Philadelphia was one of the busiest ports in North America throughout most of the 18th century and 19th century. That brought a steady stream of sailors from all over the world into the city, laying over for several days or a week while their ships unloaded and reloaded cargo.
This influx of foreign visitors supported numerous public houses and brothels that dotted the streets leading up to the waterfront. “News was exchanged in the taverns,” said Craig Bruns, curator of the Independence Seaport Museum. “When ships would come in to port, the captains would go to the bars and share information. And that’s where sailors went to get jobs.” However, the taverns were also the places where captains hired shady characters to help them fill their crews, a practice known as “crimping,” enticing a sailor to sign on to a ship by any means, including trickery, inebriation, or violence.
While the taverns catered to the seamen’s carnal needs, another group of Philadelphians were led to minister to their spiritual sides, establishing churches for mariners alongside the public houses on the waterfront. “That’s the context in which these churches were operating,” noted Bruns. “They offered a safer place, physically, to get meals and a place to sleep, as well as spirituality. They wanted to be as close to the landing as the grog halls and places of lust.”
Earliest and foremost among them was Joseph Eastburn, who founded Mariners’ Church in 1819. Unable to be ordained owing to his lack of a formal education, he began preaching in a sailmaker’s loft near the foot of Market Street. “He was a personality that people followed,” said Bruns. “It became so popular they had to find a larger place.” It was sometimes referred to as Mariners’ Bethel Church and even the Eastburn Mariners’ Bethel Church.
In 1824, Eastburn enlisted architect William Strickland to build a church on Water Street between Chestnut and Walnut Streets. It was replaced in 1868 by a new building on the southwest corner of South Front and Delancey (then Union) Streets.
The Seamen’s and Landsmen’s Aid Society was founded in 1878, to aid “the Spiritual, Moral and Temporal welfare of Seamen and Landsmen.” It provided a free reading room at Mariners’ Church which, according to a church newsletter from 1917, served an average of 31,000 each year, while the church service attendance only numbered 12,000.
Although Eastburn had founded the church as nondenominational, it became affiliated with the Presbyterian Church under the Philadelphia Presbytery in 1854. Other denominations followed with their own maritime ministries. Mariners’ Bethel Baptist Church at 923 S. Front Street was built in 1863, sometimes credited to architect Stephen Button. It was included in the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) and was added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 1956, but it was demolished 10 years later.
The Churchmen’s Missionary Association for Seamen was established in 1847 by members of Christ Church, the venerable Episcopalian church in Old City. Rather than choose a location along the waterfront to build a seamen’s church, they opted to commission a church that was actually on the water. Built in 1849, the 90-foot long Floating Church of the Redeemer was anchored in the Delaware River at Dock Street. A few years later, it was brought ashore in Camden and placed on a brick foundation, but subsequently suffered a fatal fire in 1868. The organization employed the firm Furness and Evans to build a new Church of the Redeemer at Front and Queen Streets in 1878.
The Pennsylvania Seamen’s Friend Society was founded in 1846. It enlisted Furness and Evans to build Sailors’ Home at Catharine and S. Swanson Streets in 1890 to provide lodging, financial aid, and religious support.
Eventually, the two organizations merged into Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI). In 1925, it occupied a large building covering much of the block bordered by Walnut, 2nd, and Dock Streets. The facility included hotel lodging, a retirement home for seamen, a chapel, and a school of navigation. City records show that the SCI received a zoning permit in 1937 to erect a 12-foot- high neon cross on the roof of their building at 211 Walnut Street, facing eastward. The federal government took over the location and other nearby properties in 1957 to create Independence National Historical Park.
In the latter half of the 20th century, SCI occupied the former Corn Exchange Bank at the corner of 3rd and Arch Streets in Old City. Today, the organization is located at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, with its services focusing on hospitality, social services, and advocacy on behalf of sailors.
Another merger occurred in 1959 when Mariners’ Presbyterian Church joined with Third and Scots Presbyterian Church. The resulting Third, Scots, and Mariners’ Presbyterian Church, better known today as Old Pine Street Church, still stands at 412 Pine Street. Church records show that, even prior to the merger, it had long-standing ties to the maritime world, counting 88 sea captains worshipping there and 75 buried in its graveyard.
Although these consolidations suggested a waning need for services and ministries for mariners, a new church sprang up in 1930 when Norwegian Seamen’s Church took over the Mechanics’ National Bank building at 22-23 S. 3rd Street. Built in 1837, the Greek Revival building was one of the last designed by William Strickland. It was included in the HABS and was added individually to the Philadelphia Register in 1956 and later as a contributing part of the Old City Historic District in 2003.
Many of these buildings remained into the middle of the 20th century until urban renewal and redevelopment brought their demise. Despite its inclusion in both the HABS and the Philadelphia Register, Eastburn’s Mariners’ Church was condemned by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority in 1959 to make way for the Delaware Expressway and finally torn down after a fire in 1977.
SCI lost its full square block of buildings along Dock Street when Independence National Historical Park was created. The burial ground for Mariners’ Bethel Church on Bainbridge Street was paved over for I-95, and a second burial ground on the northwest corner of Moyamensing and Washington Avenues was built upon, both apparently with no record of removal of the remains.
Although the buildings no longer remain, vestiges of them are still here today. A votive model, or church ship, of the barque Benjamin Rush, crafted by sailors in 1826, was presented to Joseph Eastburn and hung over the pulpit in Mariners’ Church. Today it is on display at the Presbyterian Historical Society.
That pulpit still exists as well. Religious services aboard ships would often improvise a pulpit by employing a capstan, a type of large winch used to wind ropes. Eastburn replicated that in his first church building, commissioning a pulpit in the shape of a capstan, which today is in the collection of the Independence Seaport Museum.
While the Floating Church of the Redeemer is long gone, its bell resides at SCI’s headquarters at the Navy Yard with an inscription that reads, “Presented to the Floating Church of the Redeemer by the Teachers and Scholars of Christ Church Sunday School, Philadelphia 1849. ‘The abundance of the sea shall be converted unto the Lord.’ Isaiah LX5.”