Prayer and Science
(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 add, like our Lord, 'Nevertheless, not as I will, but as Thou wilt.'

And of dangers in general this we may say -- that if we pray against known dangers which we can avoid, we do nothing but tempt God: but that against unknown and unseen dangers we may always pray. For instance, if a sailor needlessly lodges over a foul, tideless harbour, or sleeps in a tropical mangrove swamp, he has no right to pray against cholera and fever; for he has done his best to give himself cholera and fever, and has thereby tempted God. But if he goes into a new land, of whose climate, diseases, dangers, he is utterly ignorant, then he has surely a right to pray God to deliver him from those dangers; and if not, -- if he is doomed to suffer from them, -- to pray God that he may discover and understand the new dangers of that new land, in order to warn future travellers against them, and so make his private suffering a benefit to mankind.

This, then, is our duty as to known dangers, -- to guard ourselves against them by science, and the reason which God has given us; and as to unknown dangers, to pray to God to deliver us from them, if it seem good to him: but above all, to pray to him to deliver us from them in the best way, the surest way, the most lasting way, the way in which we may not only preserve ourselves, but our fellow-men and generations yet unborn; namely, by giving us wisdom and understanding to discover the dangers, to comprehend them, and to conquer them, by reason and by science.

This is the spirit of sound science and of sound religion. And it was in this spirit, and for this very end, that this Ancient and Honourable Corporation of the Trinity House was founded more than three hundred years ago. Not merely to pray to God and to the saints, after the ancient fashion, to deliver all poor mariners from dangers of the seas. That was a natural prayer, and a pious one, as far as it went: but it did not go far enough. For, as a fact, God did not always answer it: he did not always see fit to deliver those who called upon him. Gallant ships went down with all their crews. It was plain that God would not always deliver poor mariners, even though they cried to him in their distress.

Then, in the sixteenth century, when men's minds were freed from many old superstitions, by a better understanding both of Holy Scripture and of the laws of nature, the master mariners of England took a wiser course.

They said, God will not always help poor mariners: but he will always teach them to deliver themselves. And so they built this House, not in the name of the Virgin Mary or any saints in heaven, but, with a deep understanding of what was needed, in the most awful name of God himself. Thereby they went to the root and ground of this matter, and of all matters. They went to the source of all law and order; to the source of all force and life; and to the source, likewise, of all love and mercy; when they founded their House in the name of the Father of Lights, in whom men live and move and have their being; from whom comes every good and perfect gift, and without whom not a sparrow falls to the ground; in the name of the Son, who was born on earth a man, and tasted sorrow, and trial, and death for every man; in the name of the Holy Ghost, who inspires man with the spirit of wisdom and understanding, and gives him a right judgment in all things, putting into his heart good desires, and enabling him to bring them to good effect. And so, believing that the ever-blessed Trinity would teach them to help themselves and their fellow- mariners, they set to work, like truly God-fearing men, not to hire monks to sing and say masses for them, but to set up for themselves lights and sea-marks, and to take order for the safe navigation of these seas, like men who believed indeed that they were the children of God, and that God would prosper his children in as far as they used that reason which he himself had bestowed upon them.

It is for these men's sakes, as well as for our own, that we are met together here this day. We are met to commemorate the noble dead; not in any Popish or superstitious fashion, as if they needed our prayers, or we needed their miraculous assistance: but in the good old Protestant scriptural sense -- to thank God for all his servants departed this life in his faith and fear, and to pray that God may give us grace to follow their good examples; and especially to thank him for the founders of this ancient Trinity House, which stands here as a token to all generations of Britons, that science and religion are not contrary to each other, but twin sisters, meant to aid each other and mankind in the battle with the brute forces of this universe.

We are met together here to thank God for all gallant mariners, and for all who have helped mariners toward safety and success; for all who have made discoveries in hydrography or meteorology, in navigation, or in commerce, adding to the safety of seamen, and to the health and wealth of the human race; for all who have set noble examples to their crews, facing danger manfully and dying at their posts, as many a man has died, a martyr to his duty; for all who, living active, and useful, and virtuous lives in their sea calling, have ended as they lived, God-fearing Christian men.

To thank God for all these we are met together here; and to pray to God likewise that he would send his Spirit into the hearts of seamen, and of those who deal with seamen; and specially into the hearts of the Royal the Master and the Worshipful the Elder Brethren of this Ancient and Honourable House; that they may be true, and loyal, and obedient to that divine name in which they are met together here this day -- the name of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, the ever-blessed Trinity, the giver of all good gifts, in whom we live, and move, and have our being; always keeping God's commandments and looking for God's guidance, and setting to those beneath them an example of sound reason, virtue, and religion; that so there may never be wanting to this land a race of seamen who shall trust in God to teach them all they need to know, and to dispose of their bodies and souls as seemeth best to his most holy will; who, fearing God, shall fear nought else, but shall defy the dangers of the seas, and all the brute forces of climates and of storms; who shall set in foreign lands an example of justice and mercy, of true civilization and true religion; and so shall still maintain the marine of Great Britain, as it has been for now three hundred years, a safeguard and a glory to these islands, and a blessing to the coasts of all the world.

sermon ii the temple of wisdom
Top of Page
Top of Page