The Retrospect; Or, Review of Providential Mercies

I know almost nothing about this book, its author, his ship, his pseudonym, or the attribution to him. My guess is he was a British Naval officer, possibly even a chaplain of firm pious and dogmatic conventions. He did resign from the Navy to take orders, presumably in the Anglican Church. This work is part of the genre of hortatory narratives of damnation, salvation, and the workings of providence. Although they grow tedious in time, although possibly inspirational to some, I’ve given a couple of longer narratives here to give the full flavor of the genre. I leave further research to others.

p. 86, on the efforts of the author on his unnamed ship to evangelize the crew while at anchor near Brest, from evening prayers to sermons to full divine services, some psalm singing, Bible reading and tract distribution: Seldom, from that time forward, did I go between decks without seeing some of the crew reading them (p. 87).

p. 87-88: As soon as possible after this I applied for and obtained permission to form a public library of religious books on the following plan. Every member subscribed four shillings, and was entitled to have one book in his possession, and to change it for any other as often as he

pleased; and, in the event of leaving the ship, to take one or more volumes with him as his own. The purser’s steward undertook to keep the library chest, and receive and give out the books. Most of the officers

gave a gratuitous sum. Our number of subscribers exceeded a hundred and fifty, and our library, when purchased, contained above two hundred volumes of pious, evangelical works, two-thirds of which were always in circulation. Thus, from a state of barrenness, as to the Scriptures and good books, we were soon and easily in possession of abundance: for it must be observed, that many of the crew furnished themselves with Prayer Books, besides their subscriptions to the library. The next object was to form a day-school for the poor boys. This was soon done, and was daily inspected by myself, and often visited by the captain. The singers, when their duty would permit, still continued to meet between

six and eight o’clock, in a retired part of the ship; not that it was necessary to do so merely to practise singing, but, having for several weeks enjoyed this retreat from the noise and folly of the crew, they knew not how to give it up; nor could I find it in my heart to order it.

On the contrary, I sometimes went below, and read a chapter or a tract, or a passage from some of our library books, as well for my own edification as for theirs.

p. 124-26: Robert A. was a young man of rather superior understanding to seamen in general, and, being excessively fond of reading, he had perused and imbibed much evil from many novels, and other vile books; so that with his natural and acquired talents, he was enabled to proceed some degrees in profligacy beyond many others. He was, what he styled himself in a letter which I now possess, “the veriest slave to all manner of vice of any one in the ship.” Not all the discipline of the service, nor the presence of his superiors, was sufficient to bridle his impure and blasphemous tongue.

The second in the Naval Articles of War provides,“that if any officer, mariner, or soldier, shall be guilty of profane oaths, cursing, execrations, drunkenness, uncleanness, or other scandalous actions, in derogation of God’s honour and corruption of good manners, he shall be punished as a court-martial thinks he deserves.” This is a good and salutary law, but most wretchedly executed. I had been more than ten years at sea without witnessing anything like a regular punishment for oaths, cursings and execrations. At length, however, poor Robert A. furnished an instance. Having gone beyond all bounds of order and decency, he was one day tied up, and actually flogged for a breach of the former part of the above-cited Second Article of War. This made him more circumspect in the presence of his officers, but it could not reach his heart. He therefore continued in his general conduct much the same, until God himself effectually wrought on his soul, which was done in the following way.

Being one forenoon stationed in the main-top, and having no active duty to employ his time and drown reflection, he opened the chest,” and, to his joy, observed a book. In hope of finding some idle story to beguile

his mind, he opened it, and began to read. The volume belonged to our circulating library; it was “Doddridge’s Rise and Progress of religion in the soul;” a subject, above all others, most unwelcome to one in his state; yet he read on, to use his own words, “torturing himself by every line he read.” Again and again he wished the book had been a thousand miles off, or that he had never seen it; yet he told me “that he could not

put it away. The reading of it,” he said, “pricked him to the heart, but still he read on, drawing all the comfort he was able from the thought, that by and by twelve o’clock would arrive, and then he should be relieved from this post, and obliged to put the book away.” Twelve o’clock at length came, and, being relieved, he flew below; but he could not fly from his convictions. Ten minutes were found abundantly sufficient to take his dinner, and having left his messmates to drink both

his and their own grog, as they pleased, he again sat down to the tormenting, but irresistible book. From that day he became a most patient, meek, and humble Christian. He separated from his old iniquitous companions, and passed his leisure hours in hearing, reading, and singing with the wingers, whom he had heretofore so cordially hated and despised. Nor was all the opposition of his former comrades able, in the smallest degree, to shake him.

p. 149-51: On my arrival in this happy, dashing ship, as such frigates are gene rally esteemed, I was ushered into the ward-room with all the respect and politeness customary on such occasions. In the society of this ship’s ward-room I found much that was pleasing, and much that was distressing; all the officers were young men of intelligent and gentlemanly manners, men of reading and cultivated minds; hence there was much more correctness of behaviour and interesting conversation among them than could be found on board of many ships in our fleet. This was a pleasure I had not anticipated; it was the fair side of a

picture I had not expected to see. But this same picture had a dark and distressing side, which I was obliged means or other, got into a train of deistical reading, and of dangerous, half-infidel opinions. The works of Hume, Gibbon, and Voltaire formed a part of their library, and but too frequently engaged their leisure hours. At that time my thoughts and feelings on religious matters were much what they now are; consequently, it was not long before I and my new associates discovered that we viewed many things in a very opposite light to each other. This discovery was first made by the following circumstance. The junior lieutenant of the frigate had, some days before I joined them, purchased, at a very high price, what the bookseller told him was one of the most popular and sensible novels ever published in England, and that a full chest of them had happily arrived at Gibraltar. I think it was the very day I went on board, that one of the officers enquired of the purchaser, “How he liked his famous new novel?” To which the other replied, “I don’t know what to think of it: there is too much of religion in it. I have read but a few pages.” Hearing this odd description of a novel, and perceiving that neither the enquirer nor the owner of the work cared about reading it, I requested the favour of seeing it; and found its title, “Coelebs in search of a Wife,” and truly, it did contain much good advice and sound doctrine. To me it proved quite a treat, while it remained unread, and unvalued by the purchaser and his shipmates. This event discovered to them that they had what they termed a religionist among them. And I believe their surprise was accompanied with a strong curiosity to hear what I had to say on so unnautical and unfashionable a subject as the religion interwoven with the tale of Caelebs.