The Infidel Captain
The ship St. Thomas, Captain, Robert Williams, was bound from New York to Liverpool, in the month of June. Favored by a fresh westerly wind, she soon cleared the land, and on the first Sunday out was going along finely with all drawing sail set. The chief mate, Mr. Wm. Briggs, after the crew had breakfasted, and the watch had been set, asked the Captain if he had any objections to calling the men aft to prayers.
“No objection whatever, Mr. Briggs, provided you do the preaching and praying yourself; for you know well enough that I have but little faith in such exercises.”
Captain Williams was between forty and fifty years of age, a plain, blunt seaman, who was more ambitious of being considered an enterprising shipmaster than a Christian. His mate was not quite thirty, and was indebted to him for his promotion from before the mast to second mate, and then to that of chief mate; they had sailed together many years, and each had boundless confidence in each other. Appreciating the motives of his mate, he always permitted him to have prayers on board when the state of the weather was favorable, although he took no interest in religious matters himself.
Mr. Briggs ordered the watch to arrange some seats on the quarter-deck, while he went forward himself and invited the watch below to come aft, and listen to the reading of the scriptures, and such other religious exercise as the occasion might suggest, remarking at the same time, that it was not his desire to force any man against his will. Without a murmur the watch below, as well as that on deck, repaired to the quarter-deck, and were soon seated around the capstan. The captain took charge of the deck himself, that is,, looked out for the proper steerage of the ship, and relieved the second mate, whose watch it was, to join the men at prayers. These arrangements completed, the chief mate placed a Bible on the capstan, read a chapter from the New Testament, made some remarks upon it, and then prayed; after which he read a sermon, and closed with prayer. The whole exercise occupied about an hour, and seemed to produce good effect upon the men, who, during the rest of the day in their intercourse with one another, talked about religion.
That afternoon, when it was mate’s watch on the deck, Captain Williams entered into conversation with him as follows:--
“I say, Briggs, what does all your preaching and praying amount to in the long run? I have managed to get along very well thus far without either, and if I were to die to-day, I could safely say that I never injured any man knowingly, and have always endeavored to do my duty to my family and to all. What more can a man do, even if he has all the religion in the world?”
“Captain Williams,” replied the mate, this world, sir, is not our home; we are here only for a few short years, and then we go to the place for which we have prepared ourselves.”
“Place!” interrupted the captain, “place—what do you or I or anyone else know about any other place than this world? Place, indeed! Do you not suppose that I am silly enough to believe the Bible, with its strange fish-stories, and unaccountable yarns about miracles, etc.?”
“Yet,” replied the mate, ”you believe Bowditch’s Navigator, and rely upon its statements.”
“Of course I do, because I have tested their correctness by actual experience.”
“And for the same reason I believe the Bible, and so will you, sir, when you come to Christ and learn of Him the truth.”
“I have heard that statement before, Briggs. But how would you propose for me to come to Christ?”
“By retiring to your stateroom alone, sir, and throwing yourself upon your knees, and imploring Him with your whole soul to enlighten you. Continue this process every moment you can spare from the ship’s duty, and I will be answerable that you will not pray long in vain, if you pray sincerely.
“But you must first convince me, Briggs, that the Bible is true before I make a fool of myself in my stateroom.”
“My dear captain,” replied the mate, “I cannot convince you, that is the work of the Holy Spirit; but I can, and often do pray for you. Yet let us recur to Bowditche’s Navigator again, and see if we cannot make out a case from it in favor of the Bible. Both of us believe the Navigator, yet neither of us knows thoroughly the principles by which all its numerous tables have been calculated, many of which we use every day without question. If we make a bad landfall, or, at the end of the day discover that we have made a different course from that which we projected, we do not attribute the errors to Bowditch, but to our own miscalculation. It is just so with the humble inquirer after truth; the Bible is his Navigator; he believes it the foundation of living truth, endeavors to shape the course of his life by it; and when he errs, he looks for the error in himself, not in the Bible.”
“Still. Briggs,” said the captain, “I don’t believe the Bible. “The fact is, I have never looked into it since I was a boy.”
“The greater your loss, captain; but I have no doubt your mother believed it, and has often spoken to you about God, and Christ, and taught you to pray when you were a child. If you will take the trouble to visit Jim Wood’s gin-palace, in the playhouse square, when we reach Liverpool, and enter into conversation with the people there about the Bible, they will laugh at you, and sneeringly tell you it is a humbug; in short, repeat your own arguments; but if you will leave there and obtain admission into the best society, you will find that every person present will speak with reverence of the Bible. Now I know you have good company here, and that you dislike the low, vulgar conversation of the profane; therefore, I should like to see you make some effort to prepare yourself for the society of the redeemed in heaven.”
“What you have said about my mother, Briggs, is true as the needle to the pole, God bless her; I can’t help saying so, for she was good to me; and if there is a heaven she is sure of it.”
“And of course, captain, you would like to join her there, when you have run your reckoning here. You have either to join her, or such fellows as those who frequent places like Jim Wood’s. Which like you the best—gamblers, drunkards, thieves, or your mother? This is the simple question which you must decide for yourself.”
Here the ship’s duty interrupted the conversation, but that night Captain Williams thought much of the teachings of his mother, her earnest prayers to God on his behalf, and the flimsy arguments with which he had so long deluded himself about the Bible; and the more he thought the more uneasy he became. He felt that he was a sinner in the sight of God. Unworthy of the many favors he enjoyed, and during the whole of his passage, whenever an opportunity offered he engaged in earnest conversation with his mate.
He was alarmed at the prospect of being forever separated from his mother, for he loved her dearly; and this feeling soon gave birth to others of more spiritual nature, and finally he was led to exclaim, “What shall I do to be saved?”