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A Classic Study by John Flavel (1628-1691)


[Here, we begin a reprint of excerpts from John Flavel's book Navigation Spiritualized. John Flavel was a 17th Century minister in the seaside town of Dartmouth, England. A good many of his parishioners made their living on the sea, and so Mr. Flavel wrote Navigation Spiritualized, a book which draws parallels between things of the sea and spiritual things. This book is a masterpiece in the way it communicates spiritual truths in the language of its target audience, the seamen of Dartmouth. In fact, it was written specifically for the seamen to take on voyages and read, so that (for example), while they sail the boundless seas, they may read of God's boundless mercies; or, while they adjust their sails for shifting winds, they may read how to prepare their souls for the shifting winds of life; etc. We begin the reprint with the Dedicatory Epistle that prefaces the book.]--Ed.

The Epistle Dedicatory


To all Masters, Mariners, and Seamen; especially such as belong to the Borough of Clifton, Dartmouth, and Hardness, in the county of Devon.


Sirs, I find it storied of Anacharsis, that when one asked him whether the living or the dead were more? He returned this answer, "You must first tell me (saith he) in which number I must place seamen": Intimating thereby, that seamen are, as it were, a third sort of persons, to be numbered neither with the living nor the dead; their lives hanging continually in suspense before them.

And it was anciently accounted the most desperate employment, and they little better than lost men that used the seas. "Through all my life", saith Aristotle, "three things do especially repent me: 1. That ever I revealed a secret to a woman. 2. That ever I remained one day without a will. 3. That ever I went to any place by sea, whither I might have gone by land." "Nothing," saith another, "is more miserable than to see a virtuous and worthy person upon the sea."

And although custom, and the great improvement of the art of navigation, have made it less formidable now, yet are you no further from death than you are from the waters, which is but a remove of two or three inches. Now you that border so nigh upon the confines of death and eternity every moment, may be well supposed to be men of singular piety and seriousness: For nothing more composes the heart to such a frame, than the lively apprehensions of eternity do; and none have greater external advantages for that, than you have. But, alas! for the generality, what sort of men are more ungodly, and stupidly insensible of eternal concernments, living, for the most part, as if they had made a covenant with death, and with hell were at agreement? It was an ancient saying, "He that knows not how to pray, let him go to sea." But we may say now, (alas! that we may say so in times of greater light), he that would learn to be profane, to drink and swear, and dishonour God, let him go to sea. As for prayer, it is a rare thing among seamen, they count that a needless business: they see the profane and vile delevered as well as others; and therefore what profit is there if they pray unto him? (cf. Mal. 3:4). As I remember, I have read of a profane soldier, who was heard swearing, though he stood in a place of great danger; and when one that stood by him warned him, saying, "Fellow-soldier, do not swear, the bullets fly," he answered, "They that swear come off as well as they that pray." Soon after a shot hit him, and down he fell. Plato diligently admonished all men to avoid the sea: "For", saith he, "it is the schoolmaster of all vice and dishonesty."

Sirs! it is a very sad consideration to me, that you who float upon the great deeps, in whose bottom so many thousand poor miserable creatures lie, whose sins have sunk them down, not only into the bottom of the sea, but of hell also, whither divine vengeance hath pursued them: That you, I say, who daily float, and hover over them, and have the roaring waves and billows that swallowed them up, gaping for you as the next prey, should be no more affected with these things. Oh what a terrible voice doth God utter in the storms! "It breaks the cedars, shakes the wilderness, makes the hinds to calve" (Ps. 29:5). And can it not shake your hearts? This voice of the Lord is full of majesty, but His voice in the word is more efficacious and powerful (see Heb. 4:12) to convince and rip up the heart. This word is exalted above all His name (Ps. 138:3), and if it cannot awaken you, it is no wonder you remain secure and dead, when the Lord utters His voice in the most dreadful storms and tempests. but if neither the voice of God uttered in His dreadful works, or in His glorious gospel, can effectually awaken and rouse, there is an Euroclydon, a fearful storm coming, which will so awaken your souls, as that they shall never sleep any more: "Upon the wicked he shall rain snares, fire and brimstone, and an horrible tempest: This is the portion of their cup" (Ps. 11:6). You that have been at sea in the most violent storms, never felt such a storm as this, and the Lord grant that you never may; no calm shall follow this storm. There are some among you, that, I am persuaded, do truly fear that God in whose hand their life and breath is; men that fear an oath, and are an honour to their profession; who drive a trade for heaven, and are diligent to secure the happiness of their immortal souls, in the insurance-office above; but for the generality, alas! they mind none of these things. How many of you are coasting to and fro, from one country to another? But never think of the heavenly country above, nor how you may get the merchandise thereof, which is better than the gold of Ophir. How oft do you tremble to see the foaming waves dance about you, and wash over you? Yet consider not how terrible it will be to have all the waves and billows of God's wrath to go over your souls, and that forever. How glad are you after you have been long tossed upon the ocean, to descry land? And how yare and eagerly do you look out for it, who yet never had your hearts warmed with the consideration of that joy which shall be among the saints, when they arrive at the heavenly strand, and set foot upon the shore of glory.

O Sirs! I beg of you, if you have any regard to those precious, immortal souls of yours, which are also imbarked for eternity, whither all winds blow them, and will quickly be at their port of heaven or hell, that you will seriously mind these things, and learn to steer your course to heaven, and improve all winds (I mean opportunities and means) to waft you thither.

Here you venture life and liberty, run through many difficulties and dangers, and all to compass a perishing treasure; yet how often do you return disappointed in your design? Or if not, yet it is but a fading short-lived inheritance, which like the flowing tide, for a while, covers the shore, and then returns, and leaves it naked and dry again: and are not everlasting treasures worth venturing for? Good souls be wise for eternity: I here present you with the fruit of a few spare hours, redeemed for your sakes, from my other studies and employments, which I have put into a new dress and mode. I have endeavoured to clothe spiritual matters in your own dialect and phrases, pious poems, with which the several chapters are concluded, trying by all means to assault your several affections, and as the apostle speaks, "to catch you with guile" (II Cor. 12:16). I can say nothing of it; I know it cannot be without its manifold imperfections, since I am conscious of so many in myself; only this I will adventure to say of it, that how defective or empty soever it be in other respects, yet it is stuffed and filled with much true love to, and earnest desires after the salvation and prosperity of your souls. And for the other defects that attend it, I have only two things to offer, in way of excuse; it is the first essay that I ever made in this kind, wherein I find no precedent: and it was hastened for your sakes, too soon out of my hands, that it might be ready to wait upon you, when you undertake your next voyage: so that I could not revise and polish it. Nor indeed was I solicitous about the style; I consider, I write not for critical and learned persons; my design is not to please your fancies any further, than I might thereby get advantage to profit your souls. I will not once question your welcome reception of it: if God shall bless these meditations to the conversion of any among you, you will be the gainers, and my heart shall rejoice, even mine. How comfortably should we shake hands with you, when you go abroad, were we persuaded your souls were interested in Christ, and secured from perishing, in the new covenant? What life would it put into our prayers for you, when you are abroad, to consider that Jesus Christ is interceding for you in heaven, whilst we are your remembrancers here on earth? How quiet would our hearts be, when you are abroad in storms, did we know you had a special interest in Him whom winds and seas obey? To conclude, what joy would it be to your godly relations, to see you return new creatures? Doubtless more than if you came home laden with the riches of both Indies.

Come Sirs! set the heavenly Jerusalem upon the point of your new compass; make all the sail you can for it; and the Lord give you a prosperous gale, and a safe arrival in that land of rest.

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