Bethels or Brothels: 19th Century sailors' choice ashore

Bethel, a church or other place of worship for seamen; Brothel, well …

Ellen Hamil

A life on the sea, whether fishing, whaling or sailing the tall ships, barks, brigs, etc., has never been an easy existence. The early sailors were plagued by diseases such as scurvy and beriberi, typhus or ship fever from louse and venereal diseases from contact in port with Maritime Magdalenes. You never hear dysentery mentioned, but I would suspect, after reading about the weevily food they ate and the poor water they drank, that that was a problem as well. With time and insightful observations, knowledge on how to prevent some of these problems evolved, and sea captains wanting to maintain a healthy crew would employ such tactics. For instance, scrubbing the decks daily prevented diseases caused by rats and insects.

But other factors prevailed to add to the misery of a seafarer’s life. One of them, called the “Crimping System”, is considered the greatest social injustice of all to a seafarer. As Roald Kverndal describes it in his book Seamen’s Missions: Their Origin and Early Growth, “The Crimping System was destined in years to come to rank as the most notorious international impediment to the spiritual and social welfare of seamen.” Its sole purpose was to separate the seaman from his money. It employed a long list of nefarious characters who latched onto the unsuspecting seaman fresh off his ship with tin in his pockets. It rivaled the Mafia in its hierarchy and involved all professions that a seagoing man might make use of: boarding house masters, sea lawyers, brothel keepers and dishonest slopsellers (clothiers). Even sea captains and ship owners were not immune from filling the pockets of these crimpers as they were made dependent upon them for crew members; the crimps were, in fact, the shipping agents. (It’s possible the phrase “between the devil and the deep blue sea” came from describing a sailor and his predators, the crimps.)

Plus, there were always pirates to contend with. And finally, you’ve heard the word “shanghaied” — to kidnap, usually by drugging, for service aboard ship — well, the British Royal Navy impressed American sailors to crew their warships, possibly as many as 10,000 in the early days of the 19th Century. It might also be mentioned here that many sailors did not know how to swim and were not encouraged to learn.

I was not familiar with bethels until the Portsmouth Maritime Folk Festival three years ago. That’s when Barbara “Babs” Benn (Behind the scenes at Prescott Park, July 2010) presented a workshop on bethels.

Barbara Benn and Jeff Warner
It was held in the lovely old brick building that houses Oppenheimer at 30 Penhallow Street. Barbara talked knowledgeably about bethels and their purpose to provide seafarers – and often their families – with meals, clothing and shelter in a safe and caring environment. And, not unlike the rice Christians in China, these charitable gifts didn’t come without a sermon and a hymn or two. Barbara does not preach but she does accompany her talk with hymns. It is a delightful program and one that she has continued to expand upon. Her research has revealed the existence of at least one bethel in Portsmouth (there were probably more) and a Seaman’s Home and Ladies’ Seaman’s Friend Society, all around the mid-19th Century.
Seaman’s missions and bethels were not the panacea to the seaman’s problems. In the beginning they were entirely religious in nature rather than humanitarian. But the movement had to start somewhere.

So it was the Naval Military Bible Society founded in Britain in 1779 that distributed bibles to seafarers on the waterfront that gave it its start.  It was the British Navy and the Church of England that benefited from this endeavor as the church was interested in spreading the word of God to its empire where the sun never set.

Many notable men played important roles in what was called the “Naval Awakening” that eventually led to the “Bethel Movement” and one in particular rose head and shoulders above the rest. Enter Rev. George Charles Smith (1782-1863). At the age of 14 Smith left a fatherless home in London aboard an American brig bound for Boston. En route he was impressed into the British navy. Almost dying of yellow fever, he finally made it home and recovered. But the call of the sea was in his blood and off again he went.  On his 21st birthday he had a “spiritual” awakening and after a program of study, he was ordained at the age of 25. One memorable afternoon in 1809 a crew member of a ship in port that recently weathered a terrible gale came looking for him and asked him to go aboard and deliver a sermon. News had spread that here was someone who spoke their language and knew the perils sailors faced at sea. Smith discovered there were other pious men who frequented the waterfront. and together they formed a correspondence mission movement, and soon he was publishing “The Boatswain’s Mate”, a tract written by a sailor for sailors.

Then in 1814 a Zebedee Rogers, a Methodist, had unexpected success in leading a worship service in a captain’s cabin with the entire crew in attendance. The date, June 22, 1814, was to be commemorated as the birth of the “Bethel Movement.”

In 1817 Rogers had a vision of the word “Bethel” that consisted of white letters on a blue background. Later a 5-pointed star and a dove carrying an olive branch were added. Seafarers - and soon their families - were flocking to meetings designated by the Bethel flag. The movement continued to grow and soon ships had Bethel captains and worship services were held on board on the Sabbath.

Rev. Charles George Smith flourished under the yoke of the Bethel movement and joined in leading services aboard ships and on shore. He also had the foresight to see that religion wasn’t the only thing seafarers needed and here he steps to the plate in a humanitarian role. He is successful, according to Kverndal, “in the formation of sailors’ reading rooms, ship’s libraries, day schools for seafarers’ children, vocational maritime schools and societies for the relief of shipwrecked and distressed mariners and their dependents.” Then, he takes on the “Crimping System.”  I have a friend who is raising a teenager who is her granddaughter, and it’s not uncommon to hear her tell her “life is choices”.  This is sort of what Rev. Smith did. He knew the crimping system like the back of his hand and knew how to head it off by offering positive alternatives and making the seafarer aware of the better choice. Sailors were known for “Four Cardinal Maritime Vices  - promiscuity, intemperance, profanity and Sabbath-breaking.” Through his work with bethels, Rev. Smith showed them another way. He even founded a refuge for “Maritime Penitent Young Women”. His contribution to seafarers was great as well as all encompassing.
In this country it was the Second Awakening in the 19th Century that combined evangelicalism and social reform that would pinpoint the plight of seafarers. Times had changed, and people were on the move with religion taking a front seat. Preachers had to be on their toes to keep their congregations. If a preacher were lax or uninspiring, a new one would be found, regardless of religious affiliation. Churches, civic affiliations and ladies’ societies all found causes to endorse.  Among the many recipients of this new found charity were seafarers. Bethels appeared in seafaring towns, such as Boston, New York, New Bedford and Portsmouth, supported by religious and social societies.

Some Bethels were actually churches, and there is a famous one in the whaling town of New Bedford, Mass., now on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. In Moby Dick, Melville calls it the “Whaleman’s Chapel”, and whaling men made a practice of setting foot in this chapel before setting foot on board their ship. (In plying the Web sites on the internet I came across “Marine Disasters in March, 1879” that cites the number of vessels belonging to, or bound to or from ports in the United States, that were reported totally lost and missing as 42, including 14 barks and 20 schooners.) With this kind of record, no wonder seafarers took to religion.

Today there is an organization whose focus is on people of the sea. The Seafarer’s Friend has a history beginning in 1827 with the founding of The Boston Seaman’s Friend Society in Boston, and it continues today in Boston, Portsmouth, and Portland.  To give you an idea of how it works, fast forward to the present day Port of New Hampshire and the bulk carriers that do business at one of its nine terminals. All ships must fly a flag that identifies its nationality.Since the 1970’s something called an “open register” allows a ship to operate under the flag of another country (called a flag of convenience), thus avoiding taxes and allowing it to hire crew members from countries who are willing to work for low wages. Panama, Liberia and Honduras offer this arrangement. Often conditions aboard are substandard, and it’s not uncommon for these ships to operate with the bottom line foremost in the minds of their unidentified owners. Crew members can be confined to the ship for months as they cannot leave the ship when it’s in port unless they have a visa for the country in which they are docked. Seafarer’s friend is the modern day mobile bethel going to the seafarers instead of vice versa. There is a chaplain in Portsmouth who maintains an office and a van and who makes arrangements to board the vessel and visit with crew members, take them ashore to shop, and all in all “offer a friendly, caring and listening presence.”

Barbara’s Bethel workshop will take place again this year. If you go, you may find yourself joining her in a hymn such as “Let the lower lights be burning.” As Barbara tells it, Philip Bliss wrote the music and words after hearing a stirring sermon preached by a  Rev. Moody. The sermon told of a ship trying to find Cleveland harbor in the midst of a storm at night. “On a dark, stormy night, when the waves rolled like mountains, and not a star was to be seen, a boat rocking and plunging, neared the Cleveland harbor. ‘Are you sure this is Cleveland?’ asked the captain seeing only one light from the lighthouse. ‘Quite sure, sir,’ replied the pilot. ‘Where are the lower lights?’ ‘Gone out, sir.’ ‘Can you make the harbor?’ ‘We must, or perish, sir!’ And with a strong hand and a brave heart, the old pilot turned the wheel. But alas, in the darkness he missed the channel, and with a crash upon the rocks the boat shivered, and many a life lost in the watery grave.  Brethren, the Master will take care of the great lighthouse; let us keep the lower lights burning!” (The lower lights are the lights away from the lighthouse that illuminate the water line – the various window and street lights that enable vessels to come into a harbor at night, through a narrow channel of the harbor’s mouth.)

The hymn goes:
    Brightly beams our Father’s mercy from His lighthouse evermore,
    But to us He gives the keeping of the lights along the shore.
    Let the lower lights be burning. Send a gleam across the wave!
    Some poor fainting, struggling seaman you may rescue, you may save.

You’re sure to enjoy this workshop and the other events that take place around Market Square.

Be sure to check the schedule at the Portsmouth Maritime Folk Festival website.

(I want to thank Rev. Loring Carpenter and Christine Hyum of Seafarer's Friend for the image of the Bethel flag and for making me aware of two books by Roald Kverndal The way of the Sea and Seaman's Missions: Their Origin and Early Growth from which most of my information comes. Also, Barbara Benn deserves thanks for sharing her research into bethels in Portsmouth and hymns of the 19th Century.)


September, 2010