Fall 2001

Leftovers / Evangelical Currents

The flotsam of the faithful

Curtis C. Ebbesmeyer

“Leftovers” is a column that investigates the cultural significance of detritus.

I’m an oceanographer specializing in currents and what they transport. By day, I earn a living by tracking things like sewage for a company whose reports are sold to agencies. By night, I track flotsam. I first began following spills from cargo containers in 1990 when a ship spilled 80,000 Nike sneakers in the Pacific Ocean. A spill of 29,000 bathtub toys (including yellow duckies) kept me busy in 1992, and 1997 saw five million Lego pieces spilled off Land’s End, England. At the moment, 2,000 17-inch computer monitors that spilled in the Pacific last year are washing up on shore. In 1996, I established the Beachcombers’ Alert newsletter and I now receive reports about all manner of washed-up debris from beachcombers from all over the world.

Many of these beachcombers search for the fabled message in the bottle but few find them. I have never found one but a Dutch beachcomber, Wim Kruiswijk, ranks as the all-time best. While searching for 19 years (1980-1998) along the coast bordering the southern North Sea, Kruiswijk hauled home 435 bottled notes. Looking for patterns, Kruiswijk divided them into thirteen types:

Number of bottles / Reason:

157 Seeking pen pal
109 Address only
56 Request for postcard of finder’s hometown
36 Jokes
27 Religion
12 Love note
10 Class project
9 Daddy’s kids[1]
9 Drawings
4 Pornographic
3 Help requested
2 Advertisement
1 Pollution protest

Six percent of Kruiswijk’s finds carried religious messages. These bottles were from a “get-a-free-bible” institution in Evreux, France; a preacher in Lowestoft, England; six girls on a Mormon cruise; and an ex-boxer “who saw the light” in Kent, England. The Bible contains no less than 1,020 references to “water” (665) and “the sea” (355). Walking on water. Paths in the seas. Voices on the water. Read the Bible often enough and cer­tain phrases virtually tell the devout to spread religious tracts far and wide across the ocean:

The Lord is upon many waters.
Psalms 29:3

Cast thy bread upon the waters, for thou shalt find it after many days.
Ecclesiastes 11:1

Thou tellest my wanderings: put thou my tears into thy bottle.
Psalms 56:8

Shortly before World War II, the biblical injunction struck 49-year-old George Phillips on Puget Sound, Washington. The first to my knowledge to spread scriptures in floating bottles, Phillips said, “I was down on the beach one day in April 1940, not far from our home, and I saw the tide carrying driftwood. Why couldn’t I spread the gospel in the same way?” By 1940, the currents of history had converged to make this idea feasible. The year 1903 had seen the first machine-produced glass bottles, and literacy had increased by the 1930s to the point that many of the world’s poor could read or find someone who could. An alcoholic, Phillips knew firsthand about “spirits in a bottle.” Leaving behind the real estate and the used car businesses, Phillips began in 1941 to redeem bottles full-time from city dumps, garbage cans, streets, and alleys for his Worldwide Missionary Effort.

The ocean currents, virtually a planetary postmistress, yielded 1,500 replies to Phillips’s 40,000 gospel epistles, his piety bottles turning up on the Pacific Coast, Mexico, Hawaii, New Guinea, and Australia. A thousand pledged to stop drinking and hundreds more vowed to return to the church. After Hurricane Audrey devastated Louisiana, searchers discovered two of Phillips’s missionary bottles unbroken amongst the wrecked homes and corpses at Holly Beach and Johnson’s Bayou. They had drifted some 10,000 miles in the six years since being launched in July 1951. Another story involves a Chicago business-man—his business bankrupt and wife estranged—who fled to Mexico in 1951, taking his 7-year-old son. Beachcombing near Acapulco, the boy discovered one of Phillips’s bottles containing a sermonette ending with: “Be sure your sins will find you out.” Jolted by the sea’s delivery of pointed advice, the businessman returned home, rebuilt his business, paid off his creditors, and reunited with his wife. “I owe it all,” he wrote Phillips, “to that bottle that came out of the sea.”

In 1997, a beachcomber discovered an old bottle at the mouth of the Situk River in Alaska. Inside, pamphlets from a colleague of George Phillips’s named Captain Walter E. Bindt, preached salvation:

My great grandfather was an early missionary from the United States to the Hawaiian Islands and I was born in Honolulu. I attended grammar school and on completion I went to work. I started going to sea in 1922 and for over twenty-five years I have been plying the ocean lanes of the Pacific. I have known the Lord as my personal Savior for many years but since 1942, when I joined the First Baptist Church in San Francisco, I have felt a definite call to serve Him more aggressively.

In 1947 the Lord brought Brother George Phillips of Tacoma, Washington, and myself together. On learning of the remarkable blessing from distributing the Gospel in Tide Bottles, I realized immediately that I was to have a part in this ministry. Since then, it has been my privilege to toss many thousands of bottled Gospel Bombs in the oceans, some-times 1,500 on a single voyage. Returns have come from many foreign shores and from the United States.

Captain Bindt’s Gospel Bomb had drifted or laid buried for some 40 years. In addition to George Phillips and Captain Bindt, a dozen or so other ocean evangelists have since released an estimated 300,000 scripture-filled bottles.[2] Of late, the practice has largely died out, but some drift on.

  1. “Daddy’s kids” are children who accompany their high-ranking father on holiday aboard a cargo vessel.
  2. This estimate is based on my interviews of the evangelists and their relatives and acquaintances. The only other case that rivals the scale of these evangelists’ efforts was by Guinness beer in the 1950s when the company threw 200,000 specially designed bottles with messages into the ocean as part of an advertisement campaign. On average, one of these bottles still washes up on shore every year.

Curtis Ebbesmeyer publishes the quarterly non-profit newsletter Beachcombers’ Alert concerning all things afloat.

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