Date of Graduation


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts in History (MA)

Degree Level





Jim Gigantino

Committee Member

Freddy Dominguez

Second Committee Member

Sarah Rodriguez


American History, Class, Gender, Religion, Sailors, Seafaring Life


While stereotypes of sailors as immoral, godless ne’er-do-wells flourish in mainland historical accounts, little attention has been paid to the records left by sailors that document their own faith and religious practices. This thesis examines the logbooks, journals, and diaries written by American sailors while at sea, sounding the depth of sailors’ religious beliefs through their own words. While American seamen certainly drank, swore, and caroused, sailors also frequently captured in their writing a much more religious nature than the mainland expected of them. Sailors’ position as highly mobile laborers on the ultimate borderlands—the sea itself—impacted their religious practice and beliefs. The American sailing ship was a site of intersection of—and frequently conflict over—race, class, and gender norms. The religious environment on ships formed in response to these physical and cultural constraints and often functioned as both an extension and exaggeration of American life at large in the early nineteenth century.

The progress of the Second Great Awakening and the hardening of racial and gender identities on the American mainland impacted sailors’ perceptions and practice of religion and faith at sea, far more than previous historians have articulated. While the Second Great Awakening empowered lay believers to interpret scripture on their own and emphasized independence from spiritual hierarchies on the mainland, sailors extended the reach of such doctrines to their furthest physical and interpretive extent at sea. Even lower-class sailors did not reject faith wholesale but often practiced religion in tandem with their less spiritual behavior. Their middle-class deck mates often attempted to maintain both the moral and religious mores of the mainland, including the role of women as spiritual leaders within the family, despite their physical separation from their homes and the women in their lives. The bulk of sailors, even the least religious, still reflected the worldview of evangelical Protestantism found on the mainland when considering their shipmates of other races or faiths. White sailors used class, race, and religion to craft an American identity for themselves that coupled Protestantism with a stoic, masculine, and nationalistic culture on board American vessels, while non-white and non-Protestant sailors crafted spaces of religious leadership and practice for themselves, despite persecution from the disapproving Protestant majority.