The Founding of the Congregation
The origins of St. John’s Chapel are not very well documented, but local tradition and the original land Deed provide us with some important clues. That Deed reveals that the original name was the “Lower Tilghman Methodist Episcopal Church, South.” The word “lower” refers to its location down the island, as distinct from the older “upper” Methodist church in Tilghman Village. The term “south,” however, has a more significant meaning. John Wesley brought his brand of Protestantism to Georgia and it spread quickly, especially among working people, as an alternative to the more fatalistic beliefs of Calvinism. By 1800 Delmarva was part of this populist movement and Methodism still predominates in the region. Wesley was an abolitionist, however, and the church’s opposition to slavery proved increasingly difficult in the South where some Methodists owned slaves. Finally, in 1846, many congregations broke away from the pro-Union parent church and formed a new Conference, the Methodist Episcopal Church South. What happened here is not clear. We know that in 1891 a group split off from the Tilghman church, founded and built St. John’s Chapel, and affiliated themselves with the MEC South.
Local tradition has it that differing attitudes towards the South led to the conflict, though one may wonder how that subject could split a congregation 25 years after the Civil War. It may have been a dispute between families—the St. John’s founders were primarily from Fairbank and Bar Neck—and the affiliation with MEC South was simply a convenient alternative.
We may never know the full story. It is interesting to note that the Tilghman minister, Rev. J. Morris Lindale, founded a third Methodist church in Fairbank that very same year—1891.
The Building of the Church
On March 13, 1891, John Harrington sold an acre of his farm to the Trustees of Lower Tilghman Episcopal Church South for the sum of $100. He was one of ten original Trustees, who were: William H. Bradshaw, George A. Cummings, Lewis Cummings, George F. Duncan, Frederick Faulkner, Josiah Faulkner, John V. Harrington, John W. Mitchell, Edward R. Tyler, and Walter Weber. The parcel was adjacent to Fairbank School on the northeast corner of his field at the foot of Bar Neck Road. Many years earlier, the Harringtons had provided land there for residents to construct the island’s first schoolhouse. (It was called Tilghman School until 1887; when a second school was built up the island, it became Fairbank School.) Lumber for the new church was obtained in North Carolina and transported to Tilghman’s Island on a skipjack. While anchored in Black Walnut Cove, the boat overturned in a storm and all the lumber went adrift. (Some suspected foul play.) In any event, the congregation salvaged most of the wood and construction got underway. The church building was completed later in 1891, as shown on its cornerstone. The cost was $2000.
The Deed from Harrington to the Trustees did more than define the property lines. It also made clear that the new church was to operate under the rules of the Baltimore Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church South, and indicated the hope that the Conference would supply a minister. The Deed added, however, that if they did not supply one, then “a minister of any Christian denomination may be selected by a majority vote of the Trustees.” Actually, they succeeded in getting a minister within two years. In 1893, the Reverend Charles Kitchens Millican (1864-1934) arrived to serve St. John’s Chapel and Royal Oak. When he left two years later, he was presented with a splendid Tithing Quilt. Some 30 ministers followed, uniting the people of the southern villages in Christ, with one another, and to the Chapel.
The cemetery always has been of key importance to the Trustees. The Deed stipulated that “at least one-half of the parcel shall be used as a burying-ground for the dead” and that the Trustees and their successors should sell plots there at reasonable prices “to any person.”
To the original South cemetery, a North cemetery was established in the 1970s. In 2004, through the generosity of neighbors Ray & Peg Alcorn and Ed & Nannabeth Sanders, the land area of St. John’s Chapel was increased for the first time in 115 years, permitting the creation of a new “West” cemetery.
Over the years the Chapel and its grounds have been lovingly tended by its congregation whose generations lie at peace in the churchyard. By 1987, however, that congregation gradually dwindled to a point where it was no longer feasible to continue St. John’s as an active church. Accordingly, the Methodist Conference placed the Chapel in “limited-service” status. That arrangement limited the minister’s responsibilities to four worship services per year, but did not restrict the number of weddings, funerals, christenings, and personal celebrations.
The Chapel deteriorated for some years after regular services stopped. Then, in 1995, the minister reported an inquiry from a private party who wanted to purchase and move the Chapel. Unwilling to allow their beautiful Chapel to become another antique store, the Trustees promptly refused the offer. But this incident served as a clear warning that retaining the Chapel meant preserving it.
Trustees Donna Wilson and Bobbie Harrison promptly enlisted some interested residents and formed the Friends of St. John’s Chapel Committee. The sole purpose of the Committee was to provide for the restoration of St. John’s Chapel to as close to the original condition as possible and to make improvements deemed necessary. Fund-raising activities started immediately.
In 1998, work began in earnest to restore this historic landmark to its original beauty and character. Much has been accomplished:
• The damaged shingle roofing was removed and replaced with a metal roof replicating the original at a cost of $15,000.
• The interior ceiling and walls were repaired and painted.
• The woodwork in the entranceway was restored.
• Worn carpeting was replaced.
• A heating and air conditioning system was installed.
• A walkway with commemorative bricks was created
• Perimeter areas were cleared of brush and the ground leveled
• The historic stained glass windows were protective shields.
• Fallen and tilted grave stones were straightened and reseated.
• A comfort station was purchased and installed.
• Low spots in the cemeteries were filled and reseeded.
• Shrubbery was removed; a flower garden & trees planted.
• Fill and reseed low spots in north cemetery.
• Ownership of burial plots were documented where possible.
• Replace aged vinyl siding with long-lasting clapboards.
• Vestibule and bell tower renovated
The Chapel continued to function in limited capacity, hosting three traditional services: Homecoming, Christmas Eve Service, Easter Sunrise Service with an occasional wedding, funeral or baptism. The church became independent from the Baltimore Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church South and became incorporated as Friends of St. Johns Chapel, Inc. It became an Independent 501c3 on January 27, 2013. The Trustees agreed that the church should be used by the community. As it happened, a Tilghman native who along with her husband, both ordained ministers who had lived in the Pittsburgh area for 40 years, retired to Tilghman. Rev. Rob and Linda Haddaway King agreed to hold a non-denominational service at the Chapel the first Sunday of the month. In September 2019, the Trustees voted to hold services on the first and third Sundays of the month. The services are well attended. The pastors interact regularly with local pastors in the Bay Hundred Area and they are invited to speak. Offerings taken during the services serve to help with the maintenance of the church. Due to congregational demand, the Trustees agreed to open the church for services every Sunday starting June 2021.
Regular maintenance of the grounds and building is a perpetual need, of course, as well as making occasional repairs and replacements. The Trustees have faith that the Chapel’s many friends and admirers will look after this historic and beautiful church through the coming years.
If you would care to contribute some time, talent, or money, please contact the Friend’s of St. John’s Chapel, Inc.
PO Box 142. Tilghman MD 21671
Change of Status In 2013, the IRS granted 501(c)3 non-profit status to “Friends of St. John’s Chapel, Inc.” A request for independence was approved by the Methodist Conference and Tilghman United Methodist Church trustees on April 28, 2013.