Hosea Ballou in New Bedford

I’ve been tracing out the history of Universalist preaching in New Bedford, and finally tracked down the date when Hosea Ballou, the greatest of the early Universalist preachers, visited here — it’s in the second volume of Thomas Whittemore’s sprawling 1854/5 biography of Ballou. Ballou did a tour of the region, preaching at New Bedford, Fairhaven, Mattapoisett (then part of Rochester), Acushnet and Long Plains (then parts of Fairhaven).

Whittemore includes an anecdote of one of Ballou’s encounters with more orthodox clergy. It is such a classic story that I have included it in its entirety, along with the entire story of Ballou’s preaching tour in this area. (I’ve added a few numbered footnotes; Whittemore’s own footnote is marked with an asterisk.)


[p. 101] “In May, 1820, he [Ballou] made a journey to New Bedford, at the call of a few friends there, and preached the word of the Lord, as he understood it, at a private house, [1] there being, as he said, ‘no meeting-house in the town whose owners were willing to have the doctrine of God’s universal, impartial, unchangeable goodness preached within its consecrated walls.’ Thence he crossed the river to Fairhaven, where he addressed an assembly in the academy, and also at the head of the river, so called, in the meeting-house formerly occupied by the memorable Dr. West. [2] In the precinct called Mattapoiset, in the town of Rochester, he was invited to preach, by a physician, who was a large owner in the meeting-house. The house was opened by proper authority; but when Mr. B. came to the door, he was confronted by the settled pastor, Rev. Lemuel Le Baron, who forbid his going into the house. Mr. Ballou was very sorry to wound the feelings of the gentleman; but the house had been opened by proper authority, and there was no good reason why the people who had assembled should be disappointed. The principal reason assigned by Mr. Le Baron for his opposition was, that Mr. Ballou was a Universalist, and that Universalism was subversive of Christianity. Mr. B. invited the clergyman to go in with him, and hear what he had to deliver, and then he [p. 102] could the better judge whether the doctrine preached was the truth or not. But Mr. Le Baron refused to do this, and insisted that he had a right to control the pulpit, and to say who should preach in it. Mr. B. told him that the gentlemen who had given their consent for him to preach in the house were of respectable standing, and proprietors of the house; and, if they had violated his privileges, they must be accountable. He further added, that, however Mr. Le Baron might think it his duty to forbid his preaching, he himself could not see how a man who did not own the house could prevent those from the free use of it who did own it, when they desired to worship God according to the dictates of their own consciences. [3] Mr. B. accordingly passed in, and ‘a goodly number (said he) attended to the word.’ * He preached again in the same place in the evening. Before leaving the place, he addressed Mr. Le Baron a long letter, in which he called on him to show wherein Universalism was subversive of Christianity. Mr. B. quoted many passages from the Scriptures, and then wished his antagonist to show either that these passages did not prove Universalism, or else show how they were subversive of Christianity. This being done, Mr. B. proceeded to a meetinghouse at Long Plains, at the upper part of Fairhaven, where he preached, after which he returned home.”


* “On Mr. Le Baron being told that Mr. Ballou was going to preach in the house, he said to one of his friends, ‘Had I not better go into the house, and be sacrificed at the foot of the pulpit-stairs?’ On the remark being repeated to Mr. Ballou, he asked, ‘Who did the poor man think was going to harm him?'”

[1] According to the 1869 History of Churches in New Bedford, this “private house” was Dudley Davenport’s carpenter’s shop.

[2] Dr. Samuel West was the liberal minister of the congregation which in 1795 moved to the growing Bedford Precinct, later New Bedford; that congregation became First Congregational Society of New Bedford (Unitarian), now First Unitarian Church in New Bedford.

[3] The argument between Ballou and Le Baron turns on a touchy point. In 1820, most Massachusetts churches were composed of two somewhat separate organizations, the church and the society. The division of responsibilities was something like this: the church, controlled by the minister and the deacons, was the arbiter of who would be admitted as a full church member, such admission possibly including doctrinal tests; — the society, controlled by the proprietors (that is, those who provided the funding to build and maintain the meetinghouse), owned the building and most of the furnishings. Thus both Ballou and Le Baron had compelling arguemnts — Ballou arguing that the proprietors had the right to decide who got access to the building; Le Baron arguing that Ballou would injure the doctrinal purity of the church.

Reference: Life of Rev. Hosea Ballou: With Accounts of His Writings, and Biographical Sketches of His Seniors and Contemporaries in the Universalist Ministry by Thomas Whittemore, Boston: James M. Usher, 1854, vol II., pp. 101-102.