Faith Voices from the Eastern Shore

THE MOST FAMOUS FAITH VOICE along the lower reaches of Maryland's Eastern Shore was Joshua Thomas, the famous "Parson of the Islands," who grew up on Tangier Island and Smith Island and lived his later years on Deal Island. A convert from the Episcopal religion, he became a leading force in the spread of evangelical Methodism during the first half of the 19th century traveling by log canoe from island to island to lead camp meetings and revival services. He died in 1853 and was buried in the corner of a Deal Island chapel.

Here are some of the faith voices of Methodism in this region during the early 21st century:

A Letter from the Eastern Shore
Faith Flies in the Face of Facts
Deal Island church and graveyard. Photograph, Sky Swanson
Photograph, Sky Swanson

THE TITLE ABOVE WAS THE THEME of a sermon one of us (Michael) heard in a church on Deal Island more than 15 years ago. Michael, an anthropologist, was a newcomer who had come to study what watermen knew about environment and pollution, hoping to understand what they thought could be done to protect natural resources and reduce human impacts on the Bay's ecosystem. Does faith have to fly in the face of facts? The question came from the anthropologist and the answer, in part, came from conversations with Andrew, a practicing Christian, a local historian, and a resident of Chance, a small town on the Deal Island peninsula.

For a single syllable, five-letter word, faith carries a lot of meaning and importance to Chesapeake Bay communities where watermen and their families still harvest crabs and oysters. Generally, faith is a powerfully held belief in the inevitability that something, usually something positive, will come to pass without anybody's help. "I have faith that [something] will happen." It is comfort, reassurance, guidance, and can anchor an individual's identity — and a community's. Faith unites people in times of adversity, and shines a light on the path forward, even when the eventual route is not the preferred one. With faith, there is a larger and not-fully-understandable process and endpoint that are offered up (to believers) in their times of need, when their earthly capacities and knowledge are not quite up to the task or problem at hand.

For Michael, an anthropologist, this idea about faith seems even more relevant today as the Deal Island communities face the impacts of socio-economic and environmental change. It's become apparent, even to a scientist, that faith can be a powerful competitor or supporter of fact, that faith motivates people and taps passions that can lead to action. For faith to have such power, it needs a belief system, whether that system is religious or scientific or even a mix of personal experiences and teachings from a diversity of sources.

For Andrew, a native resident, historian, and Christian, religion is the primary source of faith, and that is certainly true for those who live and work in on the Deal Island peninsula along the lower Eastern Shore of Maryland. Here, in the early decades of the nineteenth century, Joshua Thomas, the preacher known as the Parson of the Islands, brought a particular form of Christianity known as Methodism to communities of watermen and their families. Founded by the English clergyman John Wesley in the 1700s, Methodism presented an alternative to the spiritual lethargy that Wesley perceived in the Anglican Church. The new religion sought to restore among its adherents a more vibrant and vigorous Christian faith characterized by fervent pursuit of holiness in personal character and sacrificial devotion to the service of God and the spread of the gospel of Christ through evangelism.

As its name indicates, Methodist doctrine advocates a systematic, orderly, "methodical" growth in one's devotion to and service of God through the concept of sanctification. According to this belief, Christians are empowered by God's Spirit to gradually overcome the power of sin over their lives and to purge as many specific sins as possible from their daily existence. This sincere drive toward perfection, although not fully attainable in this life, is made possible by a faith that recognizes that the sacrifice of Christ on the cross to atone for sin is the entire basis for the believer's restored relationship with God. Each person is freed to seek a deeper and more profound level of service to God, not in an attempt to earn salvation through merit (an impossibility in Methodist theology), but out of a sense of love and gratitude to God for providing that salvation as a gift.

This concept of God — that He provides not only salvation, but all other human spiritual and physical needs as well — is integral to the Methodist world view. And it became the primary guide to Christian practice for people in the Deal Island peninsula region as a result of the preaching of Joshua Thomas. In the New Testament Book of Hebrews in the Bible, faith is defined as "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (King James Version). For most Methodists — and probably for most Christians living in the Deal Island area, as well as throughout the Chesapeake Bay region — the bedrock of their belief system is precisely this kind of faith in a God who cannot be seen but whose power to provide for all of their needs, even during times of drastic change, is manifestly evident each day and is a source of great comfort and fulfillment.

Today, we find faith and religion to be essential to the future and survival of the communities and environment of the Deal Island peninsula. The problems we face include changes in the community and in the environment. The local economy and demographics are shifting with fewer young people becoming watermen and more retirees and second-home owners moving into the region. At the same time, sea levels are rising and the land is subsiding, bringing increased erosion and more frequent flooding.

How do we handle these issues? Both of us, anthropologist and historian, now belong to a network, the Deal Island Peninsula Project, that is trying to identify the sources of resilience in human communities and ecosystems facing change. Our group includes local community members, county and state officials, representatives from regional non-governmental organizations, and researchers from the social and natural sciences. (see more at We are a diverse assembly in terms of experience and expertise, and we have prioritized the objective of valuing and learning from each other, recognizing that we can be more effective in our workshops, community conversations, collaborative field research, and communication, if we honor each other's skills and expertise.

In our collaborations we have found that faith plays a pivotal role. Faith, we are learning, does not have to fly in the face of fact. For the scientist or resource manager, for the pastor or waterman or newly arrived resident with shoreline property, faith is the window through which we can see and share the limits to what we can know. It is the drawbridge that lets us lower our conceptual defenses and open up to heart-felt experiences and understandings of vulnerability and resilience. It can also be a pathway toward learning and clarifying and building rapport, bringing us to that rare point when we recognize that our concerns and goals are interrelated and shared. Faith gives hope, not only for the churchgoer but also for the researcher whose scientific principles and methods do not remove all uncertainty. Both of us are people of faith depending on our knowledge and belief systems.

The Deal Island Peninsula Project attempts to foster another kind of faith, a belief that collectively we can accomplish something that we cannot do as individuals alone. We have the best science available, clear religious and biblical guidance, and other distinct views and expertise, all enacted by people who want to participate in adapting to an era of ongoing socio-ecological change. The vulnerabilities of Deal Island peninsula communities and ecosystems are well known. The future is not clear. But a robust faith engages us and sustains hope that our collaborations can help shape a future we can live with. Maybe faith is also a way to face the facts.

A Chesapeake Waterman's Faith Song

Art Daniels is an oysterman and crabber from Deal Island, MD who was recruited with wife to perform religious songs in many churches along Maryland's Eastern Shore.

Video by Michael W. Fincham

Back Home Sunday

The decline of the Chesapeake Bay oyster fishery created a diaspora for many for many African Americans who grew up attending Friendship Methodist Church in Wetipquin, Maryland, a small, isolated community near the Nanticoke River on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Most young people left their hometown to find work, but many return every November to reconnect with family and friends in an annual Back Home Sunday service.

Video by Michael W. Fincham
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