Titanic sermons, a century later

The White Star Line publicists pulled out all the stops when promoting the Titanic and its sister ship the Olympic, even claiming in one brochure that these giants "were designed to be unsinkable." By the time Titanic put to sea, this language had evolved into a boast -- reportedly shared with passengers -- that "God Himself couldn't sink this ship."

Thus, when the liner sank on April 15, 1912, preachers on both sides of the Atlantic were among the first commentators to raise their voices in judgment, as well as consolation. Newspapers promptly printed many of these sermons.

One fact gripped preachers more than any other: In an age a great power and wealth, the Titanic carried only 20 lifeboats for its 2200 passengers.

This was a deadly form of pride, said the Rev. William D. Moss at the Washington Heights Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. But it would be wrong to condemn only the businessmen who built the Titanic and plotted its course.

"Yonder where the ruthless deep yawned to receive its unwilling and innocent victims, the law of life exercised its ancient prerogative that whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. ... In the tragedy of this hour we have witnessed the wrong-doing not of one man or a body of men, but of the age," proclaimed Moss.

"The fact is driven home to us today that as an age, as a nation, and as individuals we lack moral vision. We worship success. We worship money. We worship luxury. We worship display. We worship the material. We worship the ephemeral. We worship self-interest. We worship competition. In other words, we worship speed. … And so this tragedy of the ocean has its daily counterpart on the land."

The moral messages captured in these sermons were completely different than the vision offered in 1997 by Hollywood director James Cameron. His "Titanic" blockbuster portrayed the doomed ship as a symbol of the corrupt values of an old-fashioned culture that would soon be conquered by science, social change and the sexual revolution.

For the preachers of 1912, the Titanic was the ultimate symbol, not of the past, but of modernity and the dawn of a century in which ambitious tycoons and scientists would solve most, if not all, of humanity's thorniest problems.

The liner was, in other words, a triumph of Darwinian logic and the march of progress. It's sinking was a dream-shattering tragedy of biblical proportions.

The events of Feb. 14 and 15, 912, are the "closest thing that we have to a modern day Bible story," according to Douglas Phillips of TitanicSociety.com, in an essay saluting the men who went down with the ship. "Everything about Titanic was larger-than-life: her conception, her launch, her sins, her heroes and her judgment. …

"Many perceived the ship to be a modern incarnation of the Tower of Babel. The sinking represented God's unwillingness to allow man to build any edifice of invincibility or to seek salvation through technology."

However, days after the tragedy, a young pastor in Switzerland stressed that technology itself was not to blame, but the "playful arrogance" of those who wielded it.

"God has not set a limit to technology, to progress, to the human mind," said the Rev. Karl Barth, who would become one of the new century's most famous theologians. "Quite the reverse! … When we become godless about the headway we have made, i.e. when we become bumptious and conceited and childish, then we need to be called to order." Thus, he argued: "It is true that God set the iceberg on its course, but no one was compelled to get in its way."

There was, however, an inspiring side to this story, as well. While there was cruel logic behind the decisions that caused the disaster, there was a radically different belief system at work in the heroic, self-sacrificial acts on that night, noted the Rev. Henry van Dyke, a Princeton University professor.

The bottom line: "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."

Thus, van Dyke concluded: "Only through the belief that the strong are bound to protect and save the weak because God wills it can we hope to keep self-sacrifice, and love, and heroism and all the things that make us glad to live and not afraid to die."