We recently investigated the history of the pulpit (a word we get from the Latin pulpitum), that object that appears in so many churches. We also find the pulpit appearing in, of all places, that great American novel by Herman Melville, Moby Dick. Moby Dick has 135 chapters; they have fascinating names like “The Shark Massacre.” Two chapters early in the book have great names. Chapter 9 is titled “The Sermon.” Chapter 8 is titled “The Pulpit.” Melville describes a pulpit of a fabled New England church. It’s sort of a conglomerate picture that Melville puts together. The crew is about to go out to sea, questing after the great white whale. Before they go, all the sailors show up on Sunday in church to hear the sermon before they’re sent off to sea, knowing they might not come back again.
In chapter 8, Ishmael is sitting in the pew of the church when Father Mapple comes in and walks toward the pulpit. Melville writes,
Like most old fashioned pulpits, it was a very lofty one, and since a regular stairs to such a height would, by its long angle with the floor, seriously constrict the already small area of the chapel, the architect, it seemed, had acted upon the hint of Father Mapple, and finished the pulpit without a stairs, substituting a perpendicular [that is, straight up and down] side ladder, like those used in mounting a ship from a boat at sea. The wife of a whaling captain had provided the chapel with a handsome pair of red . . . ropes for this ladder. . . . Halting for an instant at the foot of the ladder, and with both hands grasping the ornamental knobs of the man-ropes, Father Mapple cast a look upwards, and then with a truly sailor-like but still reverential dexterity, hand over hand, mounted the steps as if ascending the main-top of his vessel.
Nor was the pulpit itself without a trace of the same sea-taste that had achieved the ladder. . . . Its panelled front was in the likeness of a ship’s bluff bows, and the Holy Bible rested on a projecting piece of scroll work, fashioned after a ship’s fiddle-headed beak.
What could be full of more meaning?—for the pulpit is ever this earth’s foremost part; all the rest comes in its rear; the pulpit leads the world. From thence it is the storm of God’s quick wrath is first decried, and the bow must bear the earliest brunt. From thence it is the God of breezes fair or foul is first invoked for favorable winds. Yes, the world’s a ship on its passage out, not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow.
That’s from the pen of Melville. What a fascinating line he gives us: “And the pulpit leads the world.” That’s chapter 8, “The Pulpit” from what some have called the great American novel, Moby Dick; Or, the Whale.