Little known fact about me: I went to seminary! I love thinking about the theological messages that are implicit and explicit in the media I love, and Black Sails has some VERY interesting things to say about religion in general and Christianity in particular. In the following four discussions, we’ll dig into what the characters of Pastor Lambrick and Thomas Hamilton reveal about the Black Sails theological framework.
Season 1, Episode 3: Miranda Barlow and Pastor Lambrick
Pastor Lambrick: I’m afraid I’ve become a burden.
Miranda: Far from it. I look forward to our conversations. This week’s sermon?
PL: Your thoughts are always enlightening.
From their first lines together, we see that Pastor Lambrick frequently visits Miranda and asks her opinion on his sermon notes. Taken charitably, this shows his willingness to accept a woman’s spiritual leading. This is something that is fought about today and perhaps shows the spiritual freedom of 1715 Nassau away from “civilization’s” influence. Cynically, this is Pastor Lambrick’s excuse for spending time with a beautiful woman or a desire for external validation. Since one of Black Sails‘ theological themes is the concurrent sinfulness and saintliness of every man and woman, I like to think that his motivations include all three.
Miranda: Easter. Is it Easter already? ‘It is Christ’s love of sinners that gave him the strength to endure agony. This, the truest form of love, love through suffering.’ Do you believe this?
Pastor Lambrick: It’s not to be believed or disbelieved. It’s God’s gospel truth, is it not?
M: ‘Thy navel is like a round goblet which wanteth not liquor. Thy belly is like a heap of wheat set about with lilies. Thy breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle. Thy stature is like that of a palm tree and thy breasts like clusters of grapes. I will go up the palm tree and take hold of its fruits.’ God wrote that, too. True love shouldn’t require suffering. And you don’t have to take my word for it.
Over and over again, we will see that Lambrick’s faith is simplistic. When Miranda asks him if he believes what he has written about Christ’s love and suffering, his reaction is one of confusion. It is truth, and not to be questioned. Interestingly, Miranda’s argument is not so much about the statement’s truth, but about its totality.
In quoting the erotic love poetry of Song of Solomon, she reminds Lambrick that love, as explained by God, has many forms. Christ’s suffering is one form, but it is not the only way that love exists, and we should not exalt it as such. In effect, she calls Lambrick out on picking and choosing Scripture to suit his message. She is here, I believe, a wonderful example of a systematic theologian.
Pastor Lambrick: I must confess there is an ulterior motive for my visit today beyond the content of my sermon.
Miranda: Is that so?
PL: There are whispers among my flock that a ship of the Royal Navy docked in Harbour Island recently. The Scarborough. They say the king means to reassert colonial rule here. Perhaps soon. Judgment in this world, not the next. For those who are a part of my flock when that judgment arrives, their righteousness will almost certainly go beyond doubt.
M: It’s not quite that simple for me.
PL: Is he keeping you here?
M: Good day, Pastor.
In the final part of their exchange, Lambrick further reveals the motivations for his visit. Before I discuss the negative implications of what he says, I do want to give credit for his asking if Captain Flint is keeping Miranda in the house against her will. More faith leaders would do well to look for and address potential instances of domestic violence among their parishioners. But let’s delve into his assertion that his church will be spared when the British arrive to reassert their dominance.
To begin, his words have an air of paternalistic protection that Miranda clearly has no interest in. It’s telling that she just demonstrated a greater understanding of Scripture than he has, so his sudden switch to “I’ll protect you” contains hints of reasserting power over her.
Far more damning is the way his words bely an exclusionary view of Nassau, one in which his “righteous” flock will be spared. The implication, of course, is that the heathen pirates will not. Although we do not yet know Miranda’s full story, or her opinion of the pirates of Nassau, her disinterest in his proposition is our first hint that she might not see the world so divided.
Ultimately, Lambrick is pretending to be a leader, though one whose leadership is granted through capitulation to England and “civilization.” This is a theme that has yet to be fully fleshed out in the show, but it is important to note going forward.
In our first scene that explicitly discusses theology, we are treated to two drastically different theologians. One is primarily concerned with upholding the status quo, both spiritually and culturally. The other questions what is “obvious,” thinks deeply, and refuses to benefit from the advantages of living under the status quo. It remains to be seen which of these theologians we are meant to admire and imitate.
Season 1, Episode 7: Pastor Lambrick Preaches to an Empty Field
The seventh episode begins with Pastor Lambrick practicing his Easter sermon to an empty field before he is interrupted by a messenger on horseback tearing through his oration.
“Easter is upon us, an opportunity for renewal and rebirth both in spirit and the flesh. And yet we may also ask ourselves, ‘When the spirit is renewed and the body resurrected, what becomes of the sin?’ Will not a trace of it linger to mock and torment us, to remind us of the roiling pit of despair that awaits the unrepentant beyond this life? And yet does it not often feel as if life itself is the pit?”
It’s a short bit of preaching, but it’s fitting in an episode focused on Captain Flint’s plan for Nassau and the partners who fail to support his vision.
For what is Flint’s plan if not one of renewal and rebirth, one in which a wealthy Nassau can allow pirates to become soldiers and farmers? But Lambrick’s sermon asks us to consider this rebirth – can pirates-turned-farmers truly leave behind their old ways? Is a renewed Nassau possible, or will it forever be marred with the sins of corruption, greed, and violence?
Flint believes that, in the words of Lambrick, Nassau can be reborn without sin. But he is very much caught in the “roiling pit of despair” that Lambrick worries is a hellish current existence. Flint tells Miranda that he has made enormous sacrifices for his cause, some of which he is experiencing in this episode as Gates and Miranda abandon his vision. We later learn that James McGraw created the persona of Flint to accomplish Thomas’s plan, and that he hated this persona (aka himself) a little more every day. For ten years. In pursuit of the dream of a renewed Nassau, he lost Thomas and then Miranda. He murdered Gates, his closest friend. He endured mutinies and sent his crew to their deaths on innumerable occasions. He partnered with men he despised and attacked innocent men. His life truly is a hell on earth, but astonishingly, he continues to hope for a hell-free future.
Season 3, Episode 9: Pastor Lambrick and Charles Vane
When Lambrick visits Vane before his execution, his attempt to offer peace and repentance is rejected.
Lambrick enters and offers Vane bread, which coming from a clergyman seems pretty obviously to symbolize Communion. But bread is only one half of the grace of Communion, just as the peace Lambrick is about to offer is not complete. He wants Vane to feel fear for what is coming so that the mighty pirate will need a pastor’s solace.
Lambrick: Men who’ve never experienced fear are said to know it for the first time. But in this moment, there is quiet. An opportunity to find some measure of peace.
Vane: Get many takers, do you? For the kind of peace you’re offering?
Lambrick: It is a different experience to what you may imagine it being. Surely a man like you has faced death before, but never so nakedly.
Lambrick’s pretense is revealed when Vane shows zero interest in accepting what he offers.
“I can help you do that. To repent.”
“I have nothing to repent for with you.”
Tellingly, Vane does not say he has nothing to repent for. He just doesn’t want to repent to Lambrick, later insisting that “whatever I have to say to God, I’ll tell him myself or not at all.” We know that Vane has begun to see the wider ramifications of his kill-or-be-killed worldview. When fighting the Spaniard in 305, Vane realized that everyone isn’t fighting for the glory of fighting. Some fight simply so that their dead bodies will be evidence enough to provide their families with food.
But whatever sins Vane believes he has committed, he has no interest in sharing them with someone like Lambrick, who will use them as evidence to distance himself, a “good” man, from “monsters” like Vane.
“Don’t you? I understand you believe your violence is justified in the name of a defiance of tyranny, but there are mothers who buried their sons because of you. Wives widowed because of you. Children awoken in their sleep to be told their father was never coming home because of you. What kind of man can experience no remorse from this?”
“What kind of man” reveals that Lambrick shares civilization’s instinct to make pirates inhuman. Vane clearly sees Lambrick as representative of the people he hates, those who would willingly enslave themselves to England, and an English worldview, for a bit of comfort and security.
Lambrick: I am a shepherd sent to help you find a path to God’s forgiveness.
Vane: A shepherd? You are the sheep.
Sheep are consumed by fear, and a shepherd leads them into a new world of freedom and hope. Vane sees Lambrick’s hypocrisy and therefore wants nothing from this man of God who is blind to his own failings.
Ironically, although Lambrick did not get what he wanted, Vane does leave their conversation with peace. He has seen himself as a shepherd capable of leading people into freedom, and as such he delivers one hell of a last speech. It probably wasn’t quite what Lambrick intended.
Pastor Lambrick and Thomas Hamilton
There are two main characters in Black Sails whose actions are explicitly motivated by Christianity: Pastor Lambrick and Thomas Hamilton. Together they represent the best and worst of their religion, with one embodying its privilege and the other its sacrifice. This duality is perfectly expressed in the metaphor of a shepherd and the sheep. A shepherd leads people and challenges the status quo for the betterment of their flock, even at personal risk. The sheep follow people and fearfully accept the status quo out of a desire to maintain their privilege.
Pastor Lambrick believes he is a shepherd, but his conversations with Miranda and Vane reveal his inner sheep. As I mentioned earlier, Lambrick has an exclusionary view of Nassau that separates his “righteous” flock from the heathen pirates. This becomes even more obvious in his conversation with Vane, which ends with him implying that Vane is inhuman. He sees his connection with civilization as something that elevates him above others. We have never seen him try to create a better life for the men and women of Nassau in the present, and when forced to interact with a pirate, the only hope he offers is a fear-based call to repentance in hope of a better life to come. One imagines Vane might have been more open to repenting to Lambrick if he had seen the man fight against slavery and injustice rather than enjoy a comfortable life in the island’s interior. Lambrick’s power is entirely based upon capitulation to England. He believes he is a shepherd when in reality, he is a sheep.
Miranda: In some ways he [Thomas] was like you, a shepherd to his flock.
Unofficially, Thomas Hamilton established himself as a shepherd to men and women in England by hosting salon conversations with the goal of seeing “the yoke of shame lifted from your shoulders,” a habit that seems to be grace incarnate. Both in word and in deed, Thomas believes that his social and political privilege is something to be sacrificed, not clung to. In episode 201, he gives money to the poor, which seems to be a regular occurrence. His plan to offer pardons to the pirates of Nassau is done out of a desire to inspire England to live up to its Christian ideals (204) despite the possibility, and eventual reality, of it costing him everything. Thomas passionately lives out his ideals, leading others into freedom as their shepherd.
Lambrick, the sheep, sees monsters where there are men, and he wants people to change in order to better serve England. Thomas, the shepherd, sees men where others see monsters, and he wants England to change in order to better serve people. There is no question as to who is more fully living out Christ’s belief in inherent human dignity and His willingness to sacrifice privilege for others’ gain. The fact that Black Sails chose to show Christ embodied in a rich white queer polyamorous man opens spiritual doors that some churches currently keep closed, and I personally find that incredibly beautiful.