Itinerants to Freethinkers: Universalist preaching in New Bedford

Part one: 1825 to 1875

During the 1820s and 1830s, at least a few itinerant Universalist preachers visited New Bedford. By tradition, Rev. Hosea Ballou, the greatest of the early Universalist theologians and preachers, came to speak in New Bedford c. 1825. In 1831, one William Morse preached a sermon on Universalism in New Bedford titled “On Revival of Religion. A Sermon delivered in New Bedford, April 17, 1831,” which was printed by Benjamin T. Congdon. In 1836, one Abraham Norwood preached Universalism in New Bedford and Fairhaven, with mixed success.

The first settled Universalist preacher was Rev. John Murray Spear, who preached abolitionism along with his Universalism. While he was minister, from 1836 to 1841, the Universalists built a church building on School Street (since demolished, the site is now the parking lot for Pilgrim UCC Church); they also were one of the few Massachusetts churches of any denomination to unequivocally declare their support for abolition. Nathan Johnson, a prominent African American citizen of New Bedford and conductor on the Underground Railroad, became a member of the Universalist Church. Frederick Douglass is known to have visited the church, but only to argue against the doctrine of universal salvation; Spear met Douglass during this visit, and the two men wound up sharing the lecture platform for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society many times in later years.

In 1841, Spear was hounded out of New Bedford for helping a fugitive slave evade her master. Spears’ biographer John Beuscher writes: “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.”

Following Spear’s sudden departure, Rev. Levi L. Sadler (1806?-1857) served as a supply minister during 1841. Sadler had previously preached in the recently-settled states of Ohio (1833, 1837) and Michigan (1835).

Rev. Thomas Green Farnsworth (1798-1883), sometimes incorrectly listed as “G.T. Farnsworth,” served the Universalist church from 1841 to 1843 [one source says until 1846]. Farnsworth had been apprenticed as a shoemaker in Boston when he converted to the Baptist denomination; one of his fellow apprentices was Thomas Whittemore, and the two later both became Universalist ministers.

Rev. Silas S. Fletcher (1824?-1884) served from 1844-1846 [one source says until 1849]. In 1844, printer Benjamin Lindsey (who was a Unitarian) printed one of Fletcher’s sermons, which was titled, “A Sermon on the Fanaticism of the Present Age in which is Shown Wherein Both the Literary and Religious Past are Responsible, and Wherein Brought to Bear Upon the Fatal Delusion of Millerism: Delivered in the Universalist Church, New Bedford, Mass., October 27th, 1844.”

A Rev. Mr. Waldo served briefly in 1849. Due to financial difficulties, the Universalist church sold its building to the Roman Catholics and dissolved in 1849. But the Universalists of New Bedford re-organized their church, and incorporated as “First Universalist Society of New Bedford” on 15 December 1851.

One Dr. Hatch, a layman, provided preaching at first. The Society called Rev. Hiram Van Campen (1817-1905) as minister in 1851. At this time, the Society was meeting in Sears Hall, near City Hall in downtown New Bedford. Van Campen resigned from his ministry in 1853 to pursue a business career; he remained in New Bedford until his death, serving as clerk of the Universalist church for more than 36 years, and was said to seldom miss Sunday services.

The church called Rev. Benjamin Varney Stevenson (1815-1898) in 1854. Stevenson had worked as a bookbinder, but trained for the ministry under Hosea Ballou 2nd, and was ordained in 1844. In 1855, the church re-incorporated as “First Universalist Church,” and completed a new church building on William Street (still standing, now occupied by the Gallery X artists’ cooperative). The building cost $10,000 (approximately $220,000 in today’s dollars), and it was paid for when it was completed.

Rev. James Johnson Twiss (1820-1891) served the Universalist church from 1857-1859. In 1875, he became a Unitarian minister when he was called to the Chelmsford Unitarian church.

Rev. Thomas Eliot St. John served from 1859 to about 1861. Prior to entering the Universalist ministry, St. John was professor of anatomy and physiology in the Eclectic Medical College, Cincinnati. Rev. Steven Leroy Roripaugh served briefly in 1863 (perhaps into 1864). Roripaugh was well-liked, but suffered from asthma in the New Bedford climate, and had to leave.

Rev. George W. Skinner served for some months in 1865; during the turbulent Civil War era Skinner had been a lieutenant in the 97th Regiment New York State Volunteers in 1862, then was minister in the Gloucester Universalist church until he came to New Bedford.

Rev. Isaac Case Knowlton (1819-1895), stayed with the New Bedford Universalists from 1866 to 1871. Originally a cooper who made lime-casks in Maine, Knowlton studied for the Universalist ministry and was ordained in 1845. He wrote frequently for newspapers and magazines, and wrote the book Through the Shadows in 1885, which explained the Universalism of his day. He was considered an able preacher, although upon his death the Universalist Register commented, “Dr. Knowlton was a man of decidedly marked characteristics, original in thought and utterance, sometimes very quaint in the latter.” Tufts honored him with the Doctor of Divinity degree in 1889. His son Hosea Morrill Knowlton settled in New Bedford, and become the most prominent Universalist in the city.

Rev. Cyrus Baldwin Lombard (1829-after 1896) spent a short nine months in New Bedford in 1871. While minister at the Universalist church in Shirley, Mass., his first wife died (c. 1862); after he left New Bedford he moved to Springfield, Ill., where he re-married. The History of the Town of Shirley notes: “His pulpit talents were creditable, and his voice and graceful delivery commended him as a public teacher of divine truth.”

There was no settled minister in the New Bedford church from 1871 to 1873. Rev. William Rollin Shipman (1836-1908), professor at Tufts University, served as a regular supply preacher. In 1873, the church called Rev. William S. Bell. The following biographical notice of Bell appears in the book Four Hundred Years of Freethought by Samuel Porter Putnam (1894, p. 694):

“William S. Bell was born in Allegheny City, Pa., February 16, 1832. In early manhood he united with the Methodist church and began to preach. In 1858 he graduated from Adrian College, Michigan, and became a preacher in Brooklyn, N. Y. Having outgrown orthodoxy after several years, he applied himself to the study of medicine. In 1872 he went to Harvard Divinity School to prepare for the Liberal ministry. In 1873 he was engaged by the Universalists of New Bedford to supply their pulpit. His sermons, however, were not of ‘the good old-fashioned Universalist style.’ On the last Sunday, December, 1874, he publicly renounced the Christian church. Since then he has been engaged in lecturing before Liberal societies. He has published several books — ‘The Resurrection of Jesus;’ ‘Anti-Prohibition’; ‘An Outline of the French Revolution of 1789,’ and ‘The Hand-Book of Free-thought.'”

Although today no one would blink if a Universalist minister renounced the Christian church, in those days Universalism was definitely a Christian faith. Presumably Bell was dismissed or resigned as minister following his dramatic announcement. Rev. Shipman apparently came back to provide supply preaching again, until the next settled minister could be called….

Documentation: Please see Sources for Universalist History in New Bedford on this Web site.

To be continued…