An extinct Unitarian church of New Bedford

Extinct churches fascinate me that way some people are fascinated by ghost towns. Today I discovered that there was a second Unitarian church here in New Bedford for a short time in the mid-19th C. This account of the church comes from History of Bristol County, Massachusetts: With Biographical Sketches of Many of Its Pioneers and Prominent Men [Duane Hamilton Hurd (J. W. Lewis & Co., 1883), p. 94]:

“THE CENTRE CHURCH was organized Feb. 12, 1845. The following were some of the original members: James H. Collins, William H. Stowell, Isaac Bly, David Ilsley, Prentiss W. Cobb, Benjamin G. Wilson, Robert Luscomb, William Bly, Rutli Bly, Deborah Simmons, and Eliza Tubbs. It was at first attempted to form a church of the Christian denomination, but the clergymen invited to do this declining, invitations were extended to Rev. Messrs. Ephraim Peabody, Davis, and E. B. Hall, of Providence, by whom the society was organized. Rev. Charles Morgridge was the first pastor; he preached until March, 1845. The next was Rev. Jonathan Brown, of Naples, N. Y., who officiated about three years without much success. The church then voted not to employ any but Unitarian ministers. In October, 1848, Rev. Moses G. Thomas was installed. His pastorship continued until 1854, when the financial affairs of the church became so full of embarrassment that it was voted to disband.”

Notice how the author makes the distinction between a “church of the Christian denomination,” and Unitarianism. Also notice that the congregation invited Ephraim Peabody, formerly minister at First Unitarian, then minister of King’s Chapel, to help them organize their new congregation.

After the dissolution of Centre Church, Thomas became a minister-at-large under the auspices of First Unitarian Church in New Bedford (note that what we now call First Unitarian Church of New Bedford was then called First Congregational Society). Here’s a brief account of the first community ministry here in New Bedford, from The First Congregational Society in New Bedford, Massachusetts: Its History as Illustrative of Ecclesiastical Evolution [William J. Potter (First Congregational Society, 1889), p. 150]:

“It is proper too, to recall that, within the time of Mr. [John] Weiss’s pastorate, a ministry-at-large was sustained for several years for service among the poor, Rev. Moses G. Thomas being the minister. After the severance of his relationship to the Society, he was continued for many years by the beneficence of those honored members, James and Sarah Rotch Arnold, of whose charities he became to a large degree the trusted bearer.”

Moses Thomas sounded like a fascinating person in his own right, so with the help of Google Books, I did a little more research on him….

The following obituary of Moses Thomas, published in The Harvard Register: An Illustrated Monthly [Harvard University, v.1-2, 1880, p. 210], and available via Google Books, gives a good summary of his life:

“MOSES GEORGE THOMAS, at Concord. N.H., Sept. 18. He was a son of the late Moses Thomas, a prominent and substantial citizen of Sterling, Mass., and was born in that town Jan. 19, 1805. His father gave him excellent opportunities for an education; and, after having been thoroughly fitted for college, he entered Brown University at Providence, from which institution he graduated in 1825. Subsequently he went to the Cambridge Theological School, whose honors he received in 1828. Among his classmates at Harvard were Frederic H. Hedge, Samuel K. Lothrop, Artemas Muzzey, and John L. Sibley. Feb. 25, 1829, he was ordained to the Unitarian ministry at Concord, N.H., and made the pastor of the first church of that denomination there. Among those who took part in the services were Rev. Mr. Gannett and Rev. Mr. Barrett of Boston, and Rev. Mr. Capen of South Boston. The cornerstone of the Unitarian Church at Concord was laid by Rev. Mr. Thomas, May 2[?], 1829, and the dedication of the building took place on the eleventh day of the following November. Rev. Mr. Thomas gave the sermon; and Rev. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Rev. Mr. Parkman, of Boston, assisted in the proceedings. On July 12, 1830, Rev. Mr. Thomas was married to Miss Mary Jane Kent, daughter of Hon. William A. Kent of Concord. Ralph Waldo Emerson, who for some months before was the supply pastor of the Unitarian Church there, married Miss Ellen L. Tucker, a step-daughter of the Hon. Mr. Kent; and between these two young clergymen a strong friendship sprang up.

“The pastorate of the subject of this sketch at Concord continued fifteen years, and was one of the happiest periods of his life. To a thorough and liberal education he united a fine presence, a tender heart, and genial and loving ways. Greatly esteemed as a pastor, he was also universally respected as a citizen throughout the community. Outside of the pulpit he was especially active in all moral and educational enterprises. As early as 1831 he took a prominent part in sustaining the old Concord Temperance Society. In 1833, when President Jackson made his visit to Concord, he attended an afternoon service at Rev. Mr. Thomas’s church, being accompanied by Vice President Van Buren; Gov. Cais, secretary of war; and Judge Woodbury, secretary of the navy. In September, 1834, when the Whigs of New Hampshire gave their celebrated banquet to Hon. Samuel Bell of Chester, a United States senator, Rev. Mr. Thomas officiated as chaplain of the day. At the dinner six hundred persons sat down, including many distinguished men; and afterward speeches were made by Daniel Webster, John Holmes of Maine, Ichabod Bartlett, and Senator Bell. He resigned his pastorate April 1, 1844, and was succeeded by Rev. William P. Tilden, now of Boston.

“From New Hampshire Rev. Mr. Thomas went to South Boston, where he was settled as a minister for several years, and then removed to New Bedford, where, after filling a successful pastorate, he was for a considerable time a clergyman at large, or city missionary. Having become worn in health, he went from New Bedford to Atlanta, Mo., where for some years he lived upon a farm in company with his son. He returned from the West to make a visit to Massachusetts, but his health had then become so impaired that he never again left New England. The last years of his life, until he removed to Concord a few months ago, were passed in Boston, where he received a fatal shock of paralysis.

“Many years ago Rev. Mr. Thomas became a Freemason in Blazing Star Lodge at Concord, and afterward took the chapter and commandery degrees and the thirty-third in the Sovereign Consistory of Boston. At the time of his death he was a member of the Eureka Lodge of New Bedford, and of other masonic organizations. He was also an Odd Fellow.

“In July last Rev. Mr. Thomas and wife celebrated their golden wedding at Concord; the widow surviving, also two children, the wife of Judge Pitman of Massachusetts, and Wm. Channmg Thomas of Boston.

“At the recent dedication of the Unitarian Chapel of Concord, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Rev. Mr. Tilden were present. In the beautiful address made by the latter, he said, ‘I have just had a very pleasant call upon my dear brother Thomas. He was so glad to see me, that it was well worth a journey here to meet him. As I rose to leave him he remarked with tearful eyes, “I want to go home.” ‘ His wish has at last been granted, and he has gone to his home above.

“The funeral occurred at the Unitarian Church at Concord, Sept. 25[?]. Rev. Mr. Tilden and other clergymen taking pan. Afterward the remains were escorted to the grave, where the masonic burial service was performed.”

A biographical notice in Historical Catalogue of Brown University, 1764-1904 (Brown University, 1905, p. 145) gives the date when Thomas left New Bedford:

“THOMAS, MOSES GEORGE, A.B.; A.M.   Graduated Harvard divinity school 1828; ordained Unitarian minister 1829; pastor Concord, N. H., 1829-45; Broadway church, South Boston, Mass., 1845-48; Centre church, New Bedford, Mass., 1848-54; resident New Bedford, 1854-71; Atlanta, Mo., 1871-73; Boston, Mass., 1873-74; Concord, N. H., 1874-80. Born Sterling, Mass., Jan. 19, 1805; died Concord, N. H., Sept. 18, 1880.”

Other biographical trivia about Thomas, mostly from Google Books:

I/ Notice of his installation at Centre Church:

“Rev. MOSES GEORGE THOMAS, late of South Boston, was installed as Pastor of the Centre Church and Society in NEW BEDFORD, Mass., October 19, 1848. The Sermon was preached by Rev. Mr. Stone of Salem, from John i. 9; the Prayer of Installation was offered by Rev. Mr. Briggs of Plymouth; the Charge was given by Rev. Dr. Allen of Northboro’; the Right Hand of Fellowship, by Rev. Mr. Weiss of New Bedford; the Address to the People, by Rev. Dr. Peabody of Boston; and the other services, by Rev. Messrs. Dawes of Fairhaven, and Morton (of the Christian Connection) of New Bedford.” — from the November, 1848, issue of The Christian Examiner, found in the collected number of The Christian Examiner, published by James Miller, 1848
[v. 45 (July-Nov. 1848), p. 471].

II/ Thomas’s Western activities

Beginning in 1826, according to Unitarianism in America [George Willis Cooke (American Unitarian Association, 1902), p. 140], Thomas traveled “Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, and as far as St. Louis” at the behest of the American Unitarian Association, eventually reporting back “that the west was a promising field for the planting of Unitarian churches.”

According to an essay by Carl Seaburg in Salted with Fire [ed. Scott Alexander (UUA, 1994), p. 53], this occurred when Thomas was still a student at the Divinity School; he covered more than 4,000 miles on this trip.

III/ Miscellany

Cooke has the following biographical footnote, with an apparent mistake in the location of Thomas’s first settlement: “Moses George Thomas was a graduate of Brown and of the Harvard Divinity School, was settled in Dover, N.H., from 1829 to 1845, Broadway Church in South Boston from 1845 to 1848, New Bedford 1848 to 1854, and was subsequently minister at large in the same city.” (p. 140n)

Thomas joined the Broadway Church in South Boston the year after it was organized, according to Peter Richardson’s The Boston Religion (p.191). This congregation never owned its own building, but met in rented space.

3 thoughts on “An extinct Unitarian church of New Bedford

  1. The Eclectic Cleric

    Edward Brooks Hall (of the Providence Church) was also the son-in-law of Henry Ware Sr, whose 1805 election as Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard initiated the first phase of the Unitarian Controversy. Earlier in his career Hall had been involved in the organization of a new Unitarian Society in Northampton MA, which was one of “the Boston Religion’s” earliest sorties outside of Eastern Mass. He also later served as President of the AUA. It’s hard to know without checking, but the “Christian” denomination could be either the Disciples of Christ, or (more likely) some form of “The Christian Connection” — another liberal/evangelical product of the Second Great Awakening with whom the Unitarians attempted to collaborate in the formation of a Western seminary (eventually realized in Meadville).

  2. StevenR

    Yes the CHRISTIAN denomination was an actual denomination.
    Actually several of them, all of which did arise from the same movement of the early 1800s. Yes the Disciples of Christ came from the same Christian Connection movement. While it’s hard for an outsider to know which of the CHRISTIAN denomination, that this article is referring to, my guess would be the O’Kelly-Jones-Smith group (which is the group that in 1931 merged with the Congregational Church to become the Congregational Christian Church before merging in 1957 to become the United Church of Christ. )

  3. Dan

    Eclectic @ 1 — Thanks for the info on E. B. Hall. It’s interesting how these folks were involved in church planting (Peabody had spent his early ministerial career out west).

    Eclectic and StevenR — It’s interesting to note that Moses Thomas was sent out west in 1826 by the AUA to make connections (pun intended) with the Christian Connection, whom the AUA more or less considered to be a bunch of Unitarians who didn’t know there was already a Unitarian denomination back east that they could join up with.

    The real question for me is whether the distinction between Unitarian and Christian Connection goes back to 1845 when the church was organized, or whether that distinction was imposed later, in 1883, when Duane Hamilton Hurd wrote the short paragraph on Centre Church in his much longer book. In short, I don’t think Hurd is a reliable reporter. Furthermore, it’s an open question as to how much denominational identification they started out with — what Hurd may have perceived as firm denominational boundaries in 1883 might have appeared much more porous in 1845. (Remember, too, that by 1883, First Congregational Society had disaffiliated with the AUA, and was affiliated with the Free Religious Association, and locally the church was not always perceived as a Unitarian church — in fact, sometimes its members were called “Potterites” because they were followers of the then-minister, William J. Potter — which is kinda creepy, but anyway….)

    So for me, a plausible scenario goes something like this:– Centre Church formed in 1845 — they happened to know a couple of Christian Connection ministers, asked them to serve, they said no — so they appealed to Ephraim Peabody (whom they might well have known since he was the Unitarian minister in New Bedford until November, 1845) and a couple of other ministers to help them out. I really want to know what Peabody’s role in all this was — how did he get to know the founders of Centre Church (did they attend worship services?), and what made them call on him?

    As to why they wanted to form a new church rather than go to the existing Unitarian church in the city, the answer is pretty obvious. The existing Unitarian church was the church of the richest people in town, the ones at the top of the whaling industry. And to get into that church, you had to buy a pew, at prices (converted to 2008 dollars) ranging from $2,000 to $20,000 — and then pay pew taxes on top of that. Given that kind of financial barrier, starting your own church looks like an attractive option. (Remember, this is when there were lots of Unitarian chapels being formed in cities like Boston — Unitarian congregations that often didn’t own a church building, and where people who were not affluent could belong to a Unitarian church.)

    What really interests me is that when Thomas was installed in 1848, Rev. Mr. “Morton (of the Christian Connection) of New Bedford” participated in the installaion service. So by 1848, there was a Christian Connection minister in New Bedford!! When did he arrive on the scene? And if Centre Church started out wanting to be in the “Christian denomination,” why did they change their minds, so that they bring in Thomas from Boston when Morton was already here?

    All interesting questions. All impossible to answer without a heck of a lot of research in primary documents.

Comments are closed.