Mary Rotch, Quaker turned Unitarian

If you look at the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society’s online biographical dictionary, you’ll find the name of Mary Rotch. As is true of many of the names listed on the UUHS site, no one has yet written a biography of her. But she is an interesting Unitarian person, and worth knowing more about. Since she attended our church here in New Bedford, I decided to preach a sermon about her life and religious thinking. It’s not quite a real biography, but it does have footnotes and other annotations of interest to UU history geeks. The sermon appears below; scroll way down for the endnotes and other annotations.

Mary Rotch, An Inspired Life

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained extemporaneous remarks and improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2008 Daniel Harper.


The first reading is a letter from Margaret Fuller to Mary Rotch. [Due to copyright restrictions, only a portion of this letter is included here.]

“I am anxious to get a letter telling me how you fare this winter in the cottage. Your neighbors who come this way do not give very favorable accounts of your looks, Aunt Mary, and if you are well enough I should like to see a few of those prim, well-shaped characters from your own hand…

“I wore your black dress at Niagra and many other places where I was very happy and it was always an added pleasure thuse to be led to think of you. — I wish, dear Aunt Mary, you were near enough for me to go in and see you now and then, I know that, sick or well, you are always serene and sufficient unto yourself, and that you have a most affectionate friend always by your side [i.e., Mary Rotch’s companion, Mary Gifford], but now you are so much shut up, it might animate existence to hear of some things I might have to tell….”

[from “My Heart Is a Large Kingdom”: Selected Letters of Margaret Fuller, edited by Robert Hudspeth (Ithaca: Cornell University, 2001), pp. 187-188. This book contains three other letters to Mary Rotch.]

The second reading is from Orville Dewey’s Autobiography. Dewey was minister of our congregation from 1823 until 1834:

“I should like to record some New Bedford names here, so precious are they to me. Miss Mary Rotch is one,– called by everybody “Aunt Mary,” from mingled veneration and affection. It might seem a liberty to call her so; but it was not, in her case. She had so much dignity and strength in her character and bearing that it was impossible for any one to speak of her lightly. On our going to New Bedford, she immediately called upon us, and when she went out I could not help exclaiming, “Wife, were ever hearts taken by storm like that!” Storm, the word would be, according to the usage of the phrase; but it was the very contrary,– a perfect simplicity and kindliness.”

[Orville Dewey, Autobiography and Letters of Orville Dewey, D.D., edited by Mary E. Dewey (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1883), p. 67.]


A few years ago, the Quaker writer Parker Palmer wrote a book called Let Your Life Speak; and it seems to me that the title of that book is good advice. I don’t care so much what you say, because people really tell about their deepest values in the way they live their lives. This morning I’d like to tell you the life story of Mary Rotch, who was part of our church from 1824 until she died in 1847. She wasn’t a writer like her friends Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller; nevertheless, she still can speak to us through her life story, and it is in that story that we shall find her deepest spiritual values expressed.

Mary Rotch was born on Nantucket to a Quaker family on October 9th, 1777. Her mother was Elizabeth Barney, and her father was William Rotch, and at birth she had three older brothers and two older sisters. It started out as a prosperous family — William Rotch was a shipowner and merchant in the lucrative whaling trade. But during the Revolutionary War, all those involved in the whaling trade on Nantucket went through hard times because they were caught between the American navy and the British navy, and subject to raids and confiscation. Beyond that, William Rotch lived out his pacifist Quaker principles in spite of great pressure to support the American revolution — for example, during the revolution, he threw a large number of bayonets into Nantucket harbor rather than let them be used in the Revolutionary cause. This did not make him popular with his countrymen; and his strength of character in the face of adversity helps us understand how the same strength of character later manifested itself in his daughter Mary.(1)

After the Revolutionary War ended, the British slapped a huge duty on all imported whale oil. William Rotch had to sell whale oil at a loss in the British market, and the British market was nearly the only market there was.(2) Rather than lose money, William Rotch relocated his business to Dunkirk, France, and in July, 1790, he and his wife Elizabeth and their daughters set sail and moved their household to France.(3) Mary Rotch was just 13 years old.

Not long after they moved to Dunkirk, the French Revolution began to erupt around them, and war between England and France was imminent. As William put it in a memoir, “it was time for me to leave the country, in order to save our vessels if captured by the English.”(4) The family left France in January, 1793, and stayed in England through 1794 so that William could oversee business there,(5) returned to Nantucket for a year, and then settled in New Bedford in 1795. Thus, by the time she was 18 years old, Mary Rotch had lived through two revolutions, and had lived in Nantucket, Dunkirk, London, and New Bedford.

When they came to New Bedford in 1795, the Rotch family moved in to a house William had had built, a house called “Mansion House” on account of its size and grandeur. You can see what this house looked like in William Wall’s painting “New Bedford in 1810,” which hangs in the Whaling Museum — it’s the house on the northeast corner of Union and Second streets.(6) By coincidence, 1795 is the same year our congregation built a new church building in the growing village of New Bedford, at the northwest corner of William and Purchase, just a block or so from the Rotch’s house.

Not that the Rotches went to the Unitarian church! They were Quakers, or members of the Religious Society of Friends, and they worshipped at the Friends meeting house. Indeed, William Rotch was what is known as a “weighty Friend,” that is, a prominent Quaker, who more than once represented New Bedford at the New England Yearly Meeting. Mary Rotch was also a weighty Friend, a prominent Quaker, and when she grew up she became an elder of the New Bedford Friends Meeting.

But Mary Rotch did not limit her reading to Quaker writers, as did many Quakers of her day. By 1812, when Mary was in her mid-30’s, “she and others formed a discussion group, wrote papers, and read books by such writers as Dugall Stewart and Johann Kaspar Lavatar.”(7) Stewart was a philosopher in the Scottish Common Sense School of philosophy; Lavatar was a Swiss mystic. This was intellectually challenging reading, and well beyond what the average Quaker of the day would read.

We get a more personal picture of Mary in an 1818 letter from one Anna Shoemaker of Philadephia. Shoemaker describes her visit to the William Rotch household in December, 1818, saying, “…Mary (Rotch’s) mother treated me with great cordiality, and Mary, herself, paid me the most grateful attention. She is a lovely girl and dressed as plain as Anne Paxson but on her it looks very well, her figure is so large and majestic….”(8) Apparently, all that generation of Rotches “were physically very big, with large frames.”(9) And yes, at age 41 Mary was still living with her parents, for she never married and lived there in Mansion House until both her parents died.

Now we come to the time when Mary went through a major spiritual crisis in her life. In order to understand that crisis, you have to understand a little bit about early 19th C. American Quakerism.

The Quakers had a number of peculiar practices that tended to keep them apart from the rest of the world. They were strict pacifists; and so we already heard how, during the American Revolution, Mary Rotch’s father lived out his pacifism. Quakers adhered to strict plainness in their clothing, staying away from bright colors, ornaments, anything that tended to set one person above another person. They used the old words “thee” and “thou,” because when Quakerism formed in 17th C. England, to say “you” was to elevate another person to a higher social level than yours. And all Quakers of that era were required to adhere to a strict written code of religious discipline, which codified what they were and weren’t allowed to do and say, and even think.

But by 1816, Mary Newhall and other Quakers in Lynn, Massachusetts, were evolving some new and liberal ideas. Mary Newhall and her followers were soon called the “New Lights”; the more conservative Quakers became known as the “Old Lights.” Mary Newhall and her followers accused the Old Lights of sinking into a “dead formality.”(10) The Old Lights accused the liberals of being, well, liberal. The Old Lights managed to eject Mary Newhall from membership with the Quaker meeting in Lynn, using some questionable parliamentary procedures. But that didn’t stop Newhall. She continued to preach her new liberal religious ideas wherever she could.

In January, 1823, Newhall came to New Bedford to preach, and here she found that the liberalization process was already well begun. She preached in the brick Friends meeting house at the corner of Spring and Seventh streets. On February 9, she preached; was denounced by some of the New Bedford Old Lights; was defended by one Samuel Rodman; and finally Newhall sank to her knees to “appear in supplication,” as the Quakers of that day put it — we would say, “knelt in prayer.” When a Quaker appeared in supplication, the custom was that the rest of the Quakers present would stand, showing they were united with the prayer. Mary Rotch, who was by then an elder of the New Bedford Quaker meeting, and most of those present rose to their feet to show unity with Mary Newhall — but the determined Old Lights did not. Two days later, Mary Newhall preached in our old church building at William and Purchase streets — and after Mary Newhall spoke, Mary Rotch also spoke, thus emerging as the leader of the New Lights in New Bedford.(11) The battle was joined, and continued for some months. Finally, in March, 1824, the Old Lights maneuvered the meeting to officially disown Mary Rotch. The meeting should have reached consensus, but even though nineteen members of the meeting disagreed, the Old Lights pushed it through — Mary Rotch was no longer a Quaker. (12)

Why did the Old Lights consider Mary Rotch and the other New Lights so heretical? It was because of their liberal religious beliefs. The New Lights believed that what they called “the Light Within” was a sufficient guide for all religion, and that the Light Within was far more important than any rules or disciplines that might be imposed upon individuals by organized religion. The New Lights believed that the Bible is less important than this Light Within; and they also believed that the Old Testament is not the literal truth, but rather it is allegory. The New Lights did not believe the Devil existed; nor did they believe in heaven or hell, except insofar as heaven and hell are states of mind here and now on this earth. The New Lights believed that Jesus was not divine; and they did not believe that Jesus’s death somehow atoned for the sins of all humanity.(13) If you think that these New Light Quakers sound like Unitarians, I think you’re absolutely right. And in fact, most of the New Light Quakers came over and joined with the Unitarians.

Here is what Job Otis, one of the chief Old Light Quakers, said in 1825 about the New Light defection to the Unitarian church: “The disaffected party generally have withdrawn from us, and left our meetings, both for worship and discipline, quite undisturbed. Some of them occasionally attend the Unitarian Congregational meeting…. But a withering evidently attends them all, and their reputation as religious characters is very much lost with all sober and reflecting people. Most of them, even to Mary Rotch…, have thrown off all regard to plainness, and the younger part attend places of music and dancing. Much confusion, contradiction, and inconsistency appears among them in their principles, professions, views, and reasonings; and but little else than vain speculations, abstract reasonings, impiety, and unbelief.”(14) Let me translate that for you: Job Otis is saying that the New Lights have gone over to the Unitarians, which isn’t really a church; that they now wear bright-colored clothing on occasion, listen to music, and go dancing, all of which is very bad; and instead of blind faith, they rely on Reason, which is also very bad. Or, from our point of view, no wonder the New Lights felt comfortable in the Unitarian church!

As comfortable as they might have felt in their new church home, surely it must have been a terrible thing to leave behind friends and relatives, some of whom perhaps would no longer speak to them. And surely a string of deaths in Mary’s family only made things worse for her: her sister Lydia died in Salem in 1822; her brother Thomas died in Ohio in 1823; and her mother died at Mansion House in May, 1824.

Now we come to a most interesting part of the story — how Mary Rotch influenced the poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the feminist Margaret Fuller. We’ll start with Emerson.

Sometime around 1830, Emerson came down to the New Bedford church as a substitute preacher — this is some years before his well-known stay here in 1833-1834. On this visit to our congregation, “Emerson had been deeply impressed by the sight of the leading Quaker of the town, Miss Mary Rotch, quietly leaving the church when the rite of the Last Super was about to be observed.” Most of Emerson’s biographers agree that Mary’s example influenced him in 1832 when he resigned from Second Church in Boston.(15) Emerson resigned from Second Church because he said he could no longer in good conscience preside at communion, then a monthly feature at every Unitarian church. This became the subject of his most famous sermon; and it became one of his most important theological points, that inner truth is more important than empty ritual. So Mary Rotch had a deep and early influence on Emerson.

When Emerson came back to New Bedford in the winter and spring of 1833-1834, he got to know Mary Rotch better. At that time, Mary Rotch told the young Emerson something of the controversy between the New Lights and the Old Lights, and Emerson wrote in one of his notebooks that she had been “driven inward, driven home, to find an anchor, until she learned to have no choice, to acquiesce without understanding the reason when she found an obstruction to any particular course of action.”(16) That is to say, she learned to be self-reliant, to rely on her own inner strength, her own inner light; ideas which Emerson would integrate into his own thinking and writing.

Mary Rotch told Emerson another story. A little girl came to her and asked to do something. “She replied, ‘What does the voice in thee say?’ The child went off, and after a time returned to say, ‘…the little voice says, no.’” This story affected Emerson greatly.(17) It affirmed for him that each of us can know what is right and what is true, if we would just listen to “the voice in thee.” Many years later, Emerson quoted (or perhaps paraphrased) Mary Rotch in his essay titled “Greatness,” expressing this same point in a different way:

”  ‘I do not pretend to any commandment or large revelation, but if at any time I form some plan, propose a journey or a course of conduct, I perhaps find a silent obstacle in my mind that I cannot account for. Very well, — I let it lie, thinking it may pass away, but if it do not pass away I yield to it, obey it. You ask me to describe it. I cannot describe it. It is not an oracle, nor an angel, nor a dream, nor a law; it is too simple to be described, it is but a grain of mustard-seed, but such as it is, it is something which the contradiction of all mankind could not shake, and which the consent of all mankind could not confirm.’  “(18)

If we assume that this is a fairly accurate transcription of Mary Rotch’s actual words, this gives us the very heart of her religious faith. When the voice within you tells you not to do something, then don’t do it.

Now, you might want to say that that voice within is the voice on conscience, or you might say that it is the voice of God. Orville Dewey said this about Mary Rotch: “when speaking of the Supreme Being, she would never say ‘God,’ but ‘that Influence.’ That Influence was constantly with her; and she carried the idea so far as to believe that it prompted her daily action, and decided for her every question of duty.”(19) So perhaps we don’t have to draw a distinction between God and that internal influence; perhaps Mary Rotch is telling us that God can be interpreted to mean exactly that inner voice that prompts us towards right action.

So that is how Emerson was influenced by Mary Rotch. I’d like to mention briefly the ways in which Mary Rotch influenced Margaret Fuller.

Margaret Fuller met Mary Rotch through Mary’s niece Eliza Rotch Farrar. Eliza had lived in Mansion House with Mary from about 1819 until 1828, when Mary’s father died. Within a few months of old William’s death, young Eliza had married Professor John Farrar of Harvard College. They were married by Orville Dewey in Mansion House, and then the young couple went up to Cambridge to live, where Eliza soon met Margaret, and began to serve as something of a mentor to Margaret.(20) I’m not sure when Eliza introduced these two amazing women, but it probably earlier than 1840.

The relationship between Emerson and Mary Rotch appears formal; but the relationship between Margaret and “Aunt Mary” seems to have been much closer. By about 1840, Margaret was staying with Mary Rotch at Mary’s summer house.(21) No later than 1842, Margaret was staying with Mary Rotch here in New Bedford, in the house that Mary had built for herself and her companion, Mary Gifford, on South Sixth Street (our church later bought that house as a parsonage in the 1890s). They wrote many letters to one another, and we heard one of those letters as the first reading. Emerson’s letters to Mary Rotch tend to concern ideas and thinking. Margaret fFuller’s letters to Mary Rotch talk about health, and travel, and clothing; they are letters one friend would write to another. Margaret’s letters to Aunt Mary show a real love existed between the two.

How did Mary Rotch influence Margaret Fuller? With Emerson, we can find specific influences; with Margaret Fuller, the influence seems less specific but broader. I imagine that Mary Rotch could have been a role model for Margaret Fuller. Mary Rotch was a strong, confident, self-possessed woman who lived alone and who didn’t feel the need to marry a man (indeed, one of Fuller’s biographers senses a cooling of their relationship once Margaret married).(22) Mary was not afraid of being an intellectual, and had organized her own discussion group here in New Bedford, not unlike the “Conversations” for women for which Margaret later became so well-known. We may not be able to trace a direct intellectual influence, as in the case of Emerson, but we can certainly claim Mary Rotch had a profound personal influence on Margaret Fuller.

There is only a little more to tell about Mary Rotch. She lived the remainder of her life peacefully in her house on South Sixth Street, attending church here in this building, quietly walking out before communion was served — I imagine that by setting that example of leaving before communion began contributed to the weakening of that ritual in our congregation, so that it is not at all surprising that communion died out completely here in the 1860s, without any fuss at all. In 1843, when she was 65, Mary ordered a grand tea service from Paris, quite elaborate and richly decorated, and copies of letters to and from Paris regarding this tea service are in the Whaling Museum’s Research Library. Five years later, Mary Rotch died, on September 4, 1848, at age seventy.

I suppose sermons are supposed to have a solid moral, or summing-up, at the end of them. I don’t have a moral, but let me sum up this sermon by saying, quite simply: I wish I knew more about Mary Rotch. Even though she spoke through her life, through the way she lived her life, I wish someone would ferret out some of her letters and publish them, so we can read her own words. I wish someone would write about her, not as a footnote to Emerson or Fuller, but for her own sake, as a deep religious thinker, as one of the most interesting members of our church. Hers was truly an inspired life; and her 19th C. life continues to inspire our lives today.

References and additional information


(1) William Rotch, “Memorandum Written by William Rotch in 1814 in the Eightieth Year of His Age,” online version of manuscript at, accessed 15 November 2008.
(2) Rotch, accessed 15 November 2008.
(3) John M. Bullard, The Rotches (New Bedford: privately printed, 1941), p. 36.
(4) Rotch, accessed 15 November 2008.
(5) Bullard, p. 115.
(6) Christine Arato and Patrick Eleey, Safely Moored at Last: Cultural Landscape Report for New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park (Boston: National Park Service, 1998), vol. 1, p. 13.
(7) Robert D. Richardson, Emerson: The Mind on Fire (University of California Press, 1996), p. 160.
(8) Bullard, pp. 37-38.
(9) Bullard, p. 113.
(10) Frederick B. Tolles, “The New-Light Quakers of Lynn and New Bedford,” New England Quarterly, Sept., 1959, p. 297.
(11) Tolles, pp. 305-206.
(12) Tolles, p. 313.
(13) Tolles, pp. 317-318.
(14) Hodgson, William, The Society of Friends in the Nineteenth Century, vol. 1, pp. 96-97.
(15) Gay Wilson Allen, Waldo Emerson, pp. 224-225.
(16) Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by Edward Emerson and Waldo Forbes, vol. 4, pp. 263-264; quoted in Allen, p. 225.
(17) Moncure Daniel Conway, Emerson Home and Abroad, (Osgood, 1882), p. 87.
(18) Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Greatness,” The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by Edward Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1904), v.8, pp. 309-310. In an endnote, the editors state, “These were the words of Miss Mary Rotch of New Bedford, and they made deep impression on Mr. Emerson, when in 1834 he was invited to preach for a time in that city.”
(19) Orville Dewey, Autobiography and Letters of Orville Dewey, D.D., edited by Mary E. Dewey (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1883), p. 68.
(20) Bullard, p. 130. Bullard quotes Thomas Wentworth Higginson: “She [Eliza] took to mould her [Margaret] externally, to make her less abrupt…. She had her constantly at her own house, reformed her hair dresser….” Paula Blanchard, in Margaret Fuller: From Transcendentalism to Revolution (Delacourte Press, 1978; reprint ADdison Wesley, 1987), pp. 61 ff., goes into more detail on exactly this point.
(21) Blanchard, p. 176. Note that Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli (R. W. Emerson, et al., editors [Boston:, 1852], p. vol. 1, p. 320), contains only one reference to Mary Rotch: “She found a valuable friend in the late Miss Mary Rotch, of New Bedford, a woman of great strength of mind, connected with the Quakers not less by temperament than by birth, and possessing the best lights of that once spiritual sect.”
(22) Blanchard, pp. 302-303.

Published writing by Mary Rotch

“Letter from Mary Rotch to her sister-in-law, Charity Rotch, in Kendal, Ohio,” in John M. Bullard, The Rotches (New Bedford: privately printed, 1941), p.360-361.

Additional reading

Bullard’s The Rotches has a short biographical essay titled ”  ‘Aunt Mary’ Rotch” by William Emery, reprinted from the New Bedford Morning Mercury, 25 December, 1941. This essay contains some factual errors.

Murray Gardner Hill, ”  ‘A Rill Struck Out from the Rock’: Mary Rotch of New Bedford,” Bulletin of Friends Historical Association, 45 (1956), pp. 8-23. I was unable to locate a copy of this article in time for the sermon.

Emerson mentions reading a manuscript account of Mary Rotch’s conflict with the Old Lights; this manuscript is apparently now in the Rhode Island Historical Association library.

I have only been able to find two letters written by by Mary Rotch. There is a typescript copy of a letter in the Old Dartmouth Historical Association’s research library regarding her purchase of the tea set in Paris; and there is the published letter mentioned above. Some of her letters may still be in the hands of Rotch family descendants; others might possibly be found in with the papers of Emerson and Fuller; others may be found in other libraries or collections. Further research is needed in this area.

Further biographical information about Mary Rotch can probably be deduced from her letters, and from letters to her by Emerson, Fuller, etc. Additional information may also possible be gleaned from other historical records.

Mary Rotch’s Unitarianism

Most of the church records from the early 19th C. are now missing, and probably perished in a fire in the church office in 1927. I have not been able to find any mention of Mary Rotch in the extant records. However, even if the records existed, it is not clear that she would have appeared in them:– women were not allowed to vote or own pews during that era, so it is unlikely that she would have appeared in the records of the society; and while Mary Rotch could have become a member of the church, church membership was often associated with the communion ritual, in which she did not participate.

Curiously, Mary Rotch’s name does not appear on the list of names of persons who contributed to the salary of Orville Dewey, although other New Light Quakers do appear on this list. Since her father was still alive in 1823, and he apparently remained a Quaker, she may not have been able to make a financial contribution (I don’t know whether she had control of any money of her own at that point).

But Mary Rotch is widely recorded as having attended worship services at what was originally the established “congregational” church in New Bedford, then beginning 1824 legally named First Congregational Society of New Bedford, now called First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. She was disowned by New Bedford Friends Meeting in 1824, but her affiliation with the Unitarian church might have begun earlier — Orville Dewey says that she called on him when he first arrived in New Bedford, which was in December, 1823, and there is some indication that the New Light Friends began to affiliate with the Unitarians before they were officially disowned by the Meeting. Although she continued to use Quaker forms of speech (“thee” and “thou”) for the rest of her life, she attended the Unitarian church until her death. I have no evidence one way or another as to whether she called herself or thought of herself as a Unitarian.

5 thoughts on “Mary Rotch, Quaker turned Unitarian

  1. Dad

    Dan, You say that you wish someone would write about her. You have made a start and why not continue writing about her. The story as you have outlined it is very interesting. Could one consider her to have been a precursor of UU Humanism since “she would never say ‘God’, but ‘that Influence’.” (the voice within)


  2. Dan

    Dad — You write: “You have made a start and why not continue writing about her.”

    Time is why not. I believe the additional necessary research will be time-consuming, and I just don’t have that kind of time.

  3. Eric Hubert

    Dear Dan:

    I am so thankful for this article. I am UU as well and usually attend services in Fairhaven. However, this article is becoming part of my research for a theatre project I am working on with New Bedford Public Schools. I am a theatre artist that has recently relocated back to the New Bedford area. I may follow up with some of the research leads you have provided here. Thank you for your time and effort. It is greatly appreciated.

    All the Best,

    Eric Hubert

  4. Dan

    Eric @ 2 — Let me know what you come up with! I’ve been talking with a UMass Dartmouth student who is planning a research project on Mary Rotch — maybe we can all share information!

  5. Dr. Barbara Wittman

    Mr. Harper, We have 2 letters (1804 and 1813)to Thomas Rotch(Her brother) and 12 densely packed letters to Charity Rotch f(sister in law and also a Quaker minister) rom Mary in the Rotch Wales Collection of the Massillon (Ohio) Public Library. how would you like to procede? thanks, Dr. Barbara Wittman, Archivist, Massillon Public Library

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