The transient lives of sailors—especially a century ago—made it difficult for sailors to maintain any sort of spiritual routine. Except for aircraft carriers and some modern cruise ships, few ships have a chaplain aboard. Worship services would be unavailable on most ships unless the captain or a member of the crew would choose to conduct them.
In view of this difficulty, the Church of Sea and Land was formed in 1864 in New York City to minister to sailors as they passed through town. It was located at Henry and Market Streets, near the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. For many years, it shared its building with the First Chinese Presbyterian Church. The Church of Sea and Land continued its ministry in that place for more than a century, but was dissolved in 1972.
Edward Hopper (1816-1888) graduated from Union Theological Seminary in 1842 and was called to be the pastor of the Church of Sea and Land in that same year. He remained there until his death in 1888.
Hopper wrote the poem, “Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me,” which was published in The Sailor’s Magazine in 1871—but without the author’s name.
John Edgar Gould saw the poem, and wrote the music to accompany it—but Hopper was unaware of Gould’s contribution.
In 1880, Hopper was asked to write a poem for the anniversary of the Seaman’s Friend Society. He brought the words to “Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me” to the meeting, only to find that a number of the people already knew the poem—and the music. It was only then that people learned that Hopper was the author.
While written with sailors in mind, “Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me” speaks to all of us, because we are all in need of guidance as we make our way through this life.
The first verse reads:
Jesus, Savior, pilot me,
Over life’s tempestuous sea;
Unknown waves before me roll,
Hiding rocks and trech’rous shoal;
Chart and compass came from Thee;
Jesus, Savior, pilot me.
It doesn’t require much thought to see how that short prayer would serve every person well.
The last verse speaks of death and salvation—”When at last I near the shore, And the fearful breakers roar…. May I hear Thee say to me, ‘Fear not, I will pilot thee.'”
Life at sea is a hazardous occupation—and often a lonely one as well. Just imagine how many sailors were comforted through the years by the poem written especially with them in mind by Edward Hopper. The special grace is that it has often been a source of comfort to non-sailors as well—people like me.
Copyright 2014, Richard Niell Donovan