Harold W. Hurst - Methodism on Delmarva: March 2006
Methodism in Delmarva
Harold W. Hurst
In no other part of the United States was any Protestant denomination as dominant as were the Methodists in 19th century Delmarva. Methodists were a chief hallmark of Peninsula society from the early 1800s until well into he twentieth century. The development and growth of this religion was inexorably intertwined with the social, cultural, and spiritual evolution of the entire region. The history of Delmarva cannot be told apart from the story of Methodism.
During the Colonial era the majority of the inhabitants of the Eastern Shore of Maryland and the adjacent section of Virginia were nominal members of the Church of England, also known as the Anglican Church, if indeed, they belonged to any church at all. The same situation prevailed in neighboring Delaware, although Presbyterians were numerous in New Castle County. Throughout the Peninsula Anglicanism dominated except for a scattering of Quaker and Presbyterian congregations and several Roman Catholic churches in Cecil County, Maryland.
Despite its predominance, the Anglican Church suffered from certain drawbacks. There was a shortage of priests, partially because men had to go to England to be ordained by a bishop. Moreover, the staid services and scholarly sermons of the Anglican ministers had little appeal for the mass of lower and middle class whites and even less for the slaves.
Dominated by the gentry class who occupied the choice pews in the parish churches, the Anglican Church was often associated with social snobbery and privilege. To make matters worse, many rectors were “worldly” men who indulged in liquor, gambling, and fox hunting. Little wonder then that apathy often prevailed and church attendance was low.
Into this lethargic state of affairs stepped the apostles of the newly founded Methodist movement. Started in the 18th century in England by an Anglican minister named John Wesley, Methodism stressed the doctrine of free will, personal conversion, extemporaneous prayer, enthusiastic preaching aimed at the uneducated masses, and a disciplined morality.
Although most of the early Methodist clergy remained within the Church of England, many Anglican priests opposed these “enthusiasts” and forced them to worship outside the parish churches in open fields and forests. During the 1730s and 1740s, however, Wesley, George Whitefield, Francis Asbury, and other preachers in the movement were successful as they held mass meetings in which thousands of backsliders and the unchurched were converted to Christ and the Gospel.
Later, in the 18th century, George Whitefield and Francis Asbury and other Methodist preachers took their message to America, especially to the middle and southern colonies where they were welcomed with open arms. They found Delmarva fertile ground for their enthusiastic message of personal salvation and a revived spiritual life.
Whitefield traveled to Wilmington where he preached to 5,000 people, a large crowd at this time. Asbury addressed large crowds in New Castle, Wilmington, and Cecil County, Maryland.
Probably the most important advocate for the new Methodism was Freeborn Garrettson, a native of Harford County in Maryland who pledged himself to God’s service after narrowly escaping death in a riding accident.
Garrettson became a Methodist in 1775 and began a lifelong commitment to the cause. On July 5, 1779 he spoke for six hours at meetings in Smyrna and Dover in Delaware. He also preached in Somerset County in Maryland and Sussex County in Delaware. In Laurel, Delaware (Sussex County) he found the inhabitants “so far from the power of godliness that they had not even the form of it – they were swearers, fighters, drunkards, horse racers, gamblers and dancers.”
By 1784, just after the close of the American Revolution, the Methodists were strong enough to form a separate body known as the Methodist Episcopal Church. This new denomination was organized at Barratt’s chapel near Magnolia, Delaware, now a historic monument to Methodism.
At this time 31% of all American Methodists lived in Maryland. During the following years their numbers increased; by 1800 there were 8,706, the number multiplied to 18,985 in 1805 and to about 25,000 in 1807. These statistics for the Peninsula area, often designated as it as “the Garden of Methodism.”
Methodist popularity in Maryland and Delaware, as in many other places, can be attributed to several factors. Other denominations could not match the exuberant preaching services of John Wesley’s followers. The Methodist Church was well organized, making use of quarterly meetings and annual conferences to mold the faithful into a well disciplined body. Also, lay preachers and circuit riders aided regularly ordained ministers in spreading the Gospel.
Methodism also had its social attractions. Many in the middle class favored the strict moral code and sober living demanded by Methodists while the poorer class of farmers flocked to the denomination’s meeting houses where they could worship unfettered by the more formal mode of worship found in the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches. Finally, many early Methodist preachers, especially before about 1830, opposed slavery, thus attracting to the sect many blacks and white abolitionists.
During the greater part of the 19th century camp meetings were an important feature of Methodism. The first regular camp meeting was held in Logan County, Kentucky in 1800. Initially interdenominational in character they eventually became dominated by Methodists. These outdoor events, usually held in the summer or early fall, attracted thousands of people who attended the daytime preaching and slept at night in tents, covered wagons and carts. The camp meetings were social as well as religious events and were the scene of great gatherings in many places in Delmarva.
An early camp meeting in Cecil County, Maryland, became a popular model for the institution elsewhere. Around the preacher’s platform the white audience was seated according to a geometric plan that separated men from women and set up “streets” and “courts.”
Blacks were seated behind the preacher’s platform. At the north end of the enclosure was an area which included the “mourner’s bench” for men and at the south end another for women. When anyone wished to be prayed for he or she was invited to these benches where men counseled men and women labored among women.
The camp meeting revivals lasted from early morning until about 8 p.m. in the evening. Between preaching and all through the night the faithful prayed, sang and talked. The sermon and singing often drove the crowds into a spirited frenzy. At one place the “cries of the distressed and shouts of the saints was heard from the distance of three miles.”
Blacks were captivated by the emotional worship of the Methodists, both in the regular church services and the camp meetings. In 1801 in a chapel in Sussex County, Delaware, members of the race were so enthusiastic at one service that their movements brought the balcony down on the people below. Fortunately the large crowd below was able to support and lower the collapsing gallery to the floor without injury to anyone.
In 1803 at the Asbury Methodist church in Wilmington blacks were blamed for breaking the benches during a mass meeting. During the early 1800s many African Americans broke away from the white churches and formed separate congregations of their own. One of the largest African American churches was Ezion Church in Wilmington which had 1,200 members in 1843.
By the middle of the 19th century Methodism had taken over the Peninsula. Every village and hamlet had a Methodist church and while some larger places like Dover, Easton and Chestertown had at least two white churches belonging to the sect. The census of 1850 reported the Eastern Shore counties of Maryland had 200 Methodist churches and only 91 of all other denominations combined. Delaware was also heavily Methodist.
During the early years of Methodism most of their meeting houses were plain, one-room, one-story frame buildings in the vernacular style. As Methodists became more prosperous and moved up the social scale they began to construct more elaborate structures in the neo-classical or Greek Revival modes.
In the 1840s and 1850s some flourishing congregations erected brick buildings often containing towers, steeples and bells. In Kent County, Maryland, these types of churches included Wesley chapel near Rock Hall (1852), St. James Church in Hanesville (1853), and Salem Church in Fairlee (1853).
During the post-Civil War era Gothic Revival became popular all over the Peninsula. These structures featured steep sloping roofs, side towers, and gabled entrances. Embellishments included bracketed cornices, Gothic-arched windows and colored glass. Noted rural churches of this type were often frame structures such as Upper Fairmount Church and St. John’s Church on Deal Island, both in Somerset County in Maryland. Brick churches were put up in Wilmington, Chestertown, Easton and Dover.
Methodists, like other Protestants, suffered from factionalism. In 1828 a group of dissenters who disapproved of bishops left the Methodist Episcopal church and formed the Methodist Protestant Church. Blacks formed the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), still a vital religious body. Southern oriented Methodists who later favored the Confederacy established the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.
These divisions impacted the whole area. In Talbot County, Maryland, in 1873, for instance, the Methodist Episcopal Church had 2,290 members; the Methodist Protestant Church, 383 members; the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, 300; and the African Methodist Episcopal Church, 300. There were five Methodist churches in Easton, including two black congregations. In 1939 the three predominantly white bodies merged to form the United Methodist Church.
The 20th century brought many social changes to the Delmarva region. New industries thrived as railroads and steamship lines expanded. Irish immigrants strengthened the role of the Roman Catholic church. Methodism itself changed as it became more middle class in character. Some revivalist-oriented groups withdrew from the church and formed separate “holiness’ groups or Pentecostal churches.
Nevertheless, Methodism retained an ascendant position in the religious field. The 1936 census of religious bodies revealed that in the eight counties of Eastern Shore, Maryland, the major white Methodist groups had about 34,000 members in a total of about 50,000 members for all churches combined.
At the beginning of the 21st century the religious landscape of the Delmarva Peninsula is more diverse. Other denominations have established churches in all of the larger towns. But in the smaller communities and rural areas, most of the people remained devoted to the religion of John Wesley and Francis Asbury. Methodism remains part of the spiritual and social fabric of Delmarva.