Due to the Seamen’s Bethel association for more than 175 years with the old New Bedford whalemen and other sailors who “Go down to the Sea in Ships,” it has become well known in the ports of every ocean on the globe.
What is a Bethel?
The term “bethel” comes from two Hebrew words, “Beth” and “El.” Beth means “House” and El means “God,” so it is a Seamen’s House of God or a Seamen’s Church.
Why was the Bethel built?
The New Bedford Port Society for the Moral Improvement of Seamen offered church services to whalemen before they shipped out on whaling voyages. Services were held either down at the waterfront or in the Town Hall. The long-term impracticality of waterfront services and the difficulty of constantly arranging to use the Town Hall soon led the Port Society to conclude that they needed their own building. In 1832, the Seamen’s Bethel was dedicated as a nondenominational church and serves today in that capacity.
The Melville Connection
Because whaling was so dangerous, many whalemen felt the need to attend services at the Bethel prior to shipping out on a voyage. Among those so inclined was Herman Melville, who came to New Bedford in late December of 1840 and stayed until he sailed out on January 3, 1841. While he was here, he attended Bethel services and the pew he sat in is marked. It is in the southeast corner of the Whaleman’s Chapel.
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