Seamen’s Bethel in New Bedford. MA, is a small chapel built in 1832 that is still active today. Its original purpose was to hold non-denominational religious services for those who went to sea on whaling voyages. It provided a vital link between the lives of seamen before and after an expedition, and later became a historical record of the hardships and causes of death at sea. Seamen’s Bethel is known as the Whaleman’s Chapel in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and is as famous for its fictional reference as it is for its factual history.
Many of the early whaling merchants were Quakers, whose hard working, honest and thrifty practices helped them amass fortunes in their trade. New Bedford was involved in every aspect of the whaling industry and soon became the “whaling capital of the world.” As the number of ships embarking on new expeditions increased, so did the number of seamen. Sometimes, there would be anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 seamen in town at the same time. They frequently visited the local saloons and brothels, carousing and generally disrupting the community.
Aside from the disruptive actions, the Quaker merchants did not want the seamen spending their hard-earned money within a matter of days when they were in port. Whaling voyages could last three years or longer. The money they earned was their means of support. There was no unemployment income.
Prominent citizens formed the New Bedford Port Society for the Moral Improvement of Seamen in 1830. Religious services were offered to whalemen prior to embarking on their next voyage. For the first two years, services were held either at the waterfront or Town Hall. The Port Society dedicated Seamen’s Bethel in 1832 as a non-denominational church. “Bethel” is a combination of the Hebrew “Beth” (House) and “El” (God) so literally, it means Seamen’s House of God.
The church is famous for its wall tablets called cenotaphs (Greek for “empty grave”) which look like headstones in a cemetery. When whalemen died or were lost at sea, they were buried at sea. There was no gravesite where people could go to pay their respects. Families and friends could pay for a cenotaph to be put on the wall with the name, age, city of residence, name of ship, date, location and cause of death. If a seaman died in a foreign port, that information would also be included. The causes of death provide insight to the hardships, dangers and diseases of the 19th century. They include falling overboard, falling from aloft, drowning, shark bites, consumption, malaria, yellow fever, and being killed in a battle.
Herman Melville attended services at Seaman’s Bethel before he shipped out in 1841. The death of the fictional Captain Ahab in Moby Dick is the way some whalemen died. The cenotaph of Captain William Swain says he was fastened to a whale, “carried overboard by the line, and drowned.” In one chapter in Moby Dick, Melville described the cenotaphs. Ishmael is reading how the whalemen died and thinks, “Yes, Ishmael, the same fate may be thine.”
Seamen’s Bethel is still used for non-denominational services today. It is across the street from the New Bedford Whaling Museum and is included in the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park. The chapel adds to the history of whaling and honors those whalemen who died at sea.
By Cynthia Collins
New Bedford Port Society