This article about Delmarva's religious history appeared in a special magazine-style publication called "Delmarva Millennium, Volume I," published in October 1999 by Thomson-Chesapeake.
By Terry Plowman
The first formal European religious services on Delmarva were conducted by an Anglican priest on Kent Island in 1631 -- but those humble services could only hint at the future pivotal role the peninsula would play in the shaping of religion in America.
The Rev. Robert Kemp,
preaching on Smith island
in the 1800s.
Three major denominations -- Episcopalianism, Methodism and Presbyterianism -- would eventually trace their American roots right to Delaware or the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Other religious groups, including Quakers, Catholics and Baptists, would also forge significant links with the region.
The reasons that Delmarva became the birthplace of several major American religions are varied, but they are rooted in the religious discrimination that was rampant in Europe during the 1600s, and the religious freedom that was promised by the colonies.
Episcopal and Methodist Churches
The Anglican services held on Kent Island in 1631 began the wide influence of the Church of England on the peninsula.
But the church, so dominant on much of Delmarva before the Revolutionary War, was in shambles after American Independence. It was during that fertile time of change that two major denominations rose from the ashes of the Anglican religion: Episcopalianism and Methodism.
After the war, many Anglican priests fled to Canada or England, leaving their congregations without leadership. In 1780, the Rev. Dr. William Smith, rector of Emmanuel Church in Chestertown, Md., reorganized the 15 remaining clergymen on the Shore into the Protestant Episcopal Church, replacing the Church of England designation. Smith persuaded Maryland's General Assembly to legally recognize the Episcopal Church, and he went on to became one of the leaders of the effort to reshape the remnants of the Anglican Church in America into the new denomination.
Also around the time of the Revolutionary War, Anglican minister John Wesley, who considered his Methodist beliefs to be merely a reform movement within the Church of England, sent missionaries to the American colonies.
Itinerant Methodist ministers traveled widely throughout the Delmarva Peninsula, often at much danger to their lives, as they were sometimes arrested, assaulted or run out of town by troublemakers.
But they persevered in spreading Wesleyan beliefs, even though some residents of the region were "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," according to Methodist preacher Freeborn Garrettson.
This uphill religious battle was exemplified by an encounter Garrettson had with a resident of southern Sussex County, Del. -- the man, when asked if he were acquainted with Jesus Christ, said he neither knew the man nor where he lived.
The wide spread of Methodism on Delmarva set the stage for its dramatic separation from its Anglican roots, when in 1784 Wesley sent the Rev. Thomas Cooke to meet with the Rev. Francis Asbury, Delmarva's leading itinerant preacher. In a meeting renowned as "the birth of American Methodism," Cooke, Asbury and others met at Barratt's Chapel in Frederica, Del., to lay the groundwork for a new denomination, independent of the Church of England.
The Rehoboth Presbyterian Church near Pocomoke, Md., has been the site of religious services since 1672, around the time members of the denomination migrated to that area to escape the religious oppression they suffered in Virginia.
The minister who would come to be the driving force behind the formation of the first Presbytery in America was the Rev. Francis Makemie, who traveled from England to the Eastern Shore in 1684. In addition to preaching and ministering to the spiritual needs of the Shore's inhabitants, Makemie practiced civil law, and was influential in the passage of Virginia's Act of Toleration in 1699.
Makemie also worked to organize the Presbyterian churches in the New World, eventually becoming the chief founder of the first Presbytery in America, and its first moderator, in 1706 in Philadelphia. By 1750, there were more than 30 Presbyterian congregations on Delmarva.
Other Delmarva connections
The Quakers, Baptists and Catholics also have important links with the Delmarva Peninsula.
In the 1660s, there were informal meetings of the Society of Friends, also called Quakers after founder George Fox's admonition to "tremble before the word of the Lord."
In the early 1670s, Fox, while evangelizing in Maryland, helped formally organize the Society of Friends in Easton. Construction of the Third Haven Meeting House there began in 1682, making it the oldest frame house of worship in the United States.
Although the Baptist ranks never grew as large on Delmarva as other religions, the denomination did make its mark on Virginia's strictly Anglican Eastern Shore. The Lower Northampton Baptist Church, established in 1778, was probably the first permanent non-Anglican church there, and eventually 15 Baptist churches sprang up throughout Delmarva.
Unfortunately for Catholics on the Eastern Shore, Maryland's Toleration Act of 1649, which had promised religious freedom, was almost immediately violated. It was repealed in 1654, and Catholicism was outlawed.
Throughout the 1700s, Catholics suffered religious discrimination on the Eastern Shore -- the saying of mass was declared a crime, Catholics were barred from public office and they were not allowed to have schools for Catholic instruction.
Private services were allowed, however, which led to the prominence of Old Bohemia, a large Jesuit plantation in Cecil County, Md. St. Francis Xavier Church on the plantation, now one of the oldest permanent Catholic institutions in America, became the center of worship for Catholics in northern Delmarva, and the base of operations for ministering to the entire peninsula.
Following the important 18th-century events that influenced the development of these denominations, itinerant evangelism remained common on Delmarva. Circuit riders followed regular routes throughout the peninsula, people sought spiritual guidance at camp meetings and churches built chapels in rural areas in order to extend their religious reach.
Today, there are about 700 churches on Delmarva, many of them trying to address the needs of a changing demographic. Large numbers of Latinos from Central America -- as well as metropolitan-area transplants from the other end of the economic spectrum -- are migrating to the region, forcing churches to re-examine their mission, according to the Rev. Jim Lewis, of the Episcopal Diocese of Delaware.
The influx of Latinos, in particular, is creating a whole new challenge for churches -- perhaps one that will result in a return to Delmarva's historic evangelical roots.