Strengthened by the Storm: The Early Mormons of Harkers Island, NC, by Joel G. Hancock.
And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse. (Malachi 4:6)
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In 1960, Latter-day Saints at Harkers Island moved into a newly completed brick meetinghouse that replaced the wooden building erected in 1936. The new chapel had capacity to seat two hundred and fifty worshipers, a cultural hall that expanded that capacity to over one thousand for special occasions, several smaller meeting rooms, a kitchen, a baptismal font, and ten classrooms. Until recently is was the largest building on Harkers Island, with the possible exception of the elementary school.
One year later, the Harkers Island Branch became the Harkers Island Ward of the newly created North Carolina Stake. “Ward” is the name given to the largest local units of the Church. This designation was a significant milestone for the Saints at the Island. It was official recognition of the permanence and stability that their congregation had achieved.
Each ward is under the direction of a Bishop. He serves as the chief ecclesiastical official of the Church in his area. The line of succession of those who have held that position at Harkers Island is evidence of the continued influence of those very first converts. Willie Willis’ son was called to be the first Bishop. He was succeeded in 1963 by the grandson of Oscar and Armecia Brooks. The husband of the granddaughter of Captain William Anderson Scott served in that capacity for ten years after being called in 1969. He was followed by the husband of Bertha Willis’ granddaughter. Willie Willis’ great-grandson became Bishop in 1983, and was followed by Bertha Willis’ grandson in 1985, and by Elizabeth Nelson’s great-grandson in 1990.
In 1993 Willie Willis’s great grandson began a second tenure, and was followed in 1998 by the husband of year another of Bertha Willis’ granddaughters. As of this writing, the Bishop of the Harkers Island Ward is the grandson of “John Telford” Willis.
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The early Saints at Harkers Island need not be magnified in memory beyond what they were in life. All had their weaknesses and, to varying degrees, fell short of perfection. For the most part, they had little education and were of quite humble means. Perhaps some of them were so bold as to be offensive, while others were so naive as to be defenseless. But as a group, they proved equal to every challenge they confronted.
In retrospect, their most noble achievements transcends the distinction of having defied the angry mobs of 1906. Their greatest legacy is that they stayed firm in their faith through years of more subtle adversities and through extended isolation from their spiritual leaders. Even so, their sacrifices were small when compared to the richness of the tradition that is their bequest. In an eternal context, the losses they sustained have been returned to them many times over. Any one of them would have cherished the thought that almost a century later their example might have remained a firm foundation for the religious faith of their posterity.
Like any of the oaks under which they both lived and worshiped, they took added strength from things they had endured. Neither the blustering winds of persecution nor the cascading rains of long isolation could diminish their vigor. Their children and grandchildren, quite literally, have become flowering boughs and vines that extend out far from the trunk of a that flourishing tree. The branches are full, but they continue to draw their strength from older roots now hidden from view. For what once nourished only the roots now sustains every branch and stem.
Individually they may be as acorns or saplings, but together they have become a sturdy hardwood; an Island oak, still strengthened by the storm.