Tag Archives: Centre Church

New book: Liberal Pilgrims

What it says on the back cover:

Liberal Pilgrims chronicles the experiences of Unitarians and Universalists from New Bedford, Massachusetts, offering a window on the sometimes unexpected context and development of liberal religion in North America. New Bedford’s religious liberals viewed the world from diverse perspectives, using different symbols, language, and actions to express their religion as they progressed in their pilgrimages — spiritual and religious journeys that that continue to transform the American liberal religious tradition to this day. Their stories remind us of the rich and sometimes disparate origins of liberal religious practice. And their stories challenge today’s liberal pilgrims to continue to seek out new directions for liberal religion, constantly reinventing contemporary liberal religious experience.

“Some stories have never been told in detail before. There’s the story of Reverend William Jackson, the first African-American minister to declare himself a Unitarian when he addressed a meeting of the American Unitarian Association in New Bedford. There are the stories of North Unitarian Church, a church of immigrants, and Centre Church, which changed its affiliation from the Christian Connection to Unitarianism. Other stories include the story of Reverend John Murray Spear, Universalist and abolitionist, minister of an interracial church in the 1830s, who was driven out of New Bedford when he helped free a slave. There’s the story of Mary Rotch, perhaps the most original Unitarian theologian to come out of New Bedford, and a confidante of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller.

“Each of the 19 chapters tells about a different liberal religious person, community, or art work. By examining how these people and religious communities of the past lived out their religious ideals in their times, we learn more about our own liberal religion in the present day and its potential for the future.”

Yes, it’s now officially published. Yes, it contains the story of the very first African American minister to declare himself a Unitarian. Yes, it contains additional information about Unitarian and Universalist history, much of which has never before published.

And yes, it could use another round of copy editing, but I’m getting ready to move and I just don’t have enough time to go through the book again. But I promise it’s worth reading even with the typographical errors I’m sure are in it.

Go here to buy it. Cheap: $9.46 + shipping (I make no profit on the book). Cheaper still if you buy three or more.

Moses George Thomas, minister-at-large

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. Continue reading

Unitarianism: theological and denominational boundaries in New Bedford

Earlier, I wrote about Centre Church in New Bedford. Here’s more about links between Christian Connection and Unitarian churches in New Bedford….

Referring to Duane Hurd’s History of Bristol County, I find that there were three Christian Connection churches in New Bedford when Centre Church was organized. North Christian Church (later called First Christian Church) was founded in 1807 by a group who were originally Baptists under the care of Elder Hix from Dartmouth. Then “in December, 1826, Elder Charles Morgridge, of Boston, was settled as minister…. During the fall of 1831, Mr. Morgridge resigned his pastoral charge….” and another minister took over. Then, “on the retirement of Mr. Lovell, Rev. Mr. Morgridge again renewed his connection with the church, and remained with it until the spring of 1841.” *

In 1837, while at North Christian Church, Charles Morgridge wrote treatise supporting unitarian theology, a book titled “The True Believer’s Defence: Against charges preferred by Trinitarians, for not believing in The Divinity of Christ, The Deity of Christ, The Trinity, etc.” Publishing information is listed on the title page as “New-Bedford: William Howe, 26 North Water Street. 1837.” (That means it was published just a block or two from our house, but I digress.) Here’s a sample of the prose style (yes, all the italics are in the original):


No passage of Scripture asserts that God is three.

“If it be asked what I intend to qualify by the numeral three, I answer, any thing which the reader pleases. There is no scripture which asserts that God is three persons, three agents, three beings, three Gods, three spirits, three subsistences, three modes, three offices, three attributes, three divinities, three infinite minds, three somewhats, three opposites, or three in any sense whatever. The truth of this has been admitted by every Trinitarian that ever wrote or preached on the subject. No sermon has ever yet been heard or seen, founded on a passage of scripture which asserts that God is three. Dr. Barrow, whose works are published in seven vols. 8 vo., has left us one discourse on the Trinity. But, unable to find any passage of scripture that asserts the doctrine, he took for his text, Set your affection on things above. — Col. iii. 2. He considered the three persons in the Godhead incomparably the most important of all the things above, on which we are to set our affections.”

This book is available online via Google books, if you want to read it yourself. It is also available in a reprint edition from BiblicalUnitarian.com.

We have to wonder why Morgridge only lasted less than two months as the minister at Centre Church. It appears that his unitarian theology would have been agreeable to a congregation which eventually decided to call “only Unitarian ministers” — so why did he leave?** We also have to wonder what First Congregational Society of New Bedford, which was then the name of the Unitarian church in town, thought about Morgridge and his book. Did Ephraim Peabody, then minister at the Unitarian church, hang out with Morgridge? The co-existence of Centre Church and First Congregational Society poses some interesting questions about denominational boundaries vs. theological boundaries.

* The other Christian churches in New Bedford were Middle Street Christian Church in downtown New Bedford, organized in 1828; South Christian Church in the South End, organized c. 1851; and Third Christian Church, organized 1826 and known as the African Christian Church until 1840 when it changed its name, located on Middle Street not far from the Middle Street Christian Church (it later became a Freewill Baptist Church, and went out of existence in 1859).

** After leaving North, or First, Christian Church in New Bedford, Morgridge was two months at Center Church; probably at First Christian Church in Fall River from 1847 to 1848; probably in Barnstable at the Congregational Church in the 1850s.

An extinct Unitarian church of New Bedford

Extinct churches fascinate me that way some people are fascinated by ghost towns. Today I discovered that there was a second Unitarian church here in New Bedford for a short time in the mid-19th C. This account of the church comes from History of Bristol County, Massachusetts: With Biographical Sketches of Many of Its Pioneers and Prominent Men [Duane Hamilton Hurd (J. W. Lewis & Co., 1883), p. 94]:

“THE CENTRE CHURCH was organized Feb. 12, 1845. The following were some of the original members: James H. Collins, William H. Stowell, Isaac Bly, David Ilsley, Prentiss W. Cobb, Benjamin G. Wilson, Robert Luscomb, William Bly, Rutli Bly, Deborah Simmons, and Eliza Tubbs. It was at first attempted to form a church of the Christian denomination, but the clergymen invited to do this declining, invitations were extended to Rev. Messrs. Ephraim Peabody, Davis, and E. B. Hall, of Providence, by whom the society was organized. Rev. Charles Morgridge was the first pastor; he preached until March, 1845. The next was Rev. Jonathan Brown, of Naples, N. Y., who officiated about three years without much success. The church then voted not to employ any but Unitarian ministers. In October, 1848, Rev. Moses G. Thomas was installed. His pastorship continued until 1854, when the financial affairs of the church became so full of embarrassment that it was voted to disband.”

Notice how the author makes the distinction between a “church of the Christian denomination,” and Unitarianism. Also notice that the congregation invited Ephraim Peabody, formerly minister at First Unitarian, then minister of King’s Chapel, to help them organize their new congregation.

After the dissolution of Centre Church, Thomas became a minister-at-large under the auspices of First Unitarian Church in New Bedford (note that what we now call First Unitarian Church of New Bedford was then called First Congregational Society). Here’s a brief account of the first community ministry here in New Bedford, from The First Congregational Society in New Bedford, Massachusetts: Its History as Illustrative of Ecclesiastical Evolution [William J. Potter (First Congregational Society, 1889), p. 150]:

“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.”

Moses Thomas sounded like a fascinating person in his own right, so with the help of Google Books, I did a little more research on him…. Continue reading