His goal for Deal Island: rekindling Methodist fire


It's one of those steam-bath evenings only a mosquito could love when the Rev. Henry Zollinhofer and I get to Deal Island for the annual Camp Meeting, one of Methodism's oldest practices.

These weeklong events, providing spiritual revival and a time for socializing and homecoming, were key to a revolution some 200 years ago that affected the Eastern Shore as much as the War for Independence.

Now, only two are left, here at Deal and at Smith Island. Henry was running the one on Smith when I first met him some 15 years ago.

He was rigged out that night: jaunty admiral's cap, blue blazer with twin rows of brass buttons, an electric-blue clerical shirt overlaid by striped silk tie and ivory, triple cross necklace; and creased white cotton trousers and white loafers.

Henry was more than just show. He labored mightily back then to pump new life into the island's three little churches, holding youth parties on the beaches, powering the bands with portable generators. He even held a dance in the new sewage treatment plant (before it opened for business).

He had flair; and it's going to be interesting to see how he uses it, coming out of retirement at age 65 this summer to take a challenging new job as pastor to all three of Deal Island's Methodist churches.

It is an all-too-typical scenario around the bay region -- more and more small-town Methodist churches facing an aging and shrinking membership.

Some of these little congregations are so small that they have to scramble many Sundays just to get a piano player. Unable to support a full-time pastor, they turn to retirees like Henry, who can afford to work at a reduced rate.

This evening we have some time before entering the tabernacle, an open, screened, sawdust-floor building set off from the church and used only for the Camp Meeting.

Henry takes me to a corner of the graveyard, where Joshua Thomas lies buried. Born in the Potato Neck area near Fairmount in 1776, this "Parson of the Islands" spread Methodism to waterfront communities throughout the lower Eastern Shore.

Raised on Tangier Island, Thomas was a sailing man, like Henry, whose own great-grandfather, Lorenzo Gough, was a sea captain and sometime preacher from the Corsica River.

At the sight of the twin sails of Thomas' log canoe -- named the Methodist -- crowds would gather spontaneously to hear him, or the preachers he often ferried around.

His role in the failed British assault on Baltimore in 1814 is less remembered than that of Francis Scott Key. But if not for Thomas, perhaps Key would have had no "Star-Spangled Banner" to write.

Commanded to bless the British force embarking from Tangier Island for the assault, Thomas gave what must have been a demoralizing sermon: "Thou shalt not kill" was his theme; and he told them, "you will never take Baltimore."

Methodism in that era was newer, more potent, less constrained than now. Its founder, Englishman John Wesley, began to send missionaries to America in the 1770s.

At the time, no more than 5 percent or 10 per cent of Americans belonged to a church. It was a time of bawdiness, drinking and lawlessness in rural regions like the Delmarva peninsula.

Deal Island still was on maps then as Devil's Island; Dames Quarter as Damned Quarter, Rhodes Point as Rogues Point.

"Unchurched" meant more than lapsed attendance. A Methodist missionary on his way down the Shore in 1778 asked a settler: Had he come to know Jesus Christ?

The settler said he was not familiar with the man's name, nor where he might live.

Anglicanism, the establishment religion of the period, was tepidly ritualistic. Debating the afterlife, an Anglican rector said he had "hope of being saved, and that was all any of us have."

By contrast, Methodism was a fresh wind, sweeping through the pines and marshes of the region. Its ministers, often as rough-hewn as their audiences, and labeled "enthusiasts" by critics, preached no weak "hope" -- rather an unadulterated, glorious salvation, or eternal, sulfurous damnation.

The new religion appealed to the Shore's pioneer working-class with its emphasis on hard work, frugal living and community support.

It also placed a good deal of emphasis on converting souls, and much of that work was done at revivals like the great camp meetings. At such an encampment in 1807, Joshua Thomas first encountered the religion he would spread around the bay.

He was neither much of a reader, nor possessed of the booming preaching voice much prized in those days of large, open meetings.

But he was literally a mover and a shaker, a fine dancer and an exhorter who is said to have often "shouted himself happy" in the pulpit.

So perhaps old Joshua Thomas would have been at home as the Rev. William Folley, an evangelist leading the Deal Island meeting last week, shouted and strode around the sawdust arena.

Even had the entirety of the three churches turned out, the crowd wouldn't have been much more than a hundred, and on a Saturday night, it was more like 35.

But Mr. Folley didn't let that quell his spirits: "Hallelujah! Haaallle-LU-JAH! I don't know about you, but I'm starting to feel pretty good," he exhorted, drenched with sweat from his efforts.

And soon after, the payoff -- eight of the congregation came down to the altar to kneel and pray and be forgiven.

At the close, Henry, who would preach the big sermon the next day, lugged a big fire extinguisher up front and allowed as how tomorrow would be awful hot, and since the world next time would end in fire, he would be talking on how "fireproof" were the congregations' souls.

The past two years of retirement were needed, he said on the ride home.

"You do maybe 50-80 funerals a year, and too many of them have become so close they are like your spiritual mothers and fathers, and it's just too hard."

He's excited about his new charge, though. He thinks maybe the trick is to give each of the three tiny churches its own special focus.

"Make one the youth-oriented place; get rid of that old dragon organ, get some music with more than one beat; another maybe could reach out to summer vacationers and fishermen with something shorter than the regular hour service -- come in your fishing clothes. . . .

Henry's got lots more ideas. He's also got a little sailing boat, a cut-down version of a skipjack -- twin sails -- just about like Joshua Thomas' Methodist.

I wouldn't be surprised to see Henry sailing into Deal Island with a crowd aboard for the Camp Meeting one of these years.

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