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[Chalice] Religion & the Sea: [Chalice]
Moby Dick

Presented March 21, 2010, by Dr. Virginia Leonard Ewing


Chapter 1 - LOOMINGS Read by Ridgley Pierson

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago - never mind how long precisely - having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off - then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

Chapter 10 - A BOSOM FRIEND Read by Carol Nichols

I was a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church. How then could I unite with this wild idolator in worshipping his piece of wood? But what is worship? thought I. Do you suppose now, Ishmael, that the magnanimous God of heaven and earth - pagans and all included - can possibly be jealous of an insignificant bit of black wood? Impossible! But what is worship? - to do the will of God - that is worship. And what is the will of God? - to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man to do to me - that is the will of God. Now, Queequeg is my fellow man. And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. consequently, i must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolator. So I kindled the shavings; helped prop up the innocent little idol; offered him burnt biscuit with Queequeg; salamed before him twice or thrice; kissed his nose; and that done, we undressed and went to bed, at peace with our own consciences and all the world. But we did not go to sleep without some little chat.

How it is I know not; but there is no place like a bed for confidential disclosures between friends. Man and wife, they say, there open the very bottom of their souls to each other; and some old couples often lie and chat over old times till nearly morning. Thus, then, in our hearts' honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg - a cosy, loving pair.

Chapter 132 - THE SYMPHONY Read by Joe Conover

"What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozzening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is as an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I. By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike. And all the time, lo! that smiling sky, and this unsounded sea! Look! see yon Albicore! who put it into him to chase and fang that flying-fish? Where do murderers go, man! Who's to doom, when the judge himself is dragged to the bar? But it is a mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky; and the air smells now, as if it blew from a far-away meadow; they have been making hay somewhere under the slopes of the Andes, Starbuck, and the mowers are sleeping among the new- mown hay. Sleeping? Aye, toil we how we may, we all sleep at last on the field. Sleep? Aye, and rust amid greenness; as last year's scythes flung down, and left in the half-cut swaths - Starbuck!"

Religion & the Sea: Moby Dick

There are many interpretations of Moby Dick, that is what makes it fun. The meaning is also an enigma, that's what makes it a masterpiece. Moby Dick is now considered one of the greatest American novels. This was not always so, it was not until the 1920s that Moby Dick began to attain its exalted status. Melville wrote to friend Nathaniel Hawthorne concerning Moby Dick, "I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb. . . "

Some literary critics see religion in Moby Dick as a struggle between Melville's personal adoption of Unitarianism, and the Calvinism of his father and mother. Born in the Bronx in 1819, he married a Unitarian from Massachusetts, Elizabeth Shaw, in 1847, and they had four children. His mother Maria Gansevoort was descended from the earliest Dutch settlers of NY, and his Father Allan Melvill from Scots-Irish. (In the 1830s the Melvilles added an "E" to their last name.) Both of Melville's grandfathers fought in the American Revolution, and his paternal grandfather participated in the Boston Tea party (the original one). Melville was not celebrated in his lifetime, earning little from his books and poems. In fact, many considered him "crazy." He pretty much gave up writing after 1866 when his well-connected family secured him a post in the Customs House of New York City. His wife helped him recover from alcoholism, yet he still suffered from depression, especially after the death of his two sons. He died in Manhattan in 1891.i

I would like to place Moby Dick in its historical context. Moby Dick was published in 1851, ten years before the Civil War. The United States is in the early stages of industrialism. Nantucket and New Bedford in Massachusetts are the centers of whaling. The Americans have captured the world market for whale oil and other byproducts of whales. Slavery still exists and it is on a collision course with the new industrial order. The US has just won a war with Mexico in 1848, and reached the Pacific. Manifest Destiny, that it was God's will that the Americans occupy the continent, is part of American nationalism and ideology. Furthermore, Moby Dick, the whale, was named after a well-known whale "Mocha Dick," who received his name from the island of Mocha off of Chile where he was often spotted. Whales did ram whalers and whaleboats, and albino whales did exist.

The three Readings show the complexity of Moby Dick. The reading from Chapter 1 is one of the most famous first sentences in world literature, "Call me Ishmael." Ishmael of the Old Testament was the son of Abraham and Hagar, the Egyptian servant girl. When Abraham's wife Sarah had her own son, she cruelly drove Ishmael and his mother out into the desert. At the end of Moby Dick, the whaler Rachel, symbolic of the favored wife of Jacob and considered the "spiritual mother of Israel," rescues Ishmael from the sea. Ishmael survives as a literary device to tell us the story. We know he survives in the Epilogue, which was left out in the botched first publication of the book in England (one reason for the bad reviews). The reason given by Ishmael for going to sea in the first reading is that he needs money, and he is exercising his free will. Later on in the novel fate, or pre-destination, drives Ishmael to sign up for this voyage on the whaler Pequod. The last reading from Chapter 132 illustrates the pre-destination that drives Ahab in his quest. This speech comes just after Starbuck tries to dissuade Ahab from his thirst for vengeance. "Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm?" Ahab cannot help himself; it is his destiny to avenge himself on the white whale that bit off his leg.

There is also the characterization of madness "Is Ahab, Ahab?" asks Captain Ahab. In the Old Testament, Ahab is the all-time worst king of Israel. He married Jezebel, a pagan priestess, who installed Baal worship, turning Israel away from the Hebrew God. The Ahab of Moby Dick is a monomaniac bent on finding the whale and killing him. My high school teacher saw him as "evil" pursuing the "good" whale. Does this make the crew, who adopt Ahab's mission as their own, all crazy or evil?

In addition to the historical context, we can discuss Moby Dick's place in American literature. Moby Dick was published in 1851 the year after Nathaniel Hawthorne published The Scarlet Letter, and the year before Harriet Beecher Stowe brought out Uncle's Tom Cabin, the second best-seller in America after the Bible in the 19th century. In contrast, Melville's work was not acclaimed; and it was attacked.

In the reading from Chapter 10, we see that Ishmael grows to appreciate the "savage" Queequeg who worships pagan idols. Ishmael even honors Queequeg's idol Yojo by giving it an offering of a burnt biscuit (see woodcut by Rockwell Kent on Order of Worship). Even though Ishmael claims to be a Presbyterian, he notes the good traits of the former cannibal Queequeg. Yet, it is the "uncivilized" and "savage" Queequeg who divides up his worldly wealth and gives half to his new friend whereas the Quaker agents, mates and captain Ahab hoard money. The crew cheers, including Ishmael, when Ahab nails a gold doubloon on the mast and offers it to the first man who spots the white whale Moby Dick. Evangelical Christians severely criticized Moby Dick for its depiction of religion, averring that the book favored polytheism and paganism. Like his friends Hawthorne, Emerson and Longfellow, Melville had an appreciation for other religions. He spent almost four years, 1841-44, among Polynesians in the Marquesas, Tahiti, and Hawaii. The humorous account from Chapter 10 horrified racists and religious true-believers; Ishmael ends up embracing a non-Christian in bed and swearing lifelong friendship with his new found soul mate, Queequeg.

Is Ishmael a hero? No, perhaps? But he tells the story, although at times Melville, the narrator, takes over. Ishmael is politically correct and non-judgmental. He is enlightened and racially tolerant. He survives.

Melville also got in trouble with critics for his insolence and candor. He was contemptuous of the genteel life. This criticism of the rich and powers-that-be could reflect his childhood. His father died when he was 12, leaving the family in poverty and forced to sponge off of relatives. This insolence and frankness, Melville thought, might explain Moby Dick's tepid reception by the public. Moby Dick is a subversive book.

Furthermore, Moby Dick is a multi-layered novel. First, it is grounded in the natural world. The descriptions of the sea, whales, squids, albatrosses, etc., rank among the best in the world. The sea represents tranquility or chaos, fear and disorder. When one ventures out to sea, one is literally sailing into the unknown.

A second layer is that Melville's description of the process of whaling, the technology and machinery of whaling, how a whale is caught, brought alongside, butchered, and boiled for oil are accurate. The whaleboat and whaler of the whaling industry in the 19th century is accurately rendered by Melville in Moby Dick. Melville had intimate knowledge of whaling since he first put to sea on the whaler Acushnet in 1841. In addition, he crewed on the navy frigate UUS United States upon his return in 1844. He also sailed on merchant marine ships giving him experience with three types of ship cultures.

Many have considered this book a religious novel, and allegorical, written at the height of American Romanticism. Many of the whites have names from the Bible. The Calvinist concern with pre-destination guides the men and whale in one interpretation. Religion is discussed in the novel as we heard in the reading from Chapter 10 on the blossoming friendship between Queequeg and Ishmael. The famous sermon heard by Ishmael in New Bedford before he sets sail concerns the Biblical story of Jonah and the Whale (see insert picture). The minister gets wound up in his metaphors about sailing -- he is a pilot for God -- and makes a mockery of 19th-century sermons, another reason the Christians were mad at Melville. Melville also discusses the spiritual and mystical aspects of sailors, and calls Lord Vishnu (Hinduism) the first among whales and the God of whalers. Ahab views the whale Moby Dick as "evil" and "the devil." Ahab and his crew are destroyed by chaos and violence in pursuing one goal at the expense of others. Furthermore, Ahab seeks vengeance while struggling against his fate.

This allegorical view of Moby Dick emphasizes its symbolical representations or hidden spiritual meanings. Melville wrote Sophia Hawthorne, and acknowledged that chapter 45 "The Affidavit," which recounts the stories of Sperm Whales that have destroyed boats on purpose, could be considered an allegory, but he found this "detestable." In literature, the voyage may be perceived as fulfillment of purpose, completion, self-contained, resolution; or, as the quest; escape, getting away, flight; aimless and purposeless, a cruise to nowhere, a ship of fools; the objective of voyage is not defined, will reveal self; it can be fated; or, part of a larger trip, a larger purpose; it's a movement through time, life is random; the voyage can be part of a process, not linked to another voyage; and it can be considered as extremes, we have highs and lows as we progress.

Fourth, this multilayered novel is based on an historical incident, for, in 1820, the ship Essex, captained by George Pollard of Nantucket, was sunk in the Pacific by a sperm whale. America led the world in hunting down whales so American whalers were all over the world. Moreover, the social aspect of Moby Dick is historically accurate. America is growing prosperous and materialist. Relationships are defined increasingly in monetary ways. In the second sentence of the novel, Ishmael tells us he chose to go to sea because he had "little or no money in my purse" and because he had "nothing particular to interest me on shore. . ." The socio-economic relations of the boat are laid out at the beginning of the book when Ishmael signs on: the owners and mates and captain earn the most; the crew is lucky to get 1/250 of a lay or share in the venture. There are precise relationships on the whaler based on lay ownership and skill. Queequeg, an expert harpooner, will earn more than Ishmael, who is inexperienced. The fact that the Nantucket whale men were mostly Quakers also defines the voyage, but not as much as money. Yet, this materialism is contradicted by Ahab's boat passing up pods of sperm whales in search of Moby Dick, which dooms all to make less profit on the voyage.

The hunt for whales is broken by "gams," get-togethers by the crews of ships while at sea. Information and mail are exchanged. Of course, Ahab's first question upon boarding another ship was "Hast seen the White Whale?"

A fifth layer is a tale of community forged from above by the captain. The crew has a social contract to work and survive. The men willingly follow Ahab and applaud his goal to find and kill the whale Moby Dick. Ahab's revenge and anger are internalized by this community of men, where women exist as distant wives and sweethearts. (As an aside, there is one page where Ahab and Starbuck discuss their wives and children, causing a feminist Sena Jeter Naslund to write Ahab's Wife depicting the lives of the missing womenfolk.) Whaling was learned from the Dutch by the Quakers of Nantucket, who expanded the industry around the world. Crews, captains, and agents knew each other and often were related. As whaling expanded, it transferred to New Bedford, Massachusetts, and strangers were employed as is the case of the Pequod. Still, the family tradition of whaling persisted before the Civil War, and relationships meant that there was little physical abuse, such as flogging, and executions that were found on U.S. Navy ships.

Finally, Moby Dick is a book about America after 1848 (the book was published in 1851). The name of the whaler is Pequod, an Indian tribe almost wiped out by Captain John Mason of Hartford and other colonists and their Indian allies in the Pequot War, 1634-38. The Pequod, a Mohegan group within the wider Algonquin family of fifty languages, were killed, captured, and sold into slavery in the US and Bermuda, and other survivors were dispersed. In the Caribbean they mixed with Africans and many returned to the States. Their nation was outlawed, their name not used. And the ship Pequod goes down at the end, a victim of American Manifest Destiny.

Overseeing this disaster is Ahab, who wields together a disparate group of men to hunt the white whale Moby Dick. The three mates of the Pequod are from New England -- Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask. All three harpoonists are men of color and non-Christians -- Queequeg from Polynesia, Tashtego, a Native American from Martha's Vineyard, and Daggoo, an African from the coast. There are White Americans, Polynesians, Blacks, American Indians, Indians, Malays (fire-worshipping Parsees), Dutch, Italians, Chinese, Danes, French, Chileans, Spanish, Portuguese, and African-Americans on board. There are the intelligent and the simple of mind. In short, the ship is the World. The downfall of all of them and why they perish is that they accept Ahab's quest except for Ishmael, and he survives at the end. Even the good Quaker Starbuck is finally won over by Ahab's monomaniacal goal.

If this is a cautionary tale for America it is hard to understand the cautions. Moby Dick is a masterpiece because it is an enigma. Melville is very complex and is not always sure what he is saying either. How can the Americans forge a nation in 1851? America is multiracial, multilingual, many religions. Is Melville saying that pluralism can push one into monomania? Is the white race doomed? What is the meaning of a white whale? And why doesn't it die at the end? Is the white race killing the colored and non-Christian peoples of the world? Or, does the white whale represent innocence and purity, thus ensuring that the captain and crew's fate is to perish? Does the whale represent mankind's problems that are impossible to overcome? Or, does the whale represent the idealistic goals of the new American Republic that are unobtainable? How much can American nationalism be faulted? The British captain (on the Rachel), who has a mangled arm due to Moby Dick, chooses not to continue the chase, but the Americans will. This is the American manifest destiny. Yet, the meanings of Moby Dick are universal.


Literary Evaluation: The English used by Melville in Moby Dick was never seen before. It is exceptionally inventive and expansive. Appreciation of Moby Dick has grown with time, and each generation of Americans finds new meanings. As stated earlier, contemporaries of Melville found his works best to be forgotten, and Moby Dick was subversive of Christianity. World War I and its aftermath raised concern for other cultures and led to experimentation in music and literature. In 1917, Carl Van Doren at Columbia University found value in Melville's writings. In England, D.H. Lawrence saw Moby Dick as highly original. On the eve of WW II and after it, Melville appeared on lists of great American writers of the 19th century along with Emerson and Whitman.1 Moby Dick was now read as a text reflecting the power struggles of the Cold War, and as upholding democracy, and as America seeking identity within that world.2 On October 9, 2008, the Massachusetts House named Moby Dick as Massachusetts' official "epic novel."3


1. "Melville Biography," in; "Herman Melville," (3/16/10); "Herman Melville," Encyclopedia of World Biography 10, 472-476; and "The Life and Works of Herman Melville," in

2. Nick Selby, Herman Melville's Moby Dick (NY: Columbia Univ. Press, 1999), 51-53, as quoted in Wikipedia (3/17/10)


©2010 Dr. Virginia Leonard Ewing

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Leonard Ewing, Dr. Virginia 2010. Religion & the Sea: Moby Dick, /talks/20100321.shtml (accessed July 9, 2020).

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