The New Bedford Whaling Museum's Moby-Dick Marathon is an annual non-stop reading of Herman Melville's literary masterpiece. The multi-day program of entertaining activities and events is presented every January. Admission to the Marathon is free.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Tales of the Seamen's Bethel, Part 2

It seems to be generally acknowledged that Melville largely based his Father Mapple on the Boston sailor-preacher Edward Thompson Taylor (1793-1871).  Father Taylor, as he was known, was born in Richmond, Virginia, first went to sea at age 7, and fought in the War of 1812 aboard the privateer Black Hawk until his capture and imprisonment by the British.  He later worked as a junkman, a peddlar, and a farmer.

Is this the face of Father Mapple?
Father Taylor's religious awakening occurred in 1811, when he wandered into a Methodist service while in port in Boston.  After the war, his amateur preaching brought him to the attention of a church elder who paid for him to have six months of schooling in Newmarket, New Hampshire -- the only formal education Taylor ever received.  Ordained in 1819, he was given charge of the Seamen's Bethel on the waterfront in Boston's North End in 1830.

Among Father Taylor's admirers was Emerson, who often attended his sermons.  As Carlos Baker describes one such occasion in Emerson among the Eccentrics: A Group Portrait (p. 71):
[Emerson] watched Taylor pacing his pulpit platform while the crowd gathered -- restive as a racehorse, beckoning tardy sailors to the front pews, imperiously waving at others to move over and make room.  At forty-two he looked to be fifty, a wiry, weather-beaten man of middle height, his highly mobile face grooved with deep lines, his graying hair swept back, his Ben Franklin spectacles perched high on his brow, and the worn old Bible cradled in his arms.  In due course he came forward to the lectern, "threw back his coat-collar, rolled up his cuffs, ran his fingers backward through his hair," and began to preach.

Behind him as he spoke was the only ornament in the chapel -- a large canvas depicting a ship in distress, braving the billows under lowering skies while mariners labored to keep the hulk afloat.  It was a symbolic picture and the congregation knew it.  Many a time in the heat and fury of his sermon he pointed it out as a graphic representation of the human predicament.  He knew instinctively how to use it for maximum effect, owned the maritime experience and the idiomatic vocabulary to describe it, could in a twinkling summon up many a tale of disasters at sea, when the sailors "cried unto the Lord" and were yanked out of the maw of the deep by timely intercession....

"And so he went on," wrote Emerson, "this Poet of the Sailor and of Ann Street -- fusing all the rude hearts of his auditory with the heat of his own love and making the abstractions of philosophers accessible and effectual to them also."
Baker's chapter on Father Taylor includes evocative examples of his oratory, along with a discussion of his impact on Emerson's views of religion.  The biographical details above are taken from Baker's book and from Father Taylor, the Sailor Preacher, an 1872 biography by Gilbert Haven and Thomas Russell (available on Google).


  1. Does anyone know where the Boston Seamen's Bethel was/is? Emerson implies it was on Ann Street. That would be the "old" Ann St., now a part of North Street (not to be confused with the "current" Ann St. in Dorchester).

  2. I don't know Boston all that well, especially the North End. Here's a picture of the building, with the caption saying "North Square," wherever that is or was:

  3. Very cool. Just discovered the church in North Square today, upon reading a quick tour book summary on Father Taylor and his "fish" as I approached North Square on foot, instantly thought of Father Mapple. The square itself, a triangle, is fenced in what appear to be heavy anchor chains. I had planned to attend services at the Concord UU church this Sunday, but suddenly I'm feeling Catholic. ;-)