A History of Bell Street Chapel

About James Eddy, the founder of the Religious Society of Bell Street Chapel

Upon entering Bell Street Chapel, it is almost impossible not to wonder about the story behind the building. Some places are cherished for their beauty, a beauty which stands alone in spite of the surroundings or context. And other places forge their way into the mind of the beholder because of other attributes, in addition to and even despite their beauty. Bell Street is one of the latter; invariably the wonderings about the history and symbolism of this building enters the minds of most people new to Bell Street. Bell Street Chapel is far from one of many quaint well-built New England churches, but rather a neo-Roman building off a hidden side street easily missed, with a shell room, majestic columns,  and hand-tacked sayings on the doors!

The story behind Bell Street Chapel begins with James Eddy. His personal touch is everywhere: shells from his travels around the world are exhibited in cases outside of the chapel. Doors with hand-tacked sayings provide an entry into the chapel as well as Eddy Hall downstairs. It was James Eddy himself who not only decided the words which decorate them, but who (it is rumored) actually placed the tacks in the doors. Sadly, the first time the chapel was open to the public was for Mr. Eddy’s memorial service in 1888. At this service, the Rev. Frederic Hinckley, resident speaker of the Free Religious Society of Providence, spoke the words, “for years in the silence of his own chamber, and the deeper silence of his own heart, its founder has sought to mature and record his thought concerning that most profound of all things which we call religion. For years he has dreamed of a time to come when this building should be consecrated to what he would call a true, and lasting, and radical faith. How much this work occupied his mind, how sincere was his purpose in pushing it forward, only those of us who knew him intimately can know. He searched eagerly for companionship and sympathy in it, and when he could not find them, he pursued it solitary and alone.”

James Eddy was born on May 29, 1806 in Providence. As a boy, he went to Boston to learn the trade of an engraver. One story goes that his engraving was so extraordinary that when he was only 14 years old, a copy of a two dollar bank bill which he made in India ink actually fooled a shop-keeper. He eventually left for New York and went on to travel to Europe to purchase a finer set of engraver’s tools. While there, he fed his lifelong appetite for art, visiting as many galleries as he could fit into his days. With his skills as an engraver and love of art, it is not surprising that he wound up investing his money in high quality copies of the European works he loved (primarily landscape paintings), selling them in the United States for a profit.  He made ten trips to Europe overall, building his collection of art and enlisting the aid of numerous artists to help him with the retouching and glazing of the paintings. These works were sold in auctions in New York, Boston, and Providence.

At the age of 40, he married Eliza Merriam of Boston. At various points in his life, his success enabled him to have homes in Gloucester, Massachusetts and Mount Desert Island in Maine. He and Eliza had two sons who died while they were young, as well as two daughters who outlived him and his wife. He was known to be a warm and kind father, and a devoted son to his mother.

Mr. Eddy retired to his mansion in what is now the park next door to the chapel. By all accounts, he was a youthful 80 year old who never lost his love of life, family, and whose quick wit was continually fed by ongoing intellectual pursuits. He died in his home on May 18th, 1888. In his obituary in the Providence Journal the following day, it was written about his home, which has since been demolished, that, “the grounds are extensive and laid out elaborately and artistically with curving walls and drives on the plateau where the mansion stands, while the hill sloping below is terraced and adds materially to the picturesqueness of the estate. The house is fairly a museum of art , and he doubtless possessed one of the most charming homes in New England.” Bell Street Chapel was built at the entrance gate to the grounds of the Eddy mansion.

James Eddy gave generously to the social causes of the time including the anti-slavery movement, temperance reform, and the improvement of women’s status in society. It is said in his Biographical Sketch that “Mr. Eddy’s long and successful business career was marked in every particular, as truly as in its main plans and changes, by the strictest honor.” His “love of improvement” is also noted and, surely, this along with the fact that he came from a family of ministers may have piqued his interest in religion, an interest informed by a certain skepticism about the unknown.

Mr. Eddy was also noted to be somewhat quirky–the word “tenacious” was used to describe him as well as how he possessed “a love of influence” which, when you read between the lines seems to mean, “a love to influence.” Yet it is repeatedly written that he was always courteous, and, while he loved a good fight, he fought with an open and flexible mind. He was a man driven by new understandings of truth, and new applications of morality rather than the reinforcement of already held religious beliefs. He placed a high value on the search for personal, religious, spiritual and moral truth which most likely mirrors the sense of seeking that bring many to Unitarian-Universalism. This search, combined with his individualist streak led some to wrongly refer to him as an atheist, a belief dispelled in the struggles he eventually had with the Free Religious Society, the first religious group to use Bell Street Chapel as its home (albeit briefly).

Upon his death, Mr. Eddy left the chapel to the trusteeship of his two daughters and a personal friend, along with some money for perpetual maintenance and the direction that, “the purest religious and moral duties should be taught and practiced by the members of this church or society.” There appear to have been some question as to how this could be carried out to the letter of the law with regard to statutes relating to charitable uses and trusts and the case was eventually presented to the Supreme Court. With all finally in accord about the trust, a formal dedication of the church was then made with Reverend Anna Garlin Spencer, the first woman ordained as a minister in Rhode Island, devoting the first six of her sermons to Mr. Eddy’s beliefs and writings.

Our Building Today

James Eddy had Bell Street Chapel built as a temple dedicated “to God, to truth, and humanity.” In its permanence and simplicity of character, the building’s brick face exterior reflects Eddy’s own religious aspirations. The high-arching Romanesque-style windows in the sanctuary allow ample light. The front face of the building, while maintaining a simple character, utilizes a classical appearance with four fluted columns that are capped with Corinthian-style crowns. These support a cornice extension of the roof complete with an undergirding frieze. This structure, the top two thirds of the front face, rests upon a simple but eloquent foundation of brownstone with both left front and right front doorways.

The interior of the chapel is open and unobtrusive with simple adornments such as round and beveled orbs sitting atop corner posts on the staircase. The walls of the sanctuary are a soft white tone with dark-wood trim all around. The enclave at the front is painted sky blue and houses a raised, maroon carpeted platform which supports what is called the reading desk (our pulpit). The maroon carpet continues down both side aisles of the sanctuary.  Through the windows, the trees from the park next door, where James Eddy’s mansion once stood, can be seen.  The sanctuary’s appearance conveys both profundity and welcome to all who enter.

The lower audience-room (referred to as Eddy Hall) is where we congregate for coffee hour following Sunday morning services, and where we usually hold lay-led summer services every Sunday during the summer months. It also serves as a place for the official business meetings of the society.

History of the congregation

It is thought that Mr. Eddy built Bell Street Chapel in 1875 at the cost of $40,000 with the idea of providing a local home for the Free Religious Society, a movement developed in 1867 which opposed organized religion, and emphasized in its stead individual conscience and reason, tenets with which Mr. Eddy identified. One evening, Mr. Eddy invited all the members of the Free Religious Society to his home and made a proposal. He pledged that he would give them full use of the building with sufficient funds to keep the building in good working order upon agreement of several conditions. The primary condition was that the society would continue its devotion to freedom of thought in religious seeking while giving due credit and allegiance to God. Upon hearing these things, the group delegated the decision of whether or not to accept James Eddy’s offer to an elected committee. After some deliberation, the committee returned to James Eddy with a verdict of non-acceptance. They could not, in their collective conscience, agree to a unified “allegiance to God.” Thus, the Free Religious Society’s brief use of the vestry during the summer and fall of 1876 came to an end. Bell Street chapel was not used again until Mr. Eddy’s funeral. Following this, as the New York Times noted in an article from December 2, 1889, Bell Street was a “church without a people” for 15 years.

However, Mr. Eddy did soften his views somewhat as he aged. Rather than let his dream sink into obscurity, he made provisions for a substantial endowment. Its sole purpose was the continued upkeep of the chapel with a designated board of trustees to oversee the details.

Anna Garlin Spencer, the first female minister in Rhode Island

Perhaps it is fitting that the death of James Eddy on May 18, 1888, inaugurated full, regular use of the chapel. Anna Garlin Spencer, one of two ministers officiating at Eddy’s memorial service, remarked that, “There is great pathos in the fact that the first public meeting in this chief room of his chapel should be the memorial service of our friend. That his eloquent silence in the majesty of death, more truly even than the words of his we repeat, should pronounce its consecration!”

There is great potential in dreams unrealized and this was something that Spencer, who was then president of the Providence Free Religious Society, knew and sought to convey in her memorial of James Eddy. “It is well, then, that the dream was unfulfilled, well that our friend builded here this temple and left it as a garden in which seeds might grow, not of his own planting; haply seeds of fruit better and sweeter than he knew.”

Spencer desired to transform a perceived lifelong frustration into a new and mighty beginning with the aspiration, “I seem to hear him say to those whom he has charged with a great trust, ‘build ye here better than I knew, aye, better than I dreamed, a temple to the ever-living God, in which faithful ones may find and make great helping.” In examining the talents and concerns of James Eddy, Spencer admits that, “It is very rare to see one who has successfully wrestled in the thick of the world’s fight for material gains, seeking so often ‘a still place apart’ in which to worship.” Towards the conclusion of her remarks, Spencer speaks of Eddy’s extensive personal writings and finds that, “whatever there might have been of personal idiosyncrasy or peculiarity in the form he gave his religious faith, its essence was that universal element of all religions, aspiration toward the divine and help toward the human. On these foundations, on the greater thoughts symbolized by the chapel, may, we trust, be builded a church of true religion.”

The involvement of Ann Garlin Spencer (1851-1931) in the memorial service of James Eddy was at the request of the board of trustees for the James Eddy endowment. They wanted her assistance due to her local affiliations and public commitments to the common good. She became vice-president of the Providence Women’s Suffrage Association and extended her membership into other local social causes. Her re-establishment in Providence came after a move out to Wisconsin to be with her husband, William H. Spencer, a retired agnostic Unitarian minister, who was assisting with the family loan and collection agency.

In 1891, by unanimous vote, Ann Garlin Spencer was ordained as Bell Street Chapel’s minister. This event was not only significant for the Society but also in the state, for she was Rhode Island’s first female minister. For the next ten years she was minister and president of The Religious Society of Bell Street Chapel. In March of 1902, she resigned from the chapel, but was asked to remain on a “one-year sabbatical.” A year later she ceased all official connection with Bell Street Chapel as she began lecturing for the Ethical Society of New York. Periodically, she continued to preach from Unitarian pulpits.

Two of her most prominent writings are Woman’s Share in Social Culture (1913) and The Family and Its Members (1922). One of her prominent themes was honest valuing of all members of society and their equal potential for useful contribution. From The Family and Its Members she espouses “the fundamental belief in the worth and dignity of every human being and the equal right of each and all to personality.” She believes in the equal development of character and ability of all individuals. This is the common ground between her thought and that of James Eddy. He believed fiercely in the development of the individual. Her belief in gender-equality maintained that, “No one was to be solely in the service of another or to have their value estimated along such lines; instead, each person should seek perfection as an individual by making a contribution to the common life.”

Recent Renewal

What comes after this in the chapel’s history is difficult to determine due to the scattered nature of information available. It is known that for a time in the middle of the twentieth century the Eddy mansion was converted to a convent for Franciscan nuns who operated a day care center for children out of the chapel building. Following their eventual migration and dissolution the mansion fell into disrepair and was demolished. For many years the chapel was home to only a handful of congregants and was quietly maintained by the trust and its board.

The chapel saw a resurgence of use in the late nineteen eighties, but its membership faltered and in the early nineties the trust property and grounds were being considered for sale. After several legal battles, a small band of twelve members rescued the trust property and grounds from being sold by the Board of Trustees. A year later, a new minister, the Reverend Melody Foti, was installed. The congregation began to experience renewal and growth. After four years of service, Reverend Foti left Bell Street Chapel to follow a new calling in life.

Our next settled minister, from 2001-2007 was the Reverend Stephen Landale. The spirit of renewal and growth continued with the congregation peaking at about 110 members and with three classrooms needed for our Sunday school. The renewed energy felt within the congregation did not just reflect in the numbers of members and people attending service, but also in the expanding number of social justice programs with which Bell Street Chapel became involved. We became the first church in Rhode Island to publicly protest the war in Iraq and members of the congregation were very visible protesting social justice causes at the State House, marching in Washington and testifying before the State House and Senate on gay rights issues, etc. Behind the scenes, members worked on providing lunches for the poor, pitched in with Habitat for Humanity, and helped to provide coats for those in need, among other programs. Since Reverend Landale’s departure in 2007 to a larger church in the Northwest, we had an Interim and a Consulting minister and were ready to finally call a settled minister once again in 2011. The Rev. CJ McGregor was called to Bell Street as its settled minister in May 2011. He served as Bell Street’s minister for that church year. Following Rev. CJ’s departure, Bell Street engaged in an active and fruitful Interim ministry with Rev. Ann Willever from 2012 thru 2014. Upon completion of this interim period, the congregation hired Rev. Margaret L. Weis as their Developmental Minister. Rev. Weis completed her ministry with Bell Street Chapel in July 2017.  After a year without a minister, Rev. Paul Langston-Daley was our half-time consulting minister until summer 2021.  March 1, 2022 we welcomed Rev. Frieda Gillespie as our half time minister. Our Sunday services are led by our minister twice a month and by visiting ministers or speakers or our Worship Committee the other Sundays.

As with almost every church, we at Bell Street Chapel can point to periods of growth and renewal and periods of declining numbers and energy. Yet even in times of the latter, our rich history and the spirit of community sustains us. And, for the past one hundred and thirty years, we are proud that the dream of James Eddy remains very much alive in our congregation—the search for TRUTH in religion.