Modern history


Old Lights and New

While George Jr. and Matthew Howland, and George Tucker and his autobiographical creation Hiram Wellworthy, dutifully attended the Friends Academy, and the Friends boarding school in Providence, and trod the hidebound path prescribed for them by their parents and their social milieu, they did so in the calm center of a storm of change. While these young men were growing up, New Bedford was becoming one of the more cosmopolitan spots on earth; ships arrived daily with news and people from the farthest reaches of the world. Beneath the gaze of the great houses of the whaling merchants rising on the hill above the harbor, whole shanty neighborhoods of foreigners and heathens sprang up along the tidy Acushnet shores. The impact on the staid and settled town created by its Quaker patriarchs, and their circumscribed world order, and eventually the patriarchs themselves, was steady and unstoppable.

Around 1819, an old Nantucket whaleship named The Ark was sailed to New Bedford to be broken up at Rotch’s Wharf (the massive oak and ash framing timbers and pine and cedar planking from many whaleships were recycled into house structures and furniture). From the wreckage, the ship’s sternboard, with “The Ark” carved into it, was saved and mounted as decoration on another old whaler, the Camillus, which sat in the mud at the foot of High Street. Its rig had been removed, a house built upon the deck, with a portico walkway running entirely around the hull. For several years it was used as a houseboat by sailors and their families in reduced circumstances. “But [it] soon came to a baser use,” wrote New Bedford historian Leonard Ellis, “and finally was a brothel of the worst character. Its existence was a moral offence to the community, and its removal was earnestly desired by good citizens.”

The whale fishery, less active than the merchant shipping business at the end of the eighteenth century, had been slow to recover from the Revolution. In 1806 and 1807, only a single whaleship returned to port in each year with a cargo of oil. Gradually this improved: thirteen whaleships and their cargoes sailed into New Bedford in 1810. But ongoing hostilities between England and her former colony, embargoes on American oil, and the War of 1812 (1812-1815) took their toll, until in 1814, again, only a single whaleship sailed up Buzzards Bay into the Acushnet River. But after 1815, mercantile relationships between America and Britain began to be reestablished, and business picked up again. Two ships returned to New Bedford in 1815, seven in 1816, twenty-eight by 1820. Forty-six ships sailed into the port in 1830, with cargoes valued at $3,487,949, and by then the whale fishery had become the economic base of the town.

New Bedford’s population doubled between 1820 and 1830, but few of these newcomers were Quakers. Men and their families from all over New England walked and rode to New Bedford to service the whale fishery that was growing both in size and fame, and many more men arrived by sea. New Bedford society changed swiftly, from a staid, inward-looking religious community made up almost entirely of the descendants of white English settlers, into an informal world’s fair of all the people and cultures connected by the world’s oceans.

For every whaleship on the waterfront—the town had fifteen wharves by 1823, and there were perhaps thirty to forty vessels in port at any time through the 1820s—there were thirty seamen gathering for a voyage to the far side of the world, or arriving home from one. Brutal men, coarsened beyond normal limits, at the beginning and end of a virtual prison term.

In addition to Queequeg the cannibal—who has been out trying to sell a shrunken head—with whom Ishmael shares his bed, Melville fills the Spouter Inn with such a rabble:

They were nearly all whalemen; chief mates, and second mates, and third mates, and sea carpenters, and sea coopers, and sea blacksmiths, and harpooneers, and ship keepers; a brown and brawny company, with bosky beards; an unshorn, shaggy set, all wearing monkey jackets for morning gowns.

And in the streets:

In New Bedford, actual cannibals stand chatting at . . . corners; savages outright; many of whom yet carry on their bones unholy flesh . . . Feegeeans, Tongatabooans, Erromanggoans, Pannangians, and Brighggians, and, besides the wild specimens of the whaling craft which unheeded reel about the streets . . . there weekly arrive in this town scores of green Vermonters and New Hampshire men, all athirst for gain and glory in the fishery.

All these—and Lascars, Malays, Frenchmen, Britons, Scandinavians, Germans, Dutchmen, Spaniards, freed slaves and blacks from other countries, “kanakas” from the Hawaiian Islands, Maoris from New Zealand, and great numbers of Portuguese seamen from the Azores and Cape Verde Islands—filled New Bedford. They lived in warrens along the waterfront, across the river in Fairhaven, at the fringes of the towns and their societies, but with their own community increasing faster than any other group in town. They were not ascetic businessmen, but lonely, frequently drunken adventurers who arrived in New Bedford with ravening appetites, and their presence inevitably overwhelmed the genteel nature of the town.

In August 1826, The Ark (the former Camillus) became the focus of the civic outrage. One evening a mob of good citizens gathered on the waterfront to attack it. Its inhabitants and patrons, having learned in advance of the attack, had readied stones and bottles of scalding water. As the mob approached, stones flew in both directions. Then a ship’s gun was brought down the street and positioned to fire on the hulk. Great show was made of ramming a “ball” and cartridge into the gun’s muzzle, until the defenders lost their nerve, surrendered, and disembarked. The gun was later found to be loaded with mud. The attackers then scaled the hull on hooks and ladders and The Ark was torn apart with axes and crowbars and burned. Fifty citizens were later subpoenaed for rioting but were acquitted.

A second Ark was soon established aboard the hull of the former whaler Indian Chief. The town’s inexorable rise in worldliness is reflected in the observation by the New Bedford Mercury that “Ark the second transcend[ed] as a den of abominations anything that tradition has to relate of Ark the first.” “It was occupied by the worst classes and was the abode of debauchery and evil doing,” wrote Ellis, who believed that the habitués of the second Ark also caused trouble ashore. “Citizens were in daily fear, not only of their property but of their lives.” In the spring of 1929, the Elm Street Methodist Episcopal Church was set on fire, supposedly by the desperate characters from The Ark.

On August 29, 1829, the town’s good citizens again took action. On that evening, 200 men gathered in the town hall to discuss plans. A number of Quaker elders, including Gideon Howland, Jr., son-in-law of Isaac Howland, Jr., came to the meeting to try to dissuade the crowd from violence. Local lawyer Timothy G. Coffin (who pops up anecdot ally at moments of civil unrest during this period in numerous histories of New Bedford), also appeared at the town hall that evening to read aloud the laws against rioting. No attention was given to these pacifist pleas. At nine p.m., a group of rioters descended to the waterfront and began wrecking the second Ark. Lawyer Coffin followed them with a lantern and pleaded again for restraint, but his lantern was blown out and he was bodily lifted and passed over the crowd’s head to the rear of the mob. The Ark was set on fire, and the fire spread to the shore, where it burned several houses. The New Bedford Mercury deplored the riot, but observed: “As with other maritime places, there is a degraded class of population brought within our borders.”

NEW BEDFORD’S wealthy Quaker merchant families made up only about 10 percent of its population in the mid-1820s, less by the end of the decade. The greater number of upstanding (though less pacifist, Ark-burning) citizens were aligned with the town’s Episcopal, Baptist, and Unitarian churches. These were the tradespeople who had come to service the whaling and shipping businesses: the blacksmiths, shipbuilders, coopers, sailmakers, ropemakers, candle-factory workers, and their families. And along the waterfront ebbed and flowed an initially transient but increasingly resident and growing community of sailors, dockers, “alongshoremen,” and foreigners, mostly Azoreans and Cape Verdeans, until the part of town they lived in came to be called Fayal, after the port from which many Azoreans had sailed aboard New Bedford whaleships.

The town’s leaders—solid, sober, religious, above all wealthy, men—naturally arose from the Quaker whaling merchant elite, which had been the dominant group for more than a hundred years. They first built their houses near the waterfront, on the onetime farmland bought by their Rotch and Howland ancestors from Joseph Russell. But as the waterfront developed and the warehouses arose and thousands of barrels of whale oil with their attendant stench accumulated on the busy wharves, and the noise and traffic and inhabitation of workingmen swelled around them, the Quakers moved uphill, six and eight blocks inland, where they created a leafy suburb and built real mansions with carriage houses and large gardens whose perfumed trees and flowers offset the fishy miasma that lay along the river’s shore. But they could not escape the worldly influence that rose uphill with them and inevitably became part of their lives. The Quakers’ expressed desire to live in a cloistered community apart from “the world’s people” was thwarted by the success of their business interests, and finally made impossible by the very nature of whaling, which forced upon them a global outlook:

The Balaena—Capt. Gardner—4 1/2 months from Wahoo [Oahu] with 2100 bbls. sperm oil arrived this morning. . . . The Leonidas—Capt. Potter—from the coast of Japan, arrived this evening full of sperm oil. . . . The brig Minerva Captain Wood—from the coast of Africa full of sperm oil also arrived this evening. . . .

The ship George and Susan, [Captain] Upham, arrived from the coast of Japan with 2000 bbls sperm and 200 of whale oil.

These are extracts from the 1823-1824 diary of Joseph R. Anthony, a dark, handsome, twenty-six-year-old Quaker who was then working in the Rotch countinghouse (where George Howland had learned the business). He was a cousin of Cornelius Grinnell, who in turn was related by marriage to Gideon Howland, Jr., Isaac Howland, Jr.’s, cousin—so went the degrees of relatedness among the Quakers of New Bedford. Joseph Anthony had married Catharine, one of five daughters of Gilbert Russell, great-grandson of Joseph Russell. The Russell girls were extremely petite, weighing between eighty-eight and ninety-four pounds, and said to be the most beautiful in New Bedford. Anthony was already well-to-do; he was working at Rotch & Co. to learn the business. On almost every day of the year he recorded in his diary—always his first entry of the day—the arrivals and departures of whaling ships, as well as the merchant vessels that sailed routinely between New Bedford and New York and Europe. Until the advent of transatlantic telegraphy in 1866, no information traveled faster than by ship, and Anthony and the other businessmen of New Bedford learned as early as anyone in America the news of the world: “Accounts from Europe rec’d this evening state that the Holy Alliance had broken up, and that there were good reasons to believe that France would soon declare war with Spain.” (His intelligence was correct. Four months later: “News received this morning of the Declaration of War by France against Spain, and that hostilities had commenced.”) By the 1820s, Joseph Anthony and the other Quakers of New Bedford had become, through their interests in foreign markets, highly sensitized to world affairs and were among the most well-informed people on the planet. Although the old school—the fictional Wellworthys, and George Howland and his family—studiously shunned the tastes and amusements of Boston, New York, and London, not to mention Pernambuco and Trieste (from which Anthony received letters written by his best friend, Moses Grinnell, who was traveling for the family firm), there were many, like Anthony, who embraced foreign trends. He ordered clothing and fruit trees from England; he bought casks of wine from Lisbon and Madeira, and decanted them into bottles in his cellar. He traveled often to New York, dining with wealthy friends there; he frequented—almost obsessively—the theater on Broadway, and had business dealings with John Jacob Astor.

At home in New Bedford, Anthony’s lifestyle was anything but ascetic. On most days he lunched and dined out with friends or entertained at home. He ate oysters and stall-fed pigeons and partridge pies, roast beef, lobster, and spareribs from his own pigs. He liked to drink, and frequently confided the results to his diary: “For my own part I was pretty well cut.” And the next morning: “Felt shocking bad all the morning from last night’s frolic.”

There was little public entertainment in New Bedford, but Anthony was ready for whatever turned up:

A company of black theatrical actors arrived in town. They intend performing a few nights. Much sport is anticipated. Went to a party this evening at Francis Rotch’s. . . .

[Several days later:] After tea Warren and myself went to the African theatre at Cole’s Tavern. The play was “Pizarro.” It was real sport for a time and quite a burlesque of the stage. One of the fair damsels gave us two good songs. We left at nine and went back to Father’s and had a little supper. . . .

[And a week later:] The Selectmen have forbidden the African Corps performing any more of their theatricals, and have threatened them with a prosecution.

As a young man, Anthony maintained a large home and servants: “Dec 6th. Devoted the day to piling up wood at home and overseeing Howard [a servant] saw. Found the old adage true that the eyes of the master are worth more than his hands.” In later years, he built his own mansion, filling an entire block between Orchard and Cottage streets, west of County Street, amid the other nobs on the hill above the harbor.

Yet for all his sport and worldliness, Anthony was a regular attendee of the Quaker Meeting, often spending, as many did, an entire Sunday listening to the sermons of local and visiting Quaker preachers. He was certainly devout in his way, but he found his ideas increasingly at variance with the Meeting’s elders. So did others. Their problem, according to New Bedford historian Daniel Ricketson, a near contemporary of Joseph Anthony’s, was “too great intimacy with the people of the world . . . bringing in the spirit of the world and its attachments and associations . . . [resulting in a] liberality of sentiment.” Ricketson noted the sudden arrival of these attachments and liberalities:

Then came a great change in our quiet hamlet—fashionable costumes and parties became the vogue with music and dancing. . . . One of our leading merchants who had been strict in the use of “plain language” and dress, after a winter spent in Boston, returned home with a fashionable blue coat and gilt buttons, and used frequently in his conversation with his friends the then fashionable exclamation of surprise “Good God, sir!” dropping altogether his Quaker phraseology and habits.

Among these renegade members were Joseph Anthony’s diminutive but fashion-conscious sisters-in-law, local beauties Mary and Susan Russell, who shared his taste for worldly amusement. The Meeting’s elders formally disapproved of the girls’ comportment. Anthony recorded:

The overseers of the meeting entered a regular complaint . . . against Mary and Susan for not conforming to the Discipline in all the important points of Dress, Address, attending disorderly meetings (viz. the marriage of Jeremiah Winslow and mine) and frequenting places of public amusements. . . . The girls have got their feelings a good deal excited and will probably resign their membership.

This censure by the local Society of Friends of two of its members for trivial-seeming matters was emblematic of a larger rupture then occurring in New Bedford’s Quaker community, and elsewhere. Asceticism is more easily practiced poor. While the Quaker dress code had struggled under the austerity of “the Discipline,” good money was being spent on the best imported somber-hued woolens, finest thread-count drab lawns and linens, and technically illicit gold-framed spectacles. A nineteenth-century op-ed writer who wrote under the pseudonym “Old Cribton” observed that “the Friends had . . . long been laying by money from the sheer want of opportunities of getting rid of it”; but Joseph Anthony and his generation were fast discovering and enjoying those opportunities. Many Quakers took much of this in stride, while others, the old school, reacted to such modernity with waspish admonishments.

These disagreements were most sharply and acrimoniously drawn first in the Massachusetts town of Lynn, which was suffering the effects of its own economic good fortune. From colonial times (until the late nineteenth century) Lynn was a center for tannery and shoe-making industries; the town had provided most of the boots worn by Americans during the Revolution, and after the War of 1812 its Quaker merchants were flush with cash.

In response to criticism by the elders, the “New Lights,” as the younger, worldlier Quakers came to be called, began to question the severity of the old hard-line doctrines. They claimed they represented no change from the pure Quakerism of George Fox, who had advocated a personal “inner light” relationship with God, without the need for interpretation or the intervention of others. The “Old Lights” objected to any opposition toward their guardianship of the traditional lifestyle and tenets appropriate for the Society of Friends.

In Lynn, Mary Newhall, a woman in her thirties, and an ideological descendant of Anne Hutchinson, emerged as the preeminent New Light preacher. She was said to have “a fatal facility of entering into mystical speculations and . . . great powers of language to express her thoughts.” Lynn’s old-guard Old Lights at first urged her to stop her preaching, but she refused. Her gift—evidenced by the response it provoked on both sides—was from God, she said, and she “could not decline to exercise it upon the command of men.” So she was ordered to stop. Emotions ran high at the Lynn Meeting. A New Light proponent, Benjamin Shaw, a cordwainer, appropriated one of the raised seats in the ministers’ gallery to harangue the elders. He was ordered to come down but refused. A physical scuffle ensued; Shaw held on to his seat, which broke before he was pulled away. Another New Light, Caleb Alley, raised his hands “in a fighting attitude” toward the men dragging Shaw out; Alley’s father, John, then tried to rush the ministers’ gallery and began screaming when the Old Lights tried to stop him; meanwhile, Jonathan Buffum, a housepainter known for his “ungovernable temper,” reached the high seats and began yelling: “You that profess to be Quakers, Christians, have shown forth by your conduct the fruit of your hell-born principles this day. You thirst for our blood, you want to feed upon us; this I call spiritual cannibalism!” On the following First Day (Sunday), John Alley came to the Meeting wearing a sword. He was restrained, his belt cut, and the sword removed. That afternoon he came to the Meeting again, and then he, Buffum, and Shaw occupied the gallery seats. They were hauled out, into a crowd of two hundred that had gathered to see the expected show. Cries of “Mob! Mob!” rose from around the Meeting House, until a deputy sheriff appeared and took the New Lights prisoner. They were sent to trial in Ipswich, where the court heard that Benjamin Shaw had also disrupted a recent Meeting at Seabrook, New Hampshire, by climbing into the building’s beams and acrobatically swinging into the gallery of high seats. At the Ipswich trial he was found not guilty by reason of insanity. After the trial, the Lynn Meeting disowned Mary Newhall and thirty of her New Light followers.

Mary Newhall began to appear and preach in the New Bedford Meeting. Joseph Anthony listened and approved: “Mary Newell [sic] preached an excellent sermon at the afternoon meeting.” A week later:

M. Newell gave us another sermon to my great satisfaction and I hope to that of many others. . . . About one third of the assembly kept their seats to show they were not in unity with her—no opposition, however, otherwise than not rising at her prayer was manifested by the Old Lights.

Mary Newhall had tea with Anthony and others at his father’s house the following day. And a day later, a Tuesday, Mary Newhall preached at New Bedford’s First Congregational Church. Anthony attended, and so did many other Quakers.

There were no swords or scuffling at the New Bedford Meeting, but feelings there grew passionate enough for genteel demonstrations:

At meeting this morning as Eliza Rotch [New Light] was passing up the aisle to take her seat on the high seat, Debby Otis [OL] moved her seat to block up the passage. Eliza stopped and stood in the aisle for 10 or 15 minutes, then took another seat. . . . Phebe Johnson [NL] came in after Eliza, took the high seat by passing Debby. After sitting some time she arose and denounced a woe upon those who interposed the work of the Lord, and cut poor Debby up very handsomely. . . . In the afternoon [meeting] Phebe and Debby had a good deal of spatting.

When several Old Light elders were assigned to pay a home visit to Mary and Susan Russell, to give them a good talking-to, the girls refused to see them and, in April 1823, submitted their resignation to the New Bedford Meeting. While affirming their belief in the fundamental principles of the Society, they wrote that the “deviations from the Discipline” with which they had been charged “have long been considered by the Society, not very important in their nature; and not such, we believe, as friends have deemed necessary to lay before their meetings.” And in view of “the conduct of some of the overseers towards us; the spirit in which the report was carried forward; its reception in the meeting; and above all, the present situation of the meeting; we think it most proper to relinquish our right of membership.”

The zealous admonishment by New Bedford’s Quaker elders of two pretty girls for their deviations from the dress code didn’t rock the community, but it presaged a profounder disagreement. A year later, the Society split deeply when the Old Lights charged Elizabeth Rodman and Mary Rotch with supporting the heresy of Mary Newhall, and threatened to remove their status as elders. Both women were unimpeachable pillars of the Quaker community, members of the town’s oldest and wealthiest merchant families. In March 1824, over widespread protest, the Old Light faction disbarred the two women from the eldership. The action was widely deplored by many members. Their indignation led a large number of them away from the Society into other churches, and created a schism from which New Bedford’s Quaker Society never recovered.

Joseph Anthony turned to the Unitarian church:

The house was completely filled and the services were very interesting and impressive. Great liberality of sentiment was advanced; no particular creed was required. . . . I was very much pleased with the services, and have concluded to take a pew with Mr Smith, believing that the moral lectures and instruction which I shall receive from Mr. Dewey [minister] will be of more advantage to me than to attend the [Friends] meeting, the proceedings of which have been of late so counter to my ideas.

George Howland remained deeply entrenched with the Old Lights. In that straitlaced, unyielding environment he raised his sons, George Jr. (born 1806) and Matthew (1814)—younger than Joseph Anthony (1797) by a decade and more, yet living in a world whose values and prejudices had been formed a century earlier. Like their father (and Hiram Wellworthy’s father, Caleb), the boys accepted that world without question. The fact that such wealth had been created by conforming to those values and prejudices, and that the boys were the recipients of such unequivocal approbation of their Creator; the fact that Saybrook, New London, Mystic, Edgartown, and Sag Harbor (none of them Quaker towns) all competed in the whale fishery and none came close to New Bedford’s dominance (Nantucket being the only near rival), only confirmed the correctness of the Quakerism of their fathers, and of their fathers’ fathers.

While Anthony looked ahead, embraced change, and profited by it—a Darwinian outlook, though he wouldn’t have known it as such—George Jr. and Matthew Howland went to the Friends Academy, and the Friends boarding school in Providence, and finally into their father’s countinghouse, remaining studiously blinkered to the racier trends circulating at home and abroad, cleaving to the strictest tenets of their church, and maintaining an absolute belief that all that existed—including the business model worked out by their fathers, with the help of the Lord—had been set unalterably in place by Him and was surely smiled upon by Him and should not be tampered with. The Dodo principle.

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