Views from the Pews: Canon Edwin Newlyn

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This time of the year sees celebrations of the lives of two great British Naval officers.

Wednesday was Trafalgar Day when we remembered the life and achievements of Vice-Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson and, in particular, his death at the Battle of Trafalgar.

The second brings us nearer home as we celebrate the birth of Captain James Cook, arguably our greatest navigator, surveyor and cartographer, on October 27, 1728.

Cook’s life and exploits are commemorated here in Whitby at the Captain Cook Memorial Museum.

A question which is sometimes asked is: Was Captain Cook Religious?

It is prompted because of his close association with the Quakers through his master, Walker. In fact, there is little to indicate that Cook was a close adherent of any religion.

We know that he was baptised in the Parish Church of Marton, where he was born.

During his time in Whitby it is likely that he attended the Parish Church of St Mary, as this was normally required of apprentices.

He must also have been confirmed at some stage as it was a requirement of holding the King’s Commision in Army or Navy.

Furthermore, King’s Regulations required then, as now, that Divine Service be held on board His Majesty’s Ships every Sunday while at sea, such worship being conducted by, or on the command of the Captain of the vessel.

Cook’s logs and journals are amazingly silent on this matter, the only real reference being to the occasion when he required the ship’s surgeon to read the service on his behalf. It would seem safe to assume that Cook sat lightly to organised religion – and that section of King’s Regulations!

So what about the Quaker influence? There is no hint that Cook ever aligned himself formally with the Quakers, but it is not difficult to see the Quaker influence on Cook’s character. He was known as a good officer with concern for the men under his command.

Although his rank required him to mete out punishment to any of his sailors who transgressed, it was recognised that he was more sparing of the cat’o’nine tails than many of his contemporaries.

He was also at pains to make sure that his men were as healthy as possible, introducing various hygiene practices, as well as making sure that their rations were as fresh as possible and included plenty of Vitamin C to ward off scurvy.

In his dealings with the many different indigenous peoples he came across during his exploration he was much gentler and fair-handed than many of his contemporaries and successors.

Seafarers are notoriously superstitious, and maybe Cook was no exception. Certainly he was against the presence of clergy on ships. This may have been due to the Quaker influence, which did not accept any form of ordained ministry, but more likely to the sailors’ stuperstitions against clergy, based on the biblical story of Jonah.

Cook was a man of his time, the Age of Enlightenment, wanting to expand humankind’s knowledge and understanding of the world. Consciously or not, some element of the Divine would have played a part in that.

So is that so different from what we experience today? We have an “Established Church”, the same as that which existed in Cook’s time. We have a number of “non-conformist” churches.

But all contribute to humankind’s understanding of the world in which we live and, more importantly, to our understanding of the “Divine Providence” which created us and the world.

Many people today, like Cook, sit lightly to the influence of “God” in their lives, but like our modern seafarer, most would subscribe to the view that when things get really tough, then we turn to God.

And God is there for us whenever we turn to Him. This is part of the love which is God. No matter how much we ignore Him, He will never turn away from us.