We are unable to display your institutional affiliation without JavaScript turned on.
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE
OR

View HTML

Download PDF

Evangelicals in the Royal Navy 1775–1815: Blue Lights and Psalm-Singers (review)

From: Eighteenth-Century Studies
Volume 43, Number 2, Winter 2010
pp. 285-287 | 10.1353/ecs.0.0103

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Richard Blake's well-researched and readable study is in many ways a rehabilitation of a group of pious eighteenth-century admirals. The received history of this subject pivots on the career of Admiral John James Gambier, a fervent and high-profile evangelical Anglican whose Christian scruples supposedly cost the Royal Navy a complete victory over the French at Basque Roads in 1809 and earned him the unkind nickname "Preaching Jemmy" (119). Accused of cowardice by his impetuous subordinate Thomas Cochrane, Gambier underwent a court-martial and was acquitted, but the suggestion that "psalm-singer" admirals would rather pray than fight endured. As Blake points out, "Religion of this kind—so the line runs—should have stayed in pulpits ashore: afloat it was risibly irrelevant and damaging" (1). Yet, Evangelicals in the Royal Navy is an important corrective to naval histories that imbue the Basque Roads incident with disproportionate importance and fail to link the broader sea-based evangelical movement with other reformist activities that revolutionized the Royal Navy. Blake argues, convincingly and with excellent recourse to archival materials, that the influence of evangelicals was far more pervasive than has been previously admitted, and that this influence, Basque Roads notwithstanding, was generally a positive factor in the development of the Royal Navy. Blake identifies plenty of evangelical admirals who were effective commanders and makes a compelling case that it was evangelicals who provided decisive support for the reforms in discipline, manning, living conditions, and education that allowed the Royal Navy to survive and thrive in the long period of warfare under consideration.

Blake's study opens with a brief but insightful history of Christian religious practice in the Royal Navy. By the middle of the eighteenth century, such practice had settled into prescribed (and desultory) Anglican worship aboard ship, often neglected and rarely inspirational. In this unpromising soil grew a series of religiously actuated sea-officers—the most prominent being the "Methodist Afloat" (35), Admiral Charles Middleton—who viewed themselves as "Blue Lights" (that is, visible signals in times of distress) and whose piety drove them, in Blake's words, "to be seen: their mission was to shine; their intention was to influence; their aim whether stated or implied was conversion" (33). These officers encouraged Christian activity on their ships, and they mentored younger Blue Light officers (Middleton, for example, sponsored the younger Gambier). As such officers were promoted and increased in numbers, Blake tells us, they were able to revitalize the practice of divine services at sea; Blake's careful attention to log books reveals that ship-based services were a rarity in the 1780s, but commonplace by the 1820s. Blake includes a chapter on the reform of the chaplaincy (changed by the Blue Lights from a much-abused political spoil to respected professional appointment) and explores the complicated relationship between Christian ethics and controversial practices like flogging and impressment.

In his chapter on the state of evangelism in the Royal Navy at the time of the French Revolution, Blake traces the experiences of seven officers whose excellence in the service went far to combat the perception that psalm-singing was incompatible with effective military leadership. Blake's sketch of Gambier's early career, during which the future admiral built a reputation for exceptional personal courage, puts the Basque Roads incident in a fuller context. In a similar fashion, Blue Light Admiral James Saumarez is shown to be a very effective leader of men and an officer whose faith gave him a reputation for steadiness in times of crisis. Less convincing is Blake's suggestion that Admiral Adam Duncan's piety meant his men were particularly loyal during the widespread naval mutinies of the late 1790s. Although it is true that Duncan was known for humane treatment of his crews, it is difficult to accept Blake's contention that Duncan's Christian faith was "the secret of his success" (137). Much of Duncan's fleet did, after all, mutiny in 1797, just as the ships under the command of less-devout admirals at the Spithead and the Nore anchorages did.

The reader can find similar weaknesses in Blake's treatment of Lord Nelson. It is impossible to write a...