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Bethel flag (U.S.)

Last modified: 2015-05-09 by rick wyatt
Keywords: bethel flag | united states |
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image by Jarig Bakker, 3 August 2005

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Bethel flags were also common in the United States (and, I think, British) merchant fleets at one time, although I have a hard time crediting that they go back to de Ruyter's day (flags with letters in the 17th century?). In the US, their heyday was in the 19th century. The following is from Clifford M. Drury, The History of the Chaplain Corps, United States Navy, Vol. 1 (1778-1939), NAVPERS 15807, undated, but after 1948, pages 58-59:

"At the opening of the nineteenth century the merchant seamen of both England and America were a spiritually neglected class. 'Floating Chapels' or 'Ship Chapels,' which were called 'Bethels,' were started in London and vicinity about 1814. In 1818 the British and Foreign Seamen's Friend Society and Bethel Union was formed to expand this type of evangelism. A flag was adopted consisting of the word BETHEL in large white letters on a blue background. Some of these flags were embellished with designs such as a red star in a corner or a dove bearing an olive branch.

The Bethel flag first appeared in the United States on a vessel entering New York harbor in March 1821. Under the leadership of John Allan, who had been commissioned by the Bethel movement in England to carry the idea to America, a group was soon at work in New York. The zealous members of this organization supplemented the activities of the Navy chaplains in ministering to the spiritual needs of naval personnel.

The Sailor's Magazine, the official publication of the Seamen's Friend Society, is sprinkled with references to the Bethel movement in the years following 1821. It is clear that the Bethel flag was often raised over British and American naval vessels. The following are typical quotations... '1835... July 13th. This day we hoisted the bethel flag on board the English brig Cambria.

It may be assumed that after 1821 the Bethel flag was usually hoisted whenever the zealous members of the Seamen's Friends Society went aboard to conduct religious services. . . .

Missionaries of the Seamen's Friend Society carried out the work in foreign ports. One of these workers, writing from Rio de Janeiro on 1 March 1839, stated: 'During the year past we have omitted no occasion of holding services under the Bethel flag on board English and American vessels in the harbor.'

A number of Bethel mission, often located on an abandoned ship tied to a dock, were established in the principal port cities of the eastern seaboard. The Bethel flag was invariably associated with such missions....

The movement spread to foreign ports frequented by American ships. The famous pioneer missionary to China, Robert Morrison, raised the Bethel flag on an American merchant vessel at Whampoa near Canton in 1822....

Chaplain Charles Rockwell, who was sent to Marseilles as a missionary of the Seamen's Friend Society in 1834, and who transferred to the naval chaplaincy, referred to the Bethel flag as follows: 'Our Saviour, from a vessel's deck preached the gospel to the multitudes who thronged the shore; thus, as it were, raising the Bethel Flag on the sea of Galilee....'

The United States Navy had no official regulation governing the use of a church flag or pennant during these years under review [comment: although a church pennant did appear in Commodore Charles Morris's manuscript signal book of circa 1827, and Chaplain Thomas R. Lambert's diary records the hoisting of the church pennant aboard USS Potomac in Piraeus on 21 August 1836]. There is evidence that the Bethel flag was used at times aboard naval vessels. For example, a writer in the Army and Navy Chronicle for 21 September 1837 expressed his disapproval of the use of the Bethel flag on United States naval vessels in the following words: 'Even the very sight of the ships, when the unassuming peak-pendant is hoisted for manly prayer, excites a deeper devotional feeling in the spectator than where he sees the arrogant and pharisaic Bethel flag flying.'"
One of Drury's footnotes cites an article "History of the Bethel Flag," in the 1 June 1846 of The Friend of Temperance and Seamen, published in Honolulu.

Joseph McMillan, 4 Aug 2005

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