Martha’s Vineyard is home to diverse houses of worship. According to a schedule of services published weekly in The Times, more than 28 congregations meet regularly year-round. This is the third in a continuing series in which The Times profiles Island houses of worship.
Evangelical Methodism was once the dominant religion on Martha’s Vineyard, but there has been a steep decline in membership since the Wesleyan heydays of the 19th century. Nevertheless, as recently as 1997 there were five Methodist churches on Martha’s Vineyard and four full-time Methodist ministers. Today the three down-Island churches have joined forces as the United Methodist Church of Martha’s Vineyard, under one pastor. A small congregation in Chilmark continues alone with a part-time pastor.
The Methodist denomination springs from John Wesley’s evangelical revival movement within the English Anglican church. Wesley traced his own religious awakening to a specific event in 1738: At a meeting of a Moravian society where a commentary by Martin Luther was being read, he felt his heart “strangely warmed.” He wrote, “I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins.”
The name “Methodist” was originally a pejorative coined by Anglican students making fun of the group’s adherence to its strict methods, including prohibitions against drinking, dancing, and card playing. The “method” is less strictly applied today.
Arthur R. Railton in “The History of Martha’s Vineyard” asserts that Methodist and Baptist churches here were part of a wave of evangelizing that flooded the Vineyard in the early 1800s. The first Methodist to come to the Island was a former slave who arrived in 1787. Though not a minister, John Saunders preached John Wesley’s theology. Jeremiah Pease of Edgartown, dismissive of the evangelists at first, was converted about 1822 by the minister then assigned to the Island, John “Reformation” Adams from New Hampshire, and became a leading light of Methodism. In 1835, Pease, Adams, and others first developed a small part of the site which became the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association, now no longer affiliated with any denomination.
Fiery Methodist preachers drew members from the Edgartown Congregationalists and soon became the most numerous congregation in that town. By 1843 they had outgrown two earlier meeting houses and built the imposing Greek-revival church on Main Street, now called the Old Whaling Church, which seats about 700. Edgartown was not the only town where Methodism flourished. Methodist societies in Chilmark, Vineyard Haven, West Tisbury, and North Tisbury were all growing and building churches. The Chilmark Methodists moved a church outgrown by Edgartown to a site on Middle Road, near Tea Lane. Trinity Church in Oak Bluffs was built in 1879, and the Tabernacle, in 1880.
Modern turmoil and change
In 1997, Trinity UMC in Oak Bluffs, Christ UMC, and the Lambert’s Cove UMC Church each had its own pastor. The small congregations at the Whaling Church in Edgartown and the Chilmark Community Church shared one minister.
In 1997, in a dispute with the UMC over the replacement of a favorite minister, the Lambert’s Cove group withdrew from the UMC. Unlike the Congregationalists, who own their own buildings and govern themselves democratically, Methodism is governed by a regional authority — on the Vineyard, the New England Conference of the United Methodist Church — which owns all church buildings and assigns ministers. When the Lambert’s Cove group withdrew, the Conference evicted them from the church and eventually sold the building, not without some hard feelings among Island Methodists generally. The Lambert’s Cove group continued until recently as an independent church, but without a building of its own.
The Island numbers continued to shrink. Whether the Conference will assign a minister (and whether the church can afford to pay one) is all about numbers. The remaining churches did not have sufficient total membership for three pastors, and in 2006 at the urging of the UMC, decided to form a cooperative ministry with two ministers for four churches. But a year later the 30 or so members of the Chilmark Community Church voted to withdraw from the cooperative, and they continue today on their own with a part-time minister and lay leaders.
In 2009, the three down-Island congregations, now with the numbers for only one pastor, decided to worship together as the United Methodist Church of Martha’s Vineyard — one church, but with three handsome buildings. There are about 300 members, of which 125 to 150 are active. Pastor Richard Rego explains that the combined church meets for worship at Trinity Church in Oak Bluffs. Trinity is more accessible and more centrally located than the other two and had by far the largest membership. It is on the National Register of Historic Buildings.
The beautiful Stone Church (Christ UMC) in Vineyard Haven, which had only 6 to 12 members, is now the Mission Life Center, dedicated to providing basic needs to the community at large. It houses the Food Pantry and Clothes-To-Go, among other outreach efforts. The Stone Church pulls its own weight: the sanctuary is rented to the Assembly of God Brazilian church and generates income from the Verizon cell tower hidden in its steeple.
The Old Whaling Church, which had a membership of only about 15, is owned by the Preservation Trust, but the Methodists still have the use of it. Under the leadership of Liz Villard, it is used as a liturgical arts center.
In the summer season, the Sunday worship service in Oak Bluffs is moved to 11 am, and there is a breakfast and lay-led chapel service in Edgartown, and a morning lay-led Bible discussion in Vineyard Haven, both at 9 am. In the winter, church for everyone is at 10 am.
Pastor Rego told The Times that in the months ahead, he needs to upgrade the worship center, the Vineyard Haven church, and the parish house. He specifically needs to raise money to restore the gorgeous Christ window at the Stone Church and the stained glass windows which line both sides of the sanctuary at Trinity, which are sagging and need to be releaded. There has been some CPC money voted, but there will probably have to be a capital campaign.
More important, Pastor Rego sees a need to convince the Island that the Methodist Church, as part of an ecumenical religious movement, is a vibrant and active part of the Island’s spiritual life. Working in concert with other Island church groups, he hopes to use the Vineyard Haven and Edgartown buildings to help fulfill the needs of the community. He especially hopes to be able to meet the spiritual needs of young families with children, and sees opportunities in the ecumenical youth group at the Federated Church. He also hopes to expand religious programs and liturgical arts by using the Tabernacle in summer and the Whaling Church in winter for large ecumenical events.
More information about the Methodist churches on Martha’s Vineyard can be found at unitedmethodistsocietymv.org. Note that although early Methodists used the term “society” instead of “church,” the United Methodist Society MV is not a church but an association.