Christening Bible of the US Steamer Rhode Island


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A couple of months ago, the Museum decided it was time to begin exploring a program that would allow supporters to “adopt” items in the collections for restoration.  While the details of this program are still in the works (museums often move slowly and deliberately on such things, and rightfully so), a call went out to staff to find objects to put up for “adoption”. 

Naturally, I was interested in proposing some USS Monitor-related materials for this program, since I am the NOAA Project Archivist at the Library.  So I went casting about for ideas.  Thankfully, much of the Monitor-related material in the Library is in  good shape, not in need of extensive restoration.  But that didn’t help me in my search for items to submit for the program. 

Then, I saw it in Rare Books.  A small New Testament with the addition of the Psalms in rather bad condition, with the words “U.S. Steamer Rhode Island 1861” embossed in gold leaf on the cover.  Inside the front cover are the words “Sick Bay, US Steamer Rhode Island.”  It was exactly the right item to propose for rescue! Here is what I wrote in for my submission:

“On December 31, 1862, the US Steamer Monitor sank beneath the waves with at least 2 of her crewmen still on board.  Many men had already been washed from her deck that terrible night and lost their lives.  The lives of the remaining crew of the little ironclad were saved by heroic actions of the men of the steamer Rhode Island, which had had Monitor in tow.  Some of Monitor’s crew, including the surgeon Grenville Weeks, suffered injury and probably ended up in Rhode Island’s sick bay.  That is where they would have found this New Testament, the christening Bible of the US Steamer Rhode Island, presented to the ship by the New York Bible Society in 1861.  It is an ordinary testament with the Psalms included, but it was in all likelihood present at that extraordinary moment when the Monitor went down.”


Front cover of the Rhode Island Bible
Cover of the Rhode Island Bible
Inside cover of the Rhode Island Bible


The Museum acquired this volume from a generous donor in 2006.  To date, I have found no research on ship launches stating that Bibles were routinely presented to ships at christening.  If anyone knows more about this practice, we would be happy to know about it.

7 thoughts on “Christening Bible of the US Steamer Rhode Island”

  1. Your blog entry on the Rhode Island bible is quite interesting. As I’m sure that you know, some ceremonies associated with “bringing a ship to life” have a religious character. The christening ceremony is very much based on traditional Christian baptisms. Attached is a paper on the major shipbuilding ceremonies that describes the religious connection to the christening ceremony.

    Nearly all the keel-laying, launching/christening, delivery, and commissioning ceremonies that I’ve attended have been opened with a prayer by either the ships’ chaplain or other religious figure, and most were also closed with another prayer. Even though the baptismal connection to the actual christening is pretty obvious, I don’t recall anyone specifically mentioning it. And I only recall bibles being distributed at one christening.

    That event was years ago, at the now-closed Brooklyn Navy Yard. The Seamen’s Church Institute of New York presented bibles to the “participants” (not all the “attendees”). When I graduated from the SUNY Maritime College (up the East River from the Navy Yard, on Throggs Neck in the Bronx), the Institute presented bibles to each graduate (I still have mine!). The bible has a gold embossed crest of the college on the cover and a paper bookplate inside that says that it came from the Seamen’s Institute. They also presented them to the graduates of the US Merchant Marine Academy across the river at King’s Point, so it is (or at least, it was) a wide-spread practice.

    So it may be relevant that Rhode Island was “born” in New York. She was actually built there as John P. King by Lupton & McDermut in 1860, but was almost destroyed by fire and was rebuilt and named Eagle in 1861, and was then purchased by the Navy in June of that year and commissioned at the Brooklyn Navy Yard as Rhode Island. The Seamen’s Church Institute dates back to the mid-19th century, so it’s possible that their practice of distributing bibles was in place when Rhode Island was commissioned. You might consider contacting them and see if they can help you.

  2. Jay,

    I am the “generous donor” of this bible. Prior to donating it to the museum I did some research. The New York Bible Society had a mission whose intent was to ensure that every new vessel recieved a large print bible with the name of the vessel carefully lettered on the cover. I discovered the exact provenance for this bible quite recently and provide it here:

    The new York Bible Society Reports for 1861 and 1863 indicate that new vessels leaving the port and the Brooklyn Navy yard were presented with “large print Bibles, carefully lettered with the name of the vessel on the cover, as a permanent outfit for the cabins” (from the 41st Report of the New York Bible Society for 1865 and the 33rd Annual Report of the American Seaman’s Fried Society. The reporting period was from May of one year to the next, therefore this report from May of 1862 mentions that 62 New Vessels were presented with a bible with the vessel’s name lettered on the cover. This bible is one of those presented in this case it would have been about July 29th 1861 when the USS Rhode Island was commissioned.

    This from another report indicating that the goal was to equip all Warships with the

    ” Our endeavor has been to see that no government vessel leaves this Station without a large-print Bible suitable for the deficient light of ” between decks,” being furnished for her cabin, her ward-room, and for each mess of the crew.

    If you wish i can email you a PDF copy of the actual report from may of 1862

    Best Regards,

    Robert Milburn,
    LTC United States Army, Retd.

  3. Jay,

    Glad that you picked this item out. You have a good eye.

    Prior to donating this bible I researched it a bit.

    The American Bible Society and its auxiliaries have been presenting christening Bibles to “New Vessels” since the 1830s as near as I have been able to establish with cursory research.

    This Bible was presented to the USS Rhode Island in 1861 (indicated by the gold embossed date on the cover) upon its commissioning I quote from the Annual report of the NYBS (1864):

    The work still continues to be under the supervision of our Marine Agent, Mr. Pierson. At the Brooklyn Navy Yard (the naval depot for the port of New York, and the main seat of our operations), we are represented by Rev. E. O. Bates, missionary of the American Seamen’s Friend Society, who, by a happy arrangement has now charge of our distributions there.
    Our endeavor has been to see that no government vessel leaves this Station without a large-print Bible suitable for the deficient light of “between decks,” being furnished for her cabin, her ward-room, and for each mess of the crew.

    And a more direct provenance for the bible , this from the 41st Annual report of the NYBS:
    Our other distributions may be briefly enumerated as follows:

    75 new vessels, including forty-two river and ocean steamers, have received large print Bibles, carefully lettered with the name of the vessel on the cover, as a permanent outfit for the cabins.”

    More background from the report:

    The Marine Committee of the New York Bible Society. John S. Pierson, Esq., Agent
    Extracts from the Forty-first Annual Report (1863).
    The distributions for the year amount to 2,457 Bibles, and 24,821 Testaments, or 27,278 volumes, costing $5,532.20; being 4,033 volumes in advance of the distributions of the previous year.
    Of this number 4,979 volumes were sold at the office of the Marine Agent, Mr. Pierson, No. 7 Beekman Street, to persons not seamen; and $2,671.38 of the total receipts, which were $2,812.73, came in this manner. Deducting also some 10,000 Testaments which, though placed in the hands of captains of our packet ships, were for the benefit of emigrants, we have 12,299 volumes as the actual amount of the distribution among seamen and shipping for the year.”
    I can send along a PDF copy of the actual report (American Seamen’s Friend Society, May 1862) which would cover the period of commissioning of the USS Rhode Island (I could not find copy of the NYBS report for 1862 but the American Seamen’s Friend Society includes an extract of the report from the Port of New York & Brooklyn Naval Yard).

    I hope this helps. This Bible could have been used to read for the fallen lost in the events associated with the storm and the sinking. You may note the roughly torn out flyleaf page tucked into the Bible with annotations of scripture verses upon it scribbled in haste… does not do that with a Bible except in extremis….men died from the Monitor and the Rhode Island, and there was a Sunday before returning to port.

    This book has great significance to the story of the Monitor and it should be on display not in the archives.


    Robert Milburn, LTC, US Army Retd.

  4. Dear Col. Milburn,

    Thank you so very much for your commentary and the excellent information you are sharing with us about this remarkable Bible! My heartfelt thanks to you for donating it to us. I think that the curators were very aware of the condition of the Bible and may have chosen to not display it in its current fragile condition. That is only speculation on my part, however. Rest assured that we in the Library consider it highly desirable for display and hope that the funds will come forward to properly conserve it.

    Please do indeed send along the pdf copy you mentioned, or any other information pertinent to the Bible you may have. It will go into your permanent donor file as a resource to Library staff and curators. Trust me, the information about items we receive from donors is gold to us!

  5. Jay,

    I just sent along a copy of the original report as requested to your Libary/archives email address with a request to pass to you.

    V/R Bob Milburn

  6. Gentlemen,

    I discovered this exchange while researching the veracity a 1959 Calif newspaper article about a privately-owned Bible distributed by the New York Bible Society in its “founding year” 1851.

    According to the article there is gold stamping on the Bible’s front cover: “Ship Challenge — presented by the NY Bible Society”. Inside it is incribed: “Forecastle: for the use of all hands and committed to their care. New York, June 17, 1851.” There was also an admonition: “Search the Scriptures John 5:39”.

    Note: the clipper ship Challenge was launched weeks earlier on May 24, 1851 from William Webb’s shipyard into the East River in NYC–suggesting that the Bible donation is unrelated to the ship’s christening.

    The 1895 “Harper’s Book of Facts: A Classified History of the World” indicates on p.100 under Bible Societies that the NY Bible Society was founded in Nov 1809 (not 1851 as the news article stated).

    Thought you might be interested.

    (Ms) Leslie Batson, Archivist

  7. Just a quick follow up. The Bible went on display as soon as it arrived here at the Museum. It was displayed in one of the display cases in the hallway. It has also been cataloged (and added to WorldCat). As it is in our rare books collection, anyone who visits the Library may view the Bible.