Methodism came to North America in the 1760s. The Methodist Episcopal Church was formed in the United States in 1784, which one writer referred to as the first Christian denomination to be established in the new nation. The Congregationalists, the church already established, was a “state church” of the colonies with attendance required, and taxes collected to support it. Of course, once the U.S. Constitutional principles were established, church and state began to separate.
In 1795, as the Methodists sought to expand, the movement came to Provincetown, but the Town Meeting voted against establishing a church building. When the Methodists tried to build anyway, a mob burned the structure. Several families left for Maine to gain their religious freedom. Eventually the Provincetown church was built, kept under close guard, and, over time, the Methodists were accepted.
In Wellfleet, the Methodist Episcopal Society was organized in 1802; in 1816, the first Methodist Church was erected.
In 1799, on the western edge of the United State — then Kentucky — spontaneous all-night camp meetings began to occur. The idea took hold, and moved east. In 1802 Haddam, Connecticut, hosted its first camp meeting. These activities helped increase the church’s membership. All of this activity was a part of the “Second Great Awakening”, a religious revival in America that started in the early 19th Century.
Cape Cod’s first camp meeting took place in South Wellfleet in 1819. One of the town’s historians, Everett Nye, indicates in his 1920 book that it took place “near where now stands the house of J. K. Lewis.” Others note (and it may be the same place) that it was on the Isaac Rich property, in Paine Hollow. Charles F. Cole’s family-published notes indicate that the meetings were held 1819-1821 “in a grove near the early home of Isaac Rich”. Rich was a wealthy Wellfleet citizen, a Boston fish dealer, a devout Methodist, and funder of Boston University, which was originally a school to train Methodist ministers. Other histories of Wellfleet note that the meetings were on Bound Brook Island 1823-1825, and then removed to Truro. These meeting helped increase the church’s membership.
In South Wellfleet, the increasing population and the growing number of Methodists led to building a second new church in 1835, just two years after the Second Congregational Church was built. But it did not last long. One writer indicates they ceased worshipping there by 1851. The Family History Library has microfilmed membership files available (I have not reviewed them) and states that this group did transfer to the Eastham Church in 1859. Perhaps the group kept worshipping in South Wellfleet into the 1850s. Nye notes that by 1869 the structure was re-located to the Village, and became the home of Dr. George T. Wyer. Checking the 1870 Federal census, Wyer was listed as the dentist. By the 1880 census, he was listed as a trial justice, an interesting career path.
Today, the South Wellfeet Fire Substation is located close to the site of the church, and there is a marker in the woods noting its one-time presence.
Methodist camp meetings, hosted in Eastham by 1828 or 1829 in their Millenium Grove, became fairly large multi-day events, and surely must have attracted South Wellfleet residents. The Grove was located near the Bay so that participants could arrive by boat, since the roads on the Cape were difficult to travel on.
The popularity of summer revivals continued throughout the 19th Century. Oak Bluffs became the revival meeting spot on Martha’s Vineyard. By 1862, the Yarmouth Camp Ground was established, and soon was reachable by train. Eastham’s meetings ceased. In Yarmouth, cottages were built to accommodate the participants. Another Wellfleet note: Captain Lorenzo Dow Baker purchased and moved six of the distinctively shaped Yarmouth structures to Wellfleet, locating them on the hill near the Town Pier where they became known as “the Lemon Pie cottages.”
Lovell, Irving W. The Story of the Yarmouth Camp Ground and the Methodist Meetings on Cape Cod 1985
Nye, Everett History of Wellfleet from Early days to Present Time 1920 (online at Google Books)
“The Notes of Charles F. Cole” manuscript from the Wellfleet Public Library.