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April 16, 2012

Titanic sermons, 100 years later

The White Star Line publicists pulled out all the stops when promoting the Titanic and its sister ship the Olympic, even claiming in one brochure that these giants "were designed to be unsinkable."

By the time Titanic put to sea, this language had evolved into a boast -- reportedly shared with passengers -- that "God Himself couldn't sink this ship."

Thus, when the liner sank on April 15, 1912, preachers on both sides of the Atlantic were among the first commentators to raise their voices in judgment, as well as consolation. Newspapers promptly printed many of these sermons.

One fact gripped preachers more than any other: In an age of great power and wealth, the Titanic carried only 20 lifeboats for its 2,200 passengers.

This was a deadly form of pride, said the Rev. William D. Moss at the Washington Heights Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. But it would be wrong to condemn only the businessmen who built the Titanic and plotted its course.

"Yonder where the ruthless deep yawned to receive its unwilling and innocent victims, the law of life exercised its ancient prerogative that whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. ... In the tragedy of this hour we have witnessed the wrong-doing not of one man or a body of men, but of the age," proclaimed Moss.

"The fact is driven home to us today that as an age, as a nation, and as individuals we lack moral vision," he said. "We worship success. We worship money. We worship luxury. We worship display. We worship the material. We worship the ephemeral. We worship self-interest. We worship competition. In other words, we worship speed. ... And so this tragedy of the ocean has its daily counterpart on the land."

The moral messages captured in these sermons were completely different than the vision offered in 1997 by Hollywood director James Cameron. His "Titanic" blockbuster portrayed the doomed ship as a symbol of the corrupt values of an old-fashioned culture that would soon be conquered by science, social change and the sexual revolution.

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