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My parents – Moses Wells and Mary Parsons – were born in the first decade of the twentieth century in Harbour Grace, Newfoundland. Newfoundland has been a province of Canada since 1949, but in my parents’ time it was a colony under British control. Thus, their families worshiped in the Church of England parish church of St. Paul’s. The children attended the C of E school associated with the church.
My grandfathers had working class jobs. Albert Wells was a cobbler in a small shoe factory. Austin Parsons worked as a common fisherman in the large fishing industry centered in the area. Albert’s job was thought to be “respectable,” which allowed him opportunity to serve on the vestry (council) of St. Paul’s church, and to be an officer in the local Masonic Lodge.
Austin’s job was thought to be less respectable. He, like others, would sign on with a captain for a season, and he went out to sea almost daily to bring in the fish, mainly cod. Some winters, when money was short, and with a family of six children needing to be housed and fed, Austin signed on for a job he hated – going out on the ice floes to kill seals by clubbing them to death. The oil the carcasses yielded was valuable. When I knew him, he walked with a limp, having lost two toes to frostbite, as he said, “out on the ice.”
Most fishing vessels back then were small by today’s standards. They would put out by oar or sail with about a dozen men on board. When they returned to land they had to be careful with the rocky shoreline. In spring and summer it was easier to “make landfall” than in the fall and winter, when early dusk and fog reduced visibility. To make it safer the community set out lights to guide the captains away from the rocks to the sandy shoreline. They were called “the lower lights” to distinguish them from the lighthouses that guided larger ships to, say, St. John’s.
In my mother’s time, just before World War I, the families of the fisher folks took turns in trimming the lower lights. Nearly every family in the fishing community had lost a loved one at sea or on the ice, so setting the lower lights was a serious business.
I have only fragmentary knowledge of this, as I picked up stories when I was a child in the United States, where I was born. All eight of the Parsons family (parents and six kids), got to “the Boston States,” which was their name for America. Back in Harbour Grace, at a time when only oil could light the lamps, it was important to trim the wicks and keep the oil levels adequate. My Mom’s family took its turn, and, even as a young girl, she was aware of the seriousness with which people took this responsibility. It might be a matter of life and death for the fishermen trying to make it home.
Fast forward fifty years, to my home in Brookline, Massachusetts. On Sunday nights we often read books or listened to music on the Victrola. But, some Sunday nights my Dad would take out the hymn books. My Mom, who played the piano and sang well, would then lead us in a time of singing.
We mostly did that with just our own family; sometimes we were joined by my best friend, Ken Hartman, who was always in and out of our home. Ken was from a family of non-observant Jews, who were glad that Ken, an only child, had a Gentile family who cared about him. They saw no harm in him singing protestant hymns at the Wells home. Also, we had a stream of visitors from Harbour Grace, because the word was out that Moses Wells had done well in The Boston States, and he had a spare room that Newfies might use. They liked the singing too.
My Dad’s favorite was “Oh God our Help in Ages Past.” Mine was, and is, “The King of Love, My Shepherd Is.” We knew that sometime in the evening my Mom would call for her favorite, “Let The Lower Lights Be Burning.” It was always moving to her, both for the song, and for the memory of a young girl helping to trim the lower lights.
The song was a favorite in the Evangelical movement, and was well known in Newfoundland, where my parents’ church was Anglican, but Reformed and Evangelical in thought and practice (think C. S. Lewis, John R. W. Stott and James Packer). The song comes from a story told by Dwight L. Moody, about an incident in which the shipping approach to Cleveland, Ohio was not properly lit by the lower lights, and there was a crash with loss of life.
In the audience that night was a young songwriter, Philip Bliss. He heard Moody make the application of the story: that God gives the lighthouse that shows salvation, but it was our job to staff the lower lights to guide people to shore, where they might accept Christ. Bliss composed the song, “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning,” about 1873 and it was first sung about 1875.
In my home on Sunday evenings, the singing of “Lower Lights” was one of the features, because my Mom’s playing and singing it with such feeling brought the best out of us. Sometimes I thought I heard my Mom’s voice catch a bit on the refrain, “Some poor fainting, struggling seaman you may rescue, you may save.” [Here’s a version sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford.]
The song became a kind of informal code for my parents, especially my Dad: leave salvation to the Lord but do what you can to help others in some less dramatic way. I recall some evenings when our phone would ring. It was a call from the hospital, where my Dad’s name was on record as having a rare blood type, and that he was willing to donate blood when it was needed. He always went, of course, and was proud of the commendation he received from the VA for donating gallons of blood, during World War II and after. For him, that was his lower lights.
Even those of us who have never seen the lower lights can understand that our small efforts are important in God’s kingdom purposes. If we pay attention to those around us who may be struggling in the darkness of their lives, trying to get to shore, we could be God’s people in real time, and be a harbor of grace, so to speak.
Because all my cousins named Wells live in eastern Newfoundland, I have visited the province, and Harbour Grace, many times. I always go to the Anglican cemetery where my grandparents, Albert and Clara Wells, are buried. Standing there, looking out over Conception Bay, I sense again that the town’s name – Harbour Grace – is just right.
Let The Lower Lights Be Burning
Brightly beams our Father’s mercy
From His lighthouse evermore;
But to us he gives the keeping
Of the lights along the shore
(Refrain) Let the lower lights be burning,
Send a gleam across the wave.
Some poor fainting, struggling seaman
You may rescue, you may save.
Dark the night of sin has settled.
Loud the angry billows roar;
Eager eyes are watching, longing
For the lights along the shore (Refrain)
Trim your feeble lamp my brother
Some poor seaman, tempest-tossed;
Trying now to make the harbor,
In the darkness may be lost (Refrain).