This is the second in a two-part series on the ministers of Centre Church, New Bedford. Part One.
Rev. Jonathan Brown, of Naples, N.Y., was the second minister of Centre Church, from 1845-1848. Following his unsuccessful ministry, the congregation “voted not to employ any but Unitarian ministers.” (13) They then called Rev. Moses George Thomas as their next minister.
Moses George Thomas was born on January 19, 1805, in Sterling, Mass. He was graduated from Brown University in 1825, and from there went directly to the divinity school at Harvard. (14) While he was still a student at Harvard Divinity School, the American Unitarian Association (AUA) hired him to travel through the Western frontier, to find out where the AUA might fruitful ground in which to plant new Unitarian churches. From 1826-1827, Thomas traveled some 4,000 miles on horseback, through Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, going as far west as St. Louis. (15)
Following his graduation from divinity school in 1828, Thomas served as minister of the Unitarian church in Concord, N.H., from 1829 to 1844. He was ordained there, and he was the first Unitarian minister settled in that city. He laid the cornerstone of the first Unitarian church building, and gave the sermon at the dedication of that building. In his early years at Concord, N.H., he became good friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had supplied the pulpit there before Thomas arrived. (16) While serving in Concord, N.H., Thomas officiated at Ralph Waldo Emerson’s first marriage, to Ellen Tucker. (17) The next year, 1830, Thomas himself was married, to Mary Jane Kent. Thomas’s time in Concord was later reported to be perhaps the happiest time of his life. (18)
Thomas was settled at the Broadway Church in South Boston in 1845, soon after the church was organized; here again, Thomas was the founding minister of the church. This congregation never owned its own building, but met in rented space; it seems to have dissolved by about 1853. (19)
After leaving the Broadway Church, Thomas came to New Bedford and was installed as the minister of Centre Church in 1848. Two of the Unitarian ministers who had participated in the installation of Charles Morgridge at Centre Church also participated in Thomas’s installation, including Ephraim Peabody, who came down from Boston to deliver the charge to the congregation. John Weiss, then the minister at First Congregational Society (now First Unitarian Church), offered the right hand of fellowship during the installation. But this time, a minister of the Christian Connection, the Rev. Mr. Morton of New Bedford, also participated in the installation service. (20) Apparently, whatever the breach had been between Centre Church and the Christian Connection Churches in New Bedford had been at least partially healed by this time. Thomas remained at Center Church for 6 years, from 1848 to 1854, until Centre Church finally dissolved because of financial “embarrassments.” (21)
When Ephraim Peabody had been the minister of First Congregation Society, a system had been created for the congregation’s charitable work whereby the city was divided into districts, with one person assigned to each district to accept applications for assistance. (22) After Centre Church closed in 1854, First Congregational Society went a step further and hired Thomas to serve as a “minister-at-large” (what we might now call a community minister) to oversee the congregation’s assistance to the city’s poor. Rev. John Weiss was then the minister of First Congregational Society; Thomas’s work as minister-at-large for the church ended about the time Weiss resigned as our minister in 1859. In 1889, William J. Potter, then the minister of First Congregational Society, recalled:
“It is proper too, to recall that, within the time of Mr. [John] Weiss’s pastorate, a ministry-at-large was sustained for several years for service among the poor, Rev. Moses G. Thomas being the minister. After the severance of his relationship to the Society, he was continued for many years by the beneficence of those honored members, James and Sarah Rotch Arnold, of whose charities he became to a large degree the trusted bearer.” (23)
Thus Moses Thomas continued to serve the city’s poor as a minister-at-large through the personal generosity of James and Sarah Arnold. Thomas oversaw the Arnold’s philanthropic efforts in New Bedford for more than a decade, until he retired in 1868. (24)
Upon his retirement, he went to live on a farm with his son in Atlanta, Missouri, for two years, until he recovered his strength. (25) He spent the last years of his life back in Concord, N.H., where he died on September 18, 1880. (26)
The legacy of Centre Church was almost entirely forgotten until, just by chance, I read Potter’s history of the First Unitarian church and decided to learn more about this man who had been the minister-at-large during the late 1850s. We may have forgotten Centre Church and Moses Thomas, but we have always continued the Unitarian tradition of outreach to those in need. These days, two of our projects include a thrift store that serves people of all income levels, and our regular donations to the Shepherd’s Staff Food Pantry. I think Centre Church and Moses George Thomas would be proud of us.
(13) History of the churches of New Bedford: to which are added notices of various other moral and religious organizations, by Jesse Fillmore Kelley and Adam Mackie, New Bedford: E. Anthony & Sons, Printers, 1869, p. 50.
(14) Historical Catalogue of Brown University 1764-1904, Providence: Brown University, 1905, p. 145.
(15) Unitarianism in America, George Willis Cooke, Boston: American Unitarian Association, 1902, p. 140; Salted with Fire, ed. Scott Alexander Boston: Skinner House, 1994, p. 53.
(16) The Harvard Register: An Illustrated Monthly, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, v.1-2, 1880, p. 210.
(17) Waldo Emerson, by Gay Wilson Allen, New York: Viking, 1981, p. 144.
(18) The Harvard Register, p. 210.
(19) The Boston Religion, by Peter Richardson, Rockland, Maine: Red Barn Publishing, p.191.
(20) The Christian Examiner, Boston: James Miller, vol. 45 (July-Nov. 1848), 1848, p. 471.
(21) Kelley and Mackie, p. 120.
(22) Ibid., p. 141.
(23) The First Congregational Society in New Bedford, Massachusetts: Its History as Illustrative of Ecclesiastical Evolution, by William J. Potter, New Bedford: First Congregational Society, 1889, p. 150.
(24) Kelley and Mackie, p. 141.
(25) The Harvard Register, p. 210.
(26) Historical Catalogue of Brown University 1764-1904, p. 210.