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Port of London
1818 – 1832
British Sailors

Merchant Seamen’s Bible Society

The Merchant Seamen's Bible Society was founded in 1818 to supply British merchant ships with copies of scripture.

The Merchant Seamen's Bible Society (MSBS) was one of a number of specialist societies formed to supply bibles to particular workplaces and institutions (Kvernal 2007). It was an auxiliary of the British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS), formed in 1804, which rapidly became one of the most diverse and effective mission organisations in Europe. 

The BFBS was preceded by the Navy & Military Bible Society (1779) (originally just the Bible Society), which aimed to ensure members of the navy and army had access to their own copies of the Bible. While promoted by elites in the forces, the movement had wider support and forms part of the late 18th century 'navy revival'. The Thomas Union Bible Committee (1813), based in Southward in London, was the earliest maritime mission focussed on the religious needs of merchant seamen, as opposed to those serving in the forces.

The first report of the Society states that 'the only purpose of this Society is to circulate the word of God', while stating that the need of the merchant marine was just as urgent as that of the navy and army, who had their own society for supplying the Bible (MSBS 1819). It met, like other marine mission ventures, in the City of London Tavern, in Bishopsgate Street.

Initially the focus of the Society was on the port of London, the country's largest port, which in 1818 alone was visited by over five thousand vessels. However, the Society aimed to distribute the scriptures even more widely, so as to give access to 150,000 British seamen who did not have access to the Bible, at ports throughout the country. 

The new Society was led by pious naval officers, who were already active in the Navy & Military Bible Society as well as the leading Anglican Evangelicals of the day. These included Admiral of the Fleet James Gambier (1756-1833), the anti-slavery leader William Wilberforce (1759-1833), Chairman of the British East India Company Charles Grant (1746-1823), and a solid list of leading politicians, churchmen and businessmen.

The Society supported the Bristol Channel Mission of the Rev. John Ashley, but struggled to convince seamen to take an active part in its work. Marine Bible Societies were also formed in America, where it was regretted that the  Marine Bible Society was not able to state that it was made up of seamen, rather than sustained for seamen. 

Although the Bible Society had a strict policy of requiring payment for its bibles, the MSBS offered them free of charge to vessels travelling without them. Where Bibles had been left, the Society sought assurances that they had been read and used. Lieutenant John Cox, who helped found the Society, was appointed as its full time agent. Kverndal (2007: 24) calls Cox the first fulll-time marine missionary in the world. Cox called on vessels and encouraged them to provide encouraging reports of merchant seamen reading the Bible in favour of the more usual pursuits of labouring men:

'Ah', said the Mate of No. 1404, I belonged to the Albion when you supplied her crew with the Scriptures. Whenever the people were idle, or playing on the Sunday, I always sent them below to read their Bibles. I will take good care that these books shall not lay by useless (MSBS 1818: 30)

The Society remained active distributing Bibles, and generating mission narratives of successful moral uplift of merchant seamen through the merits of Bible reading. 


Blake, Richard.  2014. Religion in the British Navy 1815-1879: Piety and Professionalism (Woodbridge: Boydell).

Park, Steven H. 1995. 'The Seafarer as the "Worthy Poor"' History Conference Papers. 1. Link

MSBS .1818. The Merchant Seamen's Auxiliary Bible Society [MSABS]  for Supplying British Merchant Ships with the Holy Scriptures (London: MSBS) Link

MSBS .1819. Merchant Seamen's Auxiliary BIble Society, First Annual Report (London: MSBS). 

Kverndal, Roald .2007. The Way of the Sea: The Changing Shape of Mission in the Seafaring World (York: William Carey). Google Books


Citation for this article

Hilary Carey, 'Merchant Seamen’s Bible Society' Mariners: Race, Religion and Empire in British Ports 1801-1914,
Retrieved 25 June 2024