To perpetuate our religious and historical heritage, engaging all in education and spiritual growth in a welcoming faith community.
The MVCMA was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on December 14, 1978, and was declared a National Historic Landmark on April 5, 2005. The Tabernacle was declared a Save America’s Treasures project on July 28, 2000.
In 1835, Jeremiah Pease, along with six men from the Edgartown Methodist Church, secured a half acre of land for the purpose of holding a religious camp meeting on Martha’s Vineyard, following the religious camp meeting movement of the 19th century. This site became known as Wesleyan Grove. A shed was constructed out of driftwood for the preachers, with a pulpit built onto the front. Past the area of worship, a semi-circle of society tents was formed for housing attendees.
The first meeting was considered a success, and they continued to be held annually. The early camp meetings were serious business and children were not in attendance. Prayer meetings and preaching took place morning, noon and night. Growth was rapid during those early years. Wesleyan Grove became one of the largest and best-known camp meeting sites in the country, growing from nine tents in 1835, to 200 in 1855.
A Summer Community is Born
Between 1855 and 1865 the character of the camp meetings and surrounding areas began to shift. More family tents appeared and attendees began to extend their time on the Island. When the 26 acres the Association had been renting was purchased in 1864, they developed a radial-concentric pattern which was little used in America in that time. The family tents were typically placed in circular patterns around the society tent of their home church, spiraling out from the main worship tent, and reinforced the growing sense of community. By 1868 there were 570 tents in all, some for “greater domesticity” so children could attend prayer and church meetings, some for provisional vendors, boarding tents, barbers, and others.
Between 1859 and 1864, the “Martha’s Vineyard” cottages appeared. Remarkable for their unique architectural form and is considered an invention of the local carpenters. Most of the cottages built were small and imitated the form of the tents they replaced. Wells were dug, transportation services expanded… the Campground was taking on the characteristics of an organized and well-run summer community. Capping out at 500 cottages in 1880, today there are only 318 remaining. Some were moved to other Oak Bluffs locations, some joined together to form larger cottages, some fell into disrepair and were torn down, others were lost to fires.
In the year 1860 the name, Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association, was fixed in the articles of agreement and a formal association called the Board of Directors was formed. It consisted of 21 members to lead the way for this community. In 1868 the MVCMA was incorporated by the Senate and House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
A Beacon To All
By 1879 a more permanent structure was needed for worship to replace the mammoth tent that had been used in the MVCMA’s epicenter of the community [the road now known as Trinity Circle]. The intent was to build a wooden Tabernacle, but the expense was too great. A cottage owner named J. W. Hoyt offered to construct one of cast iron for the budgeted amount, which was started in late spring and opened for the first religious service in July of that year.
The great lighted cross was added to the top of Tabernacle in 1926. It towers above as a “Beacon to All” across Nantucket Sound. At the heart of the community, the Tabernacle has been a hub for religious and cultural activities on the Island for over a century. The Tabernacle is an example of extraordinary 19th century architectural design innovations and one of the few remaining wrought iron structures of its type created at that time.
The first Illumination Night, on Saturday, August 14th, 1869, was sponsored by the Oak Bluffs Land and Wharf Company. The Seaside
Gazette reported, “The illumination and fireworks at ‘Oak Bluffs’, on Saturday evening last, was a very fine affair. Chinese and Japanese lanterns were displayed in abundance, suspended from cottages and trees. There was a good variety in the pieces at the fireworks. The Foxboro Brass Band, brought here by the liberality of E.P. Carpenter, Esq., of Foxboro, discoursed fine music for the occasion. Several thousands of people of both sexes were out to see and hear.”
The initial festivity was called Governor’s Day in honor of Governor William Claflin who was on hand for the festivities. Over the ensuing years, the Seaside Gazette referred to the annual event as the “Illumination”, and the identification remains to this day. It is not known when the festivities moved exclusively to the camp meeting grounds, but it was well over 130 years ago.
Today, cottage owners continue to decorate with paper lanterns, interspersed with large paper and fabric umbrellas of similar style on one magical evening in August. The MVCMA puts on a special musical program with community prayer and singing; and after dusk, all of the lanterns are lit at once! It is a much anticipated event, attended by thousands each year.
Information obtained from writings of:
Sally Dagnall, A. K. Lobeck, Douglas Thompson & Ellen Weiss
Photos courtesy Douglas Thompson and Peter Jones