Of Faith: Vineyard Baptists consider a crossroads

Interior of Vineyard Haven Baptist Church. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

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 fifth in a continuing series in which The Times profiles Island houses of worship.

On this particular Sunday, sunlight streams through the geometric stained glass windows on the south of the Vineyard Haven Baptist Church, brightly lighting the pews of those who sit on that side and subtly tingeing the pages of their hymnals with pastel blues, yellows, and pinks. The semicircle of handsome blond wood pews, tiered like theatre rows, contrasts with the dark wood of the roof and its trusses and a carved proscenium arch. Christmas greens and flowers decorate the elevated choir loft to the right, where organist Martha Childs and her charges are dressed in pale blue robes with red trim, and the sanctuary on the left where the Reverend Ellen Tatreau leads the 11 am service. The feeling of this space, built shortly after the great fire of 1883, is Victorian, which is to say solid, traditional, and respectable.

At 9 am, Reverend Tatreau would have met with a group of worshippers at the Gay Head Community Baptist Church, a picturesque little chapel with a beautiful pressed-tin ceiling. The pews, nine rows of them with a center aisle, are well-worn but remain serviceable, like the well-thumbed old hymnals and Bibles in the racks. The 19th century lamps, once kerosene, are now electrified, but this space, built in 1859, has a Colonial feel.

The Baptist church began in 1609 in Amsterdam, with English Separatist John Smyth, who rejected baptism of infants and instituted baptism only of believing adults. The modern name is a shortening of Anabaptist, “one who is baptized again.”

The Baptist congregation in Aquinnah is the oldest church on Martha’s Vineyard. The ministry was begun by Thomas Mayhew Jr. and his father, Governor Thomas Mayhew Sr. The Mayhews were Congregationalists, but sometime around 1693, the Aquinnah congregation became Baptist. In his 2005 book, “Faith and Boundaries,” historian David Silverman opines that the reason for the schism may have been political rather than religious. The English were pressuring the Aquinnah congregation to replace their deceased Wampanoag pastor with Experience Mayhew, grandson of Thomas Mayhew Jr., but the Aquinnah church wanted another Wampanoag pastor. Even though many Wampanoags could understand, read, and write the English language, church was “the one place where the people gathered together to hear the people’s own language as a sacred language and where Wampanoags held positions of respect.” Not willing to have an Englishman, even a Mayhew, for their pastor, they joined a different sect. Now, 318 years later, the Aquinnah Baptist church is the oldest continuously operating Native American protestant congregation in the country.

The Vineyard Haven Baptists got their start almost 100 years later. In this case also, according to historian Joseph Chase Allen, the split may have been at least partly political. The Tisbury Congregational church was in what is now West Tisbury, near the present town cemetery on State Road. There were no roads at all between Holmes Hole (now Vineyard Haven) and the town center (now West Tisbury). Nevertheless, residents of Holmes Hole were charged a church tax to support a church they could attend only infrequently and with great difficulty. In 1780, the people of Holmes Hole refused, as a body, to pay further taxes for the support of the Congregational church and formed what came to be called the Holmes Hole Baptist Society. In 1788, along with residents of Oak Bluffs (then part of Edgartown), they built the Proprietors Meeting House at the corner of Main and what is now Spring Street. This building was destroyed, along with most of the town, by the great Vineyard Haven fire of 1883, and replaced by the present First Baptist Church, a block to the west.

Vineyard Baptists today

The Vineyard Baptists are in the “Free Church” tradition, which stresses local autonomy. Communicants own their buildings, choose their ministers, and make important decisions democratically, just as the Congregationalists do. There is no set liturgy and no required creed. Like all Baptists, they practice adult baptism upon confession of faith. Many Baptists, especially Southern Baptists, require that the baptism include total immersion in water, but while that is an option for Vineyard Baptists, it is not a requirement. Reverend Tatreau explains that Jesus said baptism is with the holy spirit, and whether by an immersion or a sprinkling or no water at all, it is a symbol of that. Nevertheless, there is a baptistry in the Vineyard Haven church sufficient for a total immersion, and Baptists from both Gay Head and Vineyard Haven have been baptized at Lobsterville Beach.

Reverend Tatreau has been appointed to both the Gay Head and Vineyard Haven Baptist churches because she has training and experience in an ABC program called Churches Covenanting for Transformissional Change (CCTC) — an awkward title (“transformissional” is a made-up word). It is a program for congregations who realize that their churches are in decline or at a worrisome plateau. Like a majority of churches on Martha’s Vineyard, attendance at the two Baptist churches is less than it once was. On average about 40 persons attend in Vineyard Haven in winter; 50 to 60 in summer. In Aquinnah, 17 to 20 attend in winter; perhaps 30 in summer. There are few children at either church.

The Vineyard churches first had to vote to apply for the CCTC program and then vote to appoint Reverend Tatreau from among qualified CCTC ministers. Her task is to help the two congregations define their futures. What is their reason for being? What is their mission? She will then help the churches decide if they can turn the trend around, and how. The end result is not guaranteed. In other places, a few CCTC churches have decided to go out of business. In one instance, Reverend Tatreau facilitated the process of laying a church to rest, though her first priority here is to help the churches transform themselves and go forward. She has just finished the first year of a three-year appointment, but she could, if the churches so choose, be appointed permanently at the end of that time.

In describing her Vineyard congregations to The Times, Reverend Tatreau praised the way her flock look out for each other. “They do a great job ministering to each other,” she said. “I don’t have to tell the deacons to visit the sick. Everyone is always there for the others.”

At the sun-splashed Sunday service described above, one parishioner expressed her gratitude: “In unbelievably rough times [the others would know what she meant], I close my eyes and see all your faces, and that has given me peace and strength.”