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Saturday, 12 January 2013


Woody Allen has a stand-up routine about a bullet in his protagonist’s pocket saving his life by deflecting a Bible falling from an upper storey. It’s a reversal of the apocryphal story in which a Bible in a soldier’s breast pocket stops a bullet from entering his heart. For sailor William Henry Angas it was a torn pocket edition of Dr Watt’s Hymns (the 1707 classic Baptist collection) which turned his life around.

Isaac Watts (1674-1748)
hymn writer

I described Angas’s testing early experiences as a merchant seaman in my last post here. He was freed from a French prisoner of war camp at Dunkerque in around 1802, where he had bought the hymnal from one of his captors. Still under twenty-one, his experiences and the completion of his navigator apprenticeship earned him the command of the Venerable, one of his father Caleb Angas’s fleet of sailing ships.

Caleb appointed his ships’ masters as much for their missionary zeal as for their nautical abilities, so perhaps he recognised William’s potential even before William himself did. For several years William sailed to Central America and the West Indies in his father’s service, during which there seems to have been no respite from the trials of life at sea – his 1895 biographer Richard Welford reports that on his second voyage the crew mutinied.

His third trip was if anything worse: on 6th June 1803, during the outward run, his brother Caleb junior drowned, and on the way back the ship ran aground and was lost along with its cargo (both, Welford notes, uninsured). William began to suffer from regular bouts of yellow fever, which eventually forced him to take a shore job as a ship’s husband – the land-based agent responsible for managing a ship’s crew, repairs, provisions and paperwork.

Dr John Rippon (1751-1836)
pastor to Sailorstown

All the while William Henry Angas’s faith was deepening. He was baptised at the end of 1807 by the great Dr Rippon, one of the giants of the early nineteenth century Baptist movement. Rippon, who in 1787 had published a very successful supplement to Watt’s Hymns known as Rippon’s Selection, was pastor for 63 years of the Carter Lane Chapel in a rough area of south London known informally as Sailorstown.

Carter Lane played a key role in nineteenth century Baptist history. Baptist churches are traditionally quite independent of each other, preferring that each congregation be guided not by any centralised doctrine but directly by God. It was at Rippon’s church that the idea of the Baptist Union, an administrative collaboration of Baptist churches, finally got off the ground in 1812; and on his death in 1836 Rippon was succeeded by a young cousin of William’s, my 3x great uncle Joseph Angus. Joseph was himself succeeded as pastor there by C.H. Spurgeon, the great charismatic Baptist preacher of the late nineteenth century – there must have been something about that congregation!

Rev Joseph Angus (1816-1902) and Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892)
 pastors at New Park (the expanding Carter Lane congregation relocated to New Park in 1833)

Freed from the very physical hardships and duties of actually guiding a ship over the ocean, William began to focus on the spiritual vacuum faced by sailors ashore. The need for a mission to seamen became clear to him, and he set about preparing himself for that mission with single-minded determination. In 1816 he studied theology at Edinburgh University in Scotland (as in later years did his cousin Joseph – because nonconformists were not allowed to receive degrees by the only two English Universities, Oxford and Cambridge). He then spent three years in Europe learning Dutch, German and French, while building up a network of friends amongst the protestant churches of those countries. Finally in 1821-22 he attended Stepney Baptist College back in London, where he was still a member of the Carter Lane congregation. (Joseph Angus also trained for the ministry at Stepney, and at the age of 33 began 44 years of service as its principal.)

On 11th May 1822, William Henry Angas, the first ever Baptist minister to train specifically for mission work amongst men of the sea, made his public debut,  appropriately on board a floating chapel at Bristol. This was one of several set up in ports around the country by the other great pioneer of Christian mission to seafarers, Rev George Charles Smith, better known as Bo’sun Smith. It was to Smith’s British and Foreign Seaman’s Friend Society that Angas now devoted his missionary service.

Rev George Charles “Bo’sun” Smith (1782-1863)
in a mezzotint by Abraham Wivell, c1819 – the year he launched his first floating chapel at Rotherhithe

As a former sailor himself, William saw seamen not only as souls worth saving but as global evangelists who could carry Christianity across the seas to the furthest and least godly parts of the world. He spent the rest of 1822 energetically travelling up and down the east coast of England setting up Seaman’s Missions. For the rest of his life he travelled widely throughout Europe and the West Indies, often combining missions for the British and Foreign Seaman’s Friend Society and the Baptist Missionary Society (of which Joseph Angus later became Secretary).

William Angas’s legacy today is the work of the Sailors Society, the successor to the BFSFS. And William has justified his love of the sea, first confirmed on trading trips to the Baltic on his father’s ships. On one European tour of Mennonite congregations in the 1820s he travelled as far inland as landlocked Switzerland. But, he wrote, “I long to be on the sea-coast again, within the smell of pitch and tar. That’s my nosegay!”

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