternoon—I was pleasantly reclining in a particularly shady and secluded little niche between two lanyards, when I heard a low, supplicating voice. Peeping through the narrow space between the ropes, I perceived an aged seaman on his knees, his face turned seaward, with closed eyes, buried in prayer. Softly rising, I stole through a port-hole, and left the venerable worshipper alone.
He was a sheet-anchor-man, an earnest Baptist, and was well known, in his own part of the ship, to be constant in his solitary devotions in the chains. He reminded me of St. Anthony going out into the wilderness to pray.
This man was captain of the starboard bow-chaser, one of the two long twenty-four-pounders on the forecastle. In time of action, the command of that iron Thalaba the Destroyer would devolve upon him. It would be his business to “train” it properly; to see it well loaded; the grape and cannister rammed home; also, to “prick the cartridge,” “take the sight,” and give the word for the match-man to apply his wand; bidding a sudden hell to flash forth from the muzzle, in wide combustion and death.
Now, this captain of the bow-chaser was an upright old man, a sincere, humble believer, and he but earned his bread in being captain of that gun; but how, with those hands of his begrimed with powder, could he break that other and most peaceful and penitent bread of the Supper? though in that hallowed sacrament, it seemed, he had often partaken ashore. The omission of this rite in a man-of-war—though there is a chaplain to preside over it, and at least a few communicants to partake—must be ascribed to a sense of religious propriety, in the last degree to be commended.
Ah! the best righteousness of our man-of-war world seems but an unrealised ideal, after all; and those maxims which, in the hope of bringing about a Millennium, we busily teach to the heathen, we Christians ourselves disregard. In view of the whole present social frame-work of our world, so ill adapted to the practical adoption of the meekness of Christianity, there seems almost some ground for the thought, that although our blessed Saviour was full of the wisdom of heaven, yet his gospel seems lacking in the practical wisdom of earth—in a due appreciation of the necessities of nations at times demanding bloody massacres and wars; in a proper estimation of the value of rank, title, and money.
[I don’t know, Herm, there is this: Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Matthew, KJV, 5:25]