Some New Bedford Unitarians in 1838: Abolitionists and anti-slavery activists

Among the original pewholders of the 1838 church building of First Congregational Society of New Bedford (now First Unitarian Church), there were those who actively opposed slavery through word and deed, but there were also those who did not support the anti-slavery movement. Here are some capsule biographies of some of the pewholders in 1838, with comments on the extent to which they opposed slavery:

Benjamin Lindsey (pew 12): Lindsey was a printer and publisher. He published and wrote for the New Bedford Mercury, a daily newspaper. By the 1830s, Lindsey was not supporting abolition in the columns of the Mercury, because he thought abolitionism was too revolutionary and would lead to chaos. Yet he also was willing to print anti-slavery books; in 1847 he published The Life and Sufferings of Leonard Black, a Fugitive from Slavery, Written by Himself, a fugitive slave narrative.

Joseph Grinnell (pew 44) served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1843 to 1851. New Bedford Abolitionists grew angry with Grinnell in 1850; Grinnell was absent when a vote came up on the Fugitive Slave Law. One New Bedford abolitionist wrote, “I am ashamed of him…. When the most important bill of the whole session was up for consideration, and he knew it, he was not in his place, but at the Treasury Department….” (Grover, p. 218). Grinnell had been one of the original investors in the Wamsutta Mill in 1846, which manufactured cotton cloth; we can imagine that he was perhaps torn between a desire to represent New Bedford’s opposition to the Fugitive Slave Law on the one hand, and his interest in maintaining a supply of cotton on the other hand.

James Arnold and his wife Sarah Arnold (pew 66) were some of the many New Bedford Quakers who had become Unitarians in the 1820s. The Arnolds became very wealthy, and as time went on turned their attention to philanthropy. During the 1850s, our church supported Rev. Moses Thomas as a minister-at-large to work with the city’s poor people; when the church withdrew its support of Thomas c. 1859, the Arnolds came forward and employed him full-time to carry out their philanthropic work; Thomas worked for them until he retired.

While it is documented that the Arnolds opposed slavery, their main social justice interests were elsewhere. Most importantly, they were concerned with alleviating the effects of poverty; they also engaged in other philanthropic ventures such as endowing the Arnold Arboretum in Boston. Even if anti-slavery work was not a priority for them, it is hard to hold this against them given the extent of their anti-poverty work.

Charles W. Morgan (pew 68) is best known today for the whaling ship that bears his name, now at the Mystic Seaport in Mystic, Connecticut. Morgan was a prominent ship owner and merchant who owned an oil refinery and candleworks on South Water St.; his house stood on County St. at the head of William St., where the headquarters of the New Bedford Public Schools now stands. He was another of the liberal Quakers who became a Unitarian in the 1820s.

Morgan was also an anti-slavery activist, although it is not clear how active he was. According to historian Kathryn Grover, Nathan Johnson may have come to New Bedford with Morgan. It is not clear whether Johnson was a fugitive slave when he came to New Bedford, but if he was then Morgan was active in the Underground Railroad. Nathan Johnson and his wife Polly Johnson later became prominent African American citizens of New Bedford and conductors on the Underground Railroad — Frederick Douglass spent his first night of freedom in their house — and Nathan Johnson became a member of the Universalist church in New Bedford.

Andrew Robeson (pew 43) was a ship owner, and a merchant with business interests in New Bedford, Fall River, and Boston. He was involved both with the whaling industry and the textile industry, with a whale oil refinery on Ray St. in New Bedford, and a printing plant in Fall River for printing designs on calico fabric. Robeson’s house now stands on William St., across from the National Park Service headquarters.

Robeson was a strong abolitionist. It was Robeson who nominated one Mr. Borden, an African American man, for membership in the New Bedford Lyceum in 1845. The Lyceum sponsored a popular lecture series, bringing such luminaries as Ralph Waldo Emerson to New Bedford to speak. The Lyceum members, who were all white, refused to admit Mr. Borden into membership on a close vote. Ralph Waldo Emerson then refused to speak at the Lyceum, while the New Bedford abolitionists left the Lyceum to form a competing lecture series. The resulting controversy got national attention for the rights of African Americans to participate freely in society.

In his Life and Times, Frederick Douglass mentions Robeson, alongside such prominent abolitionists as Wendell Phillips and Theodore Parker, as one of those “friends, earnest, courageous, inflexible, ready to own me as a man and brother, against all the scorn, contempt, and derision of a slavery-polluted atmosphere…”

Loum Snow (pew 47) was an agent for whaling ships, a mill owner in Falmouth and Middleboro, director of the Mechanics’ National Bank, trustee of the New Bedford Institution for Savings, and director of the United Mutual Marine Insurance Company.

Snow was a conductor on the Underground Railroad. There are at least two documented instances of Snow helping African Americans escape from slavery. In 1850, Snow arranged for Isabella White, then a slave, to be shipped to New Bedford in a barrel labeled “sweet potatoes.” Then in 1859, William Carney, who had escaped slavery in Virginia and come to New Bedford, went to Snow seeking help to purchase the freedom of his wife, Nancy Carney. (Carney later went on to become the first African American to win the Congressional Medal of Honor, for his heroism during the Union attack on Fort Wagner during the Civil War.)

Snow’s Italianate house still stands on County St., on the north side of Morgan St., just a block or so from the church. Since this is the house where Isabella White arrived, it is one of those rare places that is documented as a station on the Underground Railroad.

Joseph Ricketson (pew 30) refined oil and had other interests in the whaling industry. He is best known today for helping Frederick Douglass on the path to freedom. Douglass tells the story this way in his Narrative:

“[U]pon our arrival at Newport, we were so anxious to get to a place of safety, that, notwithstanding we lacked the necessary money to pay our fare, we decided to take seats in the stage, and promise to pay when we got to New Bedford. We were encouraged to do this by two excellent gentlemen, residents of New Bedford, whose names I afterward ascertained to be Joseph Ricketson and William C. Taber. They seemed at once to understand our circumstances, and gave us such assurance of their friendliness as put us fully at ease in their presence. It was good indeed to meet with such friends, at such a time.”

Later, when he wrote his Life and Times, he added a few details:

“We arrived at Newport the next morning, and soon after an old-fashioned stage-coach with ‘New Bedford’ in large, yellow letters on its sides, came down to the wharf. I had not money enough to pay our fare, and stood hesitating to know what to do. Fortunately for us, there were two Quaker gentlemen who were about to take passage on the stage — Friends William C. Taber and Joseph Ricketson, — who at once discerned our true situation, and in a peculiarly quiet way, addressing me, Mr. Taber said: ‘Thee get in.’ I never obeyed an order with more alacrity, and we were soon on our way to our new home.”

(Ricketson was another of the Quakers who became Unitarians in the 1820s, and retained his Quaker dress and speech throughout his life, so it is not surprising that Douglass mistook him for a Quaker.) Some historians believe that Ricketson and Taber had been sent on purpose to Newport to meet Douglass; in any case, Ricketson had no compunction about serving as a conductor on the Underground Railroad.


Because of the range of opinions on slavery, we cannot say that First Unitarian Church was an abolitionist church in 1838. By contrast, the Universalist Church in New Bedford voted to support abolition, and had African American members, at about the same time. Yet we can also see that First Unitarian moved towards an anti-slavery position over the course of the mid-nineteenth century.

We can see the movement towards an anti-slavery position most clearly in the church’s choice of ministers. In the 1820s, Rev. Orville Dewey did not take a stand against slavery, or for equality for African Americans; after he left our church, he became one of the Unitarian ministers whom abolitionists did not like at all. By 1837, when our current building was built, the church moved towards an anti-slavery position when it called Rev. Ephraim Peabody, who, while not a radical abolitionist, opposed slavery. (Peabody’s wife, Mary Jane Derby Peabody, is famous for being the one who paid Frederick Douglass his first wages as a free man.) And by 1847 the church was ready to call Rev. John Weiss, then well-known as a staunch abolitionist. While not everyone in the congregation agreed with Weiss’s abolitionist views, the congregation (including those who invested in textile mills) gave him perfect freedom to continue his abolitionist activities and state his abolitionist views throughout his eleven-year ministry here.

Update: Added Joseph Ricketson 29 January 2009.

1 thought on “Some New Bedford Unitarians in 1838: Abolitionists and anti-slavery activists

  1. Charlie Talbert

    This is fascinating, thank you.

    From our vantage point today, it’s easy to see that the abolitionists had the right position, though perhaps not always the most effective tactics.

    But regardless, you can bet they met a chorus of objection, with even clergy complaining “we’re not going to grow” and “this isn’t the right time” for the denomination to speak out on this issue, the moral imperative of their day.

    I see parallels with animal advocacy and its related environmental justice issues in our time.

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