See the PDF for the notes and references.
Captain George Harris spoke highly of his sailor Alexander Holmes saying “I never had a better man on board my ship. He was a first-rate man and was always obedient to officers.”
Alexander Holmes was a Swedish-born sailor and had been at sea since his tenth birthday. By the time he was twenty-six-year old he had a reputation for being a respectful seaman, a competent fellow who followed commands without complaint. First mate, Walter Parker, said that “Holmes was a good, obedient sailor who caused no trouble within the crew and always did his job. I liked having him on my watch.”
Holmes had the reputation for being respectful. He followed commands without complaint. He was taught that a captain is in charge and the crew are expected to follow orders. Holmes was always obedient to officers, he was a dependable sailor, but now he was sitting in court as the plaintiff because of his obedience.
United States v. Holmes
The courtroom grew quite with subdued anticipation as prosecutor Oliver Hopkinson asked his lead witness Bridget McGee to describe the events as she experienced them.
A year earlier, she had left the port of Liverpool, England in the spring of 1841 joining 65 Scotch and Irish emigrants passengers leaving their homelands behind with anxious hope of creating a better life on different land. Five weeks into their journey across the Pacific ocean the ship struck an iceberg.
The passengers were asleep below the deck when the impact happened. The ship continued on with its course through the night dangerously underestimating the seriousness of the encounter with the iceberg. Nearly a half and hour later, a sailor realized that the ship was taking in water. As the captain investigated the damage, the fate of the ship became clear and he ordered for the lifeboats to be readied.
Below deck, the passengers were awakened with panicked shouts alerting them of the sinking ship. Confusion and chaos took over the ship. The terrified passengers frantically put on more clothes to protect them from the cold. People ran on deck seeking reassurance and instruction in vain. The captain had already boarded one of the lifeboats with 9 of his crew, cowardly fleeing the ship thinking only of their own life, telling the passengers that they must all do the best they can for themselves.
The rest of the crew secured their spot on the second lifeboat and allowed 32 passengers to crowd on with them before turning others away.
The rest of the passengers, the families, the children, the women, and the men were abandoned and left on the sinking William Brown with nothing to protect them except for their warm clothes that they were able to put on moments before.
The longboat was beyond its capacity but still managed to stay afloat 12 hours after the William Brown sank beneath the dark icy waters. During the chaos of lowering the long-boat into the water, it’s rudder was broken, crippling the boat and making it impossible to steer and control. The extra weight in the boat caused it to ride low on the ocean allowing water to easily spill over the sides constantly. Complicating the already compromised situation, the plug in the bottom of the boat had also become dislodged and lost. A makeshift plug was created, but it only slowed the water’s ability to enter from the bottom of the boat. With water coming over the sides and seeping in from the bottom, the passengers and the crew were constantly engaged in bailing out the sea water in order to stay alive.
Tired from bailing water. Cold from inadequate clothing. Wet from the icy sea’s spray. Fear of drowning. Hopeless of ever reaching the shore on a cripppled, weigh-down, leaky boat. The situation provided fertile ground for the seeds of fear to take root in the hearts of those still alive. The fear of death still haunted them, taunting them, numbing their minds and hearts. They had escaped a sinking ship by climbing aboard another sinking boat.
They were powerless, except for perhaps only one unthinkable thing that might improve their chances for survival.
Around ten o’clock, twenty-four anxious hours after the William Brown sank, first mate Francis Rhodes ordered his men to lighten the boat.
At first his men did not respond, but the passengers on the boat continued to cry out in fear that the boat was sinking. Rhodes again ordered his men to go do work lightening the boat.
Sailors Charlie Smith, Alexander William Holmes, Joseph Stetson, and the cook, Henry Murray, approached a male passenger, tapped him on the shoulder or grabbed his arms, told him it was time, and then threw him overboard into the sea.
That night, twelve male passengers and two female passengers were thrown overboard to lighten the boat. In the morning two more male passengers who were able to hide and evaded the murderous rampage, were easily found when it became light again and were quickly thrown overboard when they were discovered. A few hours later, the remaining passengers and crew on the longboat were rescued by a passing ship.
Obedience at Sea
Nearly a decade before the William Brown left Liverpool, Richard Henry Dana contracted measles during his junior year at Harvard College leaving him with poor eyesight. Unable to continue with his school work, he traded his studies to become a sailor. He was told that there was nothing more that the doctors could do for his eyes. He, however, was convinced that taking time away from books would give his eyes a chance for his eyes to heal.
Dana wrote about his life as a sailor, intending it to be a memoir and a guide for new sailor’s. His book, Two Years Before the Mast, remains a valuable historical treasure, providing a realistic account of what life on the sea really looked like.
His writings reveal the cultural pressure and expectation that weighed upon Alexander William Holmes that fateful night when he was ordered to lighten the boat. Through Dana’s writings we glimpse the oppressive power that captains of the 1800s held over sailors by demanding obedience.
The sea captain gave a short characteristic speech, walking the quarter deck with a cigar in his mouth, and dropping the words out between the puffs. “Now my men, we have begun a long voyage. If we get along well together, we shall have a comfortable time; if we don’t we shall have hell afloat. All you’ve got to do is to obey your orders and do your duty like men, then you’ll fare well enough; if you don’t, you don’t, you’ll fare hard enough.”
The captain, in the first place, is lord paramount… he must be obeyed in everything, without a question even from his chief officer. A [sailor] must not refuse his duty, or be in any way disobedient.” The second mate is expected by the captain to enforce obedience.
The pressure to obey a captain’s order was enhanced through the threat of physical punishment or death by lashing, keelhauling, immediately shot, or hanged from a yardarm.
Captain Geroge Harris sat in the comforts of the uncrowded Jolly Boat as he spoke to his first mate, Francis Rhodes, who sat in the crowded longboat. Rhodes had asked the Captain to take on a few of the passengers, but the Captain refused saying that he was already full. Rhodes addressed the issue of the longboat’s broken rudder. The Captain gave him charts, a compass, and a quadrant to find his position and chart his course, a course that would be impossible to follow with a broken rudder. Captain George Harris then ordered the sailors in the longboat to obey and follow Francis Rhodes’ orders. He made each sailor individually promise to obey Rhodes as their Captain. Then, the Captain, satisfied that he had done his duty, rowed away abandoning the aimlessly drifting weighed down longboat.
In court, Alexander Holmes did not deny his actions. He was not in court after all, to prove whether or not he threw passengers into the icy waters to their death. He was at court, standing before the judge and the jury, to determine if his actions were justifiable.
Defense lawyer Edward Armstrong argued that Holmes was a man of good character and was acting out of obedience and therefore justified. “The crew were in their ordinary and original state of subordination to their officers…if in [this] state, they are excusable in law, for having obeyed the order of the mate, an order twice imperatively given. The captain had pointedly directed the crew to obey all the mate’s orders as they would his, the captain’s; and the crew had promised to do so. It imports not to declare that a crew is not bound to obey an unlawful order, for to say that this order was unlawful is to postulate what remains to be proved. Who is the judge of unlawfulness? The circumstances were peculiar.
Does obedience justify Holmes for throwing innocent people overboard? Was he justified because he was obeying an order given to him by his superior?
Virtuous obedience requires that you remain an active agent in the process, not a puppet on someone’s strings. There is something honorable about being willing to learn from someone and to take counsel from another, but that’s different than just turning over your thinking to another person and giving them the power to think for you, even if that person is God.
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife, Understanding Desire, Cultivate a Good LIfe Podcast
We want the idea that we’ve gotten all the answers and it’s all right here for us and all we need to do is obey sufficiently and all will be well, but I think that’s the slothful servant idea.
The way I see it is that possessing a strong moral character one must be striving for integrity more than compliance.
Obedience is the first law of heaven. Compliance helps us to not go off the rails. It’s the guard post, and there’s value in that. Learning to contain your behavior can protect you from some of the negative consequences.
But it’s the first law. And a lot of times we think it is THE law which is more like the Sadducees and the Pharisees. But when we only focus on obedience and compliance we don’t ever take the time to honestly gravel with what it means to love God and who God is, where is our integrity, what do we really believe is right and creating goodness. That takes more creativity on our part. It takes more courage on our part. It takes wrestling more in our own relationship with God, not just sort of deferring to what others tell us.
I used to find comfort in the idea of just deferring to what others told me to do. I wanted to just do what other people said because then I would be a good girl and I would not question my legitimacy. But I believe that God is telling me that’s not good enough. My job and your job is to grapple and wrestle with these things and to assert what you believe is right. All of us really need to grapple honestly with what’s true because we are responsible for the choices we make.
Sometimes we use the idea of obedience to make somebody else responsible for our life choices. Like, if I just obey I’ll get the reward or I’ll get the safety of that. And there often is safety in going along even with what someone else has told us because they’ve gone before us, and they’re wiser than we are, they know more than we do. But it’s not enough to just stop there.
The choices we make impact our lives and our development and our happiness and our children, so we have to be thoughtful about the ideas that we are offered and consider the value in choosing to follow the advice or views of another.
I think that’s a part of godliness. We’re in this progression to become gods ourselves. And gods are actors, creators. Gods have achieved wisdom, not just compliance. And to create wisdom one must be an actor in a complex world.
Grappling with Truth
When we detach our own accountability from our actions, foolishly telling ourselves that we are not responsible, but that the responsibility lies with the one who gave the order, we make ourselves weak and vulnerable.
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: I remember being in the MTC, and feeling like obedience, obedience, obedience was being drummed into us. My thinking on this was less developed then, but I remember feeling that there were so many things I didn’t know, and yet I felt as if I was being told I had to claim to know them, in order to be okay with God. I remember having a bit of an internal crisis during a testimony meeting in the MTC where I was wondering if God would really ask me to pretend? If I just look the part, does that please God? Or, does God want me to be true to myself, as long as my intentions are sincere in pursuing truth. Is that acceptable to God? The entirety of my mission experience ended up confirming to me that my job as a moral being, as a child of God, was to grapple earnestly with what I believed was right and wrong, and to confront the fact that there are false traditions everywhere, including within our faith, and to struggle with the Spirit and my own honest effort to know what is right, and live accordingly. So I see that process as fundamental to becoming a developed spiritual person—having an anchored internal sense of self and strong sense of what is good that allows you to be a strong presence in a family, in a marriage, in a ward—just complying does not enable any of that. When we think about people we admire most in history, it’s people who could stand strongly for what they believe is right, despite the social costs of doing so. These are people with a strong sense of rightness, a strong sense of self, and that is an important spiritual and relational reality.
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Obedience that lacks moral strength is the irresponsible forsaking of responsibility. It says, “I am not paying attention. I don’t want to deal with the risk, and so I’m just going to do whatever they say.” For submission/obedience to be a virtue, it has to be out of a desire to do good, and your clearest judgment that it will yield good, that’s what would make it a virtue.When submission is a virtue, it’s an active choice to yield to something because you think it will create the greater good. It’s not driven by fear; it’s driven by moral courage.
When we talk of obedience we need to talk about integrity. Obedience promoted without integrity is dangerous. Acting with integrity creates goodness and virtue in our actions. So if something is void of integrity, then it is void of virtue.
Not all obedience is morally honorable. Not all acts of obedience are virtuous. Not all acts of obedience are acts of strengths. Therefore it becomes imperative to distinguish and judge for yourself in what things you ought to be obedient in.
Obedience and agency should never be separated. Obedience is not an act in which you forfeit your agency and personal judgment. Obedience is honorable and virtuous when it is thoughtful, not mindless. Obedience is honorable and virtuous when it embraces your integrity. When your obedience conflicts with your values, your best judgement, it is compromising your integrity. Obedience that is mindless lacks value, moral courage, honor, and virtue. When you choose to obey, you are taking responsibility for that choice. Honorable obedience is about choosing to follow the direction given to you by another because you see value and worth in doing so and because you see it as the most right decision in that situation.