Smith Island. Photo from Smith Island Cultural Center.

Only in Maryland: Camp Meetings on Smith Island

07/28/2017
By Preservation Maryland

Smith Island, in the Chesapeake Bay accessible only by boat, lends it’s name to Maryland’s state dessert and has a flavor of history all it’s own, too! Smith Island native, Sherri Marsh Johns provides this guest blog in which she explores the dynamic and enduring history of Smith Island’s famous camp meetings.

“SMITH ISLAND CAMP MEETINGS” BY SHERRI MARSH JOHNS

In 1885 an aging Benjamin Franklin Marsh started his memoir about life on Smith Island, Maryland. Peppered throughout his account are more than a dozen mentions of attending the Island’s camp meeting. With the chauvinism the old often display towards the young, he expressed doubt that following generations would keep up this important summer time religious tradition. Marsh’s pessimism proved unfounded.

A CENTURY OLD TRADITION

On Sunday, July 30, 2017, the doors of the old frame tabernacle will open for the first service of Smith Island’s 131st Methodist camp meeting. Part regional religious revival and part homecoming, this week-long event has its roots in the evangelical fervor of the Second-Great Awakening, and specifically in the outdoor preaching of Charles and John Wesley, the founders of Methodism.

Camp meetings were a hallmark of 19th century Methodist worship and by some estimates, their number reached over 1000 attendees. The name camp meeting references the difficulties faced by some to travel to and from Smith Island. Attendees, many of whom came from considerable distances, typically camped at the meeting place for the duration of the event. In some cases, like on Smith Island, permanent buildings grew up around the site to house visitors. In Marsh’s day, families spent a week or more cooking outdoors and living in small frame cottages or tents surrounding the tabernacle.

Methodists continue to hold camp meetings, but their number and popularity are a fraction of historic numbers, and some former camp meeting locations, such as Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, now attract a distinctly different crowd. Those that remain, including Smith Island, are day trip destinations. One doesn’t have to be a Methodist, or even religious, to attend and enjoy our camp meeting.

ATTEND THE CAMP MEETING

All are invited to visit Smith Island and take part in this cherished Island tradition. The 131st camp meeting on Smith Island runs from July 30 to August 6, 2017. Be sure to check the boat schedule and service times for the ferry from Crisfield! More information is available from the Smith Island Cultural Center.

Learn more about Smith IslanD History

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Sherri Marsh Johns is a Smith Island native with more than 20 years of experience in the fields of architectural research and historic preservation. She owns and serves as principal investigator of Retrospect Architectural Research, LLC and as the executive director of the Smith Island Cultural Center

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Preservation Maryland is Maryland’s first and largest organization dedicated to preserving the state’s historic buildings, neighborhoods, landscapes, and archaeological sites.

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