"They that go down to the sea in ships”: Christian Science literature distribution and The Mission Yacht Association
Literature distribution began in the early years of the Christian Science movement, and this activity continues today. Early distribution was carried out by individuals, churches and, in the case of The Mission Yacht Association, by organizations that might best be characterized as unofficial partnerships. The literature distributed generally consisted of Mary Baker Eddy’s writings and the periodicals published by The Christian Science Publishing Society.
The earliest report by the Yacht Association in a Christian Science periodical appeared in the Christian Science Sentinel’s “Among the Churches” section on December 12, 1914:
New York, N. Y.—During the third quarter, ending Oct. 1, the Mission Yacht Association distributed 96,250 Christian Science periodicals to the seamen of 4,250 ships in New York harbor.—Correspondence.
Captain George Benn started The Mission Yacht Association in 1897 as a general distribution activity not related to Christian Science. He was concerned about the negative impact of long voyages on seamen, and saw their need for reading materials. He collected a wide variety of literature in a wheelbarrow and delivered it to sailors on ships out of the Port of New York. Functioning for a year on solicitations from nearby residents, the Association’s efforts grew when the Chief Librarian of the Brooklyn Public Library contacted Benn and offered periodicals. Among the literature were Christian Science publications. Some years later when Captain Benn, a Baptist, became interested in Christian Science, the distribution of his new religion’s literature—as well as of other materials—became a larger part of the Mission Yacht Association’s work.
By 1916 there were 15 Christian Science churches and societies in Greater New York contributing to the Association’s efforts. Through the Association, packages were delivered to ships docked and anchored in the harbor. The anchored ships were inaccessible by land but easily accessible to Captain Benn, who first used the motorboat Messenger to reach them.1 The rounds for distribution covered 200 miles of shoreline and took two weeks. Starting in the bay near at 65th Street, South Brooklyn, Captain Benn circled the Upper New York Bay.
The Yacht Association provided more than just reading materials to sailors. When it incorporated in 1908 its mission was to provide literature free of charge and “to provide stranded seamen with food, clothing, and lodgings.”2 In 1918, The Mission Yacht Board of Directors—comprised of members of Christian Science branch churches of Greater New York, with Captain Benn as secretary—agreed that more support and more space were needed for the Association. This led to their acquiring “Home Port” at 411-415 36th Street, Brooklyn. That same year, thousands of sailors were stranded in New York without work after the end of World War I. The Association provided food and housing to over five thousand of them.3
The new location, along with added support from members of Christian Science churches, spurred a decision to focus more exclusively on “bringing the Truth in the shape of authorized Christian Science literature to the seamen who come to the Port of New York.”4 At the same time, welfare services continued. A Christian Science Reading Room at the new location was open from 6:00 to 10:00 every night, allowing for sailors to gather, listen to music, read Christian Science titles, and receive mail at the address (many had no permanent residence).
The 1920s proved difficult for The Mission Yacht Association. Their motorboat Messenger III, acquired in 1915, went out of service. The Association delivered their packages to ships by automobile, not by yacht, and as a result anchored boats were no longer provided for. Because of the change in service, as well as other mistakes in the handling of the Association’s affairs on the part of Captain Benn, the partnership began to fall apart.
By 1934 representatives of the Christian Science branch churches of Greater New York divided the territory along the waterfront of New York Harbor, and their respective distribution committees began distributing Christian Science literature to the sailors aboard ships in the harbor. Distribution work continues to this day—although without either the boats or the unique benevolence of The Mission Yacht Association.
- “Sailors to Hail Santa: 15,000 gifts to be distributed by Mission Yacht Association,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 22, 1913.
- “They That Go Down To The Sea in Ships”: Being the story of The Mission Yacht Association (New York: The Mission Yacht Association, 1931), 15, Subject File, Literature Distribution – New York – The Mission Yacht Association, Inc.
- Ibid., 43.
- Ibid., 31.