A hymn seldom sung in our corner of the Church is “Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me.” Written by Edward Hopper in the nineteenth century, it reflects in part the fears of those using the dominant mode of transportation of the era:
Jesus, Savior, pilot me
Over life’s tempestuous sea;
Unknown waves before me roll,
Hiding rock and treach’rous shoal.
Chart and compass came from thee:
Jesus, Savior, pilot me.
When at last I near the shore,
And the fearful breakers roar
‘Twixt me and the peaceful rest,
Then, while leaning on thy breast,
May I hear thee say to me,
“Fear not; I will pilot thee.”1
In this age of travel by automobile and airplane, does the average passenger understand what a pilot is and does? Probably not, because while the vast majority of the world’s international commerce is still carried by sea, this operation is far removed from both the sellers and the buyers of the goods that are shipped. But as long as there are merchant ships plying the oceans, there will be pilots to bring them in and out of port.
Let us observe a pilot bringing the Queen Elizabeth into port:
The pilot, Captain Robert Ahrens of the Sandy Hook Pilots Association, boarded the Elizabeth at about 7 a.m. while the ship was still at sea. He had arrived by motor launch from the Association’s pilot boat and had come aboard by climbing up a rope ladder to one of the shell doors. Now he stood at a center window in the wheelhouse where he had a broad view of the waters ahead and of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in the distance. He was providing the compass headings which allowed Chief Quartermaster Bell to steer the safest course up the Ambrose Channel, through the Narrows into New York’s Upper Bay, and finally into the Hudson River on the west side of Manhattan Island.
“Steer three-four-six,” said the harbor pilot, and the number was repeated by the Chief Quartermaster, who simultaneously turned the large ship slightly to starboard. The pilot’s directions laid down the true compass heading the liner was to follow until another figure was called out. In a few minutes he ordered, “Steer zero-zero-two,” and the Quartermaster again brought her to starboard. Thus the Sandy Hook pilot held the Queen Elizabeth to the Ambrose Channel and guided her directly through the Narrows.
Captain Ahrens also directed the ship’s speed. At one point he called out, “Half Ahead!” His command was followed by a ringing of bells as the quartermasters operated the telegraphs and signaled the Elizabeth’s engine rooms, more than ten decks below, to reduce revolutions on her four propellers from 100 to 80 per minute. This slowed her from 17 to 13 knots.2
While this does not seem terribly complicated, terrible complications would result if the Queen Elizabeth or any other vessel entering port were not held to the straight and narrow line of deep water. A very large part of piloting involves knowing where the dangers are as well as where the safe water is. Acquiring the necessary knowledge and expertise requires work and takes time:
Captain Ahrens and other Sandy Hook pilots work at one of the most ancient occupations connected with the sea. Since men have sailed to foreign lands they have needed pilots in the unknown and dangerous waters at the mouth of a safe harbor. “A shift in the wind before a reef without a pilot,” says a history of the profession, “and the spices of India could lie deep at the mouth of the harbor. A storm off the coast of Dover without a pilot could bereave the most prominent houses of England.”
The fact that Captain Ahrens could pilot the Queen Elizabeth indicated he had risen to the top of his profession. To learn his trade he first had to serve seven years as an apprentice. Meanwhile he had to pass stringent examinations. He knew by heart every detail of the New York and New Jersey harbor waters, including the bottom surface, rocks, reefs, shoals, buoys, and currents. With such facts in his head, he was then allowed to progress slowly from the smallest vessels entering the harbor to the largest.3
In every seaport in the world, pilots direct merchant ships into and out of their harbors at all hours of the day and night. Naturally, this system requires the ship’s officers to place a great deal of trust in the pilot, who is often a man they’ve never met before. Very rarely does anything go wrong, however. Over the long history of commerce by sea, piloting has evolved into a tried and true method of ensuring that the freight, the mails, and the passengers depart and arrive safely. So much is this the norm that the great seaman and author Joseph Conrad described a pilot as “trustworthiness personified.”4
Edward Hopper uses pilotage as a metaphor for the Gospel and the various hazards to navigation as metaphors for the many pitfalls of life. He has points that hold true even in this age of diversified transportation. Many of the dangers that confront people on their journey through life are concealed by a harmless appearance, or worse, are made enticing by an attractive appearance. These are the rocks and reefs that can rip open a ship’s hull. Just as the pilot must know exactly where these dangers are situated in a harbor entrance, so must we know where similar dangers lie in wait ashore. Just as every merchant ship must pick up a pilot when entering and leaving port, so must we take on a pilot to safely guide us through life. The pilot we need is the Lord Jesus Christ, and his sailing directions are contained in the scriptures and the teachings of the Church.
The Lord made this point very clear in both ancient and modern times. “Man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord” (Deut. 8:3). Of all the written and spoken material contained in the world’s numerous libraries, this Word of the Lord constitutes the single most important directions for the safe passage of mankind along the voyage of life. Whether the Word is ancient or modern, inscribed on stone tablets, printed in book form, or spoken in General Conference makes no difference: “whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same” (D&C 1: 38). And we must continuously learn it: “study my word which hath gone forth among the children of men, and also study my word which shall come forth among the children of men” (D&C 11:22).
These sailing directions include but are not limited to such precepts as the word of wisdom, the law of tithing, the law of chastity, baptismal covenants, the new and everlasting covenant of marriage, and the Temple ordinances. These and other principles chart the course all people need to follow to lead good, clean, and morally upright Christian lives. These teachings are updated from time to time by additional pronouncements from the Prophet and other leaders of the Church, all of whom are “trustworthiness personified.” This is typically done at General Conference, but on can be done on other occasions as well. This is accomplished in much the same way a pilot updates his directions for compass headings and engine speeds. To ignore a pilot’s direction would lead to extensive property damage, bodily injury, and possibly loss of life. To ignore ecclesiastical direction would lead to moral degeneracy and a fall from grace with the risk of eternal consequences. In extreme cases this could possibly involve estrangement from one’s eternal family, and eternity is a long time to spend alone.
Happily, however, “it is easy to give heed to the word of Christ, which will point to you a straight course to eternal bliss” (Alma 37:44), and the Lord is the best and most trustworthy harbor pilot in the world.
1 Edward Hopper, “Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me,” in Hymns of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake
2 Leonard A. Stevens, The Elizabeth: Passage of a Queen, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968, p. 11-12.
3 Op. cit., p. 13-14.
4 Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1971, p.1.