Strengthened by the Storm: The Early Mormons of Harkers Island, NC, by Joel G. Hancock.
The Gathering Storm
… but when the storm cometh they shall be gathered together in their place, that the storm cannot penetrate to them …(Alma 26:6)
A TRADITION OF BEING PERSECUTED
In Wallace R. Draughon’s study of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in North Carolina, he concluded that, “… in no other section of North Carolina were the Saints and missionaries so bitterly persecuted as they were at Harkers Island.”1 What at first had been the friendliest of welcomes eventually turned into profound resentment, hatred, and even violent persecution. By the autumn of 1906, Latter-day Saint missionaries had been forcibly driven from Harkers Island and the Saints were obliged to meet in private and in secret.
From the earliest days of their Church, Latter-day Saints had been accustomed to strident and violent opposition. In fact, the first twenty years of the history of the Church was an unbroken chain of forced evacuations from New York, Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois. The early prejudice was principally in response to Joseph Smith’s claim of having received Heavenly visions and messengers. He went on to assert that he had been instructed by them to reestablish the “one and only true Church of Jesus Christ on the Earth.” Such a contention was tantamount to proclaiming that all other Churches were corrupted, and was viewed as a direct challenge by most other Christian denominations.
The perceived challenge was to be expected. But the rancor and violence of the response to the challenge was almost without precedent in American religious history. With the eventual migration of the Latter-day Saints to the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, the antagonism appeared to subside. It soon flared again with increased fervor, however, in reaction to publicity concerning the practice of plural marriage.
Plural marriage, called polygamy, had been adopted by the Mormons as early as 1843, and only a very few of the members were called upon, or even allowed to practice it. Yet most Americans did not learn of the doctrine until after the westward migration. The general public was almost universal in its scorn and ridicule, and their indignation was directed at the entire membership of the Church. The Congress of the United States eventually passed laws outlawing such marriages. The practice was officially abandoned by the Church in 1890, but even after churchsanctioned plural marriage had ceased to exist, to most non-members it remained as the most recognized facet of the Church.
Almost everywhere that Latter-day Saint missionaries ventured, they were met by some who presumed that their only purpose was to convince local women to follow them to Utah. An example was the reception that awaited Mormon Elders as they arrived in Pamlico County, North Carolina, just north of Carteret County, in the fall of 1897. The people were told by their ministers that the missionaries “… were coming to gather up all the women and take them west where they could be servants to men who had many wives and could worship a King named Joseph Smith.”2
The poor and uneducated people of the rural areas were not the only ones susceptible to such distortions and exaggerations. Draughon cited a revealing story of a telegram sent from an Elder to the Mayor of Chattanooga, Tennessee. In the telegram he asked the mayor, “Have the Mormons at any time shipped a carload of women from Chattanooga to Utah?” The mayor responded, “No, not yet!”3
Especially in the South, where prejudice and intolerance were so widespread, the Elders were constantly on the defensive. Polygamy was not the only reason behind such resentment. The missionaries’ proselyting efforts were considered especially troubling by some members of other faiths. Latter-day Saints view their religion as the true Gospel of Jesus Christ, restored to the earth in its “fullness.” Missionary endeavors, therefore, are seen as the logical extension of the scriptural challenge, “Go ye into all the world …” But spreading their message was taken by some others as an attempt to cause discontent among a contented flock, and to steal away its sheep.
Much of the harassment of the missionaries and members also came from public officials seeking to augment their popularity by being at the forefront of resistance to the Mormon “infidels.” It was not uncommon for Elders to be badgered, evicted, or even imprisoned, with the consent and support of public and elected officials. Still, in response to these offenses by peace officers and magistrates, there was some hope for recourse. Church members could seek redress for their grievances through legal channels and in the courts.
But almost without exception, the most outspoken leaders of the opposition to the Latter-day Saints in the South were the ministers of other denominations. They, perhaps more than anyone else, felt directly threatened by the missionaries’ proselyting efforts. The more successful the Elders were in finding new members, the more fear and resentment they created among the resident clergymen. The Preachers often sought to label the Elders as scoundrels and bigamists, as well as heretics, and warned their congregations not to listen to what they tried to teach.
Some ministers went so far as to advocate mob action to prevent Mormons and their sympathizers from holding meetings. To make matters worse, in the face of these outrages there was no avenue of ready redress available. While clergymen were the instigators, they also were discreet enough to remain aloof from any overtly illegal acts. The final perpetrators of the mob violence generally remained nameless and hidden. The only recourse for victims was patiently to endure their trials in hope that time and increased sensitivity would bring a degree of tolerance, if not acceptance, to the hearts of their adversaries.
As early as February of 1898, during Elder John Telford’s and William Hansen’s first visit to Harkers Island, they had been confronted by a minister of the Northern Methodist Church. The Reverend Edward Moody had been sent to order the missionaries out of the local church they were using for their services. At that time the local residents, led by Ephriam Willis, had come to their defense and rebuffed the minister’s efforts. Still earlier, they had been warned not to come to Marshallberg by Reverend Graham of the same denomination. He openly promised to, “…welcome [them] with a load of shot from his gun.”
In 1900, and again in 1901, Elder James Godfrey had detailed encounters with several local Northern Methodist ministers, but had reported no unhappy confrontations.4 His only suggestion of any difficulties was a report that the trustees of the school had denied the Saints the opportunity to use the building for their services. Then, upon saying his final goodbye on May 1, 1901, one of the members wanted him to perform a wedding ceremony. He had declined that offer, he noted, because he “thought it would cause too much talk.”5
Later, in 1902, Elder William Adams had suggested a growing problem as he described the Reverend Graham as “the Methodist war horse” and subsequently detailed an encounter with the Reverend White. Still, neither the local members nor the visiting missionaries had anticipated the vehemence of the reaction that eventually developed.
Though Harkers Island had undergone sweeping changes in the preceding years, the entire community had been united in bearing the ordeals associated with these changes. Together they had either packed up all they owned and migrated from the Banks, or else been among those who welcomed the newcomers to the Island. Those who joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were not unlike their brothers, sisters, and cousins who soon became their persecutors. They had grown up together, played together, worked together, and even worshiped together. Together they had struggled to build new lives amid the ravages left by the great storm. It must have seemed then, as it does now, almost inconceivable that the acceptance of new religious doctrines by some of them could provoke such a serious breach in the community’s order.
Yet, by 1903, it was clear that there were many at Harkers Island who were offended by the rapid and continuous growth of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Some concluded that the Mormons were no longer deserving of the same tolerance enjoyed by other denominations. These elements would go on to begin a movement that attempted to evict The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from the Island or, at least, to prevent its followers from practicing their faith. Few public officials would endeavor to quell the movement as it became apparent. And, as might have been expected, ministers of another faith were at the very center of stirring up among their followers an intense hatred and animosity against everybody and everything that was “Mormon.”
THE BAPTISMS CONTINUE
After the departure of William Adams and Orson Hacking in late May of 1902, there was not another Latter-day Saint baptism at Harkers Island for more than a year. Whether this was the result of no further missionary stopovers at the Island in the interim is not known. However, it seems improbable that the Elders would have neglected for so long an area that had been so fruitful.
On Saturday, June 13, 1903, Elders Wiley Dalton of Circleville, Utah, and William Hobbs of Preston, Idaho, arrived at Harkers Island for a two week stay. Elder Dalton had been in the mission field since March of the previous year, while Elder Hobbs was in the final few months of a two year calling that had begun in September of 1901. The new visitors were met at Beaufort by Oscar Brooks and ferried across to the Island. They held a meeting at his home after being greeted by a large gathering that “were all much delighted to see us.”6
Before leaving on Sunday, July 1, they visited at the home of almost every member and friend of the Church at the Island. They held well-attended meetings almost every night and privately instructed local Church leaders in their various ecclesiastical responsibilities. Before leaving, they baptized and confirmed Abbagail Nelson Parkinson and Lillie Nelson Willis as members of the Church. They also blessed one of the infant children of Augustus and Lillie Nelson.
Abbagail Parkinson and Lillie Willis were cousins as both were from the extended Nelson family. Abbie was seventy years old and was the widow of an English immigrant, Samuel Parkinson. Her daughter Sarah was the wife of Reuben Wade. Lillie was twenty-six years old and was the daughter of Mary Styron Nelson and the sister of Hattie Nelson, both of whom had earlier joined the Church. She was married to Willie Willis and her home would continue to be one of the most frequent stopping places for the Elders for many years to come.
Nearly four months later, October 24, 1903, two new missionaries arrived at Harkers Island to continue Latter-day Saint proselyting activity. Elder Henry W. Sanderson of Riverton, Utah, was soon to be ready to return home having almost completed his missionary service. Elder Lewis W. Johnson had just recently arrived from his home in Huntington, Utah. They were assigned to organize a “Mutual Improvement Association” at the Island. The M. I. A., as it was called, was the social and educational auxiliary of the Church. It catered particularly to the needs of younger members through weekly meetings that included classes, sports, and entertainment. On Sunday, October 25, 1903, Armecia Nelson was named to serve as M. I. A. President, and Letha Brooks and Bertha Willis were called to be her Counselors. In addition, Sabra Nelson was chosen to be Secretary and Chorister for the group, while Lillie Willis acted as Treasurer.7
Two more members were added to the rolls of Church during the fall of 1903. Cicero Willis and Olive Wilson were baptized on Sunday, November 29, by Elder Johnson. Cicero was the husband of Mary Willis’ daughter, Angelina. Like others in that family, he and his wife had been frequent hosts for the Latter-day Saint missionaries since their first arrival at Diamond City. And still further like his wife’s family, he was to be at the center of the storm of conflict that eventually engulfed the entire Latter-day Saint community at Harkers Island.
Olive Wilson was twenty-five years old and was the first member to join the Church from a mainland community in Carteret County. She was from Straits, but had befriended the missionaries while visiting her relatives at the Island.
BUILDING A MEETINGHOUSE
After leaving Harkers Island, the Elders reported to the Conference headquarters that they had helped to begin construction of a meeting-house.8 With twenty-nine baptized members, and many more sympathizers who had not yet officially joined their ranks, meetings had grown entirely too large to be held in members’ homes. The homes were small by almost any comparison and since the Academy Field chapel was now off limits, there were no public places in which they could gather. Even the more localized meetings held at either end of the Island left many in attendance sitting on porches or listening through the windows.
Elders Godfrey, Adams, Taylor, and Hobbs earlier had made frequent notes in their journals of the size of the congregations that were in attendance at Latter-day Saint services. For example, for their Sunday evening meeting of June 14, 1903, William Hobbs had recorded that the crowd was so large that “although we had a good sized house, many more were outside who could not get in.” On Wednesday of that week they held a meeting in Willie Willis’ back yard with those who spoke standing on the porch, while the congregation gathered on the lawn. He also noted two cake raffles held by the members to raise money for their planned meetinghouse.9
Before construction could begin, the Saints had raised several hundred dollars to pay for the necessary materials. That money eventually was secured through numerous fund raisers and through the generous voluntary donations of the members. This in itself was no small feat, as they all were subsistence fisherman for whom any money beyond what was required to clothe and feed their families was scarce.
Lumber available on the Island was unsuitable for their needs. In mid-December of 1903, the Elders and several members sailed to New Bern where they purchased both lumber and shingles for the new building. They were able to bring the shingles back in their sharpie, but it was arranged to have the lumber transported by rail to Beaufort where it could be floated across to the Island.10
The idea of the Latter-day Saints having their own building on Harkers Island further excited the growing opposition. Having a meetinghouse would give an air of permanency to what their adversaries had hoped would be a fleeting phenomenon. Benjamin E. Rich, who was Mission President at the time, was later to observe that the beginning of work on the Church building ignited the first really open opposition to “… the work of the Lord on Harkers Island.”11
Elder Henry Sanderson received his honorable release in November of 1903. Before leaving, he reported to Mission headquarters of attempts made by the Church’s adversaries to prevent construction of the meeting-house.
When the Church’s opponents learned that efforts were underway to bring in lumber for the planned building, they sent a delegation to Beaufort to meet with the Carteret County Sheriff, Mr. Sterling Hancock. There they demanded that “… he keep the Mormons from taking lumber across the Sound to build a Church with.” The Sheriff responded by advising the group “… that they had better attend to their own business and let other people’s business alone.”12
As might have been expected, the opposition did not stop their efforts simply because they were rebuffed by the Sheriff. They returned to the Island and attempted to prevent the members from unloading the lumber that had been floated across. In reporting what followed the Elders noted that, “… [they] even tried to prevail upon the women to join them in preventing the Elders [from] landing the lumber. One man threatened to split Elder Johnson’s head open with an oar if he landed it. The Elders succeeded without being harmed, and work on the Church began immediately.”13
Though the Saints had been successful in their efforts at securing lumber for the church building, the difficulties they had confronted were a harbinger of more serious challenges yet to come. For the next year and a half, work continued on the new meetinghouse. Elder Johnson remained at the Island for much of that time. He was an accomplished carpenter and took the lead in doing most of the woodwork on the building. The young missionary 14 took great pride in his work, especially in the hand-carved benches and the pulpit that adorned the completed building. Elder Johnson was assisted in his efforts by the local members and by the several companions who joined him during his stays.
“When it was good weather,” Elder Johnson recorded, “we worked all the hands we could get … but progress was slow on account of tools.” They secured windows, doors, and a facade for the ceiling from a merchant in Morehead City.15 Finally, on January 16, 1904, though it was still far from complete, the Saints held the first worship service in their own chapel.16 No longer would they be obliged to hold their meetings out of doors or in the cramped quarters of members’ homes. In the succeeding weeks and months, it was the setting of services, socials, bake sales, and work meetings.
Lillian Lewis Davis, who was born in 1910, vividly recalled how her mother, Bertha Willis Lewis, described the sentiments of the members when finally they were able to meet in a building of their own. Her brief description of that feeling is simple but very poignant.
The members were proud of their chapel, and kept it neat and clean. They painted it shining white, and along its walkway they planted flowers. With loving care and devotion they had erected their chapel and in it they found great happiness.17
Elder Edwin Spencer of Randolph, Utah, was Lewis Johnson’s senior companion and presided at that first meeting in the new chapel. Elder Johnson observed that “there was a large crowd present and gave good attention to all the discourses delivered …” Even 18 as the work on the new chapel was progressing, new members continued to swell the ranks of the Church. On February 23, 1904, Margaret Meekins Willis, Bertha Willis’ mother, was baptized by Elder Johnson. On Sunday, February 28, 1904, Thomas R. Styron joined the Church. He too was baptized by Elder Johnson and confirmed by Elder Spencer.
Tom Styron was the nephew of John Hamilton, Armecia Brooks, and Betty Nelson, and the uncle of Reuben Wade’s wife Sarah. His sister, Mary, had joined the Church almost four years earlier. He, himself, had been mentioned prominently in Elder James Godfrey’s account of his stays at Harkers Island in 1900 and again in 1901.19 Thomas proved to be a devoted Church member in the years that followed his baptism. He worked untiringly beside the Elders and his fellow members in constructing the chapel and his help often was cited in the Elders’ reports to their leaders. It was noted in those reports that he and Elder James H. Jenkins of Oakley, Idaho, did almost all of the painting of the building.20
Two days later, on March 1, 1904, Angelina Willis was baptized by Elder Spencer and confirmed by Elder Johnson. Angelina was the twenty year old daughter of Mary Willis and wife of Cicero Willis. That same day, Denard Guthrie and John Tyler Johnson were baptized by Elder Earl Greenwood of American Fork, Utah. Elder Greenwood was President of the Conference and already had visited at the Island several times.
Denard Guthrie was from Diamond City but soon would move to Marshallberg. His brother, Eugene, had married Ruth Willis, the youngest of Mary Willis’ daughters. Denard, Eugene, and another brother, Lambert, would prove to be valuable friends of later missionaries who visited at Marshallberg.
John Johnson was the son of a Union soldier from New Jersey who had remained at Diamond City after serving in the area during the Civil War and marrying a local girl. John had married Annie Laurie Brooks and together they had welcomed the missionaries into their home from the time of their first meeting with them in 1898. His wife and oldest son already had joined the Church. On the day following his baptism, John Johnson’s wife gave birth to a son. In honor of Elder Greenwood, the child was named Earl Greenwood Johnson. That same child grew up to become Branch President and a member of the first Bishopric called to serve the Harkers Island Ward.
THE NEW CHAPEL
In late February missionaries from all over eastern North Carolina traveled to Harkers Island to attend a Conference that was to convene in early March. As the Elders arrived, they were delighted to find the new chapel ready for their use. The contingent of sixteen Mormon missionaries was led by Mission President, Benjamin Erastus Rich, of Salt Lake City, Utah. President Rich had presided over the Southern States Mission since June of 1898 and would continue in that capacity for another two years. He had earned a reputation as “an ardent worker” and as a “fearless expounder of the Gospel of Christ.” He was happy to accept a challenge to debate on principles of doctrine and “always left a strong impression upon his hearers.”21 His visit among the Saints of Harkers Island early in the spring of 1904 was to leave a lasting impact with him and with his hosts.
On Sunday, March 6, 1904, a Conference of the Latter-day Saint missionaries convened in the newly completed chapel at Harkers Island. President Rich called the new meetinghouse “… one of the prettiest and neatest churches owned by the Latter-day Saints in North Carolina.”22 It had but one large room but even that must have seemed immense to the members and missionaries.
President Rich presided at the Conference and was a featured speaker, along with Elder Asael W. Kartchner of Provo, Utah, and Elder Edwin Spencer. The first session of the Conference was held at 10:00 that morning followed by a later session at 1:00 in the afternoon. Following the meetings, the Elders all were escorted “to the beach to gather shells,”23 and later were assigned to their new fields of labor. Elders Lewis Johnson and Earl Greenwood were reassigned to “… travel among the Saints of Harkers Island and locality.” Elder Spencer and Elder Wiley Dalton, both of whom had earlier served at the Island, were released to return home. They were joined by Elders Joseph D. Lester of Murray, Utah, and Othello Roundy of Upper Kanab, Utah.
President Rich reported to mission headquarters that the meetings were held in a “… neat little meetinghouse, recently erected by the Saints on the Island, assisted by friends and the Elders. There is a fruitful field on the Island and many have accepted the Gospel. The Elders were kindly treated.”24
The members at Harkers Island continued to make improvements to their new chapel even after beginning to hold services there. Decorations and trimming were added and every effort was made to make the building as attractive as possible. The visiting missionaries continued to report on the progress of the work at the chapel as well as on their proselyting efforts.25
Elder Lewis Johnson was called to serve as President of the North Carolina Conference in September of 1904.26 The following spring he returned to the Island and there held another gathering for the missionaries of the Conference. His report on the meetings of April 15 and 16, 1905, included the remark that, “… improvements have been made in the little church erected by the Elders and Saints. The ceiling has been finished and it has received a nice coat of paint, which makes it second to none in the Conference.”27
President Johnson returned once more to Harkers Island in July of that year. On Saturday, July 15, he baptized Rachel Nelson Lawrence. Rachel was the youngest daughter of Betty Nelson, one of the early stalwarts among the Latter-day Saints at Harkers Island. Betty had passed away a month earlier, June 13, 1905, at the age of fifty-nine.
Elder Johnson had been at Pender County when he learned of her passing and had returned to the Island belatedly to pay his respects to the family.
Betty Nelson’s was the first Latter-day Saint funeral service held at the Island.28 She had been an uncompromising defender of her religion and willingly had shared all she had with the visiting missionaries. Her home was recognized as the gathering place at the “eastard” for the members and many meetings had been held under her roof and in her yard. The baptism of her youngest daughter, Rachel, a few weeks after her death, was evidence of Betty Nelson’s continuing influence upon her family and in her church.
Rachel Lawrence was confirmed a member the day following her baptism by Elder Virnie D. Thorne of Linden, Utah. He and his companion, Elder James R. Burbidge of Kamas, Utah, had been serving on the Island since April. They reported that during President Johnson’s week-long stay at the Island meetings were held “almost every night … the little church being filled each time, while on Sunday there was not room for all to attend.”29
At about the same time as the Latter-day Saint building was being completed, another and perhaps even more significant event occurred at Harkers Island. Sometime in 1904, the Northern Methodist Church assigned a new minister to pastor their congregation on the Island. Thomas Morgan was a short, heavy-set individual with a loud voice that carried far into the distance. When delivering his sermons he often rolled his voice into a vibrato that became his trademark.30 He came with the announced purpose of “ridding the Island of the Mormons.” He had arrived from Beaufort, and indeed may well have been the party most responsible for a drastic turnaround that occurred in how the Elders had been received in the county seat.31
Events elsewhere also had served to further inflame public feelings against the Mormons. In 1903, Reed Smoot, and Apostle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was elected to represent Utah in the United States Senate. His election was challenged by the “Ministerial Alliance,” an organization of Protestant ministers in Salt Lake City. They maintained that because Senator Smoot was a Mormon, he also must have been a believer in polygamy. For that reason, they contended, he was unfit to serve as a Senator. The same group had been successful three years earlier in denying Brigham H. Roberts a seat in the United States House of Representatives using a similar argument. Hearings convened in Washington D. C. in January of 1904, and lasted until June of 1906. The hearings were covered widely and sensationally throughout the entire nation. The News and Observer of Raleigh, N. C., the state’s largest newspaper, featured the story as a national “scandal” with front-page headlines throughout the
early months of 1904. It was not until February of 1907 that the Senate finally voted to allow Senator Smoot to assume his seat.32
One by-product of the attention that focused on the “Smoot Hearings,” as they were called, was a marked increase in overt hostility toward the Elders and their converts. So it was that at Harkers Island, Reverend Morgan found a faction already poised to respond to a call for concerted action against The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They were annoyed by the continued presence and proselyting of the missionaries; although by that time new Mormon converts came almost exclusively from among the families of those who already were members. But the missionaries were “outsiders” nonetheless, whose very presence was resented as a source of contention. There also may have been some subtle resentment against the Church because so many of the Saints, especially at the westard, were newcomers from the Banks.
Morgan’s predecessors — Moody, Graham, and White, had made no secret of their prejudice against the Latter-day Saints. A story printed in March of 1904 by the News and Observer gave an indication of the manner in which the Saints still were viewed by many in the state; and especially by the Presiding Elder of the eastern district of the Northern Methodist Church. It was titled “Mormonism at Home,” and detailed an attempt by the Reverend William Graham to harass and belittle the Mormons at Harkers Island. Elder Lewis Johnson included the newspaper story in his journal. It read;
The people of North Carolina have followed the Smoot investigation in the Senate with deep interest, because in a small way they have been troubled with the pestilence at home.
For years, … calling themselves Mormon Evangelists directly from Utah, … preaching sanctification and practicing adultery, the curse of Mormonism has blighted a small portion of Eastern North Carolina. Here, and in Utah, the profession of Mormonism … is a cloak to vice and immorality, and an attempt to evade the law on the hypocritical pretense of religious belief. Here is the latest from the Mormon propaganda in North Carolina, as published in the Morehead Coaster.
“Dr. W. D. Graham, District Superintendent of the Methodist Episcopal Church for Eastern Carolina, spent Sunday at Harkers Island. He learned that some Mormons were sowing tares over there among his wheat. The Mormons were to have had a big time there Sunday, but were foiled by the Doctor getting together his flock. Dr. Graham says … there has been too much toleration with this cattle. The thing they need is a suit of stripes and a turn in the penitentiary. People should shun them as they would the presence of a leper and look upon them with more horror than an emissary spreading cholera or yellow fever. These dread diseases could only destroy the body. Mormonism destroys alike the body and the soul!”33
Elder Johnson had been serving at Harkers Island at that time as well as on several other occasions. He described encounters with opponents of the Church both before and after the date in question. Yet, he is conspicuously silent in reference to any such incidents in early March of 1904. Thus it appears that the story is more revealing of an attitude toward the Saints than it is descriptive of any specific event. Regardless of what the Reverend Dr. Graham might have been referring to as he “foiled” the “big time” of the Mormons, he was not so successful as he had pretended. The work of the Saints and the Elders at the Island continued unabated.
By 1904, the ministers had helped to arouse several zealots among their congregation. Direct action against the Saints had been threatened as early as 1903, as the Saints had begun preparing to build their chapel, but that had failed to prevent construction from proceeding as planned. The Reverend Thomas Morgan gave his open support to acting on such threats. Some of the deeds he encouraged of his followers may have been perpetrated surreptitiously. But there could have been no doubts about what were his, or their, intentions. Many of his sermons were long-winded tirades against the Mormon missionaries and their converts at Harkers Island. He boasted, often in the presence of the Saints, of how he would help the people of the Island “… take any step to rid themselves of the Mormon religion.” His threats and challenges 34 were frequently cited by the Elders in their journals and in their letters to the Mission President.35
The Reverend may have had more subtle reasons for being particularly anxious to forestall any further Latter-day Saint missionary activity. At about the same time as his arrival to shepherd the Northern Methodist congregation, the Southern Methodist Church had begun to have regular meetings on Harkers Island.36 It will be recalled that prior to this time there had been no fully organized body of that group at the Island. Many of its members had been transplanted from the congregation at Shackleford Banks. The Banks Church had disbanded in 1903 due to the great migration that followed the storm of 1899.
For well over a quarter of a century, the Northern Methodists had been the only mission and congregation at Harkers Island. Because of their remoteness and the relatively small number of worshipers, the Island group had received little attention from their Church’s administration. As the congregation became better organized with the influx of new members and with the passing of time, it also became evident that some of the flock was being lost to other persuasions. What once had been the exclusive domain of Reverend Morgan and his predecessors now had to be shared with another “main-line” Protestant denomination.
The theological differences between the two Methodists groupings appeared to be of no great consequence. Within another generation, the two denominations that had split over slavery prior to the Civil War would again be reunited. But, for the moment, Reverend Morgan’s parishioners now could choose between attending his church or joining the growing body of Southern Methodists. Faced with this competition, the new Pastor may have assumed that there no longer was room for yet a third denomination, most especially not an upstart sect that espoused no need for “professional” preachers. His recourse was to identify a common enemy that might serve to unite the two congregations; a tactic familiar to demagogues of any generation.
It was an era of great religious excitement at Harkers Island. In times of excitement and upheaval, people do things that in more tranquil times might be unimaginable. The Reverend Thomas Morgan played upon that agitation to sow a wind of resentment against the Elders and their followers. The harvest of his labors was a whirlwind of violence and persecution; a raging tempest that engulfed the small band of Latter-day Saints and overturned the rule of law and order on their peaceful Island home.
The agitation created by Reverend Morgan’s frequent and malicious attacks caused the attendance at meetings of the Latter-day Saints to increase dramatically. Missionaries serving at the Island during that period reported
“…from two to three hundred people being present at each gathering.” They added that the slanderous remarks of the minister regarding the beliefs and practices of the Church had caused many people to “want to know for themselves what the ‘Mormons’ really did believe and teach.”37
After one such meeting that was heavily attended by non-members, an Elder reported that, “… a gentleman came up and said he had heard all kinds of stories about the Mormons, but that I was the first Mormon Elder he had ever heard preach. He gave me a hearty handshake and said that he had never heard the true Gospel preached before!”38
As a result of such encounters, the Elders were besieged with invitations to explain the Church to new listeners. The subject of Mormonism seemed to be at the forefront of everyone’s attention. On every porch and at every shop and store, wherever people gathered, someone was bound to bring up the subject of Latter-day Saint theology or of the Preacher’s charges against it. This turn of events served to heighten Reverend Morgan’s resolve to see that the Elders were removed from the Island.39
The minister’s vilification of the Mormons ultimately had its intended effect. An early reported attempt by Morgan’s followers to harass the Saints occurred Saturday, July 23, 1904. The occasion was a gathering at the church to celebrate the arrival of Mormon pioneers into Salt Lake Valley in 1847. Elder Lewis Johnson recorded that for the meeting the building was jammed to overflowing. But, as the meeting progressed,
… some of our Methodist friends wanted to create a disturbance and began to stomp upon the floor. They were successful in their work. The people got frightened and began to get out [of the building]. They did not care much how they went out, whether through the door or through the windows, they were going out at both places. After a few minutes of excitement we got the people to sit down again and we finished our program.40
By December of 1905, emotions among some of Morgan’s followers had been stirred to a fevered pitch. The local members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had invited six Elders from the Conference to come to the Island and spend Christmas as their guests. Even before they reached the Island, the Elders were made aware that all was not well. As they boarded the mailboat in Beaufort harbor to begin the last leg of their journey, they were approached by an unspecified public official of the town of Beaufort. He stepped up to Alma Andrus, one of the missionaries, and asked, “Are you fellows Mormons?”
The unsuspecting visitor responded that they were indeed Mormons. The official first told the Elders that they were on the wrong boat. But when they refused to be misled by his suggestion, he finally went to the Captain of the boat and demanded, “I want you to throw these Mormons overboard, and not allow them to go to Harkers Island.”
To the Captain’s credit, he simply ignored the directive and safely ferried his passengers, including the Elders, to Harkers Island.
Arriving at the Island, they found that Reverend Morgan had boasted during their recent absence that “… [the local members] would see no more Mormon Elders, as they would be allowed to come no farther than Beaufort.”
He also had been …
… maligning the Mormon people and misrepresenting the principles of the Gospel they teach. So successful was he among our enemies that violence was aroused. Immediately after they held a [M. I. A.] meeting, some one fired through the window of the meetinghouse, breaking a number of lights. The shot lodged in the walls of the room, which was empty at the time.41
The acts of harassment soon began to increase. Small bands of hooligans disrupted meetings held at the Church. In addition, they vandalized homes where missionaries were staying by throwing “… torrents of rocks and bricks” at the houses and then stealing away under the cover of darkness.42 The practice of throwing rocks and shells at the places where Latter-day Saints were meeting eventually developed into a recreational sport among some of the youth of the Island. The venture even earned its own name, and “chunking” Mormon houses and meetings remained a polished art for more than a generation.
The increased militancy on the part of their opponents did little to dampen the spirits of the Latter-day Saints. On Saturday, December 23, 1905, they held a special service at the church to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of the Prophet Joseph Smith. That day had been long anticipated by Mormons everywhere.
It was to observed by celebrations and the dedication of a special granite monument in Sharon, Vermont, the Prophet’s birthplace. The meeting at Harkers Island was well attended and no trouble was evidenced. But a Christmas service the next evening was interrupted as “… some of the enemies of Mormonism tried to disturb the meeting by ‘chunking’ the meetinghouse with bricks and clubs. But we continued our meeting just the same and had a very nice time.”43
Lillian Davis’ account of their reaction to the storm of persecution that arose in late 1905 was that “… the small band of members grew closer together.”44 Still they were uncomfortable at having become social outcasts in the eyes of many in their community. Families had begun to split along religious lines and some members were ostracized by their relatives for joining, affiliating, or even sympathizing with the Latter-day Saints. For example, Bertha Willis and her mother, Margaret, both were “disowned” by Margaret’s family following their baptisms into the Church.45
Particularly irritating to Reverend Morgan and his followers were the announced plan of the Latter-day Saints to begin conducting a school in the new meetinghouse.46 At that time no school was operating on the Island. Jenny Bell’s academy was no longer in operation and was yet to be replaced by any publicly supported institution.47 The local members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had written to President Rich to ask that a missionary be assigned to their area who could teach a school. The President eventually consented and it was agreed that the church building could be used as a classroom. But the school was viewed by their opponents as just another means for the Mormons to find and attract new converts.
In December of 1906, Elder William Petty of Emery, Utah, had arrived at the Island to begin the operation of the school. He had been a missionary for over eighteen months and was considered to have one of the sharpest minds in the entire Conference. He had served for a short while as a Counselor in the Conference Presidency and later would be called to serve as President. Elder Petty’s companion was Elder John T. Parker of Hibbard, Idaho, who had arrived in the mission field only a week earlier.
For several weeks they worked with the members at building desks, a blackboard, and other necessary furniture. Several of the members, as well as Willie Willis, worked along side the Elders at installing outside window shutters to the building. They probably hoped to save some of the window panes from the incessant debris that seemed to be hurled in that direction. They scheduled the school to open for instruction on Monday, January 22.48
There was to be no charge for tuition at the school and it was further acknowledged that there was to be “… no religious instruction of any kind.” Rather, President Rich had directed that the school be “… conducted as the most exacting would require.” Classes were to be open to any child on the Island who desired an education. Elder Petty was overwhelmed to have nearly forty youngsters enroll and make ready to attend classes. Conspicuous among the number were many children who were not Latter-day Saints.49
The prospect of having so many non-member children at a school being conducted by a Mormon Elder was more than Reverend Morgan and his followers could tolerate. Earlier, while holding a revival at Marshallberg, he had spoken concerning the proposed school at Harkers Island. In the course of his sermon he was very straightforward in his advice for the people of Marshallberg. “You people should stand shoulder to shoulder with the men of the Island and drive those Mormon devils off,” the Reverend asserted. “Why, they are over there buying clothes for the poor children, and they are now going to set up a school to be taught free. This is the way they have of winning people into their religion.”
The opening of a school with such a large enrollment was proof positive for Reverend Morgan that his worst fears were being realized. With his support, and perhaps at his initiation, the opponents of the Latter-day Saints gathered to adopt a plan of action. They decided that the time had come to take direct steps to rid the Island of the “Mormon menace.” On the evening of Tuesday, January 16, 1906, they set out to accomplish through treachery and violence what they had been unable to achieve with argument and persuasion.