Father Taylor, the Sailor’s Apostle

Note: Numbers in brackets refer to pages in Father Taylor, the Sailor Preacher by Gilbert Haven and Thomas Russell (San Francisco: BB Russell, 1872)

When you hear the tone, the year will be 1854, and the place, Boston.

In Albany, NY, Elizabeth Cady Stanton (the first women to ever do so) is addressing the New York State legislature on married women’s property rights — probably while her “eternally wedded” partner, Susan B. Anthony, cares for “our children” in the Stanton home at Seneca Falls.

In Brooklyn, NY, Walt Whitman is this moment weaving multicolored skeins from his commonplace book into the great tapestry of Leaves of Grass.

And you, dear Reader, are walking arm in arm with reporter John Ross Dix. (The following is a bit paraphrased.)

We are now traveling from the fashionable regions of Beacon or Park Streets. We have left State Street in its Sunday silence — a silence only disturbed by a few danglers. Faneuil Hall, too, is closed, and still we soon find ourselves in the tabooed regions of Ann Street.

Be careful how you walk along these sidewalks; for at every step an open shang-hai-er’s trap-door yawns to engulf you. To avoid it, you must plunge into the foul gutter that lazily flows by, reeking with filth and pestilence. On week days, these dens send forth from their hideous recesses sounds of fiddle and tambourine that mock the surrounding moral desolation, and act as lures to some dance-loving tar [sailor]; but now a certain compulsory respect is paid to the sabbath day. As we proceed, we note at the corners of the lanes and courts villainous-looking boys, who eye you furtively, and then, as a police-officer appears, dive back into the gloom. Here and there, a groggy, coatless sailor is to be seen reeling along with a slatternly wretch. . . were it not for a few decently-dressed people who are walking sedately toward the church in North Square, you would imagine that Pandemonium had located a colony here.

Having reached a ‘fork’ of Ann Street, we enter North Square. Looking upward, we see from a stunted tower a blue flag waving; and in front of us are open doors, flanked by pillars of rough undressed granite, through which people are passing; and, feeling assured that this is Father Taylor’s church, we pause in our walk

A rather striking looking person proceeds briskly along the sidewalk towards the church-door. He is of average height, but spare and wiry, — no superfluous flesh on his iron frame; and he treads the street as firmly as a youth, though more than sixty years must have passed on his weather-beaten figure. That is FATHER TAYLOR.

After ascending a short flight of steps, we find ourselves in the Bethel Church. It is small and neat, — the only ornament being a large painting at the back of the pulpit, representing a ship in a stiff breeze off a lee shore, we believe; for we are not seaman enough to be certain on the point. High over the mast-head are dark storm-clouds, from one of which a remarkably small angel is seen, with outstretched arms, — the celestial individual having just flung down a golden anchor. We glance at the congregation; and a motley gathering it is. The centre of the church is occupied by sailors; and in the some of the side pews are landsmen, attracted by curiosity perhaps, or they may be relatives of seamen. . . Old salts with grizzled locks. . . ‘Jacks’ in the prime of their life, with sun-burnt faces and great freckled hands, and brown necks, and with a free and easy roll in their walk; handsome young fellows, coxcombs of the sea, young lads with fresh faces and clear eyes, and turned down blue collars, bordered with white; rough, hairy-looking fellows, in their shirt-sleeves, or red shirts, lounging in their seats uneasily, as though they were out of their element, as indeed they are; and well-dressed captains and mates, with their wives and children, all looking as happy as kings and queens, because ‘father is home again.’

With half-bashful looks the late arrivers mount the steps and sit beside the minister, who at length has even his own seat filled. But he rather likes that; for he paces to and fro on the platform, a smile of grim satisfaction playing on his features. At last all are supplied with seats, and the service commences.

The minister advances to the desk, hymn-book in hand, and, with spectacles pushed up to the summit of his high furrowed forehead, again narrowly scrutinizes his audience. The gray eyes are piercing, and filled with energy. He gives out the hymn. . . [356-359]

“Father” Edward Thompson Taylor (1793-1871), the chaplain at Boston’s Seamen’s Bethel, inspired Herman Melville to create “Father Mapple” in Moby Dick. He moved Walt Whitman, at the end of his life, to issue an essay of fond remembrance. And Ralph Waldo Emerson was positively rapturous over him.

It’s true that Taylor was married with children, but over at LeavesofGrass.org, I show that manly love was a cornerstone of mariner culture of the period. The historical record shows that sailors created their own churches outside of the fundamentalist mainstream, but no one in our modern day has questioned Why? Having investigated the matter, I have begun to wonder whether such ministries to sailors existed to accommodate their untrammeled sexuality (whether strait or gay). Note that today, Melville, Emerson, and Whitman all figure prominently in books about gay history.

Some notable women also admired Taylor. For instance, Harriet Martineau. (Elizabeth Barrett Browning called her “the most manlike woman in three kingdoms.” William Howett referred to her as “one of the finest examples of a masculine intellect in a female form which have distinguished the present age”. Mrs. Oliphant considered her not much of a woman at all.) Here is what the very forthcoming Mrs. Martineau wrote: “In America there is no need to explain who Father Taylor is. . . . He has a great advantage over other preachers. . . in being able to appeal to his own sea-life. He can say, ‘You have lodged with me in the forecastle; did you ever know me to be profane?’ . . . Am I proof that a sea-life need not be soiled with vice on land?’ ” [345]

A prominent British Baptist, Rev. C.H. Spurgeon, said: “No ideas of propriety, or notions of delicacy, hung about him like fetters: he spoke to sailors, not to squeamish pomposity’s…” adding, “The ludicrous was allowed considerable play in his discourses, and we think rightly so. To the pure mind, none of the powers of our manhood are common or unclean.” This is precisely the same language that was used to defend Whitman from those who believed he was not to be named among Christians.

We do know that Rev. Taylor’s compassionate ministry extended to Boston’s prostitutes, and that, “Protected by his eccentricity and his purity alike from any shadow of suspicion, he always obeyed such a summons.” You do the math. Given evidence which is admittedly stronger than this, the accomplished gay historian Rictor Norton has already demonstrated that such a thing as a gay preacher existed in those days.

Besides his innate immunity to heterosexual temptation, Taylor’s unique eloquence and humor attracted the Transcendentalist writers, notably Emerson and Whitman. Rev EH Sears said of him, “His eloquence was marvelous: his control over the audience seemed almost absolute. Tears and smiles chased each other over our faces, like the rain and sunshine of an April day. He had one of the most brilliant imaginations that ever sparkled and burned. His sermon was all poetry, though it came in bursts and jets of flame. It was like the dance of the aurora, changing all the while from silver flame to purple, and back again. But the secret of his magnetic power lay in his overflowing sympathies… He would single out a person in his audience, and talk to him individually, with the same freedom as if he met him in the street.” [297-298]

Taylor conducted a thriving ministry to mariners, until the last decade of life, when he was progressively incapacitated by senility. This long success would have been impossible without a roaring sense of humor. Sailors were practically allergic to any conventional trappings of worship, and their ribald humor was even more infamous then than it is today. Spurgeon said, “Humor can be consecrated, and should be. We grant that it is a power difficult to manage; but when it is under proper control, it more than repays for all the labor spent upon it. Children do sad damage with gunpowder; but what a force it is when a wise man directs its energy. Mr. Taylor made men laugh that they might weep.” The one surviving semi-naughty phrase that he favored was “Balaam’s ass,” since this was sanctioned by the Bible: God only knows what else he said that was wiped clean from the historical accounts.

In the thick biography rushed into print after his death, Taylor’s early life is almost totally suppressed. We do know that he came from a broken home in Richmond, Virginia, and the only childhood story that survives, while charming by Victorian standards, strikes the modern reader as more than bizarre. It is, in fact, horrifying. “He used to preach funeral-services over dead chickens and kittens. He would gather the negro boys and girls about him, and discourse in the most pathetic [passionate] and forcible language on the life and death of the departed. If he could not bring them to tears by his oratory, he failed not to avail himself of the whip, and lashed them to appropriate grief over his chickens and his sermons.” [P 22] In later years, he confessed to his children that if no chickens were already dead at show-time, he would kill one.

Something was obviously deeply twisted in this poor seven-year-old’s life. Fortunately, “. . . a sea-captain came by, and asked him if he did not wish to be a sailor. . . [And he] gave himself to the stranger without fear or thought.” Taylor once said, “Sailors’ hearts were big as an ox’s, open like a sunflower, and they carried them out in their hand, ready to give away.” On another occasion, he added, “Their hearts are big and sweet as sugar hogsheads [barrels].” [133] “Thus began a life which continued for ten years,” the story goes on, “through every variety of experience. He seldom spoke of this period of his life, and hardly a memory of it remains. It was a blank.” [pp 22-23] Again, the phrase “every variety of experience” precisely matches the vague language that Whitman’s disciples used to simultaneously avow and disavow a sexually-charged adolescence. But the biographers reassure us that “His first remembered deeds and words. . . as a sailor [occurred] after his conversion. . . Nothing especially [!] dissolute is recorded of those earlier days.”

Immediately the biography goes on to say, “He is described as a handsome fellow, as trim and taut as any of his tribe; much beloved of his shipmates, and deserving their love. But they give no memories of his talent. It was much to say of him, that he passed those perilous years from boyhood to manhood in the most perilous of callings without especial [!] stain on his character.” [p21] In 1811, Boston quite surpassed New York in importance as a seaport. [118] When he landed there at the age of seventeen, he narrowly escaped its temptations, and was born again in a church run by a (very) old-fashioned “shouting Methodist.” [p 29]

During the next decade, while struggling as a roving junk-peddler, he entered a Methodist seminary. He soon flunked out, perhaps because he was still mastering elementary reading skills and was probably too headstrong as well. He kept on preaching, traveling on horseback through a weary circuit limited to the tiny ports on the Massachusetts coast. He married Deborah Millet in 1819. “She was a person of exquisite tastes. She would have enjoyed society and all that culture could give, but. . . feared that an indulgence in ‘society’ might interfere with the path which she had marked out for herself. . . When, after [Taylor’s] coming to Boston to preach to seamen, she accepted the ‘sons of the ocean’ as her sons, her fidelity was ceaseless.” It turns out that she eventually preached in Taylor’s church, too — a relatively rare thing, except among Quaker women. “She always held an audience. . . she moved them as she moved; and those who listened felt she uttered words. . . as ‘one having authority.'” [71-72]

Fast-forward a decade. The Methodists finally decided that they didn’t know what to do with this firey, ardent, headstrong, semi-literate, but breathtakingly poetic pilgrim. “He had not struck the best appointments,” said his biographers, “nor was he likely to do so. The rounded requirements of the leading churches did not fit his genius. He was really running to waste on these sea-girt circuits. . . It was partly to save Edward T. Taylor, as well as the seamen, that they projected the Bethel.” [119]

As “Mother” Deborah Taylor was dying in 1868, she penned her memoirs, which described the history this way: “In the year 1828 we were stationed in Fall River. . . The Methodists in Boston sent for Mr. Taylor to preach to the seamen in a vacated church, the first one built by the Methodists, as an experiment. The house was filled to overflowing and the result was the moving of our family from Fall River to Boston in 1829. Mr. Taylor was in his element. Having been a sailor himself, his heart yearned for the conversion of his brethren of the sea; and his soul was cheered in seeing them come home to God.” Her very next sentence, however, is loaded with suppressed history, almost certainly a story of pain, betrayal, and ultimately, I suspect, of bigotry: “The Methodists did not feel able or sufficiently interested to sustain an institution for seamen.” [194]

(Not to get ahead of the story, but after his star ascended, he once bitterly rebuked the Methodists: “[Christian leaders] once would. . . go on board the vessel before it sailed; and go into the cabin and pray for the missionaries; then pray for the captain and mate, and offer no prayer for the sailors. They forgot to put any salt in the forecastle. Dark, dark, very dark! I remember when you kept a man at the door of your churches to shut out those who wore a tarpaulin hat [a broad rain-proof hat] and a blue jacket. I remember when I was a sailor-boy, and I had to run the gauntlet [of abuse] to get into your churches. Well might [sailors] sit down in darkness, — in the darkness of despair.” He continued, “Why it is a great mistake to think of converting the world without the help of sailors. You might as well think of melting a mountain of ice with a moonbeam, or think of heating an oven with snowballs; but get a sailor converted, and he is off from one port to another, as if you had put spurs to lightning.” As Reverend Taylor said this, it was reported, tears flowed freely. [212-213] And when a Methodist bishop once told him, “Had I known that you would have slipped away from me so, Edward, I would have held a tighter grip,” he replied, “Ah, Bishop, if I had known you held me so loose, I would have slipped away long before I did.” [338])

The advocates for nautical ministry, and for Father Taylor in particular, cast around for alternatives to Methodist support. They found two: Boston’s merchants and liberal Unitarians. It turns out, in fact, that the merchant and Unitarian classes tended to be composed of the same people. The merchants, after all, were growing quite wealthy by virtue of the sweat and sacrifice of the largely impoverished mariner class; moreover, they had to address vices such as rum, gambling, prostitution, and organized crime, which preyed on the docks and overflowed into the city center.

“When the Boston merchants,” explained Mother Taylor, “learned what was doing and what ought to be done for those who had so long been left to exclaim, ‘No man careth for my soul,’ they aroused themselves. One Unitarian gentleman, Nathaniel A. Barrett, Esq., wrote one hundred notifications, and left them himself at the doors of the merchants, calling a meeting of his brethren, the Unitarians. They responded at once, being a people always waiting and ready to do good, collected money, and built the present church in North Square. The Unitarians have been our warmest friends, and they have answered to every call for the benefit of Ocean’s children. . . How often I wish they could hear the seamen speak of their hope of heaven through the benefit they have derived from a Home and a Bethel Church!” [105]

Rev. AD Sargent, present at the dedication of the new church, describes the inaugural sermon as follows: “I heard Father Taylor preach his dedication sermon of the house in North Square. It was on the text, “Glory to God in the highest; on earth peace, good-will toward men.” It was one of his greatest efforts. It was soon after his return from Europe, and the occasion when he said, ‘America is the centre of the world, and the centre of America is Boston, and the centre of Boston is North Square, and the centre of North Square is the Bethel.'” [125]

If this mapping of the Bethel itself as the planet’s navel seems over the top, even in the heyday of notorious huckster and blustering showman Phineas T. Barnum. . . it wasn’t. Just try to imagine it. Before the Transcontinental Railroad and the Transatlantic Telegraph Cable, nearly every bit of information — not to mention nearly every atom of physical merchandise — traveled across the continent and across the globe solely aboard a sailing ship. The day Taylor stepped into his pulpit, America’s merchant marine was flexing its youthful muscle. With each passing year, there were more men employed on the ocean, they were generating more of the nation’s wealth, and they were staying out longer and longer. The rise of America’s mighty whaling fleet was keeping men at sea for two, three, or four years at a time. Once, at a Methodist conference, Taylor was infuriated by a remark about ignorant sailors. He leapt from his seat, crying “Sailors ignorant! Sailors know everything. They grasp the world in their hand like an orange!” [210] And he viewed sailors as uniquely capable of spreading the good news to every port around the globe, urging them: “Grasp the poles in both hands, and shake the universe!” [210]

While Taylor remained a Methodist minister, the Bethel ministry was strictly non-denominational. And it was “one of the best churches in the city at the time of its erection. . . superior, externally, to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s church. . . hardly inferior to the new one built for [liberal superstar divine] Dr. Beecher. It was centrally and finely located, on a goodly square, fronting on a popular street, close to the second, if not the chief business street of the city. . . [Mr. Taylor] changed from the wandering circuit-rider to the city’s favorite. . . [Bostonians] forgot the unlettered peddler in the travelled gentleman [Taylor had already been sent on a European tour!], the back-woods preacher in the polish Boston orator, to whom all classes delighted to listen.” [124] Actually, the reader is being treated to a typical bit of Victorian puffery. We got a much more faithful picture of the Bethel’s environs, earlier, from John Ross Dix.

An organizer of a sailors’ charity, Dr. Waterston, adds more details. “The first time I heard this remarkable preacher was in an old building in one of the obscurest lanes of the city. That was his church. It was closely packed in every part with sailors, many in their red shirts, just as they had come into port. Every seat was in demand. The aisles were crowded, and the pulpit stand, up to the very top, while all gazed with breathless interest upon the one man who held them as by a spell. Just as he felt, they felt. Was he playful, they smiled; was he pathetic [sad], they wept; was he swept along by the tide of his eloquence, they kindled into enthusiasm. Every heartstring vibrated under the touch of his hand.” [151] “I am always afraid when I am laughing at Father Taylor’s wit,” said one believer. “I know he will make me cry before he has done with me.” [152]

Perhaps to the modern listener, Father Taylor would sound like a cross between a Shakespearean actor and Popeye the Sailor Man. “Alluding to the carelessness of Christians, he used the figure of a mariner, steering into port through a narrow, dangerous channel, ‘false lights here, rocks there, shifting sandbanks on one side, breakers on the other; and who, instead of fixing his attention to keep the head of his vessel right, and to obey the instructions of the pilot as sings out from the wheel, throws the pilot overboard, lashes down the helm, and walks the deck, whistling, with his hands in the pockets of his jacket.’ Here, suiting the action to the word, he put on a true sailor-like look of defiant jollity, — changed in a moment to an expression of horror as he added, ‘See, see! She drifts to destruction!’ ” [147]

“One Sunday,” the biographers continue, “he attempted to give to his sailor congregation an idea of redemption. He began with an eloquent description of a terrific storm at sea, rising to fury through all its gradation: then, amid the waves, a vessel is seen laboring in distress, and driving on a lee shore. The masts bend and break, and go overboard: the sails are rent, the helm unshipped. They spring a leak! The vessel begins to fill, the water gains on them: she sinks deeper, deeper, deeper, deeper! He bent over the pulpit, repeating the last words again and again: his voice became low and hollow. The faces of the sailors, as they gazed up at him, with their mouths wide open and their eyes fixed, I shall never forget. Suddenly stopping, and looking to farthest end of the chapel, as into space, he exclaimed, with a piercing cry of exultation, “A life-boat! A life-boat!” Then, looking down upon his congregation, most of whom has sprung to their feet in an ecstasy of suspense, he said in a deep, impressive tone, and extending his arms, “Christ is the life-boat!” [147-148]

On one of his trips to Europe, he was chatting with the old salts, and asked for their opinion about the ships’ chaplain. They believed the chaplain wasn’t good for much more than reading from a prayer book. Taylor replied, “Well, Jack [sailor], you like to hear good preaching, do you not? What do you want?” One sailor hitched his trousers up his hip and answered, “Yes, sir, I likes a good thing as well as another man; you seem to be a good man, and I will tell you what I likes: when a man preaches at me, I want he should take something warm out of his heart and shove it into mine; that’s what I calls preaching, sir.” [318] And despite the irreconcilable gulf between the conservative elements of his evangelical faith and the universal outlook of the Unitarians, he could nevertheless take them to heart. After all, this is the same man who answered the question, “Was there ever anybody as good as Jesus Christ?” with the shocking answer: “Millions.” [337] And when someone inquired whether his son in law was a Christian, he answered, “No, but he’s a very sweet sinner.” [341] The Unitarian Rev Sears said that one day Taylor attended a Unitarian prayer meeting, and “planted himself at the door.” Taylor told him, “There, I’ve read you [your articles], and seen you, and heard you, and now I want to feel you.” Then reports Sears, “seizing hold of me, he did not merely shake my hand, but shook me all over, as if he could not get me close enough into his warm-hearted fellowship.” [321] In the same vein, Charles Dickens claimed that when speaking on a given theme, “He handled his text in all kinds of ways, and twisted it into all manner of shapes; but always ingeniously, and with such a rude eloquence well adapted to the comprehension of his hearers. Indeed, if I be not mistaken, he studied their sympathies and understandings much more than the display of his own powers.” [352]

Taylor’s biography contains some excerpts from his wife’s journal that deserve to be studied in more detail, although they are beyond the scope of this essay. In her old age, Deborah “felt a strong drawing towards Avis Keene, the Quaker preacher, for her purity of doctrine and the sweetness of her spirit. . . We said farewell; and this dear aged saint threw her arms around my neck, and said, ‘Thee will be a living epistle in my heart.’ ” [370] When she died, in 1867, Deborah said, “My heart was united with hers in Christian sympathy, and the attachment was mutual. I loved her much, have always loved her, and have sweet communings with her her, present and absent. When her only son came to say, “She had gone home,” I felt her present, and said, “. . . we will mingle our spirits, although not our voices; we will commune together. . . we will not be separated. She loved me on earth. . . we shall not forget each other.” [378-379] Certainly this might be “merely” Christian sisterhood. But given the evidence for Quaker acceptance of same-gender passion, cited in detail at LeavesofGrass.org, such a biography may deserve attention in the future.

Pondering Father Taylor’s long and colorful career, the Unitarian minister James Freeman Clarke concluded, “He loved the sailors as a man loves his children or his wife.” [422] After worshipping at the Bethel, the educator Horace Mann also wrote in praise of Taylor. While his original journal entry is torturous and elliptical, I suggest it can ultimately be condensed down to the following: “. . . one whose heart yearns toward religion. . . [and] a profound recognition of human rights. . . such a one is Mr. Taylor.” [366] But let’s give the final word to Edward T. Taylor himself, shall we? “For several years,” wrote the Unitarian minister Charles T Brooks, “the presence of Father Taylor used to be the great event in our Boston gathering of Unitarians. Who will ever forget the look and tone with which he said in one of our conferences, “When biggitry is buried I hope I shall be at the funeral.” [324]