LESSONS FROM THE TITANIC

JANUARY 11, 1998
R.M. FEWKES

This is the third time in my nearly 30 year ministry in Norwell that I have preached on the sinking of the great ship Titanic--once in 1976, again in 1985 shortly after Robert Ballard from the Woods Hole Institute in Falmouth found the lost ship two and a half miles down on the bottom of the ocean in the North Atlantic, and now a third and presumably final effort in January 1998. Since 1985 quite a bit has happened in reference to the Titanic especially in the past few years. Others have followed Robert Ballard's exploration of the Titanic site, have retrieved artifacts and items from the wreck (much to Ballard's displeasure) and have established a Titanic museum in Florida. I do not happen to share Ballard's view that the site should remain as it is as a memorial to those who died that fateful night in April 1912. The bodies of the dead have long since disintegrated and any fitting living memorial would be better established above ground where succeeding generations can truly appreciate the profundity of that tragic event and the lessons we can learn from it.

A number of very informative documentaries have been produced in recent years, the Discovery Channel had an excellent one, and the Omni-Max theatre did a moving account not only of the Titanic resting site, but also of the history of the ship construction and an extended interview with one of the survivors, Eva Hart of Great Britian, who was seven years old at the time and had a clear memory of the whole event. Eva Hart died fairly recently so it was good that they were able to record the interview while she was still living and her mind intact. She was in her late 80s at the time of the interview.

One of the things that Eva Hart insists on was that the final piece played by the musical ensemble on board the Titanic shortly before she sank beneath the waves was indeed "Nearer My God To Thee" and not the hymn tune "Autumn" as reported by others. Eva Hart remembers attending a church service in England when she had returned home. The congregation sang "Nearer My God To Thee" which immediately evoked her memory of the event and brought it all back with intense recollection. Two other factors would support her recollection. One is that the hymn tune "Autumn" was not listed in the White Star Line's musicians songbook for 1912 (while Nearer My God to Thee was), and secondly, the Sarah Flower Adams hymn was a favorite of band leader Wallace Hartley who is quoted as once having said that if he were ever aboard a sinking ship the last piece he would play would either be "O God Our Help In Ages Past" or "Nearer My God to Thee." Other survivors also confirm Eva Hart's clear recollection. One thing we do know is that on the night of the tragedy, before the Titanic struck the iceberg, the passengers in the 2nd Class dining room concluded an evening of hymn singing with "Eternal Father Strong to Save...For Those in Peril on the Sea", a fortuitous coincidence if there ever was one.

In addition to the recent documentaries about the Titanic a number of fictional productions have been made. Last year there was a two part major television movie starring George C. Scott as Captain E.J. Smith. And currently there is a musical version of "Titanic" playing on Broadway which I have yet to see, but hope it will come to these parts someday or perhaps be made into a movie. It has had some good reviews.

And now, of course, we have the latest blockbuster Hollywood film production from the hand of director James Cameron. Cameron, who also wrote the script, weaves a love-story around the account of the disaster. The heroine, Rose, played by Kate Winslet, the daughter of a wealthy first class family, falls in love with artist, Jack Dawson, a 3rd Class passenger, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. She feels trapped by the prospect of a loveless marriage to a stuffed-shirt upper class snob and gives her heart to this free spirit young Irish artist who has neither money nor vaunted ambition, but has an infectious love of life. He teaches her how to dance and to spit into the wind. When she spits into the face of her socially arrogant fiance, the audience, at least at the film that I attended, clapped and cheered. The movie tapped into the resentment and envy that many people still feel towards the rich and the privileged.

Speaking of the rich and privileged a first class luxury suite on the Titanic in 1912 cost $4,350 which in today's money would run about $50,000. The "Last Dinner on the Titanic" (First Class of course) was a sumptuous 11 course meal which you can now purchase in a book of the same title for only $24.95. While we're comparing prices it took $200 million to make the film (the most expensive in history) in comparison to the $7 million ($122 million in today's dollars) which it cost to build the ship in the first place. It has also been noted that it took 2 hours 40 minutes for the ship to sink and 3 hours 24 minutes for the movie to run its course. As disaster movies go this is definitely one of the best I have ever seen. There's just enough story and romance to hold your interest along with the special effects which on the big screen really take you in. You can practically feel the icy black water slowly rising into the Titanic and washing over the decks and then you descend with the hero and heroine into the deep in the very last moments of the ship's demise.

Rumor has it, by the way, that the Titanic was conceived and designed by a Unitarian. I don't think there is any proof to support that rumor, but if Sarah Flower Adams'(who was a Unitarian) hymn was the last piece played on the deck of the Titanic then we can say that the great ship was at least blessed and laid to rest by a Unitarian.

There was something of that 19th century Unitarian optimism about "the progress of mankind onward and upward forever" in the building of the Titanic. The designers of this plush and stately ship really believed that it was unsinkable. It was built so that the ship could endure damage up to four of its watertight compartments without threatening the integrity of the ship. One story has it that First Class passenger, Mrs. Albert Caldwell, asked one of the deckhands whether the Titanic was truly unsinkable. He said to her, "Yes, Lady, God himself could not sink this ship." And Captain E.J. Smith is known to have declared, "I cannot imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel. Modern ship building has gone beyond that." When asked to describe his experience of nearly 40 years at sea, Captain Smith replied, "Uneventful."

What Captain Smith could not imagine was that the Titanic might strike an iceberg (though he had been warned by near-by ships of the approaching danger), an iceberg that would inflict damage to five of its watertight compartments--one too many to remain afloat. And what he did not know was that the steel in the ship by modern standards was weak, it had too much sulfur in it, which made it brittle, so that when it collided with the iceberg, the steel not only popped open at the seams, but cracked like an eggshell. We now know that the size of the tear caused by the iceberg was not a gaping 300 foot gash, but only 12 square feet dispersed here and there along the starboard side, mere pinpricks relatively speaking, but enough to sink the ship in a period of two and a half hours. Near the end of the terrible ordeal Captain Smith released his crew and told them, "Every man for himself." His last words to them were, "Be British." One apocryphal story says that Captain Smith rescued an infant baby from the icy waters, swam up to one of the floating lifeboats, gave them the child, and then disappeared in the darkness. More than likely he went down with his ship. His uneventful life at sea came to a tragic and eventful end indeed.

Walter Lord, author of "A Night To Remember", reflects, "Notwithstanding her immense proportions and luxurious appointments--her restaurants, her millionaire suites, her electric lifts, her Turkish Baths, her squash court, her trellised verandahs, and the rest--the Titanic was still a ship" and no ship was unsinkable. W. Stead, one of the wealthy passengers who perished, referred to the Titanic as "a floating Babylon", but he forgot that the Bible also speaks of the fall of Babylon. How great was that fall. Preaching in a sermon after the tragic event, the Bishop of Winchester, declared, "The Titanic, name and thing will stand for a monument and warning to human presumption." And so the Titanic is both event and symbol of the human condition, of our precarious life together on this fragile floating ship in the sea of space.

We've all heard the touching stories of courage on the part of some of those who went down with the ship. Women and children were presumably given first priority in terms of the few lifeboats that they had. Mrs. Isidor Straus, wife of the co-owner of Macy's, refused to be separated from her husband. "I've always stayed with my husband," she said, "so why should I leave him now?" Benjamin Guggenheim changed into evening clothes for the occasion, as did his vale. "We've dressed in our best," he said, "and are prepared to go down like gentlemen." One of the victims was 27 year old Harry Elkins Widener, son of Eleanor Widener who survived. Later she gave $3.5 million to Harvard to erect a library in his memory. The story goes that the young Widener so valued a 1598 edition of Bacon's ESSAYS which he had brought with him on the ship that on the verge of stepping into one of the lifeboats, he changed his mind and raced back to his cabin to retrieve it--a heroic scholar to the very end.

Then there are the stories of those who nearly booked passage on the Titanic and luckily did not do so. Like Sophia Lyon Fahs who transformed Unitarian Universalist religious education in the 1940s through the early 1960s. She was only a child at the time and was traveling in Europe with her parents. Her father had written home that he had booked passage on the Titanic, but then found the 2nd Class tickets to be too expensive, so he changed over to the Rotterdam. As it turned out the Rotterdam was delayed four days 100 miles out at sea because of fog. His relatives finally wired the YMCA office in New York and learned of their safe passage on the Rotterdam. What a loss to the UU movement if Sophia had gone down on the Titanic.

We all know that there were not enough life boats to save all the passengers on board, nowhere near enough. But to make matters worse they did not utilize the available space that they had. There was space in the lifeboats for 53% of all on board. Only 32% were actually taken. Many of the lifeboats left only half full. Of the more than 2,000 passengers on the Titanic only a little over 700 survived.

Then there was the unfair and inequitable use of class distinctions in determining who was allowed into the lifeboats. Whether deliberate or not there were twice as many first class men allowed into the boats as third class children. Of 29 first and second class children all were saved but one. Of 76 third class children only 23 were saved. The casualty list is also very revealing along class lines. There were only 4 deaths out of 143 first class women and 3 of those were by choice, they chose to remain with their husbands. Fifteen of 93 second class women lost their lives compared to 81 of 179 third class women. Even after the tragedy, during the investigation, only 3 of the 3rd class survivors were questioned about what happened compared to hundreds of 1st and 2nd class survivors. If you had to go third class you were less than fully human when it came to deciding which lives were more worthy to be saved. To the extent that such attitudes still prevail among us in today's world we need to learn a lesson from the sinking of the Titanic. We only have one floating planet to share and we will all sink or survive together or not at all. The privatized first class cabins at the top are only as safe as the steerage cabins on the lower decks.

Following the Titanic disaster the preachers of the day had a field day pronouncing divine judgment upon human pride, arrogance and faith in material power and prestige. The idea that calamities, even natural catastrophes, are a divine judgment against the wages of sin is a very ancient notion, one highlighted and ultimately refuted in the Book of Job in the Old Testament. The idea was still prevalent in Jesus' day. Jesus, however, refuted this notion. He clearly recognized that natural and even human calamities are no respecter of persons. Innocent people, sinners though they may be, are struck down by human malfeasance and by accidents of humanity or nature. The rain falls on the just and the unjust irrespective of merit, and likewise falling towers, or earthquakes and tornadoes. Jesus recognized, as did Matthew Arnold, that "Streams will not curb their pride/ The just man not to entomb,/ Nor lightnings go aside/ To give his virtues room."

Jesus did perceive, however, that there was also a moral and spiritual order in human events, that how we treat others individually and collectively is in truth an expression of how we treat ourselves, and is a reflection of our relationship to the divine in both nature and history. What we do to other people, what we do to nature, we ultimately do to ourselves. The results of our actions individually and collectively is a working out of the moral law in human history. To be able to interpret the long term moral affects of our turbulent times is a kind of spiritual weather forecasting. We may be clever at predicting the physical weather around us, but how good are we at anticipating the results of our selfish attitudes and actions as people and nations?

Remembering the sinking of the Titanic can become a parable for us of the moral and spiritual order impinging on the natural order in such a way as to present us with the choice of the survival or demise of the human race on planet earth. What we are presented with is not "life-boat" ethics with the privileged few in the life boats and the masses going down with the ship and drowning in the ocean. What we have are Titanic ethics with first, second and third class passengers all together on the same ship, the ship of earth, and the ship has sprung a leak in the third class deck down below. There are those on the first class level who delude themselves that what happens on the third class deck is no concern of theirs. But there are others who realize that the survival of all depends upon everyone working together to patch up the leaks, to mend quarrels, and to save the ship of state. And there is really only one ship of state, our one and only global village. And to save it we must learn to share our resources, conserve our environment, limit our consumption, curb our selfishness, and learn the art of tolerance and mutual respect.

May we remember the Titanic and learn our lessons well.