Closer Readings Commentary

A Visit to The Whaleman’s Chapel from “Moby-Dick”

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

In the heart of New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park lies an area spanning 13 city blocks 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 reflects the whaling heritage of “The City that Lit the World” and offers a truly unique literary pilgrimage. Trek up the quaintly named Johnny Cake Hill to find 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

The 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 was begun in early 1831 and completed the next year.

Going to sea is a dangerous business—despite advances in technology, commercial fishing is the deadliest vocation in the United States. The industry’s death rate from 2007 to 2010 was 31 times the national workplace average. The CDC reported 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.

Working seamen make their way to the Bethel for non-denominational services prior to shipping out on their trips as they have since it opened. Among those so inclined was Herman Melville. Like his character Ishmael, the twenty-one year old Melville attended services before embarking on the whaleship, Achusnet, bound for the South Pacific on January 3, 1841.

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

As you enter the main floor of the Bethel, as Melville did 175 years ago, you will find yourself surrounded by a number of large stone tablets mounted on the walls. If they look a bit like gravestones, well—that’s essentially what they are. These “cenotaphs” (literally “empty tombs”) speak the names of those men who left the port of New Bedford on whaling or fishing ships and were lost at sea. A few tablets share the grim circumstances of those deaths.

Each year on Memorial Day the city pays homage to those lost seamen. At 9:30 AM a bell tolls 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 Bethel—Port Society members, fishermen and their families, led by an antique pump organ set in a wheelbarrow, makes its way down Union Street and onto Fishermen's Wharf.

The organ is carefully dismounted. Scripture readings, prayers, hymns, and a eulogy is given. A memorial roll of 289 local men who have been lost over the years is called—after each name a bell is tolled. The service concludes with wreaths of fresh flowers being cast upon the harbor. One wreath will later be retrieved and carried out to the fishing grounds to mark the watery graves of the many who did not return.

The Pulpit

Like most old fashioned pulpits; it was a lofty one…its paneled front was the likeness of a ship’s bluff bows, and the Holy Bible rested on a projecting piece of scroll work after a ship’s fiddle-head beak.—Moby-Dick, chapter 8

Back on the main floor of the Bethel, look in the southeast corner and you will find the name Herman Melville on a little plaque above a pew. Take your seat where Melville once did and contemplate the “hugely mistaken matter of Life and Death.” Consider the high toll making one’s living from the sea exacts—weighed against the price of a plate of scallops or cod.

At the front of the chapel you’ll notice a very unique pulpit in the form of a ship’s prow. Many are surprised to learn it was not there when Melville visited, but emerged from his imagination in the pages of his novel. Following John Huston’s Hollywood adaptation of Moby-Dick starring Gregory Peck in 1956, visitors to the Bethel would become dejected, learning there was no ship’s prow pulpit as depicted in the film. So Port Society members decided to contract a local shipwright to have one designed and built. Since its installation in 1961, many ministers have made the climb up this iconic platform, like Melville’s Reverend Mapple, to preach their sermons and lead the congregation in hymns.

Outreach to teachers

A new three lesson curriculum unit, Melville’s Moby-Dick: Shifts in Narrative Voice and Literary Genres uncovers shifting 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.

June 28, 2015 EDSITEment teamed up with Mystic Seaport educators to present to school librarians assembled at the ALA conference out in San Francisco. “Whale Ho! Hunting for Primary Sources for the Common Core: Lessons from the 38th Voyage” offered a treasure trove of artifacts with interdisciplinary classroom applications to explore America's identity and worldview as shaped by our whaling heritage.