A second half-century of Universalist preaching in New Bedford: 1875-1825

Part one, 1825-1875.

After William Bell preached his sermon excoriating Christianity in December, 1874, First Universalist Church in New Bedford called an experienced minister. Rev. Jeremy Hoadly Farnsworth had been a Universalist minister for 30 years when he arrived in New Bedford, having served congregations in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Maine, Rhode Island, Virginia, and Iowa. He supported various reform movements, including temperance, women’s rights, and peace; before becoming a minister, he had worked in a cotton mill, and he was said to support workers’ rights. His obituary in the 1900 edition of the Universalist Register stated: “His home was happy. His churches peaceful and prosperous”; but there was no mention of the quality of his preaching.

Farnsworth was followed by Rev. William Curtis Stiles, who preached from 1878 to 1880. After the Pocasset Tragedy of 1879, where two parents murdered their child in an act of religious fanaticism while trying to re-enact the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, Stiles had a brief moment of fame. His sermon on the subject was published in a booklet titled History of the Pocasset Tragedy, with Three Sermons Preached in New Bedford. One of the other sermons was by William Potter, the older and better-known minister of the Unitarian church in New Bedford.

After having served two years as the Universalist minister in New Bedford, Stiles renounced Universalism; he was converted to orthodox Congregationalism by Rev. A. H. Heath, the minister of the North Congregational Church. Stiles left New Bedford to become the pastor of the East End Congregational Church in Brooklyn. Stiles apparently left some turmoil behind him in the Universalist church, for the church did not call a new settled minister for two years. During that time, Rev. Charles Rockwell Tenney, the minister of the Mattapoisett Universalist church, traveled each week to New Bedford as a supply preacher.

Finally, the church called Rev. Dr. George Truesdale Flanders in 1882. Born in 1820, Flanders became a Universalist preacher at age 18, and first preached in the frontier towns of Ohio before coming east. His obituary in the 1898 Universalist Register reports: “There were marked peculiarities in Dr. Flanders’ temperament and disposition, but a warm, earnest heart was manifest to all who truly knew him and by them he was held in high esteem and honor.” Flanders wrote extensively for Universalist periodicals; he also wrote many hymns, and an autobiography titled, Life’s Problems, Here and Hereafter. At the end of his autobiography, he wrote: “I am at rest. My faith has made me whole. The incidents of this mortal life have for me no terror. Old age has no terror. Death has no terror. I now know that the present, every moment of it, is under the superintendence of an all-wise Father, even to the minutest particular; and the future stretches out into inconceivable realms of light and joy….”

After ten years, Flanders moved on to the Universalist church in Rockport, Mass., and the church called Rev. William Frank Potter in 1892. Potter’s obituary ran in the 1911 edition of the Unitarian Year Book, and had little to say about the man aside from the fact that he “had a rare quality of making friends.” After his departure c. 1897, the church had no minister until 1900.

Oliver Howard Perkins was ordained by First Universalist Church of New Bedford in October, 1900, at age 33; he had previously worked as a schoolteacher. Perkins was a close associate of Rev. Dr. Quillen Hamilton Shinn in founding of Ferry Beach Park Association, the Universalist retreat center in Saco, Maine. Perkins was remembered as having an exceptionally fine character: “Mr. Perkins was tall, nearly six feet, slight of frame, with brown hair and hazel eyes. He was sincere, courteous, helpful, universally kind, and very much a gentleman. He had an innate goodness greatly noticeable by all who met him and a delightful sense of humor….” He left New Bedford in 1907, and died only three years later.

I find it significant that the Universalist ministers of this era were remembered for their personal character, but not for the character of their preaching. Even Howard Perkins, a close associate of Quillen Shinn, one of the great Universalist preachers of all time, was not renowned as a preacher.

Rev. George H. Howes was called by the church in 1907, having been ordained the year before. He left in 1910, and he is probably the same George H. Howes who took charge of North Unitarian Church in New Bedford in that year; North Unitarian Church was a Unitarian mission to immigrants living in the North End of the city.

Next, the church called Rev. Howard Charles Gale to their pulpit in 1911. Raised a Universalist in Haverhill, Mass., Gale’s first full-time pastorate was as the Universalist minister in Upham’s Corner, Dorchester, from 1908-1911. In Dorchester, he was an advocate of using a Universalist prayer-book liturgy; thus, Gale seems to have placed less emphasis on preaching than on the rest of the worship service. Although I can learn nothing about his preaching, he was very energetic in New Bedford: he carried out his ministerial duties, retired a large debt held by the church, served in many community organizations, and was active with the Masons. In his autobiography he wrote, “The demands on my time and my numerous public activities, together with the demands of the parish, made for over-crowded days and an altogether too hectic life.”

Gale had a somewhat eccentric career after leaving New Bedford. He was minister of the Unitarian church in Peabody, Mass., from 1926 until 1945. In addition, he received his M.D. in 1926 from Middlesex Medical College (later absorbed into Brandeis University) and began to practice medicine on the North Shore. On top of that, he was a college professor, most notably at Endicott Junior College. For more than two decades, from 1926 on, he pursued these three careers simultaneously. His autobiography, self-published in 1969, was titled My Triple Life.

As it happens, I have a personal connection with Dr. Gale. My mother was a teenager in the Peabody Unitarian church, and always talked about how much he influenced her. However, she never talked about the fact that he left Unitarianism and became an Episcopal priest in 1951.

Gale was succeeded by Rev. Frederick Algernon Wilmot in 1917. Wilmot was another Universalist minister deeply involved in community affairs. He served as assistant chairman of Liberty Loans, and founded both the New Bedford Forum and the New Bedford School of Dramatic Arts. He was also a Reserve Chaplain in the U.S. military during 1918.

Both Gale and Wilmot mark a distinct change from earlier Universalist ministers. Known neither for their preaching nor for their characters, they were known for their energy and their work in the community. By the 1920s, the grand days of Universalist preaching had passed away, and a new model for Universalist ministry had emerged. I wonder what Hosea Ballou would have made of the changes in his beloved denomination.

Sources of Universalist preaching in New Bedford

1 thought on “A second half-century of Universalist preaching in New Bedford: 1875-1825

  1. Deborah A Stiles

    I am the great-grand daughter of Rev. Dr. William Curtis Stiles. I am currently trying to illustrate one of his books – The Upper Way: An Open-Air Discourse on the Path of Life and the Process of Walking Therein. I would like to read the sermon on the Pocasset Trajedy. Sincerely, Deborah A. Stiles

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