It was 175 years ago next month that six devout Edgartown Methodists decided to establish a summer religious community of their very own and selected the largest oak grove in New England, near Eastville, to be its site. Camp meetings that provided prayer, preaching, hymn-singing and repentance had come into vogue in America at the turn of the 19th century. In 1827, one had been established at West Chop in the community of Holmes Hole — today’s Vineyard Haven. It was inconceivable to the Edgartown Methodists that their Holmes Hole counterpart should have something they didn’t have.

So it was that the six, led by Jeremiah Pease, a lay preacher in the Edgartown congregation, set off by boat for Eastville, then within the limits of Edgartown, to found their own camp meeting. They elected to travel by boat with their gear — hymnals, Bibles and benches — because the eight-mile land journey from Edgartown in those days would have involved travel over hill and dale on a sandy road through scrub oak woods.

The oak grove Jeremiah Pease and his associates had selected was just above Squash Meadow Pond — today Sunset Lake and the Oak Bluffs harbor, which were then a single fresh water pond. Beside the grove was a sheep pasture. Altogether, the site seemed ideal for the gatherings planned. The sheep pasture was cleared of huckleberry, bayberry and blackberry vines and a driftwood shack called the Preacher’s Tent was built. In front of it was a raised platform for preaching. Inside the shack, straw was laid on the ground as a sleeping place for the clergy. In front of it was an enclosure to be used both by the choir and repentant sinners who, stirred by camp meeting rhetoric, elected to confess their sins and come forward. Around the shed and the preacher’s platform a circle of tents — often made of old sails, was pitched, according to Henry Beetle Hough’s Martha’s Vineyard Summer Resort 1835-1935, a 1936 book that recounts the founding of the Camp Meeting Association in detail.

Most campers came with their own food — corned beef, brown bread and sweet cake. The tents were large and occupied by members of church societies who came from off-Island. A curtain separated the sexes. As with the Preacher’s Tent, straw was the bedding provided.

On Aug. 24, 1835, the first meeting opened. There were morning, noon and night services as well as prayer meetings in the various church society tents. Friday was the great day of the gathering, according to old reports. Then, “Heavenly music saluted our ears . . . which, if it could not be called a serenade of angels, was certainly that of happy souls saved from sin.” Sunday morning was another special day, with a procession and benediction as worshippers prepared to depart and bade each other farewell.

At that first meeting, there were nine tents. During the week of services there were 65 converts and “five souls were reclaimed.” Exactly how many attended that year is uncertain, but at least a few hundred, and it was decided that the next year there would be an even bigger and better gathering. And there was. In 1836, religious society tents were filled with worshippers from New Bedford, Falmouth, Nantucket, South Yarmouth, Sandwich, Fall River and Bristol, R.I., among others.

By 1842, there were 40 tents and 2,500 worshippers who came to the Eastville gathering. By 1855 the number had grown to 200 tents. These were not only religious society tents, but now included those occupied by families. Soon family tents began to predominate, In order to have one, an owner was required to have a letter from the pastor of his home church, and that church was held responsible for the conduct of its owner and his family.

Once families began attending the Camp Meeting, they began to think they would like more substantial places to stay than canvas tents with straw floors. Soon some of the tents had wooden floors and wooden uprights. In 1869, today’s Camp Meeting Association Office Building was built. It housed a post office and storage facilities for tents and stray luggage, as well as the lanterns and oil necessary to light up night meetings. And soon the tents were replaced by more substantial wooden structures.

Until 1864, the association had simply been leasing the land it occupied for its summer gatherings. That year, it purchased the 26 acres it had previously been leasing. That opened the way for construction of more cottages. By 1880, there were 500 of them around Trinity Park, the center of the Camp Meeting Association activities. These were simple two-story yellow pine structures with wide, double front doors, rather like the tent openings of the past. They had porches and balconies decorated with “two different patterns of jigsaw scrollwork,” according to Ellen Weiss’s City in the Woods: The Life and Design of an American Camp Meeting on Martha’s Vineyard. The wooden gingerbread was cut with a band saw by local carpenters at a mill situated near today’s East Chop Beach Club.

By 1870, the Camp Meeting Association had built a canvas Tabernacle to shelter those attending the camp meetings, for the great grove of oaks that had once protected them from the sun and rain was almost all gone. The enormous structure was made of 4,000 yards of sailcloth and 4,000 people could sit beneath it. Ten years later, it was replaced by the present wrought iron Tabernacle. A large cross, illuminated at night, went on top in 1926 to make it “a beacon to all.” Trinity United Methodist Church was built in 1878. A mid 19th-century highlight for the Camp Meeting Association was the visit of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and his wife to a Camp Meeting service. Years later, the President’s pastor remarked that it was on the Vineyard that the general, long coping with a drinking problem, was so moved that he found God. An apocryphal story has it that Grant’s aides had to prevent his leaping up and either confessing his sins at the association service, or offering his services as a missionary. Which it was remains hazy in historical accounts.

And of course an annual highlight of the Camp Meeting grounds since 1869 has been the midsummer Illumination of Trinity Park with Japanese lanterns, along with the Wednesday night Community Sings in the Tabernacle.

In keeping with Camp Ground tradition, the celebration to mark this 175th anniversary will be low-key. On Sunday at 7 p.m., there will be a special program that includes a history of the association recounted by Marge Hopkins, association historian. It will be followed by a piano concert by Dr. Stefan Young, association pianist, and capped, at the end of the evening, with an ice cream social.