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Friday, October 5, 2007

Seamen's Bethel - New Bedford

The Seamen's Bethel is a chapel built in New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1832 for the sailors, most of them whalers, who called New Bedford their home port. There are many memorials on the walls for those who perished at sea.

In 1851, Herman Melville published “Moby-Dick” and became inextricably linked with the Seamen’s Bethel of New Bedford. Melville wrote:

"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." The minister of this chapel calls his congregation “shipmates” and recounts for them the story of Jonah and the whale. Here Ishmael sat through the sermon, along with Queequeg, and moodily ruminated on their own fates.

In 1956, Director John Huston shot a scene from the movie adaptation of “Moby-Dick” with Gregory Peck, in front of the real Seamen's Bethel, but interior shots in the movie were not filmed here. This film brought tourists to the area, and also left the Seamen’s Bethel with a new pulpit. The bow-shaped pulpit, which Melville described in his book was entirely made up, and never part of the original chapel. As Melville described it: “Its panelled (sic) front was in the likeness of a ship's bluff bows, and the Holy Bible rested on a projecting piece of scroll work, fashioned after a ship's fiddle-headed beak.”

The film version of “Moby-Dick” brought new visitors here, who were then disappointed to find there was no such pulpit. The bow-shaped pulpit you see here now was built in 1961 as a nod to Melville’s famous novel, and to appease the movie fans.

In 1996 the Seamen's Bethel became part of the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park. It is still a house of prayer, and a memorial to the seamen of New Bedford. Non-demoninational weddings, baptisms and Vesper Services occur here, and you can also visit Melville’s pew, where he sat in 1840.

Herman Melville, born in 1819 in New York City, had written novels, short stories and poems, but what little attention he received dwindled quickly and by the time of his death in 1891, he was almost forgotten. His book “Moby-Dick” was considered a financial flop, and was not revered as a classic until the 20th century.

Mr. Melville worked as a young man as a surveyor on the Erie Canal, afterward his brother got him a job as a cabin boy on a New York ship bound for Liverpool. He later wrote of this journey. Melville then taught school, but in 1840 again decided to sign ship's articles. On New Year's Day, 1841, he sailed from Fairhaven, Massachusetts on the whaler “Acushnet,” which sailed around Cape Horn to the South Pacific. An 18-month voyage, it probably inspired “Moby-Dick”.

Been there? Done that? Bought the T-shirt? Let us know.

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