Eastern Shore Methodism During the Civil War

A Short History of Bascom's Chapel,

Eastern Shore Methodism During the Civil War,

. . . And the Hopkins/FitzGerald Family Connection

© 2006 Elizabeth Leah Reed

Beginning in the late 1770s, Methodism spread throughout the Eastern Shore, and a dense network of house "churches" and local class meetings sprang up. This was true on the Chesapeake Bay islands, Smith and Tangier, where the Crocketts, Tylers, and Hopkinses lived at the time. Many of them, if not all, converted to Methodism, including the siblings and children of Leah Crockett Hopkins. Her brother, Thomas Crockett, held the first Methodist meeting on Tangier Island in his home in 1805; her sister-in-law, Priscilla, and other Crocketts were on the church rolls when the first Methodist church was built on Tangier Island in 1825; and her daughter, Sally Hopkins Tyler, is buried in the graveyard at Union Methodist Episcopal (ME) Church on Smith Island in Tylerton, Maryland, making her a member of the Methodist church as is everyone on Smith Island.,

Family oral history states that Leah Crockett Hopkins was buried (1842) in the churchyard at Cokesbury ME Church in Onancock, Virginia, which at that time was a "single-story unpretentious structure." Through her grave grew a sycamore tree that survived for more than 100 years until it was cut down in 1991. Of course, everyone was at least a nominal Anglican in 1770 when Leah Crockett and Stephen Hopkins of Smith Island married at St. Georges Church in Pungoteague. It is said that their children were raised on Smith Island, but the last Stephen may have been born on Tangier Island. It is known that Stephen and Leah were in Onancock in 1800, and another account says that Leah Crockett Hopkins left Smith Island to live with her son Stephen in Onancock at the end of her life.

We do not know whether Leah Crockett's son, Stephen A., was a Methodist, but her grandson, Stephen H. III was. It may be that the early Hopkins family in Onancock traveled south to St. George's in Pungoteague or north to St. James' in Accomac (then Drummondtown), or waited for an Episcopal missionary to come to Onancock to attend Episcopalian services. John P.L. Hopkins was later a prominent layman of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, founded in 1878. John P.L.'s sister, Margaret Anne Jane Hopkins FitzGerald, who is buried with the Hopkins family in Onancock Cemetery, may have been Methodist, but we know that her daughter, Margaret ("Peggie"), who married George Washington Johnson, certainly became a Methodist and raised her children in that church.

When Methodism came to the Shore in 1772, it arrived as a reforming effort within the Anglican church. As the colonies separated from Britain to become one nation, so Methodism separated from the Church of England to become its own denomination. At its founding in 1784, contained in its "Discipline" was the rule that slaving-holding members must free their slaves to remain in the church, and many in Accomack County, Virginia, did so. By the time the Civil War broke out, fewer than 20% of whites owned slaves in the county. But the rule was soon forgotten, and the last recorded freeing of slaves occurred in 1836, when William Seymour, son of an early Methodist minister at Cokesbury in Onancock, sold a slave and her child to her husband.

As Methodism grew and churches and chapels were built, Blacks and whites attended services together in almost equal numbers. But, in the 1840s, Methodism again reflected the politics of the country, and as contention about slavery grew, the Blacks moved to the back and the balconies of the churches and finally out, never to return. Then the overlooked rule about slavery surfaced to cause the split of Methodism along north/south lines, and with it the town of Onancock and its only church.

Henry Bidleman Bascom was instrumental in splitting the ME Church over the slavery issue. His intense oration at the national meeting of 1844 expressed southern sympathies and resulted in the organization of the ME Church, South, and the adoptions of a Plan of Separation. Church ministers and leaders returned to their congregations and continued operating, but under the new structure. But those on the border area of the Baltimore Conference--including the Eastern Shore of Virginia--were instructed to vote as a congregation to determine with which organization they would affiliate. By early 1850, congregations at Boggs (Andrew's Chapel), Pungoteague, Capeville, and Johnsontown had voted to leave the ME Church and form under the ME Church, South, in the Virginia Conference.

In Onancock, the Methodist congregation was not to escape strife. Here Methodism had caught hold ever since Francis Asbury first visited in the Wesley Seymour home in 1788. There in that home, "society" meetings were held from 1788 to 1821 and in other homes thereafter until the first church in the town was built: Cokesbury ME Church (established in March 30, 1822). There would not be another denomination in Onancock with a church building until after the Civil War. But by 1847, this congregation had also become contentious, and when the vote was held, the majority was for staying with the north. With that, the southern minority separated, formed as a ME Church, South, under the Plan of Separation, and purchased property from Thomas P. and Anne P. Copes (deed dated June 4, 1850), on which to build their sanctuary. The following were trustees--names that appear in Nehemiah FitzGerald's letters:

Samuel C. White James H. Adison
Charles H. Bayly James Boggs
William H. White Edward Glen
Alfred Lofland  

This new congregation would have originally met in homes, but eventually they held services in a building on the town square, sometimes known as the Fosque schoolhouse. They were directed to erect a structure at the time the church formed and soon were attending worship services in their new chapel, built of pine, oak, and cypress heart between 1850 and 1859. They named their structure Bascom's Chapel for that fiery Methodist circuit rider Henry Bidleman Bascom. One can imagine the congregants were a fiery sort as well. Their chapel stood less than 60 yards from its rival, Cokesbury ME Church. In 1858, Cokesbury also built a new church, one that remains essentially the same today. Some have remarked that the two congregations were so close they could hear each other's voices on a Sunday morning.

A year before the war arrived and the occupation of Eastern Shore began, the Methodist churches of northern Accomack County were in the northern church and those in Northampton County were in the southern church, but those in the middle, in southern Accomack County, had equally divided sympathies.

Methodists on the Eastern Shore of Virginia who remained in the ME church were in a dilemma as war approached. The church officials of the Accomack area joined with some 20 similar churches that together attempted to stay neutral. They met at Cokesbury in Onancock in June 1860 and requested that a Central ME Church be formed. Their request was ignored. But once war began, they realized that no minister from the northern church would be safe on the Shore, and resolved to "stand detached and alone," creating their own independent "Convention of Accomack County" and calling their own minister, Reverend William Coe, who lived in the Cokesbury parish house and served five additional churches. Coe, who arrived days before Virginia seceded from the United States, was an independent minister with southern sympathies, so accepted invitations to preach for the Bascom's Chapel congregation (1861 and 1863), as well as at other southern churches, and he never signed the odious Oath of Allegiance to do so.

For most of the war, the church doors were closed. Society on the Eastern Shore closed down, as well. Nathaniel J. W. LeCato likened it to a winter hibernation, not just for

a season . . .but for three years of the war. . . .the disgruntled people of the peninsula shut themselves up in their houses and refused to be comforted because their loved ones were not at home.

It was during the winter, late 1861 or early 1862, while the Yankee troops used the churches and schools in Onancock as barracks and set up tent encampments on private property throughout the town, that Margaret Anne Hopkins FitzGerald, an early war widow, slipped through the blockade and arrived with her seven children to live in Onancock. Her eldest son, Nehemiah, was serving with the 2nd Company of Richmond Howitzers. Her brother, John P.L. Hopkins, had sent a schooner to bring her home from wherever she had fled when Hampton, Virginia, was burned to the ground. She had resided there in Elizabeth City County since her marriage on Christmas Day, 1837 in Onancock.

With her husband dead, her home burned, and no means of support, Margaret moved to a house provided by her father, Stephen A. Hopkins, who most likely also provided financial support. She took in sewing to add a few pennies to her meager funds. Just a few steps away from her front door at 25 King Street, today known as the Fitzgerald House, was a church building--Bascom's Chapel. Perhaps she longed to attend services there, but Bascom's was occupied with troops, and the only church services were held outdoors or in homes, if at all. More than a year before the war ended, she was able to attend church services again when they resumed in Onancock, but not in Bascom's Chapel, for it had abandoned all activity by 1863.

As the war was drawing to a close, ME Church (the northern church) members saw an opportunity and influenced General B. F. Butler, the Union commander for the Shore, to declare (January 1864) that no preachers could preach unless they took an oath of allegiance to the United States:

I do solemnly swear, in the presence of Almighty God, that I will henceforth faithfully support, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Union of States thereunder; and that I will in like manner abide by and faithfully support all acts of Congress passed during the existing rebellion with reference to slaves . . . and that I will, in like manner, abide by and faithfully support all proclamations of the President made during the existing rebellion... help me God.

In July, Butler added the stipulation that in the Methodist Churches, ministers under the northern church could not preach unless a majority of the congregants "declare themselves loyal and repudiate any and all connection with the ME Church, South, or other disloyal organization."

The local ME representatives wanted to have only one church and saw that because of southern sympathies, the ME Church, South, would clearly have the majority of members should they be allowed to resume services. "As long as secession preachers are allowed, ours will have but small congregations," stated George Tyler of Cokesbury. Soon the church voted (March 1864) on affiliation, the result being 104 to 17 with the majority of members supporting reuniting with the northern church. However, between August and November 1864, the independent congregations were allowed to again worship on the Shore. Cokesbury's remaining pro-south "independents" met in the Fosque residence, diagonally across Market Street from Cokesbury, and in the Temperance Hall for the next two years, until they affiliated with the ME Church, South, in 1866. At that point, they moved into the abandoned Bascom's Chapel. Again, two Methodist congregations worshipped separately, but side by side.

On July 4, 1864, a Benjamin Marsh of Smith Island journeyed across the waters to witness the two "churches joined hand-in-hand" in an "exhibition." He came to enjoy the ice cream, cake, and band from Crisfield, and noted that he "was glad to see the two churches loving to one another." Later that year, the minister of Bascom's Chapel was proud to report that: "In this school house, during the fall of the past year [1864], upwards of 130 souls made a profession of faith."

On November 2, 1869, Margaret Anne FitzGerald married George Washington Johnson in a ceremony in the front parlor of her home. Officiating was the Reverend Ias. Martin. One suspects he may have been a clergyman of the ME Church, South, but no record for him has yet been found.

Bascom's congregation increased and prospered, and by the early 1880s, enough funds were available to purchase land farther down Market Street, next to Kerr House. There they built a new, majestic structure for the growing congregation: Market Street Methodist Church, South.

With no need for the Chapel, it was put up for sale. Margaret Hopkins FitzGerald wanted to purchase the building and had offered $500, as her son Thomas urged her to do on August 27, 1882. The church then offered it to Mrs. FitzGerald for $550, but unfortunately the offer was made through a conversation with another of her sons, Hezekiah. "Hezzie had informed us [the church committee] that he didn't want it." The committee then turned to the Presbyterians. With no competition, the Presbyterians offered $500.00, and the church was sold (deed dated December 29, 1882).

When Margaret FitzGerald found out, she was sorely upset, and most likely the whole town knew it, prompting the letter of explanation from Mr. Slocomb, who began with:

I have heard through several, that you, and your family, were thinking quite hard of the Church committee and myself in particular, on account of our not selling you the old church; not having an opportunity to talk with you I thought I would write you this note and state to you every fact in connection with the Church business, and I must think that if you will view the matter in a calm and impartial light you will place the blame of your not getting it on someone else, and not us: in the first place as I have told you before, every member of the committee wanted you to have the church above anybody else, for that reason, notwithstanding we were asking the Presbyterians 600$ [sic] for it . . .

Perhaps Margaret FitzGerald had hopes of bringing her son Nehemiah back home from northern California where he had been teaching and homesteading since the war ended. In his early letters, he often asked his mother about teaching positions in Onancock, but had turned to "merchandising" by 1872 and indicated that he no longer had an interest in teaching.

The Presbyterians continued to use the chapel for their services until they built a new church in 1895. At that point, Margaret Fitzgerald's brother, Capt. John P.L. Hopkins, bought the structure (deed dated April 23, 1896), and it was used as a school. Here, sitting on opposite sides of the room, the girls were taught by Miss Mary Tyler (later Mrs. Bell) and the boys by a Mr. Mason.

Two years later, on one bright spring morning, songs again were heard coming from the church. This time they were Episcopal hymns of Lent. The Episcopal Church was using the building in the spring of 1898 while their 10-year-old structure was being repaired. In 1903, "Captain J.P.L. Hopkins again loaned the building to Holy Trinity Episcopal Church to house a Sunday school."

Bascom's Chapel was demolished in 1906, three years after Margaret FitzGerald died. "The old M.E. Church, South, now owned by Capt. J.P.L. Hopkins, which was built in 1859, is now being torn down. The lumber is all pine, oak, and cypress heart, and is as sound as the day it was built." All that remains of Bascom's Chapel are its windows, which today enclose the porch across the back of the Hopkins House on Market Street, which sits across the street from the Cokesbury church building.

One wonders whether Margaret Hopkins FitzGerald ever stepped through the doors of the grand, new ME Church, South, but we know from a granddaughter that Margaret's daughter--Margaret Fitzgerald Johnson--brought her five children to Cokesbury Methodist Church to worship and attend Sunday School until the turn of the century.

Not unlike other Methodist congregations throughout the Eastern Shore, the two churches in Onancock continued their separate services and were known as the northern and southern churches. Perhaps too much animosity remained from the passion that the Civil War engendered in the people. Cokesbury continued its affiliation with the northern church and for a while had a viable congregation, enough to create two new churches on the shore and add new stained glass windows and a steeple in 1893.

Although Methodism brought its congregations, north and south, together in 1939, the two congregations in Onancock "remained steadfastly separated." Again in 1968 when the Methodist and United Brethren Churches merged into one denomination, the United Methodist Church, the Methodists in Onancock remained loyal to their separate congregations although united under one national church. But by 1996, Cokesbury's few remaining members could no longer keep the church active, and services were discontinued. The beautiful Cokesbury building is now owned by Market Street United Methodist Church, whose congregants, the successors of the all-but-forgotten rival Bascom's Chapel, today ensure its preservation. And today, the Methodists of Onancock from northern, southern, and independent roots, worship together again and form the third largest congregation of all churches on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.

End Notes

The following are the full references for the citations given throughout this article about Bascom's Chapel. Information inadvertently not cited comes from one of these sources.

Cokesbury brochure, "Historic Cokesbury Church," undated.

The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2001 (Internet)

Elmore, Margaret Johnson, a, Family Group Notes

Evans , Jennings L.; Frank V. Walczyk, and Gail M. Walczyk, compilers, Graven Inscriptions of Tylerton (Union ME Church Yard), Peters Row Publishing.

Felter, Mary, private communication, Interview for The Capital of Lillian Powell Johnson Musterman, February 10, 1978.

FitzGerald, Nehemiah, Letter to Cousin Jenny White, February 12, 1862.

FitzGerald, Nehemiah, Letter to Margaret FitzGerald, October 20, 1872.

FitzGerald, Thomas, Letter to his mother Margaret Hopkins FitzGerald, August 27, 1882.

Lyerly, Cynthia Lynn, Methodism and the Southern Mind, 1770-1810, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Mariner, Kirk, Revival's Children: A Religious History of Virginia's Eastern Shore, Salisbury, MD: Peninsula Press, 1979.

Marsh, Franklin Marsh (1841- 1922), Memoirs, transcribed by Gail Walczyk.

Mears, James, E., Eastern Shore in the War of Secession and Reconstruction, 1957.

Nock, Anne B., a, Child of the Bay, Norfolk, VA: Hampton Roads Publishing Co. Inc., 1992.

Slocomb, Frank A., Letter to Margaret Hopkins Fitzgerald. December 5, 1882. Note: Mr. Slocomb was a master craftsman who moved to Onancock from Pocomoke City (Child of the Bay, p. 122).

Walczyk, Gail, "Tangier Island, Virginia," http://easternshoreheritage.com.

          Walczyk, Gail. "The Hopkins Brothers Store," http://easternshoreheritage.com

Used by permission.