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The modern-day tourism trade on Smith and Tangier islands dates to the 1960s, when tour boats first started shuttling curious daytrippers out into the middle of the bay. But visitors have actually been flocking to these islands for centuries. In 1821, one observer reported seeing more than 400 boats anchored around Tangier. He estimated the crowd attending that year’s Methodist camp meeting at more than 5,000.

In the storied history of Methodism on the Delmarva Peninsula, few places are more important than Tangier Island, Va. That’s where famed “Parson of the Island” Joshua Thomas (1776–1853) held court at camp meetings that drew faithful from all over the Chesapeake region. Here is from the book, Tangier Island: A Study of an Isolated Group (1939), by S. Warren Hall III:

Rev. Joshua Thomas of Deal Island on the Eastern Shore

Joshua Thomas

“No other events had a greater influence during the years of Tangier history than these fiery camp meetings. The rugged, fervent, emotional preaching of the old Parson of the Islands exactly met the needs of the Tangiermen, and of numbers of other people who came to hear him.”

In 1828, a young Eastern Shore of Virginia lawyer named Henry Wise—he would go on to become the state’s governor—was on his way up to Baltimore when the boat he was aboard approached Tangier to drop off passengers at that year’s camp meeting. His memory of that sail is the kind of passage that leaves you longing to hop in a time machine so as to stand by his side.

“We had started in a sail vessel from a beautiful creek late in the evening and when within about two miles of the beach [on Tangier where the camp meeting was under way], the breeze died away and we were helplessly becalmed.

“The sun set clear o’er the bay, smooth and rippleless like a mirror of the Almighty; in a few moments the island was not to be seen until the moon effulgent rose o’er the eastern land and lighted up the glassy waters, and she had not risen high when suddenly the light-wood flambeaux of the camp shot forth their beams, and the rows and avenues of hundreds of broad and high blazes were like supernatural lamps of the heavens; and soon the hymns of the multitude came softly stealing by moonlight o’er the mirrored bay, mellowed by distance, as if angel voices were in choirs of melody coming from an island cloud!

Oh it was sweet beyond fancy’s dreams! … Tears both of joy and grief were wept!

–posted by Jim Duffy for Secrets of the Eastern Shore/Whimbrel Creations LLC in June 2023. Thank you for spending time with this post and on this site.

NOTE: The annual camp meetings on Tangier came to an end in the mid-1800s. The photo up top here shows the scene at a “Homecoming Meeting” on the island in the 1930s. That was the closest I could come on giving a visual sense for the crowds of boats and people.

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