Sermon – Fire – 1840

Samuel Kirkland Lothrop (1804-1886) graduated from Harvard in 1825 and from the Harvard divinity school in 1828. He was a minister at the Unitarian Church in Dover, NH (1829-1834) and at the Brattle Square Church in Boston (1834-1876). Lothrop was a delegate to the Massachusetts state constitutional convention (1853), and served on the Boston school committee for 30 years. This sermon was preached by Lothrop after the steamship Lexington caught on fire and sunk.









January 13th.

Pastor of the Church.


JOB 1, 19.

I only am escaped alone to tell thee.

I feel confident, my friends, that I shall be meeting the state of your minds, as well as obeying the dictate of my own feelings, if I take my subject this morning from real life, and gather my sermon, not so much from some passage of scripture, as from that sad and appalling calamity, the news of which a few days since filled all hearts with sorrow.

During the last few weeks or months, our community has borne a melancholy resemblance to the scenes connected with the text. As messenger after messenger came unto Job, bringing him tale after tale of loss and disaster, of the swift destruction of his property, and the death, violent and sudden, of those in whom his affections were bound up, even so has been fraught with some sad intelligence. Scarcely have our minds recovered from the shock of one, ere another story comes, borne on the wings of the wind, and to rend our hearts, by the fearful images of suffering and sorrow it calls up. A city in the southern section of the republic, far off in its location, yet near to us in many social and commercial relations, is visited by pestilence and fire. Even as in Egypt of old, the voice of lamentation, mourning and woe goes up from every dwelling, for in almost every dwelling is one dead; and while disease is making these dwellings desolate, a conflagration buries them in ruins. Night after night, a fire sweeps through large quarters of the city, spreading terror and dismay before it, leaving ruined hopes, and prostrate fortunes, and wide spread suffering behind it. While we are expressing our sympathy, and in the midst of our efforts to relieve and comfort, a fearful tempest sweeps over our own borders. Traces of its ravages are left in various quarters of our city, at our wharves and in our streets. But they are slight and insignificant. We think not of ourselves. Comfortably housed and guarded, we feel not the cutting blast. But as we hear, amid the watches of the night, the wild wailing of the tempest without, the rush of the angry wind, mighty and irresistible, our thoughts instinctively turn to those, who have gone down to do business on the great deep, and a fervent, earnest prayer goes up from our hearts to that God, who holds the waters in the hollow of his hand, that he would guard and preserve them. We look on the morrow for the record of disaster. We know that in that fearful war of the elements, some must have been overwhelmed. But the truth is far beyond even our worst fears. We thought that perchance some solitary bark might have been driven upon the rocks, we heard in fancy,

The solitary shriek, the bubbling cry
Of some strong swimmer in his agony.”

But our thoughts and our fears are but faint images of the reality. Not one or two ships, but a fleet is wrecked,—not here and there has a solitary individual perished, but multitudes. In some places, the shore is literally strewn with the bodies of the dead, the mangled, frozen, wave-tossed forms, that but a few hours before were instinct with life and health and strength, whose hearts beat warm with affection, and high with hope, and whose thoughts were dreaming of home, of wife and children, and all the kindly charities of life.

Familiar with the shore of the north-eastern coast of our Bay, I have often tried to picture to my imagination the fearful scene in and about that spot, where so many sought a harbor, but found a grave. But I cannot,—I cannot take it all in at once, and survey, as a whole, that wild scene of destruction and death. My eye involuntary turns and rests upon a single point; I see a single vessel going to pieces upon the rocks, some rods from the shore. The waves are dashing and breaking over it,—one after another is swept off, till two stand there almost alone. Of these, one is a father, far passed the meridian of life, the other a son, in all the vigor and strength of early manhood. Who shall tell the communing of that moment,—the thoughts, feelings, and memories that rushed through the mind of each? Suddenly a sound comes to us on the breath of the tempest, “Father you shall not perish if I can save you,”—and the young man redeemed the pledge. He fastens a rope safe and sure to the body of his father, and lashing the other end to himself, with one strong embrace, one fervent prayer, a blessing craved and a blessing given, he springs from the wreck. Is he not instantly overwhelmed by the waves? Can it be that man can buffet with those angry surges? There is something in his heart mightier even than the elements. It was a fearful struggle,—again and again he seems overborne, and about to resign himself in despair to a watery grave. But the image of his father,—the father that had nurtured and guarded his infancy, is in his mind, the image of his mother, left solitary in her far off dwelling, rises up before him, the filial love of a noble heart is strong within him, and through this he perseveres and triumphs. He is borne unharmed through the surf, he stands secure upon the firm earth,—the signal is given, and in a few moments, by means of the rope, the old man is brought safely to the shore, to be locked in the embrace of his deliverer and his child.

This is no fancy sketch. I have been told, my hearers, that this thing occurred; and we should find many others like it probably in effect, if not in success, did we know all the incidents of that scene of peril and disaster. Out of this full fountain of woe and suffering, therefore, we can gather at least this measure of good,—the evidence of the noble disinterestedness, the deep, enduring sympathy, that dwells in the heart of man.

But scarcely have we ceased to think and to speak of this calamity, ere another is brought to our knowledge, unexpected and unlooked for, not so general, in its nature, yet appealing to and touching the deep sympathies of all. The sky is fair, the atmosphere serene, the wind, though cold and wintry, is light and gentle, and an unclouded sun sheds over nature all the beauty and gladness than can ever dwell in a winter’s landscape. A mother’s heart is beginning to beat with joy. Her countenance, which had worn the anxiety of “hope deferred,” is lighted up with a smile, for she feels that under such a sky, even a wintry approach to our coast is safe, and that the ship, richly freighted with her maternal affections, will soon arrive. It may come tomorrow;—alas! Tomorrow dawns only to bring death to her hopes and her dwelling,—to bring us all a sad and mournful tale, how that in the wildest track of wild sea, the fire-spirit overtook that ship and the majestic bark, “that had bounded over the waters like a conqueror, became a mighty pillar of fire in the vast desert of the ocean,” and how, while some escaped, her son and others of our fellow citizens, around whom gathered the affections of fond hearts, were lost. There is, there must be, it seems to me, for I cannot speak from experience, there must be “a fearfulness in the solitude of the ocean, which every one must feel, under whatever circumstances he traverses its mighty depths. Night, with its storms and tempests, may add to the sensation; but there is in the very vastness of the waters, in the awful uniformity of their murmurs, and in their unchanging aspect, a loneliness so deep and perfect that the human heart has no passion of hope or fear, which it does not deepen or overcome. The moonlight of a desert solitude, the gloom of evening or midnight in a ruined city may carry the traveller’s thoughts through years of bygone happiness; but it is in his passage across the deep, in the hush and loneliness of the ocean that the visions and bodings of his own spirit become palpable and real.” This it is, that causes the misfortunes that happen in the heart of the seas, to awaken in our breasts the deepest sympathy with the sufferers. There complete, absolute separation from the rest of mankind, makes us feel for them, as if they had been the inmates of our own dwellings. And if they have actually been known to us, if they have lived in our neighborhood, if our hands have ever exchanged with them the warm grasp of friendship and affection, if they have mingled in our social or domestic joys, our hearts yearn in pity and tenderness, as we think of their fate. No tomb shall plead to their remembrance. No human power can redeem their forms. The white foam of the waves was their winding sheet, the winds of the ocean shall be their eternal dirge.

The news of the burning of the Harold therefore, touched the sympathies of all of us, even of those who did not personally know the sufferers. Men talked of it at the corners of the streets, and expressed to each other their sorrow and regret. In every circle, gathered around the fire-side of every dwelling in the city, it was spoken of, and trembling prayers went up from all those, who had a son, a husband, a brother, traversing the vast deep.

A few days pass, and our thoughts are yet wandering to that far off spot on the lonely ocean, where

“The death Angel flapped his broad wing o’er the wave,”

When they are suddenly called back, and called home, by a calamity which appalls and almost benumbs sensation, by its fearful nature and a magnitude not yet ascertained in its full extent. I need not name it. I need not describe it. It cannot be described. The circumstances attending it are few, but terrible. Imagination can hardly paint a scene, in its immediate aspect, or its ultimate and swiftly approaching issues, more full of horrors, to distract the calmest mind, to unnerve the stoutest heart,—“horrors which must have appeared to start up from the wild caverns of the deep itself.” No warning was given to prepare the thoughts, no omen of peril had been noticed. The tempest and the whirlwind give signals of their approach, but no signal is here to tell of coming danger. In an instant almost, that unfortunate company found themselves assailed by an enemy against which they could make no defence, and from which they soon lost all means of escape. And three “only have escaped. And three “only have escaped alone to tell” the tale, to give the brief outline of the beginning of that scene of terror and dismay. How it ended, and the details of its progress, what were the movements, the efforts and sufferings of the multitudes gathered upon that burning deck, none can tell.

The physical suffering endured in those brief hours, must have been severe, but it sinks into insignificance before the mental suffering of a situation so bereft of hope. To be shipwrecked is terrible. To be driven by the fierce hurricane upon an iron, rock-bound coast, is fearful and appalling. But in shipwreck there is room for action, and consequently for hope. There is something to be done, some effort to be made; a steady eye, a calm, self-possessed mind, a courageous heart, may avail something towards escape, and if death come at last, it comes only after noble efforts and struggles. To die in battle is terrible. Few scenes of this world’s suffering and woe, can equal the battle field,—that scene of dreadful and indiscriminate slaughter, where multitudes are assembled that death may mow them down with greater facility, that, not individuals, but thousands may be leveled at a blow, that the mighty and renowned, the young, the healthy, and the vigorous may perish in a moment, amid piercing groans, and frantic shouts, and bitter shrieks, and the roar of the deadly thunder, which strews around them companions in misery. But in battle there is action, and to the very last there is hope, a hope of success or escape. The mind is buoyed up and pressed onward to effort and endurance by this hope, and if at last death come, sudden and violent, there is, it may be, the consciousness of a noble duty nobly done, of life periled in a holy cause, and sacrificed, if sacrificed it must be, to freedom and truth.

But here, after the first few moments, there was no room for action, effort, or hope. In the wild confusion and dismay of the first outbreak of danger, the only means of escape had been utterly lost. And there they stood, the two companies, helpless and powerless, gathered on the bow and stern of that ill-fated boat,—the devouring fire raging to madness between, throwing its lurid flames to Heaven and casting a terrific brightness upon the yawning waves that stood ready to engulph them. There was no longer any help in man. None could hope to live for an hour in that wild wintry sea. They had nothing to do but to wait, to suffer, and to die. If ever any situation required manhood, fortitude and the power of religious faith, it must have been this. Let us trust, brethren, that these were not wanting. Let us trust that those brief hours were not all hours of pain, of grief, of unmitigated anguish. Let us hope that, while glad memories of the past thronged thick and fast upon their minds, and burning thoughts of home, of wife or husband, of children and kindred, no more to be seen on earth, tore with anguish their hearts, there also came in upon their souls, sweet and holy in its influences, that faith, mightier than any human affection, stronger than any mortal peril, which lifts the spirit to God, and gives it peace in death.

That this faith was present to many, with a calming and sustaining power, we have reason to hope. That it was present to one I cannot doubt; and from among the many husbands and fathers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, who, torn from their homes on earth, have found, I trust, a home in Heaven, I may be allowed to select and notice one, the only one with whom I had an intimate acquaintance, whose unobtrusive goodness and genuine worth have won for him an abiding place, in the memory, and hearts of all, who knew him well.

Exiled from his birth place, not for any crime, but for his love of liberty, his adherence to what he thought right and truth, Dr. Follen, brought to this, his adopted country, the same principles, the same noble sentiments, the same love of freedom and of truth, the same devotion to what he deemed duty that had banished him from his home. It is now nearly twenty years since he sought a refuge in our land, bringing with him no patent of nobility, but that which God had stamped upon his soul; and he needed none other to secure him that place in society to which his worth and talents entitled him. During his residence among us, he has honorably filled some of the most important literary offices in the dwellings of the happy and the prosperous, remembering the injunction to “rejoice with them that do rejoice,” h secured to himself the love and respect of all. Even those, and I myself was among the number, who differed from him in judgment and opinion on some subjects, honored and revered the man. His character deserved and inspired these emotions. The qualities, for which Dr. Follen was remarkable, were his ardent love of truth and his fearless devotion to it, his patient perseverance, his high moral purpose, his warm and tender affections, his quick and wide sympathies with humanity, and especially and above all, the simplicity and purity that distinguished his every thought and word. He was truly an upright and sincere man, “in whom there was no guile.” In the prime of life, with a mind vigorous, active and richly stored with learning, a heart full of noble purposes and aspirations, his death is a public bereavement. From literature and religion it takes an ornament, from truth and virtue, an advocate, eloquent in character as well as speech, and from an extensive circle of friends, an object of warm and confident attachment. Upon the sanctuary of private sorrow, we cannot, we dare not intrude. There is desolation there which none but God can reach and comfort. Our sympathy is with the living,—for him we fear not. Death in however terrible a form, could have no terrors to him. It could not find him unprepared, and those who have seen his “calm look, where Heaven’s pure light was shed,” will feel assured that in that last hour of mortal agony,

“Faith o’er his soul, spread forth her shadowless, her sunny wing,
And from the spoiler plucked the dreaded sting.”

Confident that Christian faith thus calmed and sustained him, I would humbly trust that others also had a blessed experience of its power, that with many the last moment of sensation was full of that peace which no earthly vicissitude can disturb, and the gloom and darkness of a watery grave lighted by that hope, which speaks of eternal life.

I cannot but remark also, that although some families of our city are called to participate most deeply in this calamity, families for whose mournful bereavements we feel, and would express, a most tender and respectful sympathy, we have yet reason for gratitude as a community, that so few of us have a direct share in this sad event. Those who are taken from us were worthy, honorable and beloved, so far as known. To kindred and friends, their death has thrown an abiding shadow over life. Seldom, however, does a boat pass through the Sound, that is not more richly freighted, in numbers at least, with our own citizens; seldom could such an accident have happened and not have left more of our own dwellings desolate.

But though so few were connected with us, they were all connected with others. “They dwelt among their kindred.” Of that company there was not one, however humble or obscure, perfectly solitary and isolated in the world, not one, to whom the heart of some other one was not knit by some strong cord, some tender tie of interest and affection. No one dieth or can die to himself alone. He cannot, by sin or by solitude, so cut himself off from all connection or intercourse with his race, that no one shall notice or lament his death. Let him fix his residence in the wildest fastnesses of the mountains, that residence will sometimes be deserted. The strong, inextinguishable impulses of humanity will sometimes bring him back to the abodes of men. Curiosity will, at intervals, lead a stranger to his hut, and a kind providence, as many instances in the past illustrate, will so order it, that when disease finds its way to his dwelling, human aid shall follow its steps, human sympathy, unexpected yet gratefully received, shall minister to his wasting strength, and hollow in kindness, his solitary grave. Let him plunge into the abyss of sin, let him steep himself in crime, and die in ignominy, it can not be even then, that he will die to himself alone. The mother, that bore him, will mourn for the sinner because he is her son. The wife, whose love can not change, though the joy, that encircled it, is withered and crushed, will yet weep in bitterness and sorrow, and the children will lament for the father, though his memory be covered with shame. No one can die to himself. Let his age or station, his character or condition be what it may, so long as he lies, he is linked to his race, and whenever and however he may die, some heart shall hallow his memory and deplore his loss. Every individual of that company then had a home, some spot where his presence shed gladness and comfort, and where tender affections or fond hopes rested upon him. The cases, that are especially known to us, are of peculiar and distressing sadness. It may be that all are equally calamitous and mournful. Wide-spread is the sorrow then caused by this disaster; many tearful eyes and aching hearts are turned to that fearful scene. Many families are made desolate, many are left widowed and fatherless, deprived of the power that protected, the wisdom that guided, the love that blessed and made them happy. Let our hearts yearn for them, let our prayers go up for them, that God, who is as rich in mercy, as he is inscrutable in the ways of his providence, may give that support and consolation, which He only can impart.

But I confess, my friends, I hesitate not to say, that after the first emotions of horror and pity, excited by this event, the thought, the feeling that is uppermost in my own mind is, indignation; yes, I will use that word though it be a strong one, indignation at the gross recklessness or carelessness, which caused this destruction of human life and produced this wide suffering – and indignation also at the feeble and inefficient legislation, that permits, and has for years permitted, these disasters to occur throughout our waters, without a just rebuke or an adequate restraint in the laws. I have read the statement published by the agent of this ill-fated boat. I am willing to admit and believe that every word of that statement is true. I admit also that those, whose business it was to prevent by carefulness this accent, are themselves among the sufferers, and that the inference is, that they would not wantonly peril their own lives. They are dead,—I would respect the memory of the dead,—but I must plead, and I feel constrained to plead for the rights, the protection, the security of the living. Admitting all that has been, or can be said in extenuation, the simple facts of the case, so far as known, especially when taken in connection with the circumstance that this self-same boat has unquestionably been on fire once, rumor says two or three times, within the law few weeks, it seems to me, that these facts are enough to prove that a solemn duty, a fearful responsibility was neglected somewhere by some one, enough to sustain the opinion, widely prevalent, that this awful disaster is to be attributed, either to the selfishness and cupidity of the owners, who, greedy of gain, insisted upon overloading their boat with a dangerous and inflammable freight, or to the culpable carelessness, the utter inattention of the master and officers, in not stowing that freight securely, in not watching ever and constantly, with an eagle eye, the condition and safety of the vessel, to which hundreds had entrusted their lives.

The simple fact that such an accident, on such a night, occurred, is in itself presumptive evidence of carelessness or incompetence on the part of some one. At any rate, all the circumstances of the case ought to be thoroughly investigated, every thing that can be gathered, if anything can be gathered from the survivors, touching the origin and early progress of the fire, ought to be made known, to satisfy the public curiosity, to relieve the public anxiety. If this investigation makes against the owners or managers, the truth ought not to be winked out of sight. It ought not to be hushed up, and kept back, and passed over. It is a misplaced charity to do it. We are false to our own interests and safety, to the interest and safety of all, in doing it. It ought to bespoken out, to be urged and insisted upon, boldly and plainly. It ought to be proclaimed trumpet-tongued, throughout the length and breadth of the land, till it reaches the halls of Congress, calls off the members from their petty party animosities, their disgraceful personal contentions, and wakes up the government from its inertness, its epicurean repose, a repose of apparent indifference to those, whose safety it ought to guard, whose lives it ought to protect,—till it causes the supreme power of the land to legislate, wisely and efficiently, for one of the most important interests of the people, and to do, not something, but everything requisite, to check an evil that cries aloud for redress.

The destruction of human life in the United States, during the last ten years, by accidents and disasters in the public conveyances, is, I had almost said, beyond computation. It is utterly unparalleled in the history of the world. It confirms, what all foreigners and travelers assert, that there is no country upon earth, where the proprietors, managers and conductors of these public conveyances, are so little responsible, so slightly amenable to the law, so far beyond the reach of public rebuke or public punishment; and the fearful catastrophe of the past week, as well as many others that might be collected from the history of the past year, are sufficient evidence that the late act of Congress, as was anticipated, has proved utterly inadequate and inefficient, and that something more strong, peremptory and binding is necessary, to protect the immense amount of life and property, daily and hourly exposed upon our highways and our waters.

I call upon you therefore, as merchants, who have large interests at stake in this matter, I call upon you as men, and citizens, who cannot behold with indifference the sufferings of your fellow men, to let your influence be felt, let your voice be heard in this thing, let it go forth to swell the power of that great sovereign, Public Opinion, till it demands and insists upon enactments, that shall meet the necessities of the case.

But, my friends, we are Christians as well as men, believers in God and his providence, and it becomes us to look up from the secondary cause, that produced, to the great First Cause, that permitted and overruled this disaster. While it seems to us, that it may be traced to the carelessness of man, we cannot doubt that God, in the inscrutable depths of his wisdom, permitted it. The Infinite Spirit of the universe was not absent from that spot on that awful night. He, in whose hands is the breath of every living soul, who counts the hairs of our head and numbers the beatings of our pulse, He was nigh unto each and all of that suffering band,—to hear their prayers, and to receive their spirits to the bosom of his love.

We cannot comprehend all the purposes of his providence. We cannot fathom his councils, “whose ways are not our ways, whose thoughts are above our thoughts.” But we have reason to believe, that a wise and gracious design presides over every event, however dark and mysterious in its aspects; from every event also, even from that fearful scene of suffering and death, we can gather lessons of duty and instruction. It speaks to all of us all of our dependence upon God, and of the worth of that calm and holy trust in Him, which is the property only of the faithful and devout soul. It enforces also social duty. It bids us keep our hearts warm and our sympathies active, our affections strong, pure, tender, and to do what we can to make happy those, who are bound to us by close and tender ties; for we know not how soon or how suddenly they may be cut down, and placed beyond the reach of our love or our neglect.

Ah! If in that perished company there were any, who had parted in coldness or unkindness from their friends, any, who had given pain, or brought disappointment to fond and trusting hearts, by neglect or indifference, by harsh words, or selfish acts, how must the memory of these have oppressed their spirits, as they thought of passing into the presence of that Master and Judge, who has said “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples if ye have love one toward another.” What would they have given, at that moment, for opportunity to return the affection they had so often slighted, to recall every cold look, every angry word, every hour marked by a selfish indifference to others? Let this event then speak to our consciences on this point. Let there be no longer any unkindness in our hearts, or in our conduct.

“While yet we live scarce one short hour perhaps,
Between us all let there be peace,”

And not peace only, but love, sympathy, kindness, a strong and abiding affection, that shall spread a joy and gladness over life and take from death all bitter and painful memories.

Let it speak to us also of that, which is so often urged, so seldom regarded, the utter uncertainty and insecurity of human life. How true it is, and how blessed for us that it is true, that we know not what a day, nay! Not what a moment may bring forth; that though there may be but a step between us and death, an impenetrable curtain, that no mortal vision can pierce, and only time lift up, conceals that step from us. Of those, whose untimely fate has excited such universal sympathy, many probably on the last Sabbath went up to the sanctuary of worship in devout gladness and gratitude. In firm health, with bright hopes, vigorous, active, useful, they anticipated death on the morrow, as little as we do now. Yet the morrow’s sun is the last which they behold on earth.

And who can tell what the morrow will bring to us? Who can say, as he passes forth, whether he shall ever re-enter these doors? Who has an armor of adamant, that death cannot pierce, or a talisman to bid misfortune stay its blow? No one!

These lips may be cold in death, the voice, that is now speaking, may be hushed in everlasting silence, ere the day returns, which gathers us within these consecrated walls. Even now the unseen arm of death, casting no fore running shadow, and known only when it falls, may be uplifted, to descend upon some one who hears me. The hoary head of age, the busy and anxious heart of manhood, or the fair cheek and persuasive lips of early beauty, may be its victim. Let us feel this uncertainty of life. The voice of God’s providence, speaking in the flames of that burning ship, is sounding in our ears “Be ye also ready,”—let it reach and touch our hearts.


It is worthy of record and acknowledgement, and the author of this discourse is ready to bear his humble testimony to the fact, that the steam boats on Long Island Sound have, till recently, been in general managed with distinguished skill and care, and all necessary, nay, even a scrupulous attention paid to the safety and comfort of the passengers. Of late years, however, the growing competition, and the increased facilities for carrying freight, afforded by the rail roads to Providence and Stonington, have produced an unfavorable change, and taken from the boats the high character for safety and comfort that once attached to them. They are now, it is said, almost invariably overloaded, the passengers all but crowded out by the freight, and their comfort and safety made apparently a secondary consideration. We have separate boats for freight on our waters? If steam boats, for passengers exclusively or principally, could not be supported at the present rate of fare, let it be increased. Until the fate of the Lexington is forgotten, most persons will be willing to pay something extra if they can be insured a safe, comfortable passage. It is to be hoped that this melancholy catastrophe will direct public attention to the subject, so that the reckless exposure of human life, which has marked some portions of the country, may never become one of the features of traveling in New England, and proper means be taken and efforts made, to provide against the recurrence of any similar disaster.

* Originally Posted: Dec. 24, 2016

 141 total views,  1 views today