'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.

August 21, 1996|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

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

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