Two centuries ago, the section of Baltimore County now known as Perry Hall was mostly wilderness, populated largely by woodcutters who supplied the fuel needed to operate forges and smelting furnaces along the Gunpowder Falls.
From time to time, residents were visited by itinerant ministers known as "circuit riders," who traveled around the region preaching to people gathered for camp meetings. That tradition gave its name to a historic site that can still be found today, a church and cemetery that grew from one of the old camp sites.
This fall, Camp Chapel United Methodist Church, as the property came to be called, will celebrate its 200th anniversary, making it one of the oldest places of worship in the area. The original log-cabin church disappeared long ago, but a white stucco chapel and cemetery near East Joppa Road and Honeygo Boulevard remain as symbols of a religious community that was incorporated in 1807.
"It was a small church in a country setting prior to the 1950s," said the current pastor, the Rev. Joe Conte. "For many years it was surrounded by woods."
The congregation will mark the 200th anniversary during a commemorative service at 11 a.m. Oct. 14 in the main sanctuary of the church at 5000 E. Joppa Road. The service will be followed by a luncheon, displays of historic artifacts and tours of the adjacent chapel, parts of which date to 1872. Former pastors, visiting pastors and other Methodist dignitaries have been invited, and a work of music has been commissioned for the occasion.
In an area that has seen a flurry of development in recent years, including housing and retail centers, the Camp Chapel property stands out as one of the few steeped in history. The chapel and cemetery were designated county landmarks in 1999.
According to a history compiled by the church, the property was identified as a worship setting by Robert Strawbridge, a Methodist "circuit rider" who preached to groups that had no permanent place of worship.
While on a trip to Towson about 1776, Strawbridge came upon a collection of sod houses and log cabins in the woods, and arranged a camp meeting for the residents there.
This area was on present-day Joppa Road between Belair and Philadelphia roads -- the future site of the Camp Chapel Church.
In 1807, the group that had been meeting informally incorporated and built a log church, about 140 feet east of the site of the present chapel.
The land was donated by Harry Dorsey Gough, a prominent landowner and devoutly religious man. Gough lived in the Perry Hall Mansion with his wife, Prudence Carnan Ridgely. One of their frequent visitors was Francis Asbury, the first American Methodist bishop, ordained in Baltimore in 1784. Although Gough had a chapel attached to his home, he took an interest in the camp meetings where the circuit riders preached and offered to build a permanent place of worship for the meetings.
The log structure, called Camp Meeting Chapel, accommodated regular services until 1871, when it was torn down. The logs were sold to make a cow stable, and the pulpit and sashes were given to African-Americans who were building a meeting house nearby.
According to Conte, historians believe that the sandstone steps from the first Camp Meeting Chapel had been ballast on ships from England, since sandstone was not quarried in Baltimore County in 1807. A new church, at the site of the current chapel, was erected on the property in 1872, using the original sandstone steps and chimney bricks.
After World War II, as suburban development began to replace farms in the area, the church grew. In 1954, an education building was constructed. The present brick sanctuary was built near the chapel and dedicated May 23, 1965.
In 1983, the chapel was struck by lightning and caught fire, losing its roof and portions of its walls. The congregation salvaged what it could, including two stained-glass windows, a painting and a century-old Bible. Within a year, the chapel was reconstructed according to its original appearance, complete with the sandstone steps.
Conte said the congregation has 420 members and two services each Sunday: at 8:30 a.m. in the restored chapel and at 11 a.m. in the larger sanctuary. The chapel, which can seat up to 70 people, is also used for weddings and other events -- a lasting symbol of the church's role as an early outpost of Methodism in Maryland.