The Real Story Behind New Bedford’s Seaman’s Bethel Pulpit
Who hasn't visited New Bedford's famed Seamen's Bethel and gazed at the prow-shaped pulpit, wondering about its origins and who might have ascended the steps to address the congregates in the pews below?
According to the National Park Service (NPS), the Seamen's Bethel was dedicated by the New Bedford Port Society for the Moral Improvement of Seamen in 1832. The Society itself was founded two years earlier in response to the growing number of seamen in the largely Quaker Bedford Village.
"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,'" according to the Park Service website.
The Seamen's Bethel was dedicated as a nondenominational church, as it remains to this day.
From late December 1840 to January 3, 1841, when he sailed on the 359-ton square-rigged whaleship Acushnet out of New Bedford for an 18-month sea voyage, author Herman Melville attended services at the Seamen's Bethel.
The classic Moby-Dick is loosely based on that adventure.
The book, followed by the 1956 John Houston film Moby Dick, shot mainly in Ireland, depicted the pulpit resembling a ship's bow. The film's popularity drove tourists to New Bedford in search of the famed Seamen's Bethel with the prow-shaped pulpit.
The tourists were disappointed to find the pulpit did not exist, at least not in that form. The National Park Service says Bethel's original pulpit was "most likely a typical New England box-style pulpit."
It was not until 1961 that the New Bedford Port Society decided to "build a mock-up of the nautical-themed pulpit."
The Seamen's Bethel, location at 15 Johnny Cake Hill in the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.
As the late, great Paul Harvey would say, "Now you know the rest of the story."