Early in the foggy, dark morning of February 6, 1865, Captain Thomas Leach brought the sleek and fast Confederate blockade runner Acadia, a 738 ton side wheel steamer, tight along the Texas shore. He had successfully avoided detection by the picket ships of the U.S. Naval blockade and was only hours from completing a successful maiden voyage. Acadia sprinted along the coast just outside of the breakers toward the mouth of the Brazos River at what is now Surfside Beach, just southwest of Galveston Island. She was filled with a very necessary cargo of war materials and supplies that would be delivered in just hours. But in the morning darkness, tragedy struck. In his efforts to run fast and close to shore, Leach took Acadia too close to the breakers and she stuck fast in the clay shallows just a couple of hundred yards off shore. Darkness, fog and lack of knowledge about the depth of the winter surf sent one of the largest blockade runners of its class to its fate. At the time of her grounding, she was not in danger of discovery while cloaked in darkness so close to safe harbor; the captain’s error was taking too much risk without sufficient knowledge of the water’s depth.
As the fog lifted and the sun rose, the USS Virginia caught sight of the stricken Acadia. Lt. Charles H. Brown, in charge of Virginia, moved in close, and bombarded her for two hours. While land-based gunfire drove the Virginia away, and most of Acadia’s cargo was removed to shore by rowboat and hard labor, the ship was utterly destroyed. To this day she rests in the sandy shallows off Surfside Beach. Indeed, her boiler stacks were visible for another hundred and twenty years in the breakers, known by surfers and fishermen as “the stacks”. It was hurricane Carla in 1961 that reduced the wreckage to only a single smoke stack above the water, and hurricane Alicia took the remaining stack to the depths in 1983. I remember seeing this wreck as a child and thinking how foolish it must have been to bring a 211 foot long steamer in so close.
The entire drama could have been avoided. Had Captain Leach known more accurately what was beneath the surface, he could have saved the ship. Had he more knowledge, or insisted upon gaining such knowledge, perhaps we would not know much about the wreck of Acadia. Perhaps she would have served out the war and disappeared into the anonymity of revenue service when hostilities ceased. Instead, she is a tragic curiosity and a dire warning. Such a story has been used by teachers to press the idea of diligence and care for centuries. With regard to scripture and a life of faith, the illustration is ripe with very accurate analogies.
There is an easy way to make a shipwreck of one’s faith. Not that we intend to. No one sets out to torpedo their faith. But grounding to a halt in our mission to be sanctified in the truth is an easy enough thing to do, merely by neglect and lack of diligence. The same lack of diligence that has grounded many a ship.
Consider 2 Timothy 2:15. Paul tells Timothy to “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (KJV) In Paul’s exhortation, there are two words used here that are not popular among many of my generation and those since: “Study” and “workman”. In order to demonstrate a vibrant faith, we must work to study the Word of God. Other translations speak of doing our best, being diligent, and laboring. The fact is, Christians must work hard to gain the most from the Bible’s teachings. We cannot settle for a simple and shallow grasp of the Bible. The author of Hebrews had strong words for those who were not diligent to pursue maturity in the Word:
Hebrews 5:12-14 “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”
Among the Hebrews were some who were chastised for being “unskilled in the word of righteousness.” They were not mature, but needed to be taught the basics of the faith all over again. If these brothers and sisters were not under someone’s shepherdly oversight who actually cared enough to call them to task, they would possibly continue as weaklings in the faith, possessing a shallow and infantile understanding of God’s Word, and remaining relatively useless to the Lord they profess to serve. They may even find themselves in grave danger, close to shipwrecking their faith.
If we are to grow in faith and become powerful agents of the King of Kings, we need to be matured, or sanctified. Sanctification simply means being set apart, or being made more holy. The idea is that we are to be growing in the strength of the Lord’s righteousness. Jesus tells us that the disciples in John 17:17 are to be sanctified “in the truth”, and that “thy Word is truth.” By extension that desire is for all of Christ’s people. We read in 1 Thessalonians 4:3 “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified.” The concept is that once saved, we should be increasing in righteousness, growing in faith, maturing toward strength. And our strength comes through the revelation of God Himself as found in the Bible. It is the Word of God alone that has the needed nourishment to strengthen us into the mature believers that Jesus Christ desires for us to be. But that means work. Neglect of this devotion to the faith is warned about, Paul even uses the shipwreck analogy in 1 Timothy 1:19 when he speaks of those who “have made shipwreck of their faith…”
When working to get deeply into a complex idea, pastors sometimes say “Let’s plumb the depths of this passage” or “let’s get to the bottom of this gospel account.” Both of these figures of speech imply work. They mean that we are going to go beyond the surface. We are going to search diligently for the truth of the passage in its greater sense. A diligent Christian who is given to work will not be satisfied with understanding just the obvious. He certainly will not be satisfied by reading and passing over those things he doesn’t understand. Plumbing the depths of a passage, or getting to the bottom of a verse, means working to understand what is beneath the surface. It means inquiry, diligence and care.
In the days of sail and steam, mariners could not afford to operate with only a surface-level understanding of the sea. They could not afford to travel by sight, only seeing what the waves and currents on top of the water communicated to them. They needed to know about that which was not immediately evident or plainly visible. Mariners need the ability to peer beneath the surface of the water. Blindly sailing toward a promising island or fertile shore might be the dream of an explorer, but the closer to the shore the ship gets, the more dangerous the hidden depths become. Reefs, shoals, sand bars, cuts, snags, rocks, shipwrecks and any number of dangers lurk just beneath the surface ready to rip open the hull of an unsuspecting mariner, as Captain Leach discovered. Many a ship has grounded and crashed upon the unseen things because of ignorance and lack of diligent inquiry. Dangers are present where we do not easily see them. In Jude 1:12, Jude warns of such dangers that are present even in our midst when describing false teachers as reefs. These hidden dangers lurk just beneath the veil of the surface, ready to make a wreck of the church. In personal faith, in our public faith, we must plumb the depths of God’s Word so that we will have clear vision beneath the obvious surface.
How did the pre-sonar mariner accomplish this? He used a heavy weight which was fastened to the end of a line. This plumb was made of lead. Along the line were tied knots at standard fathom measures, and the sounding officer, leadsman, or a skilled ship’s mate would drop the line into the depths and call out the reading to the captain or navigator based upon how many knots went down into the murky deep before the weight hit bottom. This technique was called “sounding” and could become quite complicated if a ship was at speed. The skilled leadsman knew how to calculate and compensate for the ship’s speed. He could figure the rope curve imparted by drag and compute angles on the fly to figure an accurate depth. He could call out readings quickly while the ship’s captain needed sub-surface “eyes”. This was vital information that came with much labor and study. The fruits of this labor and study told the captain what was under the surface. It was hard work, often many sounding lines were deployed at once, especially when probing a pass or seeking entry into an unfamiliar harbor. It was difficult work, laborious on mind and body. But it was life-saving work.
I have seen the shallow and dangerous passes along this Texas coast where pirates and smugglers navigated their great ships by feel through the narrow cuts. I’ve seen the narrow channels that lead from the Gulf to the bays change and move like serpentine bands with every storm. While on the surface our local waters can appear broad and deep, there is only a narrow, shifting channel that leads mariners to safe harbor, and even today these passes must be carefully navigated by hard work and diligent skill of local pilots. Even with GPS, aerial photos, sonar, radar and all sorts of navigational wizardry, my son and I have seen boats grounded on a bar in the same passes where 600 ton blockade runners used to slip through silently at night, simply because of ignorance. Every time I hear of a grounded ship or a boat stuck on a bar, I am reminded of the need for deeper knowledge, greater skill, and mature understanding. All of these come by diligent study.
May we Christians never be satisfied with just reading the Word of God without plumbing the depths beneath the surface. So much can be gleaned from the context of a verse, its connections to other verses, its historical setting, the nuances of the original languages, and the multifaceted ways it applies to us. So rich is the Word that it never ceases to be relevant – this year one verse may be your anchor and rock, while next year a verse that is now rather vague will become a rich treasure with careful work and study. If you have difficulty understanding a passage, read it again. Don’t wander off like a dumb animal, content to be ignorant. This is God’s Word, His very revelation, it is worthy of effort! Dig deeply and ask your elders, your wise friends, consult teachers who have gone before, but don’t be happy with ignorance. A simple understanding of some basic principles may be sufficient for the simple to come to Christ. But the simple are to be strengthened in faith through study and diligent inquiry of what lies under the surface. We are to grow in sanctification, we are to mature in the faith, and these come by diligent attention and devotion to the Word of God. Do not be satisfied with knowing just what appears upon the surface. It could save you from wrecking on the unseen dangers that lurk all around us.
The story of blockade runners off of the Texas coast is fascinating. You can read more of these stealthy ships here.
One of the “photographs” in the two images accompanying this article is actually a print I made from Andy Hall’s beautiful recreation of the ship Will o’the Wisp, another blockade runner that wrecked near Galveston. Hurricane Ike in 2008 may have exposed her wreckage, read about it here. Mr. Hall runs the excellent blog referenced above.