Visiting the Seaman’s Bethel

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Tower of Seaman's Bethel, New Bedford
Shelley NiTuama, 2016. Photograph, Seaman’s Bethel, New Bedford, Massachusetts, May 2015. Public domain

In the heart of New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park lies an area of streets paved with sett stones—a brick-shaped version of cobblestones dating back to the 1800s. Now under the management of the National Park Service, this walkable historic district encompasses a 12-block radius that reflects the whaling heritage of “The City that Lit the World.” This destination offers a truly unique literary pilgrimage should you want to make the trek up the quaintly named Johnny Cake Hill to explore the Seaman's Bethel, immortalized in Melville’s novel Moby-Dick.

Seaman’s Bethel

“In this same New Bedford there stands a Whaleman's Chapel, and few are the moody fishermen, shortly bound for the Indian Ocean or Pacific, who fail to make a Sunday visit to the spot. I am sure that I did not.”Moby-Dick, chapter 7

Sign on anchor at Seaman's BethelThe Seaman's Bethel stands today as it has for over 180 years: to serve the maritime community. The idea for the chapel was conceived by a group of prominent Quaker citizens concerned about the “arduous and licentious lifestyles of the nearly 5,000 seamen employed at this port.” Construction began in early 1831 and was completed the next year. The New Bedford Port Society owns and operates the Bethel, as a working chapel.  This building has undergone a recent restoration to retain its status as a significant landmark to the city’s maritime heritage. It is open to the public seven days a week 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Going to sea is a dangerous business, and despite advances in technology, commercial fishing is the deadliest vocation in the United States. The industry’s fatality rate from 2007 to 2010 was 31 times the national workplace average. The CDC reported that 545 commercial fishermen lost their lives in the first decade of the 21st century. More than half of those deaths were due to “vessel disaster,” with entire ships and their crews sometimes being swallowed by the sea.

To this day, working seamen make their way to the Bethel for non-denominational services prior to shipping out on their fishing trips. Among those so inclined was 21-year-old untested seaman named Herman Melville, who like his fictional character Ishmael, attended services here before embarking on his iconic voyage bound for the South Pacific whaling grounds.

The Pulpit

“What could be more full of meaning?—for the pulpit is ever this earth’s foremost part: all the rest comes in its rear; the pulpit leads the world.” —Moby-Dick, chapter 8

Seaman's Bethel Pulpit in shape of ship's prowEntering the chapel, you are greeted by a pulpit in the form of a ship’s prow, which was not in place when Melville attended service there in early January 1841. The idea emerged more than a decade after his voyage, while penning Moby–Dick.

Flash forward a century to the year 1956. Following the release of John Huston’s Hollywood adaptation of the novel, starring Gregory Peck, the Seaman’s Bethel became inundated with tourists who were disappointed there was no ship’s prow pulpit there as depicted in the film. In reaction, the Port Society members decided to have one designed and built, and to that end they contracted a local shipwright, Palmer Scott.

Since its installation in 1961, many ministers have made the climb up the platform. Most deliver their messages of salvation in a somewhat more subdued manner from that of Melville’s Reverend Mapple’s fiery sermon, and lead the congregation in hymns.

Remembering those lost at sea

“The chaplain had not yet arrived; and there these silent islands of men and women sat steadfastly eyeing several marble tablets, with black borders, masoned into the wall on either side the pulpit. . .What bitter blanks in those black-bordered marbles which cover no ashes! What despair in those immovable inscriptions!”Moby-Dick, chapter 7

On the main floMemorial to crew of "Irene and Hilda"or of the Seaman’s Bethel, you will find yourself surrounded by a number of large stone tablets mounted on the walls, as Melville did 175 years ago. If these appear to resemble gravestones, well, that is essentially what they are. These “cenotaphs” (meaning literally “empty tombs”) are markers that speak the names of those men who shipped out of the port of New Bedford and were lost at sea. A few of these tablets share the grim circumstances of those deaths.

Move over to the southeast corner of the chapel and you will find the name Herman Melville on a little plaque on the wall above a pew where the famous author sat before he shipped out. Take your seat and contemplate the “hugely mistaken matter of Life and Death,” as Melville did, just as countless fisherman and sailors before and since must have done. Consider the high toll making one’s living from what the sea exacts, and weigh that against the price of a plate of scallops or cod.

Memorial Day service

“Would to God these blessed calms would last. But the mingled, mingling threads of life are woven by warp and woof: calms crossed by storms, a storm for every calm. There is no steady unretracing progress in this life; we do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last one pause. . . . But once gone through, we trace the round again; and are infants, boys, and men, and Ifs eternally. Where lies the final harbor, whence we unmoor no more?” — Moby-Dick, chapter 114

Memorial Day serviceEvery year on Memorial Day in the city of New Bedford there is a unique memorial paying homage to those seamen who were lost and never recovered. At 9:30 a.m. church bells begin to toll solemnly across the waterfront, calling members of the community to the annual Fishermen's Memorial Service. At that time an unusual procession begins at the Seaman’s Bethel: Port Society members, the families of fisherman lost at sea, and other interested participants are led down to the waterfront behind an antique pump organ that is set in a large red wheelbarrow. 

The solemn parade wends its way down set stone streets to the makeshift platform on the wharf, where the organ is carefully dismounted. An ancient dirge is played as members of the clergy and Port Society lead the assembly in scripture readings, prayers, and hymns. A communal eulogy is given to the lost fishermen. The names of over 300 men who have been lost at sea since 1925 are called one at a time, including Arne Knudsen, my maternal grandfather, who was lost at sea in a storm in March 1951. After each name the bell is tolled—casting a haunting pall over the crowd.

The service concludes with several wreaths of fresh flowers thrown over the pier, upon the harbor waters. One of those wreaths will later be retrieved and conveyed out to the off-shore fishing grounds to mark the watery graves of those who did not return to port. Following the memorial service, there is often a ceremony known as the Blessing of the Fleet performed by members of the local clergy. A benediction is given to fishing vessels and fisherman and petitions are made for a plentiful fishing season.

Teaching Resources

Melville’s Moby-Dick: Shifts in Narrative Voice and Literary Genres uncovers changing perspectives and delves into Melville’s complex protagonists—the sometimes narrator Ishmael and the multifarious Captain Ahab. It also introduces students to several literary genres that Melville integrated into the novel.

From Pursuit to Preservation: The History of Human Interaction with Whales offers an audio Gallery Tour that explores the human fascination with whales and the history of whaling in New Bedford in a global context.

Amazing Whales! is an informational read-aloud exemplar text directed to the youngest students. This resource covers the habitat, characteristics, and behaviors of whales and serves to introduce budding naturalists in the primary grades to this species.

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