Crabbin' preacher marks 50 years at Crisfield Wesleyan Church

By Brice Stump
Posted 2/23/23

When the Rev. Robert “Bob” Daniels stands behind the pulpit this Sunday, he will be making history.

For almost every Sunday for 50 years, Daniels has been preaching at Crisfield …

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Crabbin' preacher marks 50 years at Crisfield Wesleyan Church


When the Rev. Robert “Bob” Daniels stands behind the pulpit this Sunday, Feb. 26, he will be making history.

For almost every Sunday for 50 years, Daniels has been preaching at Crisfield Wesleyan Church in Lawsonia. More remarkably, this is the same church where he preached his first sermon half a century ago and is still here.

“I doubt there’s hardly anyone today who can say they’ve been in the same church where they started 50 years ago and still preachin’ there,” he said.

In 1973, then 27-years-old, the Wenona crabber and oysterman stood in the almost empty sanctuary to deliver his first sermon. It was an experience he never forgot.

“When I came here we had maybe 10 coming on Sundays, but five of them left and I just had five old women comin’ on Sundays. Early on we had a church meeting and I told those women, ‘If you want you don’t have to pay me. I’ll come here and be your pastor.’ I was workin’ on the water and could get by. They met and decided to pay me and they gave me $60 a week.

“Church was run down to nothin’, I mean to nothin’. We really didn’t even have a decent parsonage. I preached the first two years was goin’ back and forth to Wenona,” he said.

“It was an old run down parsonage. It had two bedrooms, a little kitchen, dining room and living room. My brother-in-law Albert Hoffman worked with me for two years remodeling that whole house. We eventually had four boys sharing one bedroom, but we made it as a close family. Many a day the house was full of boys and girls from the community visiting our sons.

“Those ladies were faithful to their church,” he recalled, “and things started getting better.”

One of those ladies, Rosey Anderson, was blind and Daniels would drive to her home and bring her to church before each Sunday’s service.

“I’ve seen a lot of great things happen in this church, good times, and one day the Spirit of the Lord hit Miss Rosey. I saw her run around that church and never hit the pews or anything and she couldn’t see.

“People get happy and praise the Lord and I’m right in the middle of them. My momma was a ‘shouter,’ jumping’ up and down, runnin’ around the church praisin’ the Lord. It’s real.

This used to be a Pilgrim Holiness Church and people called us ‘holy rollers.’ People need to come and praise the Lord in their way,” Daniels said.

“The Lord has blessed this church. the congregation grew — we had 51 come yesterday — we built a new church hall and put in stained glass windows. About 14 years ago the church had this new parsonage built for us,” he said.

“Yes the lord has blessed the ministry of this church.”

Taking on another church

“In 50 years I don’t think we’ve missed five Sundays. When COVID came we had services in the parking lot,” said Daniels’ wife Janice.

Daniels worked to grow his congregation. As a full-time waterman and pastor, young Daniels got even more on his plate.

“About five years after we started here in 1973, I got the Saxis Wesleyan Holiness Church,” he said. “That was 45 years ago.”

Even for a young man, the weekly regime was daunting.

It takes an hour by road from Crisfield to Saxis, Va., and only 15 minutes by boat to cover the five miles distance.

“In the summer months when it was pretty we’d go by boat, but my wife didn’t like to go by boat,” he said, laughing.

Dedication comes with a price

“We have Sunday school here at 10, worship service at 11 and then leave for Saxis at 1:30 p.m., and get back home and have services here in Crisfield that night. Then once a week I went back down for a prayer meeting service in Saxis. Been doin’ that for 45 years,” Daniels said.

The round-trip to Saxis is about 86 miles, and Daniels made two trips a week racking up 172 miles. In a year that’s roughly 9,000 miles. Over the last 45 years he’s made about 4,680 round trips to Saxis. In 45 years he’s driven almost 405,000 miles. In four and a half decades he’s been behind the wheel for 9,360 or so hours. Dedication indeed.

When he started in 1973, gas was selling at 39 cents a gallon. It may have cost him $1.60 each round trip. With an average price today for gas is about $3.30, the tab is about $13.20 for the same trip, if he gets around 20 miles per gallon.

He has a tender place in his heart for the Saxis congregation.

Daniels vividly recalls his first encounter with that Accomack County church to his congregation here.

“When I went down there to pastor at the Saxis Holiness Church, brother, you could walk in the door of that church and feel God. You’d be preaching down there and they’d be shoutin’ runnin’ the aisles, they’d be cryin’ they’d run around the pulpit when you’d be preachin’ and give a holler and scare me to death,” he told the congregation as they laughed.

“That’s the way we use to worship the Lord.” “I’m still there because they had ‘the Glory,’ and an influence upon my life, I felt the power and the presence of God and saw it in their lives. I don’t want Christianity to be just a religion, I want it to be a relationship with my Lord and Savior.”

Time for the faithful, and Gordon’s

He was just 27 when he took his place behind the pulpit in Crisfield and 32 when he picked up the Saxis church.

Soon there was more to Sundays than the two sermons in two states. There were nursing home visits, requests for visitations at hospitals and homes, and counseling. And then there’s Gordon’s.

For decades it has been Crisfield’s social hot spot, where the working class gets an immersion in politics, gossip, news, history, a bit of religion, fish, crab and oyster stories and hear-say. It’s now classic casual decorum gives a whole new meaning to “laid back” Eastern Shoremen.

Daniels relishes the atmosphere and ambiance, a scene ripe with opportunities and challenges. It is a preacher’s dream, a one-stop, made to order watering hole for a man of the cloth, sporting dirty white boots, rugged apron and a well-worn cap.

Nobody, but nobody, knows these folks inside and out as well as this stocky (“husky” he describes himself) man with his endearing trademark broad smile and a true Deal Islander draw.

He fits in perfectly as “one of them,” because he is one of them.

Daniels is “The Rev,” a modern-day nickname of respect bestowed upon him by friends. He doesn’t wear a clerical collar because just about everyone in town knows him.

“Ever since I coached Little League, people have called me ‘The Rev.’ for almost 45 years.” Even on the Great Hope golf course, where he played for several years, he was simply “The Rev.’ “Never was good at it. Could shoot in the 90s,” he admitted.

A truly faithful servant

It’s not his style to “corner” anyone, and that’s what draws people to him, especially at Gordon’s. Like prudent shoppers, they want to see the real man, not the religious box he came in.

“I go every morning except Sunday. Try to get there by four to get my coffee and sit for 10 minutes or so before I go to my crab house and fish my soft crabs out of the floats.

“Got a big round table there that seats 12. Get my coffee and sit around the table and listen. Never know what you’re going to hear.”

Quick to laugh, faster to smile, the round-faced preacher finds a welcoming place at the table.

“When I’m in Gordon’s I always say somethin’ about the Lord. They need it,” he said, laughing. “If they have a need, want a prayer, I’ll stop everything I’m doin’ and pray for them right in Gordon’s. They’ll take their hats off and I’ll pray.”

There is no passing the hat. “But sometimes they’ll give us somethin’ for the church,” he said.

“I’m not just the pastor of this church, I’m the pastor of Crisfield. Non-church people have a need for a preacher for funerals, weddings or visiting the sick or shut-ins. They’ll call me. I’m a pastor to the young people, the down-and-outers and pastor to people in nursing homes.”

Gordon’s is his church-away-from-church, where people who don’t go to church have the church come to them, on their terms.  His compassion for believers and non-believers endears him to both.

“A pastor has got to love his people. That’s it. I got the Lord in my heart and I love this community and its people. I want to help people serve the Lord, that’s why I’m in the ministry,” he explained.

The waterman preacher

He’s a waterman most of the week, but come Sunday, he is transformed by a dark suit, crisp white shirt and tie. He does indeed “clean up good.”

Members of the congregation claimed their seats by the time he entered the rear of the sanctuary and sat by the pulpit.

His wife plays hymns on the piano as soloist Wanda Tyler readies to sing when the service starts. Daniels looks pensive as he listens to the hymns.

Janice’s caressing fingertips seem to slide across, and float over the black and white keys, a talent gained by 60s years of playing. The music is so soothing, so gentle.

Though clouds and rain subdue morning’s light, there’s enough coming through stained glass windows to color the pews and people with pastel shades of red, blue and green, bringing a visual warmth to the country church sanctuary. Colored light and shadows fill the single room church, sweeping over soft red pew cushions and faces.

The church can hold up to 125 worshippers, Janice said, but now a “good crowd” numbers about 50. Often there’s about 25 in attendance. It’s a cozy, family-like group.

Ron Purnell, church board chairman and lay speaker assists with services and tells the congregation that farmer Kitty Payne, 96, of the Salisbury area, wouldn’t be joining them this morning as she had fallen the day before.

“She works her farm, still drives and has been coming here for the past 10 years,” Daniels said.

Old time religion

It doesn’t seem possible that come Sunday morning the way “church life” was 50, 60 or even 70 years ago is very much alive here.

They like the preacher’s “old-time” style and the calming decor. It’s very much like the churches of their youth.

Tyler leads the congregation in a familiar song as the service begins. “They sing the old hymns,” Daniels said.

What they lack in vocal quality is forgiven in passion and purpose. Daniels likes to select hymns that reflect elements of his sermon.

It is certainly old-time religion.

So how did he get here?

Reflecting on his approaching anniversary, Daniels told the congregation how he came to be in their church.

His late mother, Ladelle, encouraged him to be a preacher.

“I told my mother, ‘If that’s the Lord’s will for my life, I want everything the Lord has for me.’ At 27, I never thought what God had in store for me. When he called me to preach in Crisfield, I said ‘Crisfield? I’m not goin’ to Crisfield! They’re my enemies.’ I was a young man, you meet a Crisfielder, next thing you know you’d liable be fightin’. We didn’t like Crisfielders and we (islanders) really didn’t like Princess Anners.”

The congregation broke into laughter, with shouts of “That’s the truth, that’s the truth,’ and “amen.”

With shifting gears of spiritual power building in his voice, Daniels gives them a message with fervor so strong it can almost levitate worshippers from the pews. He paused, for just seconds, to catch his breath. While it looks easy, he does rely on 50 years of experience and planning before he preaches.

He is a descendant of the revered Rev. Joshua Thomas of “Parsons of the Islands” fame of the early 1800s. Daniels knows how to deliver a message charged with passion. The devil may dismiss him in a second but in that one second Satan would confront an exploding nuclear tempest for Christian glory.

“You don’t want just a preacher to get up here and read you a lecture, you want a preacher that you can feel the Glory of the Lord in his life. You want a preacher that can preach that Glory and it will become real in your life,” he said, his voice so powerful and strong it could hammer nails in Satan’s coffin.

Another wave of amens. Then suddenly, the service is over.

Daniels and his wife are in the tiny vestibule shaking hands and hugging those leaving, sharing laughter and smiles. “Now those are the words I wanted to hear,’ one lady tells both.

A good pastor’s wife, and retirement

Now there’s a build-up to “the big day” this Sunday. At the 11 a.m. service Stewart Emely will be the guest speaker and Wanda Tyler will be joined by Chrisi Tyler and Alex Forbush to provide special music.

If you miss the service, a reception will be held noon to 2 p.m. in the church hall.

“Sometime in the future we’ll retire from this church. I’m 77 and like to keep preachin’ here ’til I’m 80, then we’ll go from there. If the people still want me and I’m ‘til healthy, we’ll see how it goes,” he said,

This milestone in his life and that of the church was made possible by the unwavering support of his wife. From family to church she has walked beside him as an equal partner.

“You talk about a good pastor’s wife, I couldn’t have made it without her,” he said. “I could never, never, ever find a better wife. She’s held every office in this church; janitor, treasurer, my piano player and so on. When we go to Saxis, she’s my chauffeur. The Lord picked her out for me, I believe that with all my heart. She never complains. Couldn’t have made it without her,” he said with emotional conviction.

“One time, when there were some problems in the church when we first started, I told her I was goin’ back to Wenona to be a waterman. She told me ‘The Lord never called you to be a waterman. He called you to be a pastor’. And that settled that.”

Daniels also enjoys another unique record. In the 50 years he has served the Crisfield Wesleyan Church, he has had perfect support almost the entire time.

“If there’s any problems in our church, the board can call the district superintendent and he comes down. They have a review meeting every four years about keeping me as pastor and in 50 years only had one vote against me. I think the lady who voted against me didn’t believe we were conservative enough for her. We were at one church one time when the preacher wouldn’t let me get behind the pulpit because Janice’s hair was too short.”

The family and the next 50 years

He said he hopes his church can keep on going strong into the next half century. The future for churches, especially in rural areas, he admitted, looks bleak.

“In this day and time, churches are doing good to get 50 people to come on Sundays,” he said.

“The church is changing so much so fast I can hardly keep up with it. We need the Lord in our lives now more than ever. The best time for me as a preacher is when you see people kneel at the altar and give their lives to the Lord and get saved. I want to see that continue.”

Ron Purnell, chairman of the church board, lay speaker and worship leader, has been working with Daniels for the past 20 years.

“He always has had a lot of passion and his sermons have depth to them. He tells you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. He believes we should hear the truth,” Purnell said.

He will continue preaching as long as he can, and working on the water, a dual career that seems now inseparable.

“Workin’ on the water is a good getaway, and I love doin’ it. Love being aboard that boat crabbin’, tending about 400 crab pots a day,” the pastor said.

He worked with his late father, Art, for 40 years on the City of Crisfield, “The hardest work I’ve ever done. We worked well together, but he did tell me one time ‘There can only be one captain aboard this boat and that’s me. And he meant that.’”

There are dozens of crab pots in front of the parsonage, and the preacher will be back on the water soon with his son Jonathan, working another crabbing season on the bay.

“I used to be the captain, now my son’s the captain and I’m the mate,” he said, smiling.

The whole Daniels family has always been involved in the church and working on the water.

“Our oldest son, Eddie, is in the ministry up in Gumboro, and Jonathan used to preach down in Wenona and Delmar. Jason has been working at ECI, near Westover, for about 25 years. Eddie retired from there a while back but oysters part time. Our son, Bobby was a full-time watermen but he passed away,” he said.

It has been a rigorous demanding 50 years but it has been his “calling,” he said. For decades he took care of the flock while working full time as a waterman and looking after his wife and five sons.

Leaving his Deal Island boyhood home, he said, was gradual, but Daniels and his wife eventually left Wenona behind. “When I was a boy growin’ up, all of Wenona was my family. But these are my people now, and this is home.

“We’ve had a good life, a wonderful life.”

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