Seamen's Bethel

Sign marks the white chapel on Johnny Cake Hill in New Bedford.
The Seamen's Bethel is still an active, nondenominational church on Johnny Cake Hill in New Bedford. Photo courtesy: NPS

As the whaling industry grew, the number of seamen in Bedford Village ranged from 5,000 to 10,000 — nearly equaling the population of the village! Their lives, however, vastly contrasted those of locals.

Whalemen sought out gambling dens, brothels, saloons, and dance halls. Leading citizens observed that these establishments were “detrimental to the dignity and good order of our community.” Additionally, Quaker whaling merchants were concerned that whalemen spent the wages of a multi-year voyage in just a few days on such pursuits, leaving them broke and without means of support.


In response, town citizens met in 1830 to discuss the situation. The resulting New Bedford Port Society for the Moral Improvement of Seamen was organized. They immediately offered church services to whalemen before they shipped out on whaling voyages. Services were held either at the waterfront or in the Town Hall. Between the impracticality of waterfront services and the difficulty of constantly arranging to use the Town Hall, the Port Society concluded that they needed their own building. In 1832, the Seamen’s Bethel was dedicated as a nondenominational church and serves today in that capacity.

The term “bethel” comes from two Hebrew words, “Beth” and “El.” Beth means “House” and El means “God,” so it is a Seamen’s House of God or a Seamen’s Church.
 
Black and white photo of Herman Melville.
Herman Melville.
The Melville connection
Whaling was dangerous, so many seamen attended services at the Bethel prior to shipping out on whaling voyages. Herman Melville was among those so inclined.

The 20-year-old Melville attended Bethel services between his late-December arrival to New Bedford in 1840, and the day he sailed out on January 3, 1841. The pew he sat in is located in the southeast corner of the Seamen's Chapel, and is marked for visitors.

The result of Melville’s whaling voyage was Moby Dick. Though a novel, much of Moby Dick is based in fact. Melville writes with such detail about the processing of the captured whale because he lived it for 18 months. That information is based on his experience.

The cenotaph of Captain William Swain (next to the northwest window) confirms that Captain Ahab’s entanglement and drowning was in fact the way that some whalemen died. At the end of the novel, Moby Dick rams and sinks the Pequod; this is modeled after the experience of the whaleship Essex, which was rammed and sunk by a sperm whale.
 
Cenotaphs
The tablets mounted on the side walls look a bit like gravestones. In a sense, that’s what they are. They are called cenotaphs, which translates to “empty grave” in Greek.

When a whaleman was lost or buried at sea, family and friends ashore had no grave to visit. If they desired, they could pay to have a cenotaph placed in the Seamen's Chapel. The cenotaph offers them a place to pay respects to loved ones, similarly to visiting a cemetery.

Cenotaphs provide insight into the dangerous lives of whalemen, as they often mention how men died. Men fell overboard, or fell from a loft and were drowned. Others were simply “lost at sea.” One cenotaph tells of a young man dying hours after a shark bit him. Disease awaited whalemen visiting foreign ports; consumption (tuberculosis), yellow fever, and malaria (among others) all claimed lives.
 
A full crowd listens as a religious leader stands at the prow-shaped pulpit.
Cenotaphs line the wall around the prow-shaped pulpit. Photo courtesy: New Bedford Whaling Museum

The Pulpit
The pulpit described in Moby Dick has helped make the Seamen's Chapel famous, yet it is the result of Melville’s imagination. When Melville describes the Whalemen’s Chapel, he writes that the pulpit is suggestive of the front of a ship. In 1840 however, the pulpit was not prow-shaped; it was most likely a typical New England box-style pulpit.

The pulpit in the Seamen's Chapel today was not inspired by Melville's book so much as it was the 1956 film Moby Dick. Director John Huston unmistakedly depicts the pulpit as the prow of a ship, and films the movie in his native country Ireland. As a result of the movie's success, Americans travel to New Bedford to see the famous pulpit, and were peeved to discover that it didn't exist.

The New Bedford Port Society listened to visitors' grumblings for years before deciding to build a mock-up of the nautical-themed pulpit. Visitors first viewed the new pulpit in 1961, and the Port Society has reported that the grumblings have since stopped.

Last updated: August 3, 2018

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