'Blessed to Have Him' Religion: When the Methodists of Smith Island went looking for a minister, they didn't care about color. They had only one requirement for their preacher: He had to be a man of God.


EWELL, SMITH ISLAND -- The Rev. Ashley Adolphus Maxwell grasps the pulpit in the old pinewood tabernacle with firm, strong hands and launches the 107th Smith Island camp meeting like the captain at the helm of a well-tried workboat

He breaks the morning hush with his hearty greeting: "How are you!? It's a beautiful day, isn't it!?"

The sounds of the island's awakening -- the whistles and whoops and screeches of sea birds, the grunts of frogs, the sputtering engines of work boats -- have subsided. But dew is still fresh under the oaks and pines that shelter the tabernacle. The bare, unpainted beams and rafters overhead and the sawdust trail on the floor in this wooden "cathedral" frame perfectly the plain, unvarnished religion practiced here.

Sunday service begins as it always has -- with what the island Methodists call "testimony." Worshipers rise up to praise the Lord, confess a few sins, ask a blessing, give thanksgiving, or sometimes just talk.

"The Lord's been with me in storms on my boat and up the highway and all," says a man named Whitey who looks a little uncomfortable in his Sunday suit. "There have been times I've felt his presence so close I feel like I could almost touch him."

A couple dozen islanders have come early for testimony. In an hour, 300 will fill the tabernacle when the preaching begins.

"This is a special place," Morris Marsh, a lay leader, says. "A lot of people got [started] on their religious life right here" at the camp meetings. "A lot of them has gone on -- our grandfathers and great-grandfathers."

The past is very much present on Smith Island. The graveyard begins at the entrance to the tabernacle and the names on the tombstones are those of the people inside. The churchyard holds Tylers and Brimers and Bradshaws and Somers and Dizes and a whole plantation of Evanses.

But the man at the pulpit has no forebears here. Maxwell is an outlander. He and his wife, Muriel, are the first blacks to make their home on the island in nearly a century. He's the first black pastor ever.

Twelve miles out in the Chesapeake Bay, Smith Island is a marshy archipelago 4 miles by 8, first charted by Capt. John Smith in 1608. Since then the islanders have created a culture of hard-headed independence. They asserted that independence and an unexpected tolerance when they asked for Maxwell as their pastor and finessed Methodist assignment procedures to get him.

They may have confounded mainlanders who stereotype them as backward, narrow-minded and insular. But the islanders and their pastor share intangible bonds. They've known discrimination. He's island-born on Barbados in the West Indies. And pastor and flock are all Methodists.

"We're blessed to have him," says Clara Tyler, an island native who greets the minister with an enfolding bear hug when he arrives for the meeting. In its own way, this is her testimony.

Past is present

Camp meeting came to Smith Island with Methodism, which blossomed here early in the 19th century, brought by Joshua Thomas, a waterman who became the "Parson of the Islands," aboard his sailing canoe Methodist, a craft hewn Indian-style from one massive tree.

For about 50 years, Thomas preached the Methodism of John Wesley and Francis Asbury and converted virtually everybody on Tangier and Deal and Smith islands to his religion. They've stayed converted to this day, refreshed annually for 200 years by revivals and camp meetings not much different from this one.

That's part of what islanders like about Maxwell. He talks about John Wesley as if they were contemporaries. Which is pretty much how the islanders speak of their ancestors. Jennings Evans, the nonpareil chronicler, genealogist and folk historian of the island, discourses on his forebears in the present tense, as if they'll come down the lane any minute.

"They liked the Methodist form of worship and the Episcopal form of bookkeeping," says Evans, who speaks with the strong Smith Island accent said to date from Elizabethan England. "The Church of England had so many formalities it just didn't suit people living over here in this marsh.

"With the Methodist form you could talk to God yourself," he says. "You could pray yourself. You didn't have to have somebody intercede."

Evans tells the story of the last black man to live on the islands as if it happened yesterday.

"They picked him up on an old schooner wreck out there," he says. "My great-grandfather found him and brought him in here.

"He was about 11 or 12, this little black fellow. He was almost gone when they saw this wooden debris a-bobbing and this boy was clinging on it."

Islanders called him Jett because he was black as jet, and Sutton because he was black as "sut," which is how they pronounce "soot" on Smith Island.

Jett Sutton lived with Evans' great-grandfather "until he was of age." Then he went to the mainland, found a bride, returned and built a house and had 10 children on the island before leaving around 1910 for better opportunities ashore.

A man of God

In the tabernacle, Maxwell takes his place at the pulpit with an easy and dignified poise. He's a stocky man with the broad, thick shoulders of a natural athlete. His face has the patrician dignity of a Benin bronze.

The tabernacle is full of gray heads for camp meeting. The average age of Smith Islanders these days is something over 50. Between 350 and 400 people live in the island's three communities. Each has its own character and its own church, handsome carpenter Gothic buildings with white clapboard siding, vinyl now, sadly, and fine stained glass windows. Their steeples and towers are markers for the watermen who worship in them. Maxwell's charge embraces all three.

At the turn of the last century, there were twice as many islanders. And though there has been enough of a boom in babies lately to have a fair amount of gooing and gurgling accompanying the preaching, the population is falling. It's harder and harder to make a living from the water.

But the older population suits Maxwell just fine. "I've always loved older people," he says. "I spent my summers with my grandmother."

She went to the Church of the Nazarene and so did he. He got his first degree from the Nazarene Seminary in Port of Spain, Trinidad.

"Nazarenes are just old-fashioned Methodists," he says. They split from the Methodist Episcopal Church in the late 19th century but adhere closely to Wesley's doctrines.

Maxwell served as pastor at Nazarene churches in Barbados for about 10 years then came to the United State to churches in Oakland and Pasadena, Calif. He got another degree from a Nazarene college in Kansas and was associate minister at a white church there.

"So I had some practice before I came here," he says. "But I couldn't stay in Kansas too long. I had to hear that water."

The Methodist church recognized his Nazarene ordination, and he took his doctor of divinity degree from the Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington. He became a pastor at black churches in Queen Anne's County and for nearly nine years in Wilmington, Del.

The people of Smith Island first heard the lilting rhythms of Maxwell's fine orotund ecclesiastical baritone at a camp meeting in 1989.

Rev. Kenneth Evans, who was then the Smith Island pastor, told the camp meeting committee he knew of a minster who could really preach. He wanted to invite him as a guest preacher.

"The Rev. Ken Evans said, 'but he's black,' " Jennings Evans recalls. " 'I guess in some churches color makes a difference,' he says. 'There's probably some here with prejudice.'

"I said: But is he a man of God," Evans says. "The Rev. Ken Evans says you can bet on that. I said color don't make any difference if he's a man of God. Everyone on the committee said that's right. That's how we feel about it. Send for him if he will come."

Lots of amens

Smith Islanders are certainly not "shoutin' " Methodists, but they like good preaching and good singing and that's what they hope for at camp meeting. They like Maxwell because he's a teaching preacher. He finds the meaning in the scripture he preaches. And he can tell a joke, too.

Maxwell introduces this year's evangelist to the meeting with thanks for Somerset County mosquito control spray and a quip about any bugs that might have survived.

"I sure hope mosquitoes prefer vanilla," he says slyly.

The Smith Island choir sings "Camping in Canaanland," which sounds pretty much like Irving Berlin's "Easter Parade," including ragtime licks by Clarence Evans, the pianist.

The evangelist is a youngish Southern Baptist from Ripley, Miss., named Carroll Roberson. He has a fairly wide following along the gospel trail and on Christian radio and TV, and he attracts his own fans to the island.

He's tall and well-coiffed as itinerant preachers tend to be and good-looking in a slightly retro way, rather like a 1950s movie star. He sings in a 1996 Nashville country and western style, sometimes accompanying himself on guitar, sometimes singing along to elaborate tapes that sound like Christian karaoke.

He tells the camp meeting Mickey Mantle was one of his boyhood heroes, but that Mick lived a spotty life which left him with a lot of regrets.

He wrote a song about Mickey, which includes the line: "The greatest home run in Mickey Mantle's life was when he crossed home plate with Jesus in the bottom of the ninth."

He preaches a stern uncompromising doctrine of salvation by "the crucified Christ," which draws lots of "Amens" and "That's right," but only a few islanders go to the altar. Perhaps most Smith Island Methodists have already found their salvation.

A surprising call

Many of the ministers in the Methodist conference were astonished when Maxwell got the call to serve on Smith Island last year. He was surprised, too, though he'd been a guest preacher at camp meetings and revivals here for six years. Maxwell thought maybe his bishop wanted to exile him.

"No, the bishop didn't want to send you. We asked for you," he was told by Michael Harrison, who was chairman of the committee that brought Maxwell to Smith Island.

For the islanders, it was more than choosing a preacher. The pastor of this place is also pretty much the mayor.

"When you're preaching here," Jennings Evans says, "you move right in as the head of the island. Some say it's a theocracy. It's a form of it, I guess. You take over the island affairs, really."

Maxwell is more cautious.

"Well," he says, "you can't take over the island. Some people, black or white, would come here and make a mess of this thing. Now, these people will throw you out. You have to work with these people. I think that's what they appreciate, too."

He wonders also if the island would welcome a community of 25 or 30 African-Americans as easily as a clerical couple. No one believes that Smith Island is free of prejudice. A Southern tradition is as strong here as the Elizabethan accent.

But the islanders assembled in the old wooden tabernacle think of themselves as people who know the Lord and live by the scriptures. For the most part, they treat people pretty much the way they're treated.

At the end of the day, after the preaching is over, night comes slowly over the water once again. Shadows grow deep under the pines and oaks. A profound quiet envelops the island. Egrets and herons stand in elegant silence at the edge of the marsh now black with night.

"You live in the real world here," Maxwell says. "God is alongside of you. You see him in nature. You see his works every day ... out on that water."

"I was born and raised on a place where if I didn't hear the water splashing on boats, I wasn't alive," he says. "But out here, to see the tall masts and smell the sea ... [The bishop] sent me home."

Pub Date: 8/21/96

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