What is this?
A bible removed from USS President after her capture.
When is it from?
Why is it Important?
The frigate President, commanded by Capt. Stephen Decatur, sailed from New York on the night of 14 January 1815. The next day, a British squadron composed of four frigates chased and then beat the American ship into submission. William Clark, Master-at-Arms on board HMSTenedos or Pomone, was among those who boarded the defeated vessel. He removed this bible from the gun named for General Richard Montgomery, who fell during the attack on Quebec in December 1775. The book corroborates the assertion that guns on American warships were named by their crews, but it also speaks to the religious feeling of seamen. It has been said that “there are no Sundays off soundings,” meaning at sea, few sailors adhered to the strictures of religious teaching. Indeed, seamen were notorious for being profanely irreligious. The Reverend Edward Mangin, chaplain of HMS Gloucester in 1812 wrote that “nothing can possibly be more unsuitably or more awkwardly situated than a clergyman in a ship of war; every object around him is at variance with the sensibilities of a rational and enlightened mind.” This bible would seem to be at odds with these sentiments. Tucked into the cheekpiece of the gun’s carriage, we can imagine the guncrew reading from it during the long, tense hours of the chase. Even if they never cracked the covers, the bible’s presence on the engine of destruction turned the book into a sort of talisman, a charm to ward off evil and a promise of salvation should the worst happen.
In May 1813, Chaplain Andrew Hunter wrote to the Secretary of the Navy about his attempts at supplying navy ships with bibles:
I have endeavoured to supply every public ship that went out of the harbour with a number of bibles for the use of the seamen….. The effects produced by their spending their spare time in reading those books have been visible to a number of the officers. If some plan could be adopted for supplying the ships at regular periods with the scriptures and some small religious and moral tracts I have no doubt it would produce an amelioration of their morals and increase their civilization. …My long acquaintance with soldiers warrants me in saying that the greater number of them as well as of sailors value highly what they call religion, however great and culpable their aberrations from it may be….The manner of procuring the books which have been distributed has been by my ardent application to individuals in the state from whence I came, and to different Bible-societies.
The belief that reading the bible could produce a change in behavior was one that was widely held in the early nineteenth century, and numerous bible societies dedicated to the dissemination of cheap editions of the book sprang up around the country. In February 1813, students at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) founded the Nassau Hall Bible Society. According to the society’s constitution, its purpose was to procure and distribute bibles “without notes or commentaries, among those who are unable to purchase them.” The students’ first act was to send bibles to naval vessels, and it is likely that President received a supply in 1814 while blockaded in New York harbor. How many of these were given away at this point is not known, but in 1813 the society was committed to distributing “the Bible among those who are engaged either by sea or land in fighting our battles: and who can tell, but through our instrumentality, some of those victims who perish in the field of blood, may be made heirs of eternal life.”
The Holy Bible, containing the Old and New Testaments. Published by Hudson & Goodwin, Hartford, Conn., 1813. 6 ¾ by 4 ¼ inches [duodecimo]. The book’s covers have been wrapped in heavily soiled linen duck, sewn on with two-ply linen thread. The covers may have been varnished or waxed to waterproof them. On the front cover is the inscription “Montgomery” in ink. A printed card affixed to the pastedown reads “PRESENTED/ BY the BIBLE SOCIETY/ OF NASSAU HALL,/ PRINCETON.” The flyleaf is inscribed in ink “Presented/ by/ Mrs. James C. Thompson/ to her Pastor/ the Revd. Thomas Haywood/ as a token of respect/ 29th October 1879/ Elizabeth Port N. J.” A separate sheet glued to the endpapers reads “Be it known that this Bible was taken from the Montgomery gun of the President Frigate where it was slung to the carriage of the said gun. It was taken by William Clark from where it hung after the engagement with the said Frigate, in December 1814 [sic]. He being master at arms and one of those that boarded the said President Frigate and as a further explanation, every gun of the said Frigate was named after some general or patriot of the United States and there was a Bible slung to the carriage of each gun and had the same name marked on the cover. This Bible was kept by me in remembrance of my brother the said William Clark, who departed this life in January 1819. Charles Clark.” Beneath the inscription is this verse: “Search well this Book and ponder on the same/ I’ will fill thy heart with love and heavenly flame/ ‘Twill thee solace when on thy dieing bed/ And wreath a crown of glory round thy head/ ‘Twill raise thy soul triumphant to the sky/ Where troubles cease and tears neer dim the eye/ There brothers meet and fathers on that shore/ Though eternal ages roll they part no more.”