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Marks, Richard (1778–1847), missionary to seafarers, was born on 31 December 1778 at North Crawley, Buckinghamshire, the son of Thomas and Mary Marks. Enlisting in the wartime navy in 1797, he found a ready outlet for a self-described partiality for water, gunpowder, and ‘deeds of dangerous enterprize’ (Aliquis, Retrospect, 1843 edn, 8). Here he recalls with a candour reminiscent of John Newton how he immediately immersed himself in the opportunities for ‘unabated licentiousness’ of contemporary shipboard life, ‘posting down the broad road of destruction, loud in blasphemy, and ever ready to burlesque … the Holy Scriptures’ (ibid., 1821 edn, 15). Two narrow escapes from shipwreck in successive ships seemed only to confirm him in a life he openly describes as deliberate rebellion against God.

Meanwhile, Marks clearly took pride in his profession and was popular with his peers. As master's mate on HMS Defence, he fought with such distinction at Trafalgar that he was one of the first to receive promotion from Collingwood at the close of the battle. Yet none of this, he would later confess, could dispel the depth of dissatisfaction and despondency which continued to consume him.

At length, after transferring to HMS Conqueror, now as lieutenant, Marks managed to find peace of mind and conscience during shore visits while in the Channel service. Thankful for the transformation he had now experienced through the preaching and counselling of the evangelical rector of Old Stoke church, Marks soon sensed a compelling commitment to share with others, particularly fellow seafarers, the key to that gospel of grace he had himself finally found. Through the rest of his life that commitment was destined to manifest itself in three distinct yet complementary ministries, each of fundamental groundbreaking significance in the evolution of organized mission to seafarers during the early 1800s: lay ministry at sea, the provision of Christian literature from shore, and advocacy of the cause in church and society.

Marks's call to lay ministry at sea was quite categorically conveyed by the Conqueror's commander. Impressed with the young lieutenant's resolute response to anti-scriptural scoffing by fellow officers, he summarily ordered Marks to ‘turn parson’, whereupon the command to ‘rig Church’ brought the whole ship's company out on deck, an instant congregation of ‘six hundred bare heads and attentive looks’ (Aliquis, Retrospect, 1821 edn, 78). Thus began the public ministry of a pioneer seafarers' missionary. During Marks's remaining three years on board the Conqueror, he introduced a whole series of innovative inspirational and educational group activities. While he made light of snide remarks by some about ‘Psalm-singing Methodists’ on the ship, others were amazed at dramatic manifestations of change among the most ‘abandoned characters’ in their midst. Eventually a new commander, hostile to Marks's endeavours, presented an insurmountable impediment.

After returning to England in 1810, following thirteen years of unrelenting sea service, Marks relinquished promising prospects of further advancement in the navy, against the advice of well-meaning friends, in order to follow an inner call which had matured in the meantime to ordained ministry among ‘poor and plain people’ in the established church ashore. He was admitted as a sizar at Magdalene College, Cambridge, on 12 April 1813. In June 1813, on completing his studies at Cambridge, he was ordained as a priest. He gave up as a matter of principle his naval half pay, and served an initial seven-year curacy in a remote village parish of 750 souls. From 1820, following these ‘wilderness years’, as he later called them, he ministered for the remaining quarter century of his active life among ‘the humble cottagers’ of Buckinghamshire, as vicar of Great Missenden.

However, Marks gave early and convincing evidence that his decision to leave the sea was by no means motivated by lack of sympathy for followers of his former profession. The concept of full-time shore-based seafarers' missionary service had, at the close of the Napoleonic war, simply not fully dawned on the Christian church. Meanwhile he had himself experienced the scarcity of Christian literature at sea, while witnessing how pornographic books of ‘superlative abomination’ were widely available ‘to debase and pollute’ young minds (Marks, Christian Guardian, 1826, 174). Well aware of the way fellow seafarers would dismiss with disgust as ‘lubberly’ even the best of books by well-meaning landlubbers using nautical imagery in an unprofessional manner, Marks saw the need for authentically contextualized literature, and from 1816 led the way with a series of seven booklets, written in popular, readable style, which he presented to the Religious Tract Society for anonymous publication.

Much to Marks's amazement, the impact of his ‘sea tracts’ within all ranks was immense. Moreover, this happened at a time when thousands of seafarers were transferring from naval to peacetime merchant service. Many of these had already been influenced by the so-called ‘Naval Awakening’, which had—as on board the Conqueror—manifested itself in lay-led Christian cell-group activity on more than eighty men-of-war by the time peace came. Within a decade, half a million of Marks's tracts had been circulated and a wave of similar publications had begun to build on both sides of the Atlantic. It was no coincidence that precisely this decade also saw the emergence of the first comprehensive seafarers' mission organizations in both Britain and America.

It was likewise no coincidence that many who assumed leadership responsibilities in these organizations, at least on the British side, were—like Marks himself—former naval officers. In 1816 Marks had also managed to publish, under the pseudonym Aliquis, a remarkable collection of personal reminiscences from his naval service entitled The Retrospect, or, Review of Providential Mercies. Although it attracted a wide-ranging readership and was destined, during the next three decades, to go through numerous editions on both sides of the Atlantic, it was primarily addressed to fellow officers in the Royal Navy. As such, it proved to be a masterpiece of maritime apologetics, with an impact among those officers comparable to that of Marks's maritime tract series among other ranks.

However, not content to provide literature addressed principally to seafarers (which he still continued to do), Marks also launched the first co-ordinated campaign to motivate the national church as such to organize for mission to seafarers. This determined advocacy initiative took the shape of ‘An appeal to the Christian public in behalf of British seamen’, published in five strongly worded letters to the Christian Guardian from January to May 1826, followed by five further letters entitled ‘The seaman's friend’ from September 1826 to June 1827. While deploring the indifference of those who could leave thousands of their own seafaring kinsfolk with no more knowledge of the gospel than ‘savage Hottentots in the wilds of Africa’ (Smith, 1826, 55), he had only high praise for the initiatives of existing non-denominational societies, particularly those of their foremost Baptist-affiliated promoter, the Revd George Charles Smith. Realistically recognizing that many years might yet elapse before his own denomination could overcome the irregular nature of church ministry to the peripatetic seafarer, he warmly encouraged fellow evangelical Anglicans to support non-denominational efforts, while leaving no doubt as to where their loyalty belonged once an episcopal establishment for seamen might emerge.

In addition to his extensive maritime authorship, Marks published several more general works of an inspirational, devotional, and theological nature (the last against Socinian and Tractarian positions). After continuing to serve his flock until 1844, Marks died on 22 May 1847 at Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire. A slab marks his grave in the south aisle of Great Missenden parish church. A mural tablet on the south side of the nave testifies to his ‘life of piety, usefulness and honor in this village’, a tribute eloquently affirmed in two sermons by his successor, the Revd J. B. Marsden, published the same year.

Richard Marks was not the actual originator of organized Anglican maritime mission. The Missions to Seamen, maritime arm of the Church of England, traces its foundation to 1856, and ascribes it to the Revd Dr John Ashley. However, the one who first and fundamentally prepared the way for that event was incontestably an unassuming former lieutenant in the Royal Navy who turned parson.

Roald Kverndal


Aliquis [R. Marks], The retrospect, or, Review of providential mercies, with anecdotes of various characters, and an address to naval officers (1816) · [R. Marks], Nautical essays, or, A spiritual view of the ocean and maritime affairs: with reflections on the battle of Trafalgar and other events by the author of ‘The retrospect’ (1818) · [R. Marks], The ocean, spiritually reviewed, and compared to passing scenes on the land; with various anecdotes and reflection by the author of ‘The retrospect’, ‘Morning meditations’, ‘Village observer’ &; c., 4th expanded edition of Nautical essays (1826) · R. Marks, ‘An appeal to the Christian public in behalf of British seamen’, Christian Guardian (1826), 8–14, 49–52, 89–94, 129–36, 169–76 [letters] · R. Marks, ‘The seaman's friend’, Christian Guardian (1826), 337–40, 410–12, 484–6; (1827), 140–42, 209–15 · G. C. Smith, ed., Sailor's Magazine (1820), 156 · G. C. Smith, ed., Sailor's Magazine (1821), 415–17 · G. C. Smith, ed., Sailor's Magazine (1826) [reproducing Marks's letters 1–5 from Christian Guardian (Jan–May 1826) with comments] · J. B. Marsden, Two sermons on … the Rev. Richard Marks (1847) · R. H. Mackenzie, The Trafalgar roll (1913), 182 · lieutenant's passing certificate, TNA: PRO, Adm. 107/30, fol. 32 · baptismal certificate, TNA: PRO, Adm. 107/30, fol. 33 · [C. Dunford], Great Missenden parish church: a short history and guide [1973] · R. Kverndal, Seamen's missions: their origin and early growth (1986), 80, 106–9, 167, 210, 275, 286–7, 307, 316, 332, 336, 342 · mural tablet, Great Missenden church, Buckinghamshire · R. M. [R. Marks], letter, Evangelical Magazine and Missionary Chronicle, 25 (1817), 168–72