New England Yearly Meeting

A community of Quakers and Quaker meetings across New England.

Drawn to New Bedford Meeting

Oct 24, 2018
Martha Mangelsdorf, New Bedford (MA) Friends Meeting

Over a decade ago, I had a leading to sometimes visit New Bedford Friends Meeting. The meeting community is small, but its building is large and historic, associated with the time when Friends were numerous in New Bedford, a city in which they played an important role. I didn’t go to New Bedford Meeting that often, because at the time I needed to rent a Zipcar to get there from my home in Boston. But I went a few times a year for several years.

Then, my life changed. I fell in love and got married, becoming stepmother to a young adolescent whose mother had died of cancer when he was nine. My life was a blur for many years, as I was first the sole breadwinner for my new family and then the primary breadwinner. After having been self-employed as a writer and editor for a number of years, I took a job with one of my clients in 2008, in a job where I was paid well but worked way too much.  What time and energy I had left over went mostly to my husband, marriage, home, and stepson. My spiritual life withered a lot.

By early 2017, that had started shifting. My stepson had graduated from college and was navigating his first year out of college in I thought good ways.  My husband, Roy, had a full-time job he liked, and I felt less burdened with a need to keep my super-stressful job. I was starting to think about leaving it for some other type of work.

My job has made it hard for me to get to meeting consistently, because for about four months of the year I worked lots of weekend hours. I had been attending Beacon Hill Friends Meeting but was not very active because of my work demands.

I had one of my big quarterly work deadlines on March 3, 2017, and in the period leading up to it, I was, as usual at the time, working too much. (I even had a dream where I watched a woman get swallowed up by a sinkhole in a parking lot. I understood the dream to be about the way my job swallowed me at times.) As my Friday deadline approached, I said to my husband, “We need to go away someplace this weekend.” I had been working a lot of weekend hours, many of them in our house, and I just felt like I needed to see something different. I suggested going to a bed and breakfast in Newport, Rhode Island, on Saturday night, and my husband pointed out to me that it was supposed to be bitterly cold that weekend, and thus not the best time to walk on the Newport cliffs. He had a point, so I kept researching.

We ended up going to a bed and breakfast in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, the town just across the harbor from New Bedford. It was the home of both Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s grandfather and great-grandfather—the Delano family homestead—and FDR went there often as a child and young man. Because the B&B’s website happened to be down and it was a cold weekend in early March, we had a beautiful mansion to ourselves for the night, plus breakfast, for no more than it costs to rent a room in many Hampton Inns— which was pretty great and quite relaxing.

Sunday morning, I decided to go to New Bedford Meeting. The plan was that Roy, who is not a Quaker, would come along and read in the adjoining building where Friends have a fellowship room and a kitchen. However, I forgot that New Bedford Friends use that room for worship in winter to save on heating costs.

The meetinghouse did not look good. Part of the fence was gone. The front doors were locked, and we couldn’t get in the back door. We were about to leave when we saw people inside the fellowship area. (It turned out the back door was simply difficult to open.) One of them let us in and we had meeting for worship with just four people, including the two of us. It was kind of discouraging. In fact, my husband, who is prone to humorous hyperbole, later described it as incredibly depressing; it reminded him of the Ingmar Bergman movie Winter Light, a depressing movie that involves a tiny religious congregation.

After meeting, I found myself thinking: You should go to New Bedford Meeting regularly.  You should make a commitment to do it. It felt like a Divine “nudge.” And my first internal response to said nudge was along these lines: I don’t want to go to New Bedford Meeting. It’s depressing. There’s barely anyone here. I live in Boston, it’s a long schlep, and my own meeting (I was attending Beacon Hill Meeting) has all kinds of interesting programs and people. This place doesn’t even have refreshments after meeting.

One of the two people at the meeting, David, took us to lunch at a nearby Cape Verdean restaurant, Izzy’s, which I really liked—and which was a saving grace for Roy, since he loves to learn about cuisines from different parts of the world. Roy and I then went to the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

Roy’s favorite book is Moby Dick, and when he had been to the Whaling Museum as part of a family reunion in the early 2000s, he had seen a Herman Melville doll that he just loved—and really wanted. But money was tight in his young family at the time (he was the sole breadwinner), it seemed like a frivolous purchase, and he didn’t buy it. He had since been unable to find one. So our first stop in the museum was its store, in search of the Herman Melville doll.

No luck. Roy was downcast. He said, “It’s my fault. I should have bought it when I had the chance. I was the only one who wanted it, and I didn’t buy it, and the company went out of business. It’s all on me.”

I felt “convicted” by his phrasing; I felt it in my heart. Roy was talking about the Herman Melville doll, but I felt that God was speaking to me about New Bedford Meeting through him. While the message wasn’t literal—the members of New Bedford Meeting had been working valiantly to keep the meeting alive for years—I nonetheless felt God was telling me that if you care about and are attracted to something that not many others care about or are attracted to, you can’t just assume it’ll always be there. You have to support it, and if you don’t and it goes out of business, it’s on you.

I began to mull over the idea of going to New Bedford meeting regularly. A couple in the museum viewing an exhibit that gave information about the Quaker heritage of the New Bedford region were asking each other where Quakerism began in the U.S. and my husband referred them to me by piping up, “My wife’s a Quaker! Ask her.” I talked briefly with the couple about Quaker history in the U.S., and, upon hearing they were from Waltham, I mentioned that there was a nice meeting in Framingham.

When I mentioned my idea of going to New Bedford meeting to Roy, he pooh-poohed it, noting that I was having a hard time getting to Beacon Hill Meeting, and I would never want to leave the house early enough for the one-hour trip from our home in Roslindale to get to 10 a.m. meeting in New Bedford every week. I realized he was right: If I wanted to go to New Bedford meeting,  I needed to recruit other Friends to join me. Otherwise, tired from work, I would sleep too late and want to linger over coffee and the Sunday paper with Roy. A prior commitment to take someone to New Bedford with me would mean I couldn’t do that. Plus, bringing people to New Bedford could help energize the meeting by increasing attendance and helping make the meeting more interesting. So I started attending New Bedford meeting, bringing Friends with me whenever possible.

Flash forward a year and a half later, and a funny thing has happened: I have grown to love New Bedford meeting and have transferred my membership there. We are still a small group—we now have 10 members, including me—but the meeting got through the rough spot it was experiencing when I visited in early March 2017. (At that time, one member was il, and another lacked a ride to meeting). Even though I’m not bringing visitors very often at this point, we now have six or seven people—sometimes more—in attendance on a typical Sunday and that is a world different than two. For a small group, we have lots of projects going on and our energy is palpable. Thanks to a number of Friends, we now tend to have an abundance of refreshments, and we often eat together after meeting. While we still have lots of work to do on our building, we had a workday in the spring of 2017 that included removing the remains of that decaying fence.

What I have discovered is that being part of a small group revitalizing an old meeting has in turn revitalized me.  The sense of urgency I feel about making sure there is a critical mass of people at New Bedford meeting each Sunday has meant that I’ve gotten back to attending meeting faithfully; since that day in early March 2017, I’ve missed meeting only when I’m traveling. Focusing on New Bedford meeting helped me reground in Quakerism, and that helped to lessen the grip my job had on me. Over time, I found a way clear to leave that job for a position that pays less but offers better hours and more meaningful work. New Bedford Friends welcomed me, and it was easy to get involved when the need for additional hands was so obvious: I soon was on the finance committee and have been serving as a temporary recording clerk for the meeting.

Being part of New Bedford meeting has also been instructive. What I didn’t know when I first experienced the “nudge” to attend New Bedford meeting was some of the history of Friends in that area. Although I attended New England Yearly Meeting as a child and learned some Quaker history, I had never known about the work that some Friends in New Bedford did in the late 18th and 19th century assisting people escaping enslavement. For example, I did not know that two Friends from New Bedford meeting, William C. Taber and Joseph Ricketson, helped Frederick Douglass and his wife get to New Bedford from Newport, Rhode Island, when Douglass was escaping slavery[1]—when Douglass was, essentially, a refugee without the right papers. (Interestingly, both New Bedford Meeting oral history and a book written by a Taber family member[2] maintain that the New Bedford friends Douglass and his wife traveled with were on their way back to New Bedford from New England Yearly Meeting sessions in Newport. It would be interesting if someone could check the place and dates for the 1838 NEYM session in the NEYM archives to see if that is likely so. Douglass arrived in New Bedford in September 1838.)

Because 19th-century New Bedford Friends were also clearly flawed— as a group, they were rigid and judgmental and ended up with a schism that resulted in many former New Bedford Friends joining the local Unitarian Church—I somehow find their example as a group particularly useful. From the admittedly small amount I know about their lives, I am reminded that you can be ordinary, flawed human beings and busy with paid work (both things I use as excuses in my own life), but God still can use you—if you are faithful enough and part of a strong faith community whose principles lead you to right action. I feel weak and ineffective compared to some of the Friends who went before me in New Bedford meeting, but I also find that their examples keep pushing me—not always successfully, I’m afraid, but still pushing me—to try to be a better, more faithful Quaker.

So my message now is this: Come visit us at New Bedford meeting (83 Spring Street, meeting at 10 a.m. Sunday)! It’s a great time to come to visit this portal to New England Quaker history and think about that history’s relevance to today. 

The New Bedford Whaling Museum, which is within walking distance of the meeting house, has just opened a new exhibit about Paul Cuffe, a well-known Quaker and abolitionist from nearby Westport Meeting who was a successful businessman of African-American and Native American descent. Late in the 18th century, Paul Cuffe took an early stance for civil rights when he and several other African-American men petitioned the state of Massachusetts, arguing that they shouldn’t be taxed without being allowed to vote. You can learn more about Cuffe in the exhibit or in the adjoining park that honors him.

Looking ahead, the New Bedford Historical Society, a dynamic nonprofit dedicated to the history of people of color in New Bedford, is leading plans to have a vacant lot across from the first New Bedford home of Frederick Douglass—and also across from the meetinghouse, which is just around the corner—be turned into an “Abolition Row Park” honoring Douglass and other New Bedford residents who acted in opposition to slavery.

Also, between now and December 24, 2018, the Rotch-Jones-Duff House and Garden Museum, which is a few blocks from the meetinghouse, is open on Sunday afternoons from 12 to 4 p.m. The house was the home of William Rotch Jr. (1759–1850), a leading businessman and abolitionist in New Bedford who was a Quaker for most of his life, until his membership was denied in the period after the schism in New Bedford meeting. (New Bedford Friends at the time apparently objected to the fact that, after his first wife died, Rotch married another Quaker, Lydia Scott. I wonder if they objected because the couple announced their intentions to marry to the Unitarian congregation.)[3] For sale in the house’s gift shop is a new 48-page booklet by Kathryn Grover, Testimony Against the Sin of Our Nation: The Abolitionism of William Rotch Jr.” that Friends might be interested in; I found it to be an instructive and humbling example of a Friend carrying a concern.

 


[1] Douglass mentions the two men by name in Chapter XI of his 1845 memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. See: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/23/23-h/23-h.htm.

[2] M. J. H. Taber, Just a Few “Friends” (1909), p. 129, quoted in L.H. Renfer, ed., Daily Readings From Quaker Writings Ancient & Modern, Vol. 2 (1995), p. 174. See also:  Oral history per Marcia Glynn, New Bedford Meeting.

[3] K. Grover, Testimony Against the Sin of Our Nation: The Abolitionism of William Rotch Jr. (2017), pp. 43-4.

New England Yearly Meeting of Friends

901 Pleasant Street, Worcester, MA 01602

(508) 754-6760 - [email protected]