What Does It Mean—Souls On Board?

Mother and daughter asleep on Pan Am airplane“Souls on board”— a phrase referring to the number of people on an airplane or ship. Have you ever wondered why the word “souls”? Why not “people” on board or “passengers” on board?

The answer might lie in the work of Richard Henry Dana, Jr., an American author who wrote a personal narrative called “Two Years Before the Mast.” The book, written in 1840, is about his two-year sea voyage around Cape Horn. It became a best seller and was adapted to a movie in 1946. In his manuscript, Dana penned the first known reference to “souls on board,” his way of describing common sailors and their living conditions; they were “poor souls” when their ship was in peril. Like many phrases from the past, this one stuck and became common terminology among sailors and pilots. Today, they still refer to the number of people on an airplane or ship as “souls on board.” Richard Henry Dana was an intensely religious man, so maybe that accounts for his use of the word “souls.” He understood that we are souls living inside our earthly bodies.

God created our bodies as temples for the Holy Spirit to dwell in, and both our bodies and souls belong to God. The bible tells us, in Psalm 139, that God knows everything about us, body and soul. Before we were formed in our mothers’ wombs, God already knew how many days our bodies would house our souls here on earth.

Too often, we concern ourselves with the number of days our souls will dwell inside of our earthly bodies. Will I live to be old? Will I die in some horrible way? Will I finish all that I want to do before I die? We can’t know. But God does. For each of us, our earthly days are numbered. We are souls on board Planet Earth. God is our Captain, and He alone decides when our days here are done. There is no chance of pilot error. He has the power to save our sick or broken bodies or to separate us from them and release our souls to heaven.

Jesus said, “Don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul. Fear only God, who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matt. 10:29 NLT) When a plane crashes, we hear the media speak of souls on board. We say, “Poor souls,” and “I hope they knew the Lord.” But what we should be doing right now is praying for those souls before the plane crashes, or the ship sinks, before cancer, or old age, or anything else ends their earthly days, because for EVERY person there is the promise of eternal life in heaven, but only if they’ve given themselves to Christ, body and soul.

What shape is your soul in? Is it on board a journey with Christ to eternal life, or is it headed in another direction? Whose soul can you pray for today?


What led Horatio Spafford to write the familiar hymn “It is Well With my Soul”? Watch the video and find out.


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Filed under Death, Evangelism, Fear; Hard Times, God's grace, History, Sharing God with Others, Souls, Uncategorized

3 responses to “What Does It Mean—Souls On Board?

  1. Jean: This gives me a lot to think about. Thank you for this post.

  2. You’re welcome, Cecelia!

  3. Trinita

    I was looking for more information regarding “Souls on board”, but the oldest ref I have found is in Acts 27:37 which was clearly before this author was born/published regarding “souls on board”.

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