Primary Sources for the Presbyterian Masses

“All At Sea”

In Call to the Ministry, Christian Life, The Presbyterian on 13/09/2011 at 16:02

Here’s a great sermon illustration, free for the taking.

by C. Laing Herald, Ph.D.
[The Presbyterian 98.10 (8 March 1928): 6-7.]

“Without position” is a nautical term ; it savors of the sea. Years ago, if one sailed the seas on a sailing ship, or wind-jammer, as such vessels were rudely called, one would have become familiar, more or less, with this term. Two vessels at sea, while passing each other within signaling distance, always exchanged the courtesies of the sea by giving their respective nautical positions. Each ship ran her colors to the masthead, thus displaying her nationality; then a board, painted black, was lashed to the shrouds of the mizzen rigging; and on this board was written in large letters, with chalk, the latitude and the longitude each captain thought his ship was in, according to his latest observations. In this way, for the sake of safety, the two captains compared positions. Sometimes, however, especially after a period of heavy or foggy weather, the words written on the board were, “without position.” In other words, the captain of the ship who wrote these words admitted that he did not know where his ship was nautically; that he was really without position; having failed to obtain observations of sun, or the moon, or the stars, so that he might learn from them his latitude and longitude, and being in doubt as to the accuracy of his “dead reckoning,” he was all “at sea” as to his position. Therefore, the words “without position” are significant.  

The science of navigating consists in the knowledge necessary to conduct a ship safely across the ocean, enabling the mariner to determine, from the position of the celestial bodies, with a sufficient degree of accuracy, the position of his vessel at any given time. And while navigation is a science to itself, yet, in a practical sense, it must, of course, be supplemented by seamanship.

There are three ways of determining the position of a ship at sea; namely, by piloting or bearings, by dead reckoning, and by observation of the celestial bodies, the sun, the moon, and the stars. The first is simple, primitive, and answered so long as a ship remained in sight of land. In this way the position of the ship is determined from the visible objects along the shore, and from soundings. Dead reckoning consists in keeping an hourly and careful record of the course the ship is steering from a known point of departure, the rate of speed she is making, with due allowance for leeway, caused by drift, ocean currents and tides. This method of navigation is largely guess-work, and is, therefore, far from being accurate and trustworthy. The science of navigation really consists in the observation of the celestial bodies and the consequent calculations of the ship’s latitude and longitude from these observations.

But even this science is subject to interruption, and, therefore, subject to error and consequent danger and loss. Suppose, for example, that a captain, because of cloudy or foggy weather, cannot obtain an observation of any of these bodies for several days; suppose that tides and ocean currents, unknown or misunderstood by the navigator, carry the ship out of her course; and suppose that magnetic influences due to atmospheric conditions, or particular latitudes, or induced by the nature of the ship’s cargo, affect the ship’s compass, even her chronometer; under these conditions what is to be done? The most careful calculations of the navigator will of necessity be affected by one or by all of these conditions, and, as a result, his calculations will be erroneous. Thus the ship may be entirely out of position.

But when I think of a ship at sea without position, my thoughts turn in particular to that large, important and necessary institution, the Christian church. Now be careful, you say. Yes; I shall be careful. Do not lay profane hands on the Ark of the Lord, you warn. No; I shall not, for I have in mind the fate of Urriah, who forgot himself and profaned the Ark. Notwithstanding, the church of to-day reminds me so forcibly of a ship without position that I cannot refrain from the reference and its necessary implications. Although I shall speak as one outside of the church, yet I shall speak with reverence, for I regard the church as the most necessary institution to our existence as a nation and to our well-being as individuals. And although, in my criticism, I may be severe, yet I shall try to be just.

It is to be admitted, gladly and gratefully, that the church is the largest, the wealthiest, the most intellectual, and the most necessary organization in American life. And this being true, it is only honorable, on the part of the church, that she stand true in her obligations to the people she professes to serve and to save. Malfeasance in office is one thing the American people will not stand for—not on the part of church officials. No later than yesterday, one of the professors in the university was in my home, and when asked his opinion of a certain minister, replied at once, “Oh, he is not reliable.” This unreliability was not applicable to the morals of the minister, but to his theology, his teachings; or, in nautical words, to his science of soul navigation. How long would the owners of a valuable ship tolerate a captain who was unreliable in his knowledge of navigation and seamanship, and who would, consequently, run their ship upon the rocks? No, no, it will not do. Then what is one to think of these unreliable ministers, these “sky-pilots,” as they are called, in navigating our souls to the next world?

Account for it as one may, the feeling is abroad in the land that the church at the present time is without position. She does not have her headings; she is off in her dead reckoning; in other words, she is all at sea in her theology. Therefore, she is not capable of saving the souls of men.

What has caused the church to lose her position? Have murky skies, thick fogs, heavy storms, contrary winds, uncertain tides, treacherous currents, been the cause?

There are probably two principle reasons : First, certain men occupying the pulpits of the church, like some college professors, have become too brilliant intellectually; at least they think they have; second, sinful nature is essentially opposed to the fundamental teachings of the Bible; the devil hates the truth like the devil. As to the first reason, nearly all the ministers occupying our pulpits are college-bred. While in college, they were taught to believe that the Bible was such an old Book it was out of date, behind the times, and that modern philosophy and science were far in advance of what the Bible taught. These men, being weak mentally and morally, and without a deep religious experience, accepted the teachings of these professors, and have carried these superficial unreasonable, skeptical and dangerous notions into their pulpits; thus they have turned from the Old Book to their own superficial thinking and irrational conclusions.

In other words, they have become wiser than what is written. Accordingly, they have thrown the Compass overboard, and are navigating the ship in accordance with what they think is the right course to steer. I cannot imagine the captain of a ship being such a blockhead. When the captain of a ship does such an irrational thing as to throw the compass overboard, the ship is doomed and all hands with her. Second, inasmuch as this is a fast, wealthy, pleasure-loving, luxurious period in the history of the American people; and inasmuch as the Old Book calls for self-denial in the things which are harmful, and for simplicity in living, the pulpit has surrendered to this appeal of the age; the pulpit has conceded, yielded, compromised; and now it is deceiving. Ministers enjoy popularity; to many of them, life without this vanity is drab, colorless. Hence they are making the popular appeal by preaching a supposed new doctrine, a doctrine which never entered the divine mind, and which, therefore, is not found in the Book. They have given up the ship; they have struck their colors to the enemy. Nevertheless, they are deceived themselves; for, instead of their preaching being popular, common-sense, thinking men reject it, lose respect for the minister, ignore and neglect the church.

As an outsider, let me say there are men in our pulpits to-day I would not go to hear, neither would I commit the souls of my family to their guidance in spiritual matters. Moreover, there are millions of men who feel just as I do in this matter, for these ministers are just what the university professor said they were—unreliable. They are wreckers. I should hate to cross the ocean with the captain of a ship who did not understand the science of navigation, and shaped his course according to his notion of things. And how true it is that I will not attend a church the pastor of which does not understand the science of theology, and who is likely, therefore, to wreck my soul and the souls of my family. Enter the different churches to-day—there are noble exceptions, thank God!—and listen to the pseudo-sermons. From these sermons does one receive clear and definite directions of the way to glory? Exactly what course to steer in order to reach that Haven of Rest? Indeed not! Compass overboard, chart torn to pieces, the sky overcast, no observations, contrary winds, treacherous currents, uncertain tides, and the church without position!

As I have said, “without position” is a nautical question. In the sense in which I have tried to elucidate it, it may be a naughty question. Nevertheless, one must grant that it is a knotty question.

Wellston, Ohio.

[Robinson’s Ministerial Directory (1898, p. 306) indicates that Rev. Charles Laing Herald was born in Scotland and educated at Queen’s College, Ontario, B.A., 1884 and McCormick Theological Seminary, 1892. Rev. Herald was ordained May 1892 by the Presbytery of Bloomington and installed as pastor of the Presbyterian church in Wenona, IL, where he served from 1892-94. He then answered a call to serve as pastor of the Tontogany, Ohio church, beginning in 1894. Apparently he remained in the general Ohio area throughout his ministry.]


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