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Congregation History

Dr. Fred Gifun

Our congregational history was been written by Dr. Fred Gifun (1939-2024), Professor Emeritus of History from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. He has been a member of the First Unitarian Church in New Bedford since 1983.


Copies of his book, New Bedford’s Church The First Unitarian Church in New Bedford: Three Hundred Years of Leadership and Transformation, are available to purchase in the office during regular business hours.

Dr. Fred Gifun



The Beginning

The town (parish) was Dartmouth, which then extended over 40 square miles, from Acushnet and Fairhaven in the east to sections of Little Compton and Tiverton in the west, with a European- descendent population of about 3,500. Transportation was difficult and slow, with an economy solidly based on agriculture. The theology of our ancestral Congregational church was strict predestination Calvinism, in the Puritan mold. However, this original church, despite its overwhelming foreignness to us, is the direct lineal ancestor of our present congregation.



The evolution of this church over three hundred years was shaped by a larger movement away from Calvinism, centering on the formulation and spread of Unitarian theology in New England in the first decades of the 19th Century. The other major factor in the development of this church was its transformation from a rural, farming congregation in Acushnet, to a semi-urban church in the village of New Bedford, which became one of the richest cities of 19th Century America. In the 1820s , the Rev. Orville Dewey became minister, and the church incorporated as The First Congregational Society in New Bedford. Probably because of Dewey’s presence, many disaffected Quakers joined the Society at this time. These Friends were members of the most prominent and wealthy families of the city and they shaped the church for the next hundred years and more.



The church reached its peak of membership in the 1940’s (about 450 members, and 170 children in the Sunday school) during the pastorate of Rev. Duncan Howlett. In the 1950s, the congregation finally changed its name from The First Congregational Society, to the more descriptive, The First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. During the 1940s and 50s, the pew rental system was finally abandoned and the church began to lose some of its identification with the social and economic elite of the city. The current church is…seeking new ways to make its Unitarian principles relevant and attractive in a diverse and secular, post-modern society characterized both by religious indifference and evangelical fundamentalism.

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