Joshua Thomas: The Parson of the Islands – How One Man Changed the Course of History

As you may know by now, I love history, particularly seeing God’s hand in history.  I am also a sucker for redemption stories.  So please bear with me while I share a great story that I came across recently.

In the Summer of 2016, I spent a couple of months on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in a little town called Girdletree.  My family and I were received warmly by the people and we were blessed mightily during our time there as I trust we were a blessing to others.

As is my practice when visiting a new place I seek to learn something of its history.  I thought James Michener’s Chesapeake, which I had read many years ago, before I knew the Lord, might be a good choice.  It didn’t take me long to realize that was a bad idea.  Michener’s anti-Christian bias is painfully obvious and taints most every stroke of his pen.  So I turned to the "Rivers of America" series.

The Rivers of America Series is a landmark series of books on American rivers, published generally between 1937 and 1974.  As the development of America generally followed the course of its rivers until the advent of the railroad, motor vehicles and airplanes, these books not only give you a good historical overview of a region, but also take you back in time to a period when the waterways were our primary means of travel.  Well, on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, water has always been king – at least until the last few decades.

Rivers of the Eastern Shore by Hulbert Footner and illustrated by Aaron Sopher, copyright 1944, was the relevant entry for this region.  It is a bit dated for those visiting the region today, as so much has changed since construction of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and later the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel system in the 1950s and 1960s, respectively.

Still, it was a good read and I was rewarded with a gem of a story that I would like to share with you, for it illustrates the difference that one person can make, no matter what their background may be, if that person chooses to believe God.  I quote verbatim, beginning on page 92 and continuing through page 96.

By far the greatest number of the stories of Crisfield have to do with the Reverend Joshua Thomas, the parson of the islands, a truly remarkable man, who converted all the people hereabouts a hundred years and more ago. The odd part of it is, they have stayed converted. Thomas, an humble fisherman, was born on Potato Neck (between the Big Annemessex and the Manokin) in 1776. Feeling stirrings of grace one day when he was out fishing alone, he stood up in his boat and said: "Joshua Thomas, I baptize thee in the name of Father, Son and Holy Ghost, Amen." Later he heard of the practices of the Baptists, and fearing that he might have omitted something necessary, the next time he went out in his boat he jumped overboard for immersion.

Joshua Thomas was a very real and human person.  Brother William Evans said that Brother Thomas as a lad surpassed all as a dancer for agility, gaiety and good humor.   Several of his sermons have been preserved, and it is from them that we learn most about his life. He moved his hearers to shouts of laughter and tears; he was much blamed by fellow preachers for drawing too intimately on his family experiences. Whatever they may have thought, his sermons even through the dry medium of print still have a wonderful eloquence.

His father died when he was a baby and his mother married for the second time a man called Pruitt. The family got along all right until the refugee boats came and burned their house; the stepfather took to drinking then, and treated them all with great cruelty. They were reduced to dreadful poverty. All they had to eat were oysters and crabs, and when the river froze they had nothing. "Our kind neighbors  pitied my poor mother and her ragged little boys," says Joshua, "and brought her meal to keep us from starving."

Whenever the stepfather earned a dollar, he would cross Pocomoke Sound to Accomac to buy brandy. There is a short cut for small boats down to the sound through the marshes. After one of these trips, he failed to return and presently his boat was found empty and drifting. Joshua, now a big boy, went in search of his body and, finding it washed ashore, "buried it in a long grove on the beach of Accomac." The brandy bottle was in the dead man's pocket.  Joshua presented it to the man on whose land he was, asking him to put it on the mantelpiece and tell the story to all who saw it. "In that way it may do some good."

Joshua describes his costume when he became a fisherman: "A little round hat, a light, striped jacket, pants rolled halfway to my knees, shoes generally carried under my arm.   . . . When I caught a fish," he continues, "I always pulled off my hat, kneeled down in the canoe and thanked the Lord for it and asked Him to give me another. I often had all the fish I wanted when others had none. I was ashamed to pull off my hat and kneel in the presence of others, therefore I chose to go away from all the fishermen." It will be seen that Joshua even as a youth was very religious, though he did not feel that he had been "saved”.

When he was twenty-three he prayed for a wife and was answered. He then built a little house on Tangier Island and was happy. "I watched the smoke curl up my clay chimney from the fire as I lay in my bed and it looked beautiful!"

I shall quote at length his own story of how he was converted, because it makes clear the processes of the movement which changed the whole character of the lower Eastern Shore. Joshua had heard there was to be a meeting in Williams' Woods near Roach Island in Annemessex, and he resolved to go. How could people pray without a book or preach without a written sermon before them? he asked himself. On the way, he had to pass Uncle Levi's house. Uncle Levi said:

"If you go there they will have you down to worship them. They are nothing but a parcel of Irishmen run away from their own country to escape hanging. They know no other way to get a living but by going about and raising the devil by their preaching and carrying-on, and then make people worship them and give them money."

Joshua protested that they would not get him down to worship them.

Let him continue the story:

It was on Friday when I reached the camp. Worship was going on in a solemn and impressive manner. I listened and watched very closely, determined none of them should put a spell on me and make me fall down. [He then goes on to describe the various sermons and exhortations that followed.] I really desired that if there was such a thing as conversion to have my heart converted. I was opposed to their way, that is at the mourners' bench or altar in public. I wanted the blessing in secret.

During Saturday some were converted, including one of my neighbors. I began to feel very uneasy and much concerned. I went into the woods alone and prayed, but felt no better. So I returned again to the camp still praying secretly to be converted.

I felt so bad Saturday night I concluded I would go and kneel down with them at mourners' bench and try it once, determined that I would not fall down nor cry out as the others did. When praying persons came to talk to me, I rudely elbowed them. I tried to pray secretly until I became discouraged and concluded there was no reality in being converted and so I arose and went away.

On Sunday a great meeting, and many professed to be born from above. They shouted all over the ground and lay as dead on the earth; when they recovered they began to praise God wonderfully.

I went a great way in the woods again. After struggling a long time in prayer and receiving no answer, I concluded I would try what virtue there was in falling. So I looked me out a smooth place that was free from rocks and sticks, and kept my eye a little over one shoulder to see how to fall and not hurt myself. I came down full length on the earth. I lay about ten minutes praying to God to convert me there, and receiving no answer, arose completely discouraged and very impatient besides.

A Mr. Wiltbank preached in the evening which was to be the last sermon. I did not like his looks very well at first, a rather hard-looking face and. given to speaking very loud and broad. He put it on the Methodists pretty hard. I was pleased with that.

As he became more and more animated I felt something rise up within me and say: "Behold the man, see how he is moved by the Holy Spirit!" I obtained faith. I gave up my whims and notions about getting converted in secret, and made up my mind to have it in the Methodist way if the Lord would forgive and convert me.

I felt something drawing me right to the feet of Jesus. Immediately on the invitation being given, I went to the altar and kneeled down and began to lift up my voice in earnest prayer that God would then convert my heart and set me at liberty.

Blessed be His Name! I did not have to wait long before I felt a gracious change run through my whole being! I did not say a word then to those about me but continued kneeling and wondering at the mercy and goodness of God.

My half brother came forward and kneeled close beside me bathed in tears. I reached out and took him by the hand to speak to him, but at that moment I was so filled with the Spirit of life and love I could not help shouting to the Glory of God with all my might!

That was the first time I ever cried out in praise or prayer in a congregation, but it was not the last. No, thank God! I have felt a heart to praise Him and have done it since that night more times than I can number.

They say when Joshua got home that night and met his wife, he began to leap and praise God and she was terrified lest he ruin their corn crop. But it was found that he had not trodden a single stalk, though he had been all over the patch.

Joshua then began to preach among the islanders and a religious awakening spread from Kedges Straits to Tangier Beach. He fasted because he said: "The Devil delights in full Christians." On Tangier, before Joshua preached, "the Devil and all his works had reigned with undisputed sway."

The greatest opportunity of Joshua's life arrived when the British fleet took Tangier Island during the War of 1812 and established their base upon it. Joshua converted the enemy! When they were about to set out to take Baltimore, the admiral commanded him to address the troops. Up to that moment they had been completely victorious, having beaten the Americans at the Battle of Bladensburg, and taken and burned Washington. Let Joshua tell what happened:

I addressed 12,000 British on the eve of their expedition to Baltimore. I was afraid when I faced them that their officers with their keen glittering swords would cut me in pieces for speaking the truth. But after singing and praying, all fears left me. I told them what kind of a sinner I was and how He had saved me from sin. I described some of the seasons of refreshing we had enjoyed in that spot from the presence of the Lord, and I thanked them and the Admiral for their kindness [in sparing the camp-meeting ground] but I could not bid them God speed in what I understood they were about to do. I told them of the great wickedness of war and that God had said: "Thou shalt not kill!" If you do, I said, He will judge you at the last day or before, and he will cause you to perish by the sword!

I told them that it was given me from the Almighty that they could not take Baltimore and would not succeed in their expedition.

We saw them coming back some days later, and I went down to meet the first that landed. "Have you taken Baltimore?" I asked. "No," one answered, "but hundreds of our men have fallen and our best General is killed. All the time we were fighting we thought of you and what you had told us. You seemed to be standing there before us, still warning us."

So perhaps Joshua Thomas did in his way help to save Baltimore! [By the way, the War of 1812 Battle of Baltimore that he is referring to is the Battle immortalized in our National Anthem.  That battle is a great story in and of itself, but alas I will leave it for another day!]

So widespread and so lasting was the influence of this man, so many stories are still told about him, that you would think, to hear the old people of the lower Eastern Shore talking, he had left them only yesterday.

I hope this story was a blessing to you as it was to me.  We need now, perhaps more than ever, for regular people like Joshua Thomas to stand up in the Lord and take their place in the body of Christ.  If you desire to be one of them do not hesitate to get in contact with me.

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