Seamen’s Bethel, a chapel in New Bedford, MA, was built in 1832 as a non-denominational house of worship for mariners who were either preparing for or returning from whaling expeditions. In addition to its role as a spiritual anchor, it served as a memorial with historical records of those who lost their lives at sea. Herman Melville renamed it the Whaleman’s Chapel in his 1851 novel, Moby Dick, portraying its historic significance as part of the story.
The reason for building Seamen’s Bethel had to do with the rowdy ways of sailors in port. After spending roughly three years at sea on a whaling voyage, their behavior on land was often loud and generally disruptive. When New Bedford became the “whaling capital of the world” in the mid-19th century, there would be as many as 10,000 seamen in town at the same time. They often spent their money in the local brothels and saloons. The more money they spent in town, the less they had for their long-term financial support.
The sailors’ splurging was in sharp contrast to the lifestyle of whaling merchants, many of whom were Quakers who made fortunes in their business through a combination of honesty, hard work and thriftiness. In 1830, the merchants and other prominent citizens formed an organization to provide religious services to seamen before they embarked on their next whaling expedition. This group, known as the New Bedford Port Society for the Moral Improvement of Seamen, held services on the waterfront or at Town Hall until Seamen’s Bethel was dedicated in 1832.
In addition to offering worship services, Seamen’s Bethel became known for its wall tablets, paid for by family and friends of those who had either died or were lost at sea. These tablets, known as cenotaphs, resembled headstones in a cemetery and contained the sailor’s name, age, city of residence, name of ship, location at sea, cause and date of death, and who erected the tablet. If a whaleman died in a foreign port, that location was also included in the inscription.
The tablets provided information about the dangers and diseases 19th-century seamen faced ranging from accidents aboard ship to shark bites, diseases such as malaria and yellow fever, and being killed in battle. In Moby Dick, Melville describes the tablets as Ishmael is reading them and wondering if he will meet that same fate.
Melville served as a crew member aboard the whaling ship, Acushnet, for eighteen months. Prior to shipping out in 1841, he attended services at Seamen’s Bethel. Today, the chapel is still used for non-denominational services. It is part of the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park and is one of the locations of the annual marathon reading of Moby Dick.
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