Strengthened by the Storm: The Early Mormons of Harkers Island, NC, by Joel G. Hancock.
The Eye of the Tempest
So persecute them with thy tempest, and make them afraid with thy storm. (Psalms 83:16)
JANUARY 16, 1906
The events of Tuesday, January 16, 1906, are an indelible part of the consciousness of almost every Latter-day Saint who since has lived at Harkers Island. An account of what happened that evening has been imparted to each succeeding generation with reverent devotion. To a considerable extent, the incidents of that day were the crucible that assured the survival of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at Harkers Island. From that point forward it became almost obligatory that individuals and families choose whether they were, or were not, “Mormon.” The affirmative commitment with which some of them responded to that challenge was to be sealed by their sacrifice and entrusted to their posterity.
The events of that evening have been described in vivid detail by Lillian Davis. Her account is based upon oral traditions rather than written documents. It is, nonetheless, a precise rendering of that episode as it has been handed down among those whose parents and grandparents witnessed its unfolding. She wrote,
On this night, most of the members had been invited to a “candy pulling” party at the west end of the Island. The family giving the party was apparently friendly with the Saints. However, the Saints were soon to have this opinion changed. As the party progressed, certain men were seen going outside to look into the sky. When asked the reason, they replied that they were “watching for the moon to rise.” They said the party would end when “the moon came up.”
One of the Saints, sensing something wrong, went outside to see just what was happening. She saw the sky glowing red over the center of the Island. She ran back into the house screaming, “They are burning our Church!”
The frantic Saints hurried as fast as they could to the place where moments before their Chapel had stood. Even the sacred Bible was now only hot, smoldering ashes. Heartbroken and in despair, they returned to their homes. Most of them stayed awake all night with the uncertain feeling of what might happen next.1
The missionaries were staying that night at the home of Willie Willis. Ironically, that day was exactly two years from the date of the Latter-day Saints’ first meeting in their newly completed chapel. Elder Petty was awakened shortly before midnight by Sabra Nelson and told about the burning.2 Almost immediately he rushed to make ready an account that would explain to his superiors and other interested parties exactly what had happened. It was direct and to the point. “The church erected by the Saints and Elders on Harkers Island was burned to the ground tonight by the enemies of the Church,” he wrote. For further explanation he added, This building had been erected by the handful of members of the Church on the Island, and by the Elders laboring there at the time, at a great sacrifice, impoverishing themselves so that they might have a place in which to worship. The Island lies in the Atlantic Ocean several miles from the coast line … The Saints are all poor, depending entirely upon what they make at fishing for their living, and it is a great loss to them, for they had the finest church on the Island. They had recently pleaded with President Rich to send them an Elder who could teach a school for them, so that their children might be educated … The school will now be opened in one of the homes of the Saints, until it is decided what better to do …3
THE MORNING AFTER
Daybreak of Wednesday January 17, 1906, found the Latter-day Saints on Harkers Island gathering to assess their losses. They sought to see if anything could be salvaged and to determine what their course of action should be for the immediate future. Before leaving the site of their burned chapel, a group of over two hundred had assembled and held an impromptu meeting. During the service, “… the Saints were advised by the Elders to censure no one, but rather to return good for evil.” Elder 4 Petty also noted that because of the fire “… many who had never been friends to the Mormons declared themselves our friends.”5
The story of what they uncovered before leaving the scene where their chapel had stood is a vivid part of the local lore recounting the events of that era. According to Lillian Davis’ account, nothing salvageable was found. They did, however, unearth a badly charred piece of one page from the large Bible that had adorned the pulpit.
Inspecting it they could find only five words still to be legible; “and it shall be known.” (1 Samuel 6:3)6 Two weeks later when Elders James Wallis and William Fitt, representatives of the Mission President, visited the site, they were told of how the Saints had gathered at the spot on the morning after the fire. They then were shown the remnant of the Biblical passage found there. Elder Wallis commented that, “as a prophecy burned in fire, these words will ever ring in the minds of every person who was witness to the incident.”
Many of the older members that live at Harkers Island still attest to having been told in their youth of the “piece of the Bible” found in the remains of the first church.7 They also bear witness to the fact that in the years following 1906, most of those who were responsible for the sad events of that period admitted their culpability. Many went so far as to seek out those whom they had offended to ask their forgiveness.
Among the things agreed upon that Wednesday was that there should be no concessions to their antagonists. It was decided that Church services and the school classes were to continue. Obviously and of necessity, the meetings of that Sunday and all later meetings were to be in the homes of the members. “Their courage returned and their faith grew stronger. As the oak roots grow deeper after the storm, so did their testimonies grow.”8
HOW TO RESPOND?
On Saturday, January 20, Elders Petty and Parker traveled to Marshallberg to hold a meeting at the home of David Lewis. The Lewis home was filled to overflowing as everyone there was curious as to how the Elders might respond to what had happened at the Island. A similar service the next morning at the school building at Marshallberg packed the meeting room to capacity. Over fifty of the Saints from Harkers Island came over for the meeting. Elder Petty was overwhelmed at the outpouring of the spirit that he witnessed that day. “Never in my life,” he wrote, “have I enjoyed the spirit of God and the blessings of the Gospel as on that occasion.” All returned to the Island that evening and held another well attended and inspiring meeting at the home of Oscar Brooks.9
The Reverend Morgan and his accomplices were not satisfied merely to have burned down the meetinghouse of the Latter-day Saints. They sent letters to several members promising to disrupt any Mormon meetings that might be convened on the Island and threatened to burn the home of any Mormon or sympathizer who allowed his premises to be used for such a purpose. They concluded by warning that “they did not intend that Mormons should stay on the Island and that burning our meetinghouse would not be all.”10
The continued presence of the Latter-day Saint missionaries was particularly offensive to the opponents of the Church. On Monday, February 5, a delegation from Harkers Island traveled to Beaufort. There they lodged a complaint with a deputy-sheriff charging that the Mormon missionaries at Harkers Island were polygamists. They also contended that the school being conducted by the Elders “was teaching the children polygamy and Joseph Smith.” They concluded by declaring that they wanted the Elders “driven off the Island immediately.”11
The opponents of the Church already had conveyed a specific threat directly to the Elders demanding that they leave Harkers Island at once. This warning was reported in a belligerent letter dated January 27, 1906, and received at New Bern, North Carolina. Offices of the Southern States Mission of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were at Chattanooga, Tennessee. Consequently, the Chattanooga Evening Times reprinted the letter in its edition of Sunday, February 2. The letter as reported stated:
RALEIGH, N. C., Jan. 27.-A special to the Evening Times from Newberne (New Bern), N. C. Citizens of Harkers Island and Core Sound, became indignant at efforts of Mormon missionaries to establish a church in that vicinity and set fire to the building where they had services and destroyed it. The missionaries themselves were told to spare no time in getting away; that if they should loiter overlong on the Island a coat of tar and feathers would be presented.12
The repeated threats of further violence failed to prevent the Saints from holding their meetings. The Elders continued to meet with them and with potential new members. By early February, three more baptisms were scheduled with Sunday, February 4, as the appointed day. Each candidate for baptism received an unsigned note “… threatening them that their homes would be burned if they were baptized.” On the morning of February 4, the Elders were delivered the following letter from their opponents.
Elder Mormons, Sir:
With friendship now to you and your partner, you are quietly warned against staying on Harkers Island further. It’s not right to take advantage of you without informing you in some way before-hand. Now, if you stand your ground and meet up with any danger physically, or vital death, it’s your own lookout. It can’t be borne much longer. Our time has arrived and over with, and the next thing will be your time. You may think it is a scare crow, but it is just as true coming as the sun shines. Don’t be surprised if you are pulled out of bed by the heels, because these things come like a thief in the night. Remember, this is sure coming soon. Your presence is no longer required at Harkers Island. Ninety-nine percent of us backs this up.
In spite of these threats the baptism proceeded just as planned. On that Sunday, February, 4, 1906, Charles David Hamilton, James Richard Willis, and Rachel Cooper Willis were baptized by Elder William Petty. Charles Hamilton was the nephew of Armecia Brooks and was Wellington Hamilton’s younger brother. Fifty-six-year-old Rachel Willis and her son, James Richard Willis, also were closely related to the Hamilton family.
Early in 1905, Garrison Willis had moved his family to Little River, South Carolina where Lucy, his wife, had been born and where many of her family still lived. Garrison had gladly consented to allow the Saints the use of his vacant home for whatever purposes they deemed necessary. Thus it was decided to relocate the school to Garrison’s home after the church building was burned. Classes began there on Monday, January 29, 1906, one week behind schedule. The extra time had been needed to build benches and other necessary furniture.
The work of the Church at first also continued unabated for the Saints on the Island, but always, “… at the risk of being molested by their enemies. The missionaries were becoming more unpopular, and persecution seemed to increase with each day.”14 Members had to be assigned to stand watch while meetings were being conducted, and many members began to guard their homes at night with guns. Especially when the missionaries were spending the evening, armed guards were required.
The members of the Church were most closely congregated at the west end of the Island and thus the Elders generally stayed there for protection. The homes of Oscar Brooks, Joseph Willis, and Joe Wallace Willis were their most frequent sanctuaries at the westard. When circumstances required that they stay at the eastard, they generally spent the night with Willie Willis.15
Firm in their faith, but uncertain as to their future, the Latter-day Saint members and missionaries at Harkers Island awaited word from Mission Headquarters. They soon learned that their spiritual leaders were poised and ready to come to their assistance.
MISSION PRESIDENT BENJAMIN RICH
Mission President Benjamin Rich was in Mobile, Alabama, when he received word of the burning of the Latter-day Saint chapel at Harkers Island. Elder Petty had written to detail the situation and to ask for his help.16 Both President Rich and William B. Fitt, the President of the North Carolina Conference, were greatly concerned at what had happened and immediately began to send letters to the local civil authorities in Carteret County in an effort to secure protection for the members. Their indignation was expressed in a lead editorial that appeared on the front page of the February 1, 1906, edition of the Elders’ Journal, the official publication of the Southern States Mission.
The editorial detailed the events that had transpired at the Island since mid-December of the previous year. It repeated the letter that had been carried in the Chattanooga Evening Times containing the threat against the missionaries. It then continued:
We submit to the authorities of the State of North Carolina that the individual who sent the above newspaper report of the burning of the church is either one of this mob of “citizens (?)” or a responsible party to the transaction. Certain it is that he is in a position to give information to the officers of the law that will lead to the arrest of the guilty parties, and we submit to the proper officials that here is a good starting point for them to work on. If there is any regard for the constitutional rights of the citizens of North Carolina in the free and untrammeled worship of God according to the dictates of their own conscience, then let the men chosen to uphold, honor, and sustain the law protect the people in those rights. Let it not be said that these officials sat supinely by and winked at such offenses.
It is bad enough when mobs attempt the destruction of public buildings in order to satiate their wrath upon some poor wretch incarcerated therein; but it is infinitely worse when “citizens (?)” march with the firebrand and burn down the house of worship which has been erected in the name of God by a handful of poor, unoffending religious worshipers. If the powers of a grand jury and the armed forces of the state can be invoked to mete out justice to the mob who attempts the destruction of a county jail, surely the strong arm of the law should be stretched out when the temple of God, be it ever so humble, is burned to ashes by “citizens (?).”
If a Presbyterian Church should be set on fire by a mob of Mormons, we presume there would be a demand go up all over the country for summary annihilation of that people by the armed forces of both state and nation.
We submit in all earnestness that the proper officials of North Carolina take steps looking to the arrest and punishment of the inhuman wretches who destroyed the Harkers Island church, and at the same time we submit to the Senate committee who are investigating the Smoot question, and who are so fearful as to whether Mormons are law abiding or not, that here is food for thought in connection with their labors.17
Soon after first hearing about the state of affairs, President Rich had assigned his assistant, Elder James H. Wallis, to travel to Harkers Island. Elder Wallis stopped at Wilmington, N. C., the headquarters of the North Carolina Conference, and joined up with President Fitt. They arrived at Beaufort shortly after dark on Monday, February 5. Early the next morning they sought out Sheriff Sterling Hancock and Carteret County’s prosecuting attorney, Mr. Charles Abernethy. They hoped to see what, if any, steps were being taken toward apprehending and bringing to justice those who had been responsible for the burning of the church.
Elder Wallis reported that Sheriff Hancock was found to be a “fair, square man, but powerless to do anything.” He added that the Sheriff’s hands seemed to have been “tied” by others. The Sheriff explained that,
… he had no authority to employ any help in the detection of the guilty persons … He was outspoken as to the dastardly act committed, and said the Mormon Elders had as much right to preach the religion they believed in as anybody, and if they ever wanted entertainment in his neighborhood they would be made welcome at his home. He was especially commendatory in alluding to the efforts made by the Mormon Elders to establish a free school on the Island, to which the children of all classes, both Mormon and non-Mormon, were free to go, and receive a thorough education.18
From there, Elders Wallis and Fitt went to see the county attorney. They soon were introduced to the Honorable Charles Abernethy, the brother of Telford and Hansen’s original nemesis of eight years earlier, the Reverend Samuel Abernethy. Mr. Abernethy 19 maintained that he also was without any power as he was “… simply employed to advise the county commissioners in civil matters.”
Before leaving Beaufort, Elder Wallis returned to see Sheriff Hancock and authorized him to offer a reward of fifty dollars for any information about the burning of the church. They had great confidence in the Sheriff’s sincerity and soon afterwards noted that, “… with the honesty and determination of Sheriff Hancock, it is hoped that the guilty ones will soon be brought to justice.” None ever were!
Following their unsuccessful efforts at finding assistance from the civil officials in Beaufort, the emissaries were met by Elder Petty, who had arrived from Harkers Island. He had been carried to Beaufort by Willie Willis in a small gasoline powered boat. Willie, himself, had not yet joined with the Mormons but his wife, Lillie, had been baptized almost three years earlier. Elder Petty introduced Mr. Willis to the others as “… a friend to the Elders, and one of God’s noblemen. He has not been afraid to defend the Elders and shelter them, and administer to their comforts.”
The four traveled back to Harkers Island where they were met at Rush Point by several members and escorted to the home of Oscar Brooks. After being entertained for lunch, Elder Petty carried the newcomers to where the little church had stood. Elder Wallis noted that “… a few handfuls of charred ashes was all that was left, everything connected with the building and its furnishings having been completely consumed.”
Later that afternoon they visited the school that then was in session at the home of Garrison Willis. In Elder Petty’s absence, Elder Parker was busy carrying on with the classes. After school was dismissed, a council meeting was held to fully consider the entire situation and determine how best to proceed. Among the things discussed was a series of dreams had recently by Elder Petty, who earlier had envisioned the burning of the chapel and now foresaw the missionaries being further molested by their opponents. It was pointed out that, beginning on January 22, members had received letters warning that “… their homes would be burned down as their church had been: and that if they did not close up the school being taught by the Mormon Elder, that would be burned down also.” It was further revealed that a storekeeper on the Island had been warned that, if he did not fire the “Mormon girl” he
employed, his store “would be destroyed.” As a result he had discharged the young lady the next day. The members admitted that because of their fears they had begun to guard their homes and meetings with guns.
They concluded by observing that since the threats began to surface, “… every man in the Mormon Church … has not gone to bed at night for fear of his home being destroyed.”
After giving prayerful consideration to all the information presented, Elder Wallis decided that it would be best for the missionaries to be removed from the Island until such time as their safety could be assured. He noted that there was “… not a constable or justice of the peace there, and neither telephone nor telegraph. The Island is entirely remote from the mainland, and in case of a storm on the water, it would be hazardous getting help.”
A meeting was held that evening to which all the members and their friends on the Island were invited. When advised that a decision had been made to withdraw the Elders temporarily, many of the Saints “wept like children.” According to Elder Wallis’ report to President Rich, The scene was more sorrowful than a funeral, and it seemed impossible for the Saints to say “good-bye.”
They clung to the Elders, and offered to protect them with their lives. They recounted the privations they had gone through for the Gospel; how they had almost deprived themselves of food in order to build a church in which to worship their God, only to see it burned down, and how they were willing to go further than that, and offer their own lives, if necessary, so that they would not be deprived of the presence of the Servants of God.
One good sister, amid her sobs, told how her father had beaten her about her head and body while she was investigating Mormonism, and how that since she had a little family of her own, she was trying to bring them up in the fear and admonition of the Lord. Some of the Saints, with tears running down their cheeks, told how they had gathered up a little means to buy blinds and curtains for the church, and also a Bible and other Church works; how they had sewed their rags together, and made a carpet for it, all but just a short time before it was burned; and then as they thought of their little place of worship going up in flames, they wept afresh … [The members were assured that] no efforts would be spared by [the Mission President] to bring them security, and that just as soon as that blessed condition became an assured fact, that Elders [would] again come to bless them, and a competent teacher [would] again be teaching their children … But the hour of parting finally came, and Saints and friends bade the Elders a sad farewell.20
The meeting of that evening had been a direct challenge to the ultimatums of their opponents and it was uncertain what would be their response. In the interest of safety, the party of four Elders left Harkers Island under cover of darkness at 3:00 the next morning. They were carried to Beaufort in a small boat by David Brooks, Oscar and Armecia’s son, and by Ed Russell, their son-in-law.21 They landed at Beaufort just before daybreak and continued on their way to New Bern.
Elders Fitt, Petty, and Parker then traveled on to Hampstead, North Carolina, by train. Elder Petty immediately turned his attention to writing a detailed report to the Mission President of all that had happened during his stay at Harkers Island.22 Elder Wallis took a detour through Raleigh where he sought to gain an audience with Governor Robert Glenn and ask his help in getting protection for the Saints and Elders at Harkers Island. He was unsuccessful in his effort to see the Governor but did meet with one of his advisors. Elder Wallis returned to Mission headquarters expressing confidence that a peace officer would be placed on the Island and hoping that the state of affairs there soon would take a turn for the better.
GOVERNOR GLENN OF NORTH CAROLINA
Robert B. Glenn of Forsythe County had been elected Governor of North Carolina in 1904. He had succeeded Charles B. Aycock, one of the most popular and progressive Governors in the State’s history. Glenn was a leader of the “anti-organization” wing of the Democratic Party and had been a vocal critic of his predecessor. Though styled a “liberal,” he was not above assuming the role of a demagogue and pandering to the prejudices of his day. During his campaign for office he had “… struck a popular chord by opposing the use of taxes paid by whites for the education of Negroes.”23
It soon became clear to President Rich that local officials either were unable, or unwilling, to do anything to bring the parties responsible for the burning of the Latter-day Saint chapel at Harkers Island to justice. Nor did it seem that anything was being done to protect the members there from further harassment. On Friday, February 16, 1906, President Rich sent a letter to Governor Glenn at Raleigh, North Carolina, pleading for his assistance.
In that letter, the Mission President outlined in detail the state of affairs on Harkers Island. He wrote of the members and missionaries building the church and of how they had hoped to begin a school. He explained that the Reverend Morgan had incited the local people against the members, and especially the missionaries, eventually resulting in the burning of the church.
He went on to relate that the members continued to receive threats in the weeks following the burning. He concluded his account by detailing the unsuccessful visit to Beaufort of Elders Wallis and Fitt in their effort to gain the assistance of local civil officers.
Finally, he presented an urgent plea to the Governor of the State of North Carolina:
I appeal to you, as Governor of a great State, as an upholder of law and order and good government, as the sworn defender of the Constitution of our glorious country, which guarantees every man religious freedom, to give the members of our faith on Harkers Island the protection they are entitled to. We feel that our earnest petition will not be ignored, but that with the cooperation of the Attorney-General of your State, some measures can be taken by you, looking to a peaceful solution of the trouble.
The matter is urgent, and we plead with you that there be no unnecessary delay in taking what steps are best in the accomplishment of the ends desired, so that no further crime may be committed, and that those who have outraged the law may be promptly dealt with.24
Governor Glenn’s reply, by letter, to the Mission President was prompt and direct. It was not, however, the response that President Rich and the members had anticipated and hoped for. The Governor flippantly dismissed the President’s description of the state of affairs at Harkers Island. He evidenced little concern for the suffering of the people there and had only the most rudimentary of suggestions as to how they might seek redress. The letter read:
State of North Carolina, Executive Department
Raleigh, February 21, 1906
Mr. Ben E. Rich, Chattanooga, Tenn.
Your letter is a very extraordinary one. I have just come from the section about which you write, and did not hear a word in regard to these terrible outrages committed against your people. However, we are law-abiding people, and if any lawlessness has been committed, we will look into it.
Write to Hon. L. I. Moore, Greenville, N. C., who is the solicitor of that district, and he will see that your wrongs, if any, are righted.
Our people do not like your faith, but certainly will protect your people against criminal outrage.
Yours very truly,
R. B. Glenn, Governor of North Carolina
Mission President Rich’s reply was just as prompt and equally direct. As might have been expected, he appeared somewhat flabbergasted at the very nature of Governor Glenn’s response. He took special exception to the Governor’s rationalization of the treatment of Latter-day Saints merely because his people did not like the Mormon faith. President Rich’s letter is included herein in its entirety:
February 23, 1906
Hon. R. B. Glenn, Governor
Raleigh, N. C.
Your very candid letter reached me today, and I thank you for your promise of protection in behalf of my people, and I will write to Hon. L.I. Moore as suggested, sending him all necessary data.
I note what you say about your people not liking my faith, which I realize is strictly correct, when we consider what is known as the “majority.” I am reminded, however, that the principal cause of the crucifixion of our Blessed Redeemer was on account of Him belonging to a helpless minority, and also, because the great majority was totally void of that spirit of religious tolerance which, about eighteen hundred years later, was injected into the veins of the American Constitution. But you realize, Governor, that many times in the history of the world, the minority has been misjudged, and wrongfully dealt with, which should act as a lesson to you and to me that never, while we can prevent, shall might become right.
At the present time, I can truthfully say to you, from statistics at my command, that there are about 1,465 citizens of your state who do like my faith, and belong to it. About 57 of this number reside upon a little Island where this trouble occurred, and thought enough of their faith to erect the little house of worship which has been destroyed, and still think enough of it to patiently cling to their faith, while all of these indignities are being heaped upon them. They are entitled to just as much protection as though they belonged to the great majority.
In the country where I come from the majority do not like the faith of some other people, but, thank God, they have Americanism enough to see that the constitutional rights of individual Americans are protected to the extent of permitting them to worship God Almighty according to the dictates of their own conscience; let them worship how, when, and what they please.
This is what we have a right to ask in North Carolina, and this is what the power of the State will see that we have, if the American blood running in their veins is of the same quality as that found in the veins of my people in the West, who probably do not worship at the same altar as the one to which some others bow. Pardon me, Governor, for making mention of this fact, but the little mention you made of my faith necessarily called it out.
The great Jefferson, referring to religious freedom, once said, “It behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself to resist invasion of it in the case of others, or their case may, by change of circumstances, become his own.” I think this is as grand a sermon as can be found anywhere within the lids of the Sacred Scriptures, and if I were Governor of a State, by the Eternal I would enforce this Jeffersonian doctrine if it took the entire militia of the state to plant it, with granite-like stability, that all the religious bigots within her borders would never dare to mar its beauty.
Again thanking you for your promise of protection, I am,
Yours very truly,
Ben E. Rich
President Rich’s frustration at dealing with the elected officials of the state was further vented in a front page editorial of the March 1,1906, edition of the Elders’ Journal. In it he compared the ill-treatment of the Latter-day Saints at Harkers Island with the treatment of Christian missionaries then serving in China. He directed his remarks to the Christian clergymen throughout the region who often had encouraged mob action against the Mormon Elders. He concluded by offering the following invitation:
[We] recommend that Christian ministers take a little more notice of what is happening under their very noses and not let their interests in far-off China prevent them from being decent at home. What happened at Harkers Island was the outcome of the work of a Christian minister and we would be pleased to have some Christian minister challenge us to the contrary.25
It should be noted that Governor Glenn appears to have shown some added concern for the condition of the Saints at Harkers Island after receipt of the President’s second letter. President Rich later reported that the Governor had agreed to pass his request to the State’s Attorney General. He asserted that it was his belief that state officials would see that justice ultimately would be done.26
At Harkers Island the Latter-day Saints continued to hold their meetings in defiance of the threats and ultimatums of their opponents. They wrote frequently to Conference headquarters and appraised President Fitt of their situation. Their reports were not very encouraging. In their letter of Sunday, March 11, 1906, they reported that they had “… held their Sunday School in the open air on this date.” In this report, for the first time, they referred to their tormentors as the “mob.” Subsequent to that Sunday gathering “… the mob declared that if they held another service on the Island, indoors or out, they would not stop until they had burnt every Mormon house on the Island.”27
When President Rich traveled to Salt Lake City for the April Conference of the Church, he met with the President of the Church, Joseph F. Smith. He recounted to President Smith the affairs on Harkers Island in great detail and explained what was being done to alleviate the matter. He repeated the mob’s threat involving “open-air meetings.” In a story carried in The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, it was noted that President Smith’s response was to ask if the members “… had received notice that they [the mob] would burn the air as well?”28
FURTHER ANTI MORMON AGITATION
In mid-February, the Reverend Morgan left Harkers Island to attend to affairs of his Church elsewhere in the Conference. Before leaving, he addressed his congregation, giving them the following admonition: “You have certainly accomplished a good deed in burning the “Mormon” church; and now you women folks, I want you to go hand-in-hand with your husbands and drive these Mormon devils off the Island. … They are worse than devils; yes they are lower than hogs and dogs ever were. It is your duty to drive them out of your midst at once.”29
Events soon would bear record that some of the Reverend’s followers were determined to act upon his challenge, for anti-Mormon agitation continued unabated in the minister’s absence. Their religious liberties already trampled under foot, the small band of Latter-day Saints at Harkers Island grew increasingly concerned for their welfare and safety.
The small school being held in the home of Garrison Willis continued to meet even after the Elders had been obliged to take their leave from the Island. Classes were conducted under the direction of Armecia Nelson, with the help of any other members who were available. In the weeks following the burning of the church, that same home had been the scene of most of the Latter-day Saint services. On the night of February 23, 1906, the makeshift schoolhouse was burned to the ground by the mob.30
In some respects this second fire was more intimidating than the first. The Saints now realized that their adversaries were serious in that they would stop at nothing to achieve their purposes. Sheriff Hancock immediately investigated the fire and made an arrest, but the defendant was acquitted of all charges. The mob took increased courage from the acquittal and its members began to boast of what further would happen should the Mormons continue to hold meetings.
As President Fitt described the situation at Harkers Island to President Rich he labeled their situation as “pitiful.” He added the following appraisal:
[The Saints are] isolated from all protection, at the mercy of cut-throats and assassins, afraid to leave their homes after dark, standing guard through the dreary hours of the night to save their little earthly possessions and the lives of their loved ones, deprived of the association of their spiritual advisors, their places of worship burned to ashes, afraid to mingle with each other in sacred devotion …31
On May 6, 1906, the members at Harkers Island reported that they met to hold Sunday School under the trees. As they gathered at the appointed spot, “ … they found a sack filled with bullets, left in a conspicuous place by their persecutors, indicative of the bitter spirit that filled the heart of their enemies.”32
AN APPARENT CALM
Local law officers had made a concerted effort to make their presence more obvious and by June it appeared that the mobbers had begun to soften somewhat in their attitude. Armecia Nelson wrote to the Conference President on Friday, June 15, and expressed her appreciation for the efforts that had been made to secure their protection. In her letter she evidenced the attitude of the Saints and the dignity and resolve they maintained in the face of their trials.
We held meeting in the open air last Sunday where the church building had stood and we all enjoyed the spirit of the Lord, more perhaps than at any time since the building was burned. Some of our worst enemies were present and gave us no trouble. We have heard nothing that they have said and of course we don’t know what they may do, but we gave them to understand that we would do our duty and let the consequence follow. We told them that they were welcome to all the honor they could get from fighting against the work of God and we would be willing to take all dishonor for obeying the commandments of the Lord and bearing testimony of the Lord Jesus …
An indication that all still was not well was Sister Nelson’s report regarding Letha Brooks, Sabra Nelson, and another unidentified young lady from the Latter-day Saint congregation at the Island. She told of their trip to Cape Lookout to visit the Life-Saving Station the previous week. Upon preparing to leave, they had been invited to stay, as a hard wind had arisen that would have made boat travel dangerous.
While the family and these young women were sitting before the fire, a brick was thrown against the roof smashing it in. A young man took the young women home that night, fearing trouble. The people who entertained the young ladies received a note warning them against taking any more Mormons in.33
WILLIAM PETTY’S RETURN
After leaving Harkers Island in early February of 1906, Elder William Petty was named President of the North Carolina Conference. In that capacity, he kept in frequent 34 contact with his friends at Harkers Island. He was scheduled to complete his mission at the end of July. As that time drew near, the Saints at the Island urgently appealed for him to visit with them before returning home. They assured him that matters had improved and that he and his companions would be safe during their stay. Though the Reverend Morgan had returned to the Island, the members were confident that a short visit by the missionaries would not create a breach of the peace. Regardless of what might have been threatened in the past, they promised to “… protect the Elders with their lives if necessary.”35
Elder Petty decided to honor their request and he arrived at Harkers Island at 9:30 in the evening of Tuesday, July 3, 1906. Traveling with Elder Petty were Elders Arthur W. Anderson, who, like Petty, was from Emery, Utah, and John A. Berrett, who had just arrived in the area after being transferred from the Georgia Conference. Elder Berrett had been designated to succeed Elder Petty as President of the North Carolina Conference.
The Elders were met at Morehead City by Tom Styron, Augustus Nelson, and Johnnie Guthrie.36 Arriving at Harkers Island at 9:30 that evening, they were greeted “with open arms” by a large party of the Saints at the home of Willie Willis. Willie’s wife, Lillie, had prepared supper for the guests and they received their friends from all over the Island until well after midnight. This was the first visit of Mormon Elders since they had been removed from the Island on February 6, and the members were delighted at the opportunity once more to enjoy of the presence of their spiritual leaders. Elder Petty was unprepared for the emotion displayed at the gathering.
The men were on the shore and the sisters were in the house. I have never witnessed such a handshaking and hugging in all my life. Oh how glad the poor, distressed Saints were to see some Elders … When I stepped into the door and saw all the people I was instantly bewildered. It was truly a happy meeting and one to be remembered by all who witnessed it.37
It was agreed that evening that a meeting should be held the next morning, and that if all went well, further meetings might be scheduled. At 10:00 in the morning of Wednesday, July 4, the Saints gathered again at Willie Willis’. The meeting was very well attended and proceeded without incident, so another was held at Jim and Rachel Lawrence’s home that afternoon at 3:00. The Reverend Morgan was conducting a revival at the same time. After the close of the latter service a note was delivered to the Latter-day Saint congregation. In it they were warned that, “…if they did not take the Elders away from the Island by 8 o’clock that night, there would be trouble.” The members decided to ignore the injunction and to proceed with the plan of having their guests spend that evening at the home of Oscar and Armecia Brooks.38
The Elders and their many hosts walked the two miles along the shore to the westard where they were treated to a large supper by Armecia Brooks. After the meal, all went out on the porch where the members and Elders joined together in singing the songs of Zion on a beautifully clear summer’s evening. Perhaps they assumed that on their country’s most special holiday, a day dedicated to the celebration of freedom, they might be spared the religious intolerance their common ancestors had fought and struggled to overcome.
In spite of the apparent tranquility and solemnity of the occasion, their peace was suddenly shattered. Just after nightfall Armecia Nelson came running from the eastard with news that the “… mob had already gathered for the purpose of carrying out their threats made during the day.” There were only eight men among the crowd still gathered at the Brooks’ home, but all immediately “… pledged their lives for the protection of the Elders if they would but remain.” Armecia reported that the mob “… numbered twenty-five to thirty men, [and was] armed and full of mean whiskey.” That description was indication that the mob included some “troublemakers,” in addition to sectarian fanatics. A quick council among the members decided that “… it would be folly to attempt to defend themselves against such a fiendish gang of lawbreakers, and so they withdrew to the mainland in a small boat …”39
The three Elders were transported across Straits channel to Marshallberg by Cicero Willis, his brother-in-law James, and by Oscar Brooks’ youngest son, Gordy. At Marshallberg they were granted refuge by the family of Eugene and Ruth Guthrie.40 Ruth Willis Guthrie was the daughter of Mary Willis and the sister of James.
“THE VOICE OF YOUR LAST MORMON ELDER!”
The missionaries were carried back to Harkers Island by Cicero Willis and David Brooks early the following morning, Thursday, July 5.41 David was the eldest of Oscar and Armecia’s sons. Upon arriving, they learned that no one had been disturbed during the previous night. The Elders therefore decided to travel back to the east end of the Island. Two days earlier they had made an appointment to hold a 10:00 meeting there at the home of Willie Willis.
Elders Petty, Anderson, and Berrett, and their accompanying party had walked for about a mile when they were met again by Armecia Nelson, this time accompanied by her brother Thomas. The pair had run at full speed from their home at the eastard to warn the Elders that the mob had reassembled and “were laying along the beach and waiting.”42 They advised that the group was armed and angry and should be considered dangerous. And they added that this time the mob was being led by the Reverend Thomas Morgan, himself.
Once more it was agreed that discretion might be the better part of valor and again the missionaries prepared to leave the Island rather than risk a confrontation with an angry mob. They began to retrace their steps back to the westard and headed for the home of Oscar Brooks where they intended to secure passage off the Island. But they soon observed one of their enemies in a “sharpie”, or skiff, out in the water. He had a large flag attached to the center mast of the boat and apparently was ready to send signals to his accomplices still on the shore.
When the man keeping lookout eventually lowered his flag, it summoned the mob that the Elders had turned around and that the attackers should begin their pursuit. For just a few minutes later, Thomas Nelson, though already exhausted from his previous effort, again overtook the Elders to warn that the mob was on its way. He then hurried on ahead of the party to warn the Saints at the westard as to what was happening. Then, in what seemed like little more than a moment, “… about thirty or thirty-five men and six or eight women came up the shore like so many cannibals in pursuit of their favorite prey.”43
The missionaries and their escorts ran for their lives along the shore towards Rush Point where they hoped to find help. It was more than a little ironic that the very spot that had been the site of so many Latter-day Saint baptisms in the previous seven years now was to be the scene of a violent confrontation.
At almost the same instant that the fleeing missionaries reached the Point, they were greeted on the one hand by Thomas Nelson and a band of approximately thirty Saints, mostly women and children. On the other side they saw the mob, led by the minister, which just then was about to overtake them. The ensuing standoff there at the water’s edge could have lasted for no more than a few minutes; yet it must have seemed like an eternity. Some of the members sought to place themselves between the mob and the missionaries, hoping to shield them from an expected attack. The Elders even walked out into the water toward where Joseph Willis’ boat was now headed in their direction. Suddenly, several of the mob broke through the barricade of bodies and made directly for the Elders.
At that point Thomas Nelson rushed forward and issued forth a challenge that has earned him a place of honor among the most exalted heroes of the Latter-day Saints at Harkers Island. Standing directly between the missionaries and their attackers, he shouted with a voice loud enough to rise above the din of the crowd, “I’ll take you on one at a time, or all at a time, but you’re not going to touch these Elders!”
Thomas Nelson’s defiant challenge forestalled the mob long enough to allow Joseph Willis and David Brooks to arrive and retrieve the three young Elders, and then safely to convey them to Morehead City. But even as they sailed away to the westward and to safety, the young ministers were heartbroken at what they were obliged to witness as they fled. Elder Petty later wrote that as the missionaries departed they did so,
… amid the heartbroken sobs, and terrified screams of the women and children … [as] the human degenerates, led by the minister, renewed their threats in shrieking tones which could be heard by the brethren as they sped away. And upon their ears also fell all the vile epithets that a cursing and sacrilegious tongue could utter, from the mouths of that savage band. What a contrast met [our] eyes as we sailed away; between the handful of hated, despised and persecuted, yet law-abiding and God-fearing people; and the band of vile wretches at their side who all were counted as good Christians, whose professed religion constituted the violation of law, a disregard for human rights, and the inclination and desire to commit the blackest deed known in the category of crime.44
As the Latter-day Saint missionaries sailed away, the mob next turned on the members who remained at the shore. “You have heard the ‘woice’45 of your last Mormon Elder,” they boasted as Joseph Willis’ small sailskiff disappeared over the horizon. They went on to assert that no further “Mormon meetings” of any type would be tolerated in the future. They concluded by declaring, “You have built your last church on Harkers Island. If you go to any church and hear any preaching, it will be in one of ours!”46
The heartbroken women and children left at the shore could do little but stand and listen to the boastful taunts of their adversaries. Finally, Letha Brooks stepped forward, pulled off her bonnet, folded it in her hand, and looked the leaders of the mob squarely in the eyes. With all the determination left in her weary body she uttered forth the words of a Latter-day Saint hymn, “Kill this body if you will, but my soul will shine on Zion’s hill.”47
LEADERS OF THE OPPOSITION
Soon afterwards, several of the leaders of the opposition began to visit the homes of some of the Saints and contacted others by signed letter. In the course of their visits and with their letters they made clear their warning that if the Mormons held another meeting on the Island it would be “… on penalty of losing their property by fire and endangering their lives.” They went on to assert that “… the lives of the Elders will be taken, if ever again they set foot on the Island.” Eventually, rumors began to spread among the members that some in the mob were plotting to drive from the Island any and all who had ever claimed affiliation with the Mormon Church.48
The Latter-day Saint missionaries who were ferried to Morehead City by Joseph Willis and David Brooks on the morning of July 5, 1906, were the last Mormon Elders to set foot on Harkers Island for almost three years. Dropping the Elders off into someone else’s care and for their own protection must have been a particularly difficult moment for Joseph Willis. His cycle of service to the missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints must have appeared to him to have come full circle. Eight years earlier he had welcomed them into his home on their very first night at Diamond City. There, and later at Harkers Island, he had attended their every need, and often had ferried them to Beaufort or elsewhere to pick up their mail or make an appointment. Now, twice in as many days, he had watched or helped as they were whisked away from the hands of a brutal mob.
President Rich and his advisers were flabbergasted at the continued inaction on the part of state and local public officials. In spite of the many requests for help that the Saints had extended, nothing substantive had been done to grant them either protection or redress. President Rich’s frustration was evidenced by an editorial in the August edition of The Elders’ Journal. The editorial concluded by asking;
Will the civil authorities of North Carolina answer? Redress has been asked at their hands before but with no response. The names of the men implicated in this conspiracy are obtainable and witnesses are ready and anxious to produce the required evidence. Then why cannot these marauders be made to feel the heavy hand of the law?
Why cannot the peaceable people of the Mormon faith on Harkers Island be protected in their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and the free exercise of their religious convictions against the invasions and usurpations of other people on the Island …
The laws of the land guarantee this protection, and the civil authorities are under oath to uphold and sustain the law. And if the local men entrusted with this responsibility are unable to enforce the law for any reason, fail to discharge their duty, let the State’s executive see that peace and order are preserved in this part of the State, and that the property and the lives of the citizens of his state are protected, even if martial law must be declared on the Island to accomplish it.49
A TEMPORARY VICTORY
The forced departure of the Mormon missionaries on July 5, 1906, signaled a temporary victory for the Reverend Thomas Morgan and the lawless and malevolent mob his fiery rhetoric had fomented. That victory was further reinforced when less than a month later, on July 29, 1906, the Latter-day Saints at Harkers Island received an urgent letter from the First Presidency of their Church in Salt Lake City, Utah. In the letter they were assured that their situation had been the subject of much prayerful consideration. In view of their very special circumstances, the First Presidency advised that “… the Saints on the Island not hold any more public meetings, but pay their devotions to the Lord in private.”