Quaker Influence

Black-and-white photo of meetinghouse, with two entrances, set behind trees.
Friends Meetinghouse (1906) located at 83 Spring Street, New Bedford.
Quakers & Whaling
New Bedford's titanic whaling industry would never have bloomed without Quaker Joseph Rotch. The Nantucket merchant brought his whaling expertise and wealth to the area around 1765. By then, merchants and artisans had already begun settling into what is now downtown New Bedford. A savvy businessman, Rotch looked to transform the area — with its deep harbor, and access to New York and Boston markets — into a world-class whaling port.

Rotch purchased 10 acres from the area's first resident, Joseph Russell, and named the area Bedford. The Rotch, Russell, and Rodman families dominated Bedford's economic development. They invested in whaling vessels, whaling equipment, and manufacturing whale products.

By 1775, Bedford Village hosted about 1,000 seamen and 75 vessels. The city quickly grew to support the whaling and shoreside industries; populations grew, streets were laid, and wharves were built. In 1787, Bedford Village became New Bedford to set it apart from another Massachusetts town with the same name. The City of New Bedford was incorporated in 1847.
Quakers & Community
The Society of Friends, or Quakers, fled England in large numbers to escape religious persecution during the 1600s. Quakers believed that all men and women were equal in the eyes of God, and its leaders publicly challenged the English class system.

Many Quakers believed that they were to follow four main tenets: simplicity, truth, equality, and community. Their dedication and commitment to equality and community led many Quakers to become social activists. Though not all Quakers publicly participated in anti-slavery discussions, their influence supported a safe haven for runaway slaves in New Bedford. Their progressive attitudes also encouraged gender equality, allowing women to take charge of homes and businesses while their husbands were off whaling.
James, Elizabeth, Sarah Arnold family gathered in a living room.
Arnold family. Image courtesy: New Bedford Port Society
James & Sarah Arnold
Profiting from the whaling industry, James and Sarah Arnold each invested in the community. James opened his gardens to the public, while Sarah spent time with the city's poor. More information.
Silhouette of Paul Cuffe.
Paul Cuffe. Image courtesy: Library of Congress
Paul Cuffe
Born on Cuttyhunk Island to a freed African man and Native American woman, Paul Cuffe grew to become a successful whaling captain and respected member of his community. More information.
A white church on Johnny Cake Hill.
Seamen's Bethel. Photo courtesy: NPS
Seamen's Bethel
Although built to straighten out some sinful sailors, the Seamen's Bethel also inspired writer Herman Melville and is still an active nondenominational church. More information.
Painting of Quaker William Rotch, Jr.
William Rotch, Jr. Image courtesy: Rotch-Jones-Duff House and Garden Museum
William Rotch, Jr.
As an influential and wealthy Quaker, William Rotch, Jr. supported the whaling industry, anti-slavery efforts, and religious education. More information.

Last updated: August 28, 2018

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