“The Voice of God upon the Waters”: Sermons on Steamboat Disasters in Antebellum America

Ken Kurihara

Abstract


The purpose of this paper is to explore Protestant sermons on shipwrecks between the 1830s and the 1850s and to analyze how the clergy guided the people to see the spiritual lessons behind the disasters. Preachers admonished their flock that maritime disasters showed the uncertainty of earthly lives and the necessity of conversion and spiritual preparation for death. “Be ready to die in any way, at any time” was their common warning. Some preachers, worrying that the frenzied pursuit of wealth and the excessive trust in technology might undermine people’s faith in God, warned that the loss of mighty steamers such as the Arctic (1854) showed the futility of such “idolatry.” Some recent historians argue that the people’s anxiety concerning death and their desire for religious consolation were important factors for the rapid development of the Protestant churches in Antebellum America, and the contents of the shipwreck sermons agreed with this popular sentiment and the emotional need.

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