New Bedford Meetinghouse
This blog is long overdue, but I have had a difficult time writing it because I feel so sad about the New Bedford Meetinghouse. I visited there in December of 2014. It was a surprise to me because it is a huge meetinghouse, the largest one I have visited so far. It is clear that at one time it was elegant, well appointed, and a "happening" place. It is no longer any of these things and that was a surprise too. Currently, New Bedford has 9 members with an average of 4 attending Meeting for Worship. How, I wondered, do they keep up with the expense and the work of such a large, historic building complex? I know the members care about it and for it, and they are doing the best that they can.
On my day of photographing here is what I found. Because of a grant, the bricks on the outside were repointed and the roof repaired. The outside looked great. Inside, there is a very large meetingroom with white benches and green cushions. There were separate doors for men and women. The partitions between the men's and women's sides were down. The men's side is in use during the warm weather months. The women's side is a storage area. During the colder months, Meeting for Worship takes place in their community room in an attached, but separate house. There is a very large upstairs area subdivided into smaller rooms. I suspect that this area was once an overflow gallery. It all needs paint and updating. Sorry, New Bedford members, but I have to report that the building had an air of neglect.
I had a difficult time getting solid facts about New Bedford's Quaker history. There are hints of a very important story here and there. I know the history is available in documents somewhere in the town, but no one seems to have solidly pulled together the history of Quakers in New Bedford. Nor could I get any written documents about the New Bedford Meeting itself, at least not much that I could find on cursory investigation.
Here is what I do know. Quakers in New Bedford began meeting in the 1690's as part of the original Dartmouth/Apponegansett Quakers. It became a monthly meeting in 1792. The first meetinghouse was built in 1759. The current meetinghouse was built in 1821-22. At this time, there was a large and wealthy Quaker population in New Bedford. Consequently, it was a large and well-appointed meetinghouse. Some of the New Bedford Quakers came from Nantucket because of the desirable deep-water port, which was needed for whaling. They were pre-eminent whalers and businessmen in town. Quakers influenced life in New Bedford. It became a major stop on the Underground Railroad and because of Quaker belief in Equality, it became known as a place with equal opportunity hiring for all. That was very unusual for this period.
When the current Meetinghouse was built, there were 700 members. For a time (but not currently), New Bedford Meeting was a programmed meeting. The Meeting community supported the building of the first Christian school in Palestine and had the first Friends Bible School in America. Some Quakers left the Meeting because they wanted to wear fancier, more brightly colored clothes more in line with their wealth and status in town. One person told me these Quakers left the Meeting community and helped to establish the Unitarian Church in New Bedford.
There are so many tantalizing hints of a rich Quaker history in New Bedford, but I could not get beyond the hints in the little time that I had. I hope a historian comes forward who will research and write about the Quakers in New Bedford. The meetinghouse also has such great potential and such a rich history to live up to. At the moment it is not living up to either, and I am very sad about that.
The picture I have chosen was of an old collection box that I found on a back wall of the meetinghouse. If you have read this blog, the picture will speak for itself. However, I hope you will go to the New Bedford gallery on my website or on my Facebook page (Framing the Light) and see more photographs that give a more complete picture of what this grand old meetinghouse is like. It is really special.
If you ever get a chance to visit the New Bedford Whaling Museum, there's a display there about Quakers : )
This is a sad story but Meetings come and go. They only thrive while there is a spirit alive in them. What is left is just a shell of the community. Worth remembering but gone as surely as the French monarchy.
No comments posted.