Baptism in a Bell on the Open Seas

For as long as men and women have sailed the open seas, they have carried with them the rituals of life on land. Births happen at sea, deaths happen at sea, and so too do those infinite number of life’s little miracles and occasions in between. For sailors and their families of the Christian faith, this includes the rite of baptism.

A naval tradition dating back centuries to when Britannia ruled the waves, consecrations or baptisms aboard ships are conducted in or under the ship's bell. This tradition originated with the Royal Navy and is maintained by the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the navies of Australia and Canada, among others. A baptism in the ship’s bell is taken as a sign of life and good luck for the ship.

Sailors Remove a Ships Bell for Baptism

Image: Boatswains Mate 2nd Class Adam Tiscareno, Boatswains Mate 3rd Class Charles Ojeda, and Seaman Chad Hartley assigned to the amphibious assault ship USS Bataan (LHD 5) hang up the ship's bell on the flight deck on October 3, 2020. Bataan is home ported at Naval Station Norfolk. Courtesy: Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Hannah C. Mohr, U.S. Navy.*

How does a baptism at sea work? The chaplain or commanding officer of the ship orders the ship’s bell to be removed from its position of prominence, turned upside down, rested within a typically-wooden holding frame, and filled with water. For a bell that isn't watertight, a small bowl may be placed inside to prevent water from leaking around gaps in the bell's mounting hardware. The ceremony then proceeds as usual within the bell baptismal font. This can be done at sea, in foreign ports, or when docked at homeport. 

Sailors with the U.S. Navy and family attend a baptism in a bell at sea

Image: Lt. Cmdr. Benton Garrett, the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Bataan (LHD 5) command chaplain, performs a baptism ceremony for Boatswain's Mate Seaman Ranzel Arandia's family on the ship's flight deck on July 23, 2022. Bataan is homeported at Naval Station Norfolk. Courtesy: Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Matthew F. Brown, U.S. Navy.*

Vessels of any size under the flag of the armed forces of a nation are generally considered to be an extension of sovereign territory. As such, all the rights of native citizenship are granted to the newborn infant. Of course, sailors may choose a homeport for the christening, so that family members and godparents may more easily attend and witness the occasion.

A sailor engraves the name of his son on the lip of a ship's bell after baptism

Image: Lt. Cmdr. Victor Buhl, assigned to the amphibious assault ship USS Bataan (LHD 5), engraves his son's name into the ship's bell after his son was baptized in the ship's bell on April 5, 2022. Bataan is homeported at Naval Station Norfolk. Courtesy: Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Hannah Mohr, U.S. Navy.*

Following the baptism, it is often tradition to inscribe the name of the baptized on the outside or inner lip of the bell – an honor and a privilege, given the revered status of the ship’s bell to the vessel and crew. On occasion, an inscription might also record a wedding or other significant event of life aboard the ship.

Ship's bell showing the names and dates of those baptized within

Image: A ship's bell shows the names of those baptized within, on display during the decommissioning ceremony for Coast Guard Cutter Jefferson Island in Portland, Maine, on Sept. 19, 2014. Bells are one of many artifacts removed and preserved from decommissioned vessels. Courtesy: Petty Officer 2nd Class LaNola Stone, U.S. Coast Guard.*

Cmdr. Cory Peterson of the USS Kearsarge (LHD 3), who has served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years, gave this reasoning behind choosing to baptize his infant within the ship’s bell: “This ceremony is important to my family because the Navy is such a huge part of our lives,” he said. “Anytime we get an opportunity to connect and give our children a lasting impression of what we do and why we’re called to wear the cloth of our nation is just another chance to bring our family closer together.”

An infant is baptized in a ship's bell

Image: Lt. Jason Ulven, Chaplain at Sector Baltimore, baptizes Marin McCormack, daughter of Chief Petty Officer Eamon McCormack, Officer in Charge of the Coast Guard Cutter Cleat, homeported in Philadelphia, in the ship's bell aboard the cutter on June 3, 2011. Courtesy: Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Lindberg, U.S. Coast Guard.*

Christening is available to anyone, not just children. Adults may also be baptized in a ship’s bell, as their faith and beliefs evolve during long overseas deployments. There is often plenty of time at sea to think on life’s big questions.

U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman is baptized in the ship's bell

Image: Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Jonathan Scripp, from Whitaker, Pennsylvania, right, is baptized by Lt. Joshua Johnson, the Chaplain aboard the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Ross (DDG 71), in a reaffirmation of baptism ceremony using the ship’s bell while in port in the Faroe Islands on May 15, 2021. Courtesy: Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Claire DuBois, U.S. Navy.*

When a ship is decommissioned or, in the event of wreckage, recovered from the sea, the ship’s bell is the signifying artifact that tells the story of the vessel’s adventures. The bells are often passed to naval and civilian museums for safekeeping and display.

There is some movement, as well, to record the inscriptions on bells in a digital archive, so that individuals may more easily confirm the details of their baptism-in-a-bell or that of a loved one.

Son is baptized in a ship's bell

Image: Senior Chief Operations Specialist Justin Oxford, a native of Paso Robles, California, holds his son Rory Oxford during his baptism by retired Navy Chaplain Cmdr. Keith J. Shuley on the flight deck of USS Boxer (LHD 4) on July 15, 2023. Courtesy: Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Connor Burns, U.S. Navy.*

Cover image: Lt. Cmdr. Victor Buhl, assigned to the amphibious assault ship USS Bataan (LHD 5), stands with his wife and son on the flight deck during a baptism on April 2, 2022. Bataan is homeported at Naval Station Norfolk. Courtesy: Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Hannah Mohr, U.S. Navy.*

*The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.