Prayer and Piracy

Since the release of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, Americans have gone pirate-mad. Most don’t realize that piracy remains a real threat. Many people have been taken hostage by pirates in recent years, but this rarely makes the news. Even the recent rescue of Captain Phillips from Somali pirates only held the attention of the media for a few days.

Piracy is nothing new, and it has always been despicable. The Barbary pirates were a great concern of the early American government; these criminals routinely took captives who were held for ransom or forced into slavery.

A new book, A Pastoral Letter to the Captives and Other Works, showcases several documents from this era. Edited by Vicki Claudio, this book presents Cotton Mather’s Pastoral Letter to the Captives along with several other relevant documents. The original texts are presented with a few changes for clarity, but the changes are minor.

The Pastoral Letter, addressed to Christians held captive in Muslim lands, encourages them to hold fast to their faith by prayer. In the introduction, Pastor Ed Boston writes:

“whatever the captive sailors have suffered in their cruel ordeal, it is nothing compared to eternal slavery to sin…[Mather] urges them to hold fast to God…’ We would gladly do and spend all we can to rescue you…Nevertheless, we would rather you should endure all manner of temporal miseries than incur eternal ones.’ ”

The narrative portion relays the account of Thomas Phelps, a sailor whose ship was boarded in 1684. He was forced into slavery; many prisoners were killed brutally at the whim of the ruler, Moulay Ismail. Phelps makes his distress clear in simple but evocative language:

“The Reader…will not think it strange, if I was dissatisfied and very weary of my condition, and therefore I did often rummage all my thoughts, for some expedient to ease me of this accursed way, not of living, but …dying daily…I proferred [the requested sum for ransom] but it would not be accepted; upon which I looked upon my condition as desperate.”

Phelps, chained to two other men, persuaded them to escape with him. They made their way toward the coast, dodging patrols and wild animals, until Phelps developed a case of gout that nearly caused his companions to desert him. His account of escape and rescue is both thrilling and profoundly moving.

Claudio skillfully brings together devotional literature and first-hand accounts to present a compelling vision of faith’s power to work in the lives of believers in captivity. Mather’s call to faith is echoed in Phelps’ story of learning to rely on God as he escapes. The exhortation to trust in God and pray is as relevant today as it ever was. Mather’s plea still rings with power, and modern Christians are subject to the same call to pray for those in chains.

This is a difficult book to read; not because it is unclear, but because it is painful. It is not pleasant to be reminded of the plight of captives, such as the recently-released Roxana Saberi, or Laura Ling and Euna Lee who have been sentenced to 12 years of hard labor, and hundreds of others. Claudio’s internet radio show Pray For the Hostages is devoted to bringing this uncomfortable knowledge to Christians everywhere. Some of the hostages have been on their prayer list for years, with no sign that they will be released. Many of the captives are Christian, and many are not, but the cry of the captive is the same: “How can we sing the LORD’S song in a foreign land?”