A History of Maritime Ministry in the United States

Feb 5, 2013

by Johnathan Thayer, Archivist

The history of maritime ministry in the United States follows a timeline that spans 200 years of development, with New York City and the Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI) at its center. The War of 1812 introduced a new level of public awareness about the plight of seafarers working on the young nation’s merchant ships. During and leading up to the War, British officers seized hundreds of American vessels and impressed American seafarers for service in the Royal Navy. Rallying under the slogan “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights,” the United States again declared war on the British Empire.

The two-year conflict that ensued brought the subject of maritime commerce to the forefront of public conversation. In 1812, Joseph Tuckerman and other like-minded reformers founded the Boston Society for the Religious and Moral Improvement of Seamen, the “earliest organization in the world known to have been founded for the exclusive purpose of promoting the spiritual welfare of seafarers” according to Roald Kverndal, author of the encyclopedic Seamen’s Missions: Their Origin and Early Growth. While philanthropic groups had established precedent organizations in London (the Navy and Military Bible Society [1779] distributed pocket bibles to British soldiers and seafarers in the Royal Navy), the founding of the Boston Society set in motion a movement for mission to seafarers in the United States.

The development of an American maritime ministry quickly shifted its center to the Port of New York, where the Marine Bible Society was founded in 1817 followed by the New York Port Society in 1818. With the beginning of construction on the Erie Canal and the introduction of new transatlantic packet service from London to New York provided by the Black Ball Line in 1817, Lower Manhattan developed into a central site for maritime commerce. More ships in port meant more seafarers, and the streets of Lower Manhattan’s “sailortown” quickly transformed into a network of boarding houses, saloons and brothels set on cashing in at the expense of this migrant population of workers.

By the 1820s, the East River at Water Street, Old Slip and Front Street also accommodated groups holding prayer meetings and services for seafarers and “classes of the population as did not frequent public worship.” On June 4, 1820, the New York Port Society consecrated a Mariners’ Church on Roosevelt Street (now the area immediately north of the Brooklyn Bridge) capable of holding 1,000 congregants. The New York Port Society employed the Rev. Ward Stafford, who in 1820 went on a tour of the eastern seaboard that, according to Kverndal, resulted in the founding of 23 branches of the Marine Bible Society. In 1826, most of these branches were consolidated under the American Seamen’s Friend Society (ASFS), which found a permanent home “midway between the two rivers” in front of the South Baptist Church on Nassau Street. Riding the momentum of the Evangelical United Front, the work of ASFS spread rapidly. Auxiliary societies cropped up from Portland, Maine to New Orleans and spread through the inland rivers to the West coast as part of the Church’s Empire of Benevolence, which sought to bring the spirit of reformation to the far reaches of the United States frontier.

Having formed in 1834 with the original goal of sending missionaries to upstate New York and Appalachia, the Young Men’s Church Mission Society, an auxiliary of the Episcopal City Mission Society, shifted focus to seafarers in 1843. That year, they commissioned construction of the Floating Church of Our Saviour, moored at the foot of Pike Street with the Rev. Benjamin C. C. Parker presiding. Prior to the construction of the 13-story seafarers’ center at 25 South Street, SCI operated out of missionary outposts located throughout Lower Manhattan: 338 Pearl Street (1854), 34 Pike Street (1869-1906), 341 West Street (1888-1914), 52 Market Street (1894-1907) and the Breakwater Hotel in Brooklyn (1908-1913). 25 South Street—most likely modeled on the London Sailor’s Home built and expanded during the 1840s and 60s—consolidated SCI’s operations and provided housing and services for 580 seafarers at a time, establishing SCI as the leading seafarers’ service agency for the remainder of the 20th century.

In 1915, New Jersey’s Bay Front Development and Meadow Reclamation Project began reclaiming waterfront marshland located in Newark and Elizabeth. The project oversaw construction of a 7,000-foot ship channel with a 1,200-foot pier, capable of welcoming the increasingly gigantic cargo ships appearing in the maritime industry. In response to the shift of cargo traffic from Lower Manhattan to New Jersey, SCI opened the one-story Port Newark Station on Export Street in 1961, expanding the facility in 1965. With the launching of Malcolm McLean’s SS Ideal X in 1956, the introduction of containerization technology reduced the time required to unload cargo, meaning seafarers spent less time in port. SCI reduced its focus on housing seafarers, eliminating it altogether with the sale of their headquarters at 15 State Street in 1985. Today, SCI’s ministry to seafarers focuses on providing needed services—such as transportation, phones, internet, counseling and hospitality—in dedicated centers located in the heart of the port, enabling easy access during short periods of shore leave.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, many other smaller societies were founded along the eastern, and later western, seaboards, from the Whalemen’s Bethel in New Bedford, MA to the Mobile Bethel Society in Alabama. Inland river mariners also received focus, with many societies cropping up in midwestern towns, setting precedent for SCI’s Ministry on the Rivers and Gulf (started in 1998), which serves the Mississippi and Ohio River systems, the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway and the Gulf of Mexico. The Anglican Mission to Seafarers (1856) and the Catholic Apostleship of the Sea (1920) established operations in many American port cities throughout the 20th century. Societies like the Norwegian Seamen’s Church opened to welcome seafarers away from specific home countries. Methodist and Lutheran societies also appeared frequently throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

The North American Maritime Ministry Association (NAMMA) currently serves as a central institution coordinating the efforts of maritime ministry organizations supporting mariners throughout the United States.