I hope that none of your your travels turn out like what’s depicted in the artwork above. The oil painting, completed by Edwin Henry Landseer in 1864, shows two polar bears ravaging what’s left of Sir John Franklin’s attempt to find the Northwest Passage, a sailable path through the Arctic Ocean from Europe to India and China. Franklin set out in 1845 with two ships and their crews, totaling 134 men. Three years later, the ships became stuck in the ice of the Canadian Arctic and all had to set out on foot (except for five who had been sent home shortly after the voyage began). After walking away from their vessels, named the Erebus—after Greek mythology’s personification of darkness—and the Terror, none survived.
The explorer John Rae, in 1854, came across some Inuit who were carrying personal items from the Franklin expedition. They had collected them from abandoned campsites, where they had also found signs of cannibalism amongst the crew.
The title of the painting, Man Proposes, God Disposes, says something about the sometimes harsh intersection of humanity’s plans with divine governance. But the artist’s intention may have had less to do with theology and more to do with portraying the hubris of an English society that felt nothing could stand in the way of its forward progress.
Even though the men of the Franklin expedition seemed well-prepared, many today call the trek “doomed” from the beginning. The New York Times Magazine reports that the two ships carried enough food for three years, including “32,289 pounds of preserved meat, 1,008 pounds of raisins and 580 gallons of pickles.” But that may have been as much a curse as a blessing.
In 1850, a search party of Americans and British found three graves on Beechey Island, Canada, containing the bodies of three crew members who had died in 1846. Canadian anthropologist Owen Beattie, in 1984, dug up the graves and performed autopsies on the bodies. He found they contained high levels of lead, leading him to believe that the crew had been poisoned by their food, stored in tins with lead solder.
Four years ago, underwater archaeologists with Parks Canada discovered the Erebus at the bottom of Queen Maud Gulf. Ryan Harris, lead diver of the group, says that the mission’s fate was already sealed from the day they set out, not because of errors from its leader, but by poor planning from those above him. ‘‘Franklin and his men were doomed the moment they received orders from the admiralty. He followed those orders to a T and into the worst choke point in the Arctic Archipelago,” Harris tells The New Yorker Magazine. “The notion that Franklin was anything but a sterling naval officer I just can’t accept. He followed his orders faithfully and died.’’
Landseer’s Man Proposes, God Disposes now hangs in the College Picture Gallery of Royal Holloway, University of London, where it can be viewed throughout the year, except during exams. At that time, the painting is covered with the Union Jack, as legend says that students who look at the image will fail their tests . . . or slip into madness.
That tells us about the subject of Landeer’s painting, but where did the title come from? The phrase “Man proposes, God disposes” is not original to the artist (and it doesn’t come from the Bible, either, as many assume—at least not directly). Rather, it first appeared in The Imitation of Christ, written by Thomas à Kempis in the early 15th century. The relevant passage is in book 1, chapter 19, titled “Of the Exercise of a Religious Man,” which discusses a Christian’s consistency in keeping daily devotions. While Landseer’s use of “Man proposes, God disposes” is a look back on failed plans, Thomas à Kempis’s usage has a somewhat different bent, more of a call to rely on God’s help to reach a plan’s fulfillment.
The life of a Christian ought to be adorned with all virtues, that he may be inwardly what he outwardly appeareth unto men. And verily it should be yet better within than without, for God is a discerner of our heart, Whom we must reverence with all our hearts wheresoever we are, and walk pure in His presence as do the angels. We ought daily to renew our vows, and to kindle our hearts to zeal, as if each day were the first day of our conversion, and to say, “Help me, O God, in my good resolutions, and in Thy holy service, and grant that this day I may make a good beginning, for hitherto I have done nothing!”
According to our resolution so is the rate of our progress, and much diligence is needful for him who would make good progress. For if he who resolveth bravely oftentimes falleth short, how shall it be with him who resolveth rarely or feebly? But manifold causes bring about abandonment of our resolution, yet a trivial omission of holy exercises can hardly be made without some loss to us. The resolution of the righteous dependeth more upon the grace of God than upon their own wisdom; for in Him they always put their trust, whatsoever they take in hand. For man proposeth, but God disposeth; and the way of a man is not in himself.
While the wording “Man proposes, God disposes” (“Nam homo proponit, sed Deus disponit in Latin), is not found in the Bible, the idea behind it is.
There is Proverbs 16:9 (NIV),
In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps.
and Proverbs 19:21 (NIV),
Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.
Also, the phrase following “Man proposes, God disposes” in Imitation of Christ, comes from Jeremiah 10:23, in the King James Version:
O Lord, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps.
Let me repeat, I hope that none of your travels turn out like what’s depicted in Landseer’s painting.
Instead, as you resolve to explore new territories, whether that be through outward excursions or inner searchings, may you be hemmed in as gently as possible, when necessary. And when you’re striving down the right path, may God’s grace strengthen you to continue on.
(Leanne Sharpton, “Artifacts of a Doomed Expedition,” The New York Times Magazine, March 18, 2016; Laura MacCulloch, “The Haunted Painting of Fabled Franklin Ship Discovered in the Canadian Arctic,” The Conversation, September 11, 2014; Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, translated by William Benham , ca 1420)
[artwork: Man Proposes, God Disposes, by Edwin Henry Landseer, 1864, public domain]