One of the more well-known historical personalities of the Eastern Shore is Joshua Thomas, who was responsible in great part for the permeation of Methodism among the water communities dotting the mainland of Somerset County and the Tangier islands 1 of the Chesapeake Bay. We would know little about this man so important in Eastern Shore religious history but for the Rev. Adam Wallace's 1861 biography, The Parson of the Islands. Wallace described Joshua Thomas as being of a "natural roughness, a polished diamond of the first order, to whom lawyers, judges, doctors and preachers gave more heed than they would to the most cultured man in the community." The Parson is truly legendary and, as such, is a "larger than life" character in the annals of Somerset County history and folklore.
Joshua Thomas was born in the Potato Neck (now Fairmount) area of Somerset County on 30 August 1776 to John and Martha Hall Thomas. John Thomas died as a result of a dog bite when Joshua was a tot; Martha remarried to George Pruitt, Sr. who became subject to "drunken frolics for weeks at a time" after the family home was burned by "refugees". Apparently Joshua was still quite young when his stepfather drowned. Joshua was a man of temperance and mightily exhorted against the use of alcohol, preaching total abstinence, this attitude presumably stemming from his youthful experiences.
During his childhood years of deprivation and poverty, Joshua's mother instilled in her children the love of the Lord. He and his brothers became expert fishermen and canoe navigators
while keeping starvation at bay. Joshua often prayed in an effort to ascertain the best fishing location and always gave thanks to the Lord for the fish he caught.
For about three years Joshua lived with David Tyler on Smith Island, with whom he had been working on the water as a fisherman for several years after the death of his mother at age 80. Martha Hall Thomas Pruitt is allegedly buried under the former Ford's store in Upper Fairmount, now the site of Chesapeake East Pottery.
When Joshua was about 23 years of age, he began praying for a wife and "promised if the Lord would bless me with a good wife I would begin to serve him better than I ever yet had done." On 10 September 1797 Joshua married Rachel Evans, daughter of Richard and Molly Crockett Evans of Shanks, the Virginia portion of Smith's Island. Prior to her death at the age of 27, Rachel bore Joshua six known children as follows:
John Thomas b. 20 Dec 1799; d. 7 May 1866 m. 29 Dec 1818 Ann Crockett - resided and buried on Tangier Island, Virginia
Hester A. Thomas b. 14 Sept 1802; d. 13 Feb 1866 m. Jacob Webster - resided and buried on Deal's Island, Maryland
Clooe [Chloe]Thomas b. 8 Feb 1807
Joshua Thomas b. 28 Oct 1808
Elisha Thomas b. 30 Mar 1811 m. (1) 11 Apr 1829 Sally Parks; (2) 1 June 1840 Elizabeth Bradshaw; (3) 24 Aug 1858 Ann M. Tyler; (4) 16 Feb 1873 Mary Jane Parks - resided Deal's Island, Maryland
William Seymour Thomas b. 20 May 1812 m. 11 June 1833 Mary Anne Dougherty - resided Deal's Island, Maryland
In the early 1800's there was no regular form of organized worship on any of the outlying islands, although as early as 1782 there was "a large and faithful band of Christians" on Deal's Island. Phoebus' was a preaching place in 1782; a church was built in 1812, later rebuilt and renamed to St. Peter's as it is known today. On the occasion of the baptism of his first-born son John, Joshua Thomas examined his religious beliefs and thereafter began to attend the Episcopal Church at Annamessex and Pungoteague, Virginia. The Rev. Joshua Reese, Rector of Stepney Parish 1799-1801, was summoned to preach on the islands from time to time and Joshua was usually drafted to transport the rector in his canoe. It was during these trips that Joshua became interested in organized religion. Joshua soon regularly kept the Sabbath at the old chapel which stood near the head of Coulbourne's Creek and of which St. Paul's Church at Quindocqua was a successor. Methodism had begun to seep all along the Eastern Shore since about 1778 and meeting houses had sprung up in various locations. The first two churches erected on the Annamessex Circuit were Curtis' Chapel and Miles' Chapel, the latter first built in 1784 and a new structure erected in 1817. The name was changed from Miles' Chapel to St. Peter's in 1813. On one visit to St. Paul's, upon finding Father Reese away, Mr. William Miles invited Joshua to attend St. Peter's Methodist Church, which Joshua did with great reluctance.
At a camp meeting held in Pungoteague in August 1805, presided by Lorenzo Dow, Joshua became interested in Methodism because of the powerful sermon by Dow. It was, however, at a camp meeting in Annamessex the following year, that he was converted to Methodism. This was the first step on his vocation as the greatest local preacher the Eastern Shore ever produced. Joshua's cousin, John Parks, who was reared at Hog's Neck on Smith Island in the same neighborhood as Joshua, was also converted at this time. Shortly after his conversion, Joshua became an official member of the circuit as an exhorter; the circuit included Smith's and Tangier Islands.
During the War of 1812, the British fleet made Tangier Sound the center of their operations while the Chesapeake Bay area was under attack. Brother Thomas, as Joshua was now known, conferred with the British Admiral on several occasions as Joshua's reputation as a just and holy man preceded him. Brother Thomas influenced the Admiral to spare the trees around the Methodist camp ground and to use a vacant house as a headquarters rather than seizing a neighbor's home. In the late summer of 1814 the British prepared to take Baltimore. Before they left Tangier Sound, Brother Thomas was summoned to exhort the soldiers. At the appointed hour, some twelve thousand men were lined up in columns to hear Joshua Thomas preach. He warned them of the danger and told them God told him they could not take Baltimore and would not succeed in their battle, which history shows they did not prevail. It was during the British fleet's unsuccessful assault that Francis Scott Key wrote of the bombs bursting in air over Fort McHenry, the words that became our nation's national anthem. While Brother Thomas' part in the war was small, within a short period his reputation grew exceedingly.
While the British were still locally encamped, Brother Thomas' wife Rachel, passed away. He married 30 Sept 1814 Charlotte Bradshaw, daughter of Richard and Arabella Mister
Bradshaw, by whom he had at least three more children:
Lybrand Thomas b. 26 Dec 1814 m. 22 Oct 1850 Mary G. Daniel - resided Deal's Island, MD
Ann Maria Thomas b. 5 Oct 1820 m. (1) 20 June 1839 William M. Mister; (2) Charles Snow
Aaron Thomas b. 29 Dec 1829 m. 14 Nov 1844 Alsey A. Thomas
On 17 July 1828 the first Methodist camp meeting was held on Deal's Island--where Brother Thomas had resided since about 1825--at a site called Old Hill. The managers for that meeting were Brother Thomas, Travers Daniel, Gabriel Webster, John Parks, Charles Parks, Severn Mister, George Rowe, John Webster, William Wallace, Capt. William White, Hamilton Webster, John Waters, Lewis Phoebus, Denard Evans and Aaron Bradshaw. Brother Thomas had been ordained a Deacon in the church and had become the successor to the Reverend David Wallace. Rock Creek Church, to which Brother Thomas had a four mile walk, was the first place of public worship in the vicinity of Deal's Island.
Between June 1825 and September 1837 nineteen marriages performed by Joshua Thomas of persons residing on Smith's and Tangier Islands are recorded at the Accomack County Courthouse. It is likely some of these marriages were performed at John Parks' home on Smith Island as the boundary between Maryland and Virginia was between his house and kitchen. In 1835 Brother Thomas was ordained as an Elder of the Methodist Church and attended the Philadelphia Annual Conference that year, where the Presiding Elder introduced him as the man who had preached on Tangier Island before the British army.
The canoe, "Methodist" in which Brother Thomas traveled to practice his itinerant ministry, is as famous as he. The "Methodist", having a length of between 20 and 30 feet and a five foot width, was hewn by Hance Croswell of Annamessex from a tree grown in the neighborhood of Curtis' Chapel and was built and launched at some 150 yards north of St. Peter's Church on Jones' Creek.
In August 1850, the Deal Island camp meeting site was moved from Evans' Hill to Parks' Grove. Parks' Grove was located on the current Harrison Road in Deal Island, which is in close
proximity to St. John's Methodist Church, built in the same year. The 1850 camp meeting was the last time Brother Thomas preached, as he took a severe fall and spent the remainder of his life as an invalid. Adam Wallace formed a committee to have a wheeled vehicle with a movable chair seat built for Brother Thomas by William Lecates, the carriage maker in Princess Anne. When Wallace delivered the wheelchair, Brother Thomas prophetically prayed, "Lord fit him some day to write a book about what thou hast done for me, and send him back here after I am in my grave to do this work for thy glory."
At the age of 77, Joshua Thomas departed this life on 8 Oct 1853 survived by his second wife and children Seymour, Aaron, John, Lybrand and Hester. His nephew, Zachariah Webster,
preached the funeral sermon. The epitaph on his tombstone reads:
1The Tangier islands are among those referred to as the "Russell Isles" by explorer Capt. John Smith in 1608 and include Tangier Island, Virginia, the archipelago Smith Island, named for Capt. Henry Smith, Jane's Island, Deal Island, South Marsh Island, Long Island, Spring Island, Bloodsworth's Island and Holland's Island.
Copyright © by Rebecca F. Miller
Miller's Choice Genealogy
Princess Anne, MD 21853
All Rights Reserved December 1994
The above is the full text of the article written for the Fall/Winter 1994 Somerset County Historical Society Bulletin.It was "edited down" due to space limitation in the Bulletin. The inspiration for the article stemmed from finding the pages from the Thomas Bible containing the births of the children. Believe it or not, these pages were found in a chest of drawers donated to the Society; this precious document was used as a liner for a drawer. The document has been framed, courtesy of Philip L. Goldsborough, and was hung in the music room of the north end of the Teackle Mansion, SCHS headquarters.
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