Seamen's Bethel

The exterior of the Seamen's Bethel
The Seamen's Bethel is open Memorial Day through Columbus Day. See operating hours & seasons for details.

Photo by John Robson

What is a Bethel?
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.
Why was the Bethel built?
The Quaker whaling merchants applied their beliefs in industry, thrift, honesty, hard work, and integrity to the whaling trade. The result in the profitable business made them wealthy beyond belief. With their wealth, they built fine mansions surrounded by beautiful gardens. Artists were attracted to Bedford Village and it became a community of culture and refinement.

As the whaling industry grew, more and more men were needed to man the many whaleships leaving the port. At various times, the number of seamen in Bedford Village ranged from 5,000 to 10,000 — nearly equaling the population of the village! The lives of these whale men were quite a contrast to those of the local citizens. Whale men sought out gambling dens, brothels, saloons, and dance halls — establishments which, as the leading citizens observed, were “detrimental to the dignity and good order of our community.” In addition, Quaker whaling merchants were concerned that the whale men spent the wages of a multi-year voyage in just a few days on such pursuits, leaving them broke and without means of support.

What to do? In 1830, the leading citizens of the town met to discuss the situation and as a result of that meeting the New Bedford Port Society for the Moral Improvement of Seamen was organized. They immediately offered church services to whale men before they shipped out on whaling voyages. Services were held either down at the waterfront or in the Town Hall. The long-term impracticality of waterfront services and the difficulty of constantly arranging to use the Town Hall soon led the Port Society to conclude that they needed their own building. In 1832, the Seamen’s Bethel was dedicated as a nondenominational church and serves today in that capacity.

Photo of Herman Melville

Used with permission of the Berkshire Athenaeum, Pittsfield MA

The Melville Connection

Because whaling was so dangerous, many whalemen felt the need to attend services at the Bethel prior to shipping out on whaling voyages. Among those so inclined was Herman Melville, who came to New Bedford in late December of 1840 and stayed until he sailed out on January 3, 1841. While he was here, he attended Bethel services and the pew he sat in is marked. It is in the southeast corner of the Whaleman’s Chapel. The result of Melville’s voyage was Moby-Dick.

While Moby-Dick is a novel, there is much in it that has its basis in fact. Melville can write with such detail about the processing of the captured whale because he lived it for 18 months. That information is not made up. Also, the cenotaph of Capt. William Swain (next to the northwest window) clearly illustrates that the manner of Captain Ahab’s death was in fact the way that some whalemen died. The end of the novel, where Moby Dick rams and sinks the Pequod is modeled after the real-life experience of the whaleship Essex, which was rammed and sunk by a sperm whale. Much of Moby-Dick can be considered factual. More about Herman Melville

A cenotaph or
Cenotaphs such as this one memorialize whalemen and fishermen who have lost their lives at sea.

The tablets mounted on the side walls look a bit like gravestones. It is a good comparison because in a sense that’s what they are. They are called “cenotaphs” — the word comes from the Greek and it means “empty grave.” 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 Whaleman’s Chapel and they could come to pay their respects to their loved ones just as folks would visit a cemetery.

Reading the cenotaphs can provide insight into the lives of whaleman. They often mention how men died. A brief survey of them will highlight the dangerous life aboard ship. Men fell overboard or fell from aloft and were drowned. Others were simply “lost at sea.” One cenotaph tells of a young man bitten by a shark, and dying some hours later. If whalemen survived the dangers of the whaling voyage and were fortunate enough to visit foreign ports, the danger of disease was always lurking there. Cenotaphs indicate consumption (tuberculosis), yellow fever, and malaria were among the illnesses claiming lives.


The Pulpit
Ironically, there is one element of Moby-Dick that has helped to make the Whalemen’s Chapel famous, yet it is the result of Melville’s imagination. When Melville writes of the Whalemen’s Chapel, he describes the pulpit as being suggestive of the front of a ship. But the pulpit when he visited was not prow-shaped; in all probability it was a typical New England box-style pulpit.

The pulpit in the Whalemen’s Chapel today is not due to Melville’s book, but to the movie which was released in 1956. The director of the movie, John Huston, was Irish and he went to Ireland to film the movie. The pulpit seen in that movie is unmistakably the prow of a ship. When the movie was released, it was hugely successful and one result was that Americans wanted to visit New Bedford to see the Seamen’s Bethel with that pulpit in the Whalemen’s Chapel. The only problem was they arrived expecting to see something that did not exist. And they were not happy to discover an ordinary pulpit in the Chapel.

The New Bedford Port Society listened to the grumblings of visitors for some years before deciding to build a mock-up of the pulpit described in the book and seen in the movie. The idea was that they would test visitor reaction, and if it was positive, then a more authentic-looking pulpit would be done. The new pulpit was first seen by visitors in 1961 and since the pulpit met expectations, the grumblings stopped. The pulpit remains today because visitors are generally satisfied with it and since the Seamen’s Bethel relies on donations to operate, there are more important areas for funds to be used than building an authentic-looking pulpit.

Last updated: March 31, 2012

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