Universalism in New Bedford

I’m on study leave this week, and today I’ve been doing a little research on 19th C. Universalism in New Bedford.

There’s some good stories buried in the mass (mess?) of data below: material about the Universalist Hosea Knowlton, who was the prosecutor during the Lizzie Borden trial; about Nathan Johnson, an African American who was a member of the Universalist church in New Bedford c. 1840; about Rev. W. C. Stiles, who converted from Universalism to “orthodox” Congregationalism in 1880; and more.

Since this won’t appeal to everyone, I’ll put the bulk of the material after a jump….

Timeline of Universalist preachers in New Bedford, Mass.

The following list of 19th C. Universalist preachers was compiled by Judith Lund, church historian of First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. Most of Judy’s material comes from “The Universalist Church,” an essay by Hiram Van Campen, in History of New Bedford and Its Vicinity 1602-1892, ed. L. B. Ellis (1892). I have added notes to the end of this list, which include a few extended quotes from 19th C. source material, among other tidbits.

Universalist preaching may be said to have begun c. 1825, when Rev. Hosea Ballou apparently preached here in an effort to start a Universalist church. [See Note (1) below.]

In 1833, Alanson St. Claire preached about 3 months in another attempt to organize a Universalist society. Officers were elected Jan 6, 1834. A few other meetings were held, but the organization was apparently short-lived.

On April 19, 1836, a meeting was held for the purpose of forming a Universalist Society. The meeting accepted recommendation of lot at Fifth (Purchase) and School (now a parking lot of Pilgrim UCC Church), and a building committee formed. Hosea Ballou preached the dedication sermon in September, 1836.

Sept 13: meeting held in the new meetinghouse for sale of pews. Rev. John M[urray]. Spear presided. [See note (2) below.] Spear served six years, until 1841.

Rev. L. L. Sadler served as supply minister for six months following Spear’s departure. [See note (3) below.]

Rev. G. T. Farnsworth, served 1841-1843. (An 1869 source [see note (1)] has Farnsworth serving until 1846.)

Rev. Silas S. Fletcher, served 1844-1846. (An 1869 source [see note (1)] has Fletcher serving 1846-1849.)

(An 1869 source [see note (1)] lists Rev. Mr. Waldo as minister in 1849.)

That original Universalist church dissolved in 1849; the church building was sold. In 1851, a new Universalist group began forming. Dr. Hatch a layman, preached initially. (An 1869 source [see note (1)] says the new society was formed at a legal meeting on Nov. 15, 1851.)

Rev. Hiram Van Campen served as first minister of the new society from 1851-1853. (An 1869 source [see note (1)] states that he continued until 1854.)

Rev. B. V. Stevenson served from 1854-?. A church building was erected on William Street, and dedicated August 15, 1855 [still standing, now the site of Gallery X, an artists’ cooperative]. Organized as The First Universalist Society of New Bedford.

Rev J. J. Twiss served 1857-1859. [By 1879, Twiss was serving the Unitarian church in Chelmsford, Mass.]

Rev. T. E. St. John was initially pulpit supply, then installed as minister, served 1859-1862.

Rev. S. L. Roripaugh served 1863-1863 or so, resigned due to illness. [See note (4) below.]

Rev. George W. Skinner served approx. 1 year, maybe 1864-1865.

Rev. Isaac C. Knowlton served 1866-1871. [See Note (5) below.]

Rev. C. B. Lombard served a few months, resigned due to illness.

Prof. Shipman of Tufts University, the Universalist college in Medford, Mass., served as supply preacher. [See note (6) below.]

Rev. J. H. Farnsworth served 1875-1877.

Rev. W. C. Stiles served 1878-1880. [See note (7) below.]

Rev. C. R. Tenney of the Mattapoisett Universalist church served as supply preacher until August, 1881. [See note (8) below.]

Rev. G. T. Flanders D. D. served 1882-1891. [For an 1883 publication on Universalism in New Bedford, see note (9) below.]

Rev. William F. Potter began serving in 1892. The Ellis history was written in that year, so contains no further information.


Note (1):The history of Universalism in New Bedford goes back to the 1820’s, according to this passage from History of the Churches in New Bedford, published in 1869 (pp. 113-115):

Rev. Hosea Ballou preacher the first Universalist sermon in this place more than forty years ago, in a carpenter shop owned by Dudley Davenport, which stood on the site now occupied by the Trinitarian Church. Subsequently occasional services were held, but very irregularly, and no permanent organization was attempted until April 19th, 1835, when a meeting was held at the Town Hall, at which a committee was appointed to procure a site for a church. It purchased a lot on the corner of School and Fifth streets, and a church was built by Dudley Davenport, at a cost of $6,500….

Previous to the completion of this edifice, Rev. John M.[urray] Spear was engaged temporarily to preach in the Town Hall, and permanently installed as pastor, April, 1836. In September following the house was dedicated, Rev. Hosea Ballou preaching the sermon. Mr. Spear retained his post until September, 1841. He was succeeded by Rev. L. S. Sadler, who preached for the society only six months; and was followed by Rev. Mr. Farnsworth, who continued his ministry until October, 1846; after which the Rev. Silas S. Fletcher officiated as pastor to the satisfaction of the society, until 1849, when Rev. Mr. Waldo assumed the pastoral charge. In the Spring of 1849, owing to the removal of a number of its members, and some embarrassment in its financial affairs, it became necessary to sell the church edifice, and the society lost its existence.

During the Summer of 1851, an effort was made to reorganize the church, and in the Fall of the same year, Rev. H. Van Campbell was invited to preach premanently. On the 15th of November, a legal meeting was convened in Sears Hall, and a new society, numbering 24 members, was formed.

During the second year of Mr. Van Campbell’s pastorate, he gave notice of his resignation to take effect at the close of that year. His services were however, continued until the commencement of 1854, when Rev. Mr. Stevenson, of Chelsea, became pastor. He reamined three years. During the second year, the church on William street was erected. Services were held in the vestry, June 3d, but the building was not finished until some two months later; it was dedicated August 15th, 1855, sermon by the pastor. The whole cost was $10,000; it was all paid for at that time, and has ever been free from debt….”


Note (2): John Murray Spear has been the subject of recent scholarly inquiry. John Buescher, professor of philosophy and religious studies at U. North Carolina Wilmington, published a biography of Spear and his brother Charles (2006). Buescher places Spear in New Bedford from 1835 to 1841. During Spear’s tenure as minister, Nathan Johnson, one of the most prominent African American citizens of New Bedford at that time, joined the Universalist Church; Johnson, a conductor on the Underground Railroad, remains justly famous for befriending and housing Frederick Douglass upon Douglass’s arrival in New Bedford in 1837. Kathryn Grover, an independent scholar, refers to Spear’s abolitionist efforts in New Bedford in her book The Fugitive’s Gibraltar: Escaping Slaves and Abolitionism in New Bedford, Massachusetts, (2001). Citing the 1841 incident in which Spear helped secure the freedom of the slave Lucy Faggins, Grover quotes from a letter written by the Quaker abolitionist Susan Taber of New Bedford:

…Now that this chattel person [Faggins] is beyond their reach [i.e., safe from Ludlam, her master, and the pro-slavery forces in New Bedford] they have become desperate. They are determined if possible to ruin Spear. He went to gaol a day or two since on one of his missions of love intending to obtain the release of a man confined there for drunkenness. Baylies put a writ on his hand, saying, “I shall serve it in a few days: you had better look around for bail.” I have seen a copy of it. S.[pear] is therein accused of enticing away Ludlams property therby putting him to great expense and inconvenience — and also falsely and maliciously swearing that the girl’s liberty was restrained. The trial is to come on in November….

In his online biography of Spear, John Buescher adds:

A slave, Lucy Faggins, traveled with the family that owned her to visit New Bedford, which was home to a sizable community of free Negroes. Spear was instrumental in arranging the legal process through which Faggins was able to opt for freedom. For depriving the southern family of their household “servant” Spear was vilified in public as a “nigger stealer,” threatened with legal action, and forced to resign his New Bedford pulpit.


Note (3): L. L. Sadler is mentioned in The Universalist Church in Ohio, Elmo Arnold Robinson, 1923:

L. L. SADLER. A resident of Perry, New York, who toured Michigan in 1833 and Ohio two years later. He soon moved to Columbus and then to Perrysburg, and also preached at Belpre. In 1839 he went to Maine.

The 1895 History of Wood County, Ohio mentions Sadler as being present there as follows: “From the records of Wood county the following names and dates are taken, showing the names of ministers of the Gospel, who performed the marriage ceremony here from 1830 to 1852… Rev. L. L. Sadler, Universalist, 1837….”


Note 4: Roripaugh appears to have been Stephen Leroy Roripaugh. Steven Rowe, who has been assembling historical materials relating to South Carolina Universalism, states on his blog: “Stephen Leroy Roripaugh ordained in 1856, in New York in the 1870s, moved to California by the 1890s.” The records of Second Society of Universalists (Cambridge, Mass.), have S. L. Roripaugh as their minister in 1862.


Note (5): Isaac Case Knowlton was the probable author of The Human Race (1863), a book that critiqued Charles Darwin’s theories on human origins as requiring more proof, while remaining receptive to the findings of science. Hosea M. Knowlton, son of Rev. Isaac Case Knowlton, was perhaps the most prominent member of the Universalist church in New Bedford during the 19th C., and is best known today as the prosecutor in the Lizzie Borden trial.

The following biographical sketch, from Our County and its People, a Descriptive and Biographical Record of Bristol County, Massachusetts, published by The Boston History Co., Boston (1899), covers Hosea but includes information about his father Isaac as well [paragraphing is editorial]:

Knowlton, Hosea Morrill, was born in Durham, Me., May 20, 1847, and is the eldest son of Rev. Isaac Case Knowlton, D.D. and Mary S. Wellington, his wife. He is a direct descendant of Capt. William Knowlton, who sailed from London to Nova Scotia in 1623-4, but died en route, his widow and three sons, John, William and Thomas, continuing the voyage and finally settling in Ipswich, Mass. Mr. Knowlton’s ancestor is William, who served in King Philip’s war.

Rev. Isaac Case Knowlton was born in Liberty, Me., September 6, 1819, and died at Acton, Mass., March 23, 1894. He was a self-educated man and spent fifty years in the ministry, receiving the degree of D.D. from Tufts College in 1889. Besides numerous articles published in magazines, etc., he was the author of a History of Calais, Maine, 1873, and Through the Shadows, 1885. His wife, Mary Smith Wellington, was descended from Kenelm Winslow, brother of Governor Winslow, and also from Thomas Smith, pastor of the First church in Portland, Me.

Hosea M. Knowlton’s early life was an itinerant one. He attended the High Schools of Oldtown and Bangor, Me., and Keene, N.H., and Powers Institute at Bernardston, Mass., and graduated from Tufts College in 1867. He studied one year in the Harvard Law School and was admitted to the bar in 1870. He shortly afterward opened an office in New Bedford, where he has practiced with eminent success. In 1872 he was appointed register in bankruptcy for the First District in Massachusetts, which office he held until it was abolished in 1878. He was a member of the New Bedford School Committee from 1874 to 1877, city solicitor in 1877, representative to the Legislature in 1876-77, state senator in 1878-79, and district attorney for the Southern District of Massachusetts from 1879 to January 1, 1894, when he resigned to take the office of attorney general of the State, to which position he was elected in the fall of 1893; he has been five times re-elected, an eloquent testimonial of his fitness for the trust, and is still in office. Mr. Knowlton was one of the incorporators and a member of he board of directors of the Edison Electric Light Co. of New Bedford until its consolidation with the New Bedford Gas Co. He has been a director of the Citizens’ National Bank of New Bedford since 1884; a trustee of Tufts College since 1878 and is now vice-president of its board; a trustee of St. Luke’s Hospital, New Bedford, since 1896; and has been a member of the Universalist Society since 1872, its treasurer since 1875, and the superintendent of its Sunday school since 1874. Mr. Knowlton is one of the ablest members of the Massachusetts bar, and as a citizen and public officer is universally respected and esteemed.

On May 22, 1873, he married Miss Sylvia Bassett Almy, daughter of Benjamin and Sophia Almy. Mrs. Knowlton possesses those elements of character which distinguish her as a woman of marked intelligence and ability. She is a graduate of the New Bedford High School and Bridgewater Normal School, and taught school for a year before her marriage. She has been a member of the New Bedford School Committee for five years; has been a director of the New Bedford Choral Association six years and was its vice-president; has been vice-president of the Woman’s Club since its organization, secretary of the New Bedford Volunteer Aid Association, and is a visitor to St. Luke’s Hospital.

Mr. And Mrs. Knowlton have seven children: John Wellington, Born February 28, 1874; Abby Almy, born March 30 1876; Frank Warren, born August 16, 1878; Edward Allen, born April 16, 1883; Helen Sophia, born August 1, 1885; Sylvia Prescott, born May 29, 1890; and Benjamin Almy, born June 13, 1892, all living.


Note (6): The following information is from the Concise Encylopedia of Tufts History, ed. Anne Sauer:

William Rollin Shipman (1836-1908), a Universalist minister, served as dean of the School of Liberal Arts for seven years (1900-1907).

Born May 4, 1836, in Granville, Vermont, Shipman studied at the local academy and taught in district schools before graduating from Middlebury College in 1859. He also received his M.A. from his alma mater in 1862. Shipman served as the principal of Green Mountain Institute in South Woodstock, Vermont, before joining the Tufts College faculty in 1864 as Professor of Rhetoric, Logic, and English Literature. Prior to leaving Vermont, Shipman had been an avid supporter of the establishment of Goddard Seminary. He continued to serve as the president of the seminary’s board of trustees and chairman of its executive committee, while teaching at Tufts. In 1865, Shipman was ordained in the Universalist faith. Although he occasionally preached, he never pastored his own church. He married Martha F. Willis in July 1868 and they had two sons.

Shipman was secretary of the Tufts faculty from 1869 to 1873, and dean of the School of Liberal Arts from 1900 until his retirement in 1907, at which time Shipman was made professor emeritus. He had been a charter member of Tufts’ Delta Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. Shipman died January 15, 1908.


Note 7: According to an article in the New York Times dated 30 March, 1881, W. C. Stiles left Universalism and became a Congregationalist minister:

A council of the pastors belonging to the Congregational Church Association of New-York and Brooklyn was held yesterday afternoon in the East Congregational Church, Tompkins and De Kalb avenues, Brooklyn, to examine into the qualifications and religious beliefs of the Rev. W. C. Stiles, of New-Bedford, Mass., who recently left the Universalist Church, and who it was proposed to make Pastor of the East Congregational Church….

The church was crowded to its fullest capacity at the installation service in the evening. The platform was occupied by the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher…. The charge to the pastor was delivered by the Rev. A. H. Heath, who was Mr. Stiles’s Pastor in New-Bedford, and who was chiefly instrumental in winning him from the Universalist faith. Mr. Heath related how he and Mr. Stiles had been Pastors and friends in the same city; how he had yearned over his friend; how the latter had visited him in his study, and he had seen his way clear to enter the Congregational Church…. He advised the young minister to stick closely to his books and not trouble himself about sectarianism….

The Rev. W. C. Stiles, the new Pastor of the East Church, is about 30 years of age. Until July last year [1880] he was an earnest Universalist, and for several years was Pastor of the church of that denomination in New-Bedford, Mass., where he lived for many years. Last year he began to doubt the correctness of the Universalist doctrines, and the result was that he finally felt bound to leave the Church and go over to the Congregationalists. He was received into the North Congregational Church of New-Bedford, and gave clear evidence of his sound religious views….


Note (8): The Mattapoisett Universalist Church began in Rochester, Mass., but after the towns of Mattapoisett and Marion were set off from Rochester in 1853 and 1852, respectively, the original church split into two churches, one in Marion and one in Mattapoisett. According to the Universalist Register: 1878-1883, Tenney was ordained at Mattapoisett 27 September 1878.


Note (9): The following history of Universalism in New Bedford comes from History of Bristol County, Massachusetts, with biographical sketches, compiled by Duane Hamilton Hurd (1883):

The Universalist Church. — The present house of worship on William Street is the second house that has been built in New Bedford. The first house was erected in 1836, and stands on the southeast corner of Fifth and School Streets. In this house the Universalists held public worship for about twelve years, and had for regular pastors John M. Spear, G. T. Farnsworth, and S. S. Fletcher, who were very good preachers. In 1849 the society, having become much involved in debt, sold their house to the Catholics, since which it has become known as the St. Mary’s Church.

In 1851 some of the Universalist of the old church, with others who had come to New Bedford within a few years, who felt the need of worshipping God and promulgating the doctrines of Universalism, came togehter and secured the services of the then Rev. Hiram Van Campen, and held religious services each Sabbath-day in a small hall (Sears’ Hall it was called) on Cheapside, nearly opposite and in front of the City Hall. Here Mr. Van Campen preached for several years, and the congregation grew and increased. In 1854 the Rev. Mr. Stevenson was employed, and under his ministry, with the good seed sown by Mr. Van Campen, the people resolved to have a house of worship, and in August, 1855, the present house was completed and dedicated, and since which time public worship has been regularly held, with a few slight intermissions in the change of pastors. The pastors have been the Revs. B. V. Stevenson, J. J. Twiss, T. G. St. John, S. L. Rosepauch, George W. Skinner, I. C. Knowlton, C. B. Lombard, J. H. Farnsworth, William C. Stiles, and G. T. Flanders, D. D.; the last named is the present pastor. Mr. [sic] Flanders is a very able, learned, and eloquent preacher, and under his ministry the society is in an excellent condition.

John P. Knowles, G. L. Barney, Benjamin Alsey, Mr. Van Campen, John M. Foster, Benjamin Brownell, and others now dead have been the most prominent citizens and supporters of this church in the past, and still live and are interested in the society. New members have joined, such as John P. Knowles, Jr., H. M. Knowlton, A. G. Walker, and others, and these all are the freinds and supporters of the society. It is but simple justice to say that during the past this church has maintained the doctrines of the early founders of Universalism in America, and fervently adhere to the fundamental doctrines of the Universalist denomination.

It has always aided in the works of charity, love, and temperance in this community, and sought to elevate man. It practices the exact fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man, upon which basis alone comes all the workings of the true good spirit in man.