Strengthened by the Storm: The Early Mormons of Harkers Island, NC, by Joel G. Hancock.
The Rainbow and Beyond
As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud in the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. (Ezekiel 1:28)
THE LOWEST EBB
The late summer of 1906 marked the lowest ebb for the fortunes of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-daySaints at Harkers Island. From that point forward the Saints marshalled their resources and reestablished theirChurch to a position of prominence in their community. It eventually became evident to their opponents that noamount of harassment or persecution could cause the Latter-day Saints to abandon their faith. With the passing oftime, tensions began to ease and the persecution began to wane. As non-members gained some understanding ofthe Church’s doctrines they began to see the positive influence of those precepts on the lives of its members. Theirfear and resentment ultimately gave way to tolerance and a greater sensitivity.
For the next half century those Saints who had braved the tempests of 1906 remained as the pillars of the Latter-day Saint congregation at Harkers Island. They steadfastly refused to compromise their faith or their principles. Furthermore, they raised their children to continue in that tradition. Their influence remains to this day a beacon and an inspiration to their literal and spiritual heirs.
DEFYING THE MOB
Until receiving the letter from the First Presidency advising that all public meetings cease, the members had persisted in trying to defy the mob and had continued with regular Sunday services. Not wanting to further jeopardize anyone’s life or property, all of the meetings were held out of doors. Their most frequent gathering place was under the tall oak trees of the westard. The gentle southern slope of the wind-sculptured hardwoods provided shade from the sun and funneled away some of the draft from the summer sou’westers. There, the members sat on hastily constructed benches and platforms, while their leaders led them in songs, prayers, and scripture study. Yet on every such occasion it was deemed imperative that someone be on patrol to watch for their enemies. Still others had to be left to guard their homes.
Reuben Wade, as Sunday School Superintendent, would have presided in any official services that were held. He might have been assisted by his son, Jasper, by Oscar Brooks, Wells Hamilton, Tom Styron, John Johnson, or by any of the men of the Willis family. The sisters, no doubt, assumed an important role in the various gatherings.
Armecia Nelson, Letha Brooks, Bertha Willis, Lillie Willis, and Sabra Nelson all were very active in Church affairs and figured prominently in correspondences with the Mission President. But after the First Presidency’s letter of July 29, these meetings were suspended indefinitely.
The Saints that assembled under the Island oaks in the dog-days of July, 1906, had withstood all that their enemies could muster, and were poised to bear even more. On Friday, August 31, 1906, Sisters Sabra Nelson and Letha Brooks wrote to the Conference President that they had received another letter from the mob. The sisters related that the Saints had been warned yet again that they “would not be permitted to hold any more meetings of any kind on the Island.” They also noted that the members on the Island had forwarded a petition to the Governor asking for his protection, but that they had heard no reply as of that time.1 By the last day of October, Governor Glenn still had not responded to their petition and, in so far as can be determined, never did. Still they took a measure of encouragement in reporting that in spite of the many threats, they had not been overtly molested since the mob’s attack of July 5.2
It was to be almost two full years before the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at Harkers Island again met in public, and a year longer still before any Elders were allowed to return for a visit.
Joseph Willis’ immediate family and several more of his relatives followed Garrison Willis and moved away from the Island for a period. Yet regardless of where those years were weathered, they proved most of the Saints of the Island able to maintain their faith and testimonies amid isolation and continued persecution.
During that interruption of the normal affairs of the Church, a few of the early converts eventually chose not to remain as members. Likewise, some of the children of faithful members were unable to follow the example of their parents. The lofty standards of worthiness and personal sacrifice demanded by the Church often prove difficult, even under the best of circumstances. When faced with the added hardships caused by ostracism and persecution, some of the weaker members eventually gave in to the repeated urgings of their non-Mormon families and friends. With little fanfare, they disassociated themselves from the Church.3
But with the others, the years between 1906 and 1909 became a period of added commitment and spiritual development as they quietly endured their hardships. During that time both their convictions and their commitments were galvanized. They came to think of each other as family, in some cases even more so than for their blood relatives. Most helped to take care of the needs of each other and to offer support through their mutual hardships.4 All the while the affairs of their church and its members were a constant topic of their thoughts and conversations.
The younger children became especially conscious of their identities as part of the “Mormon community.” They too were called upon to sacrifice, as often they were ostracized and ridiculed by other children. Their common ordeals engendered a sense of camaraderie that lingered long after they became adults. Having experienced the denial of their freedom of worship and conscience, they grew up profoundly protective of their personal and collective liberties. The years of doing without the company and companionship of the missionaries served to make the members love and appreciate visiting Elders and Church authorities greater still. They spared no effort in attending to the every need of their visitors when eventually they returned.
There remains even today a profound affection for the missionaries among the Saints of Harkers Island. Each succeeding generation of Elders has noted this phenomenon and generally has returned the sentiments in kind.
Many of those same missionaries have remained in close contact with the local members long after their missions were completed. Still others have made return visits to renew their relationships with their earlier hosts. As part of the research for this effort, the author contacted some of the descendants of Elders who served at Harkers Island during those formative years. Even after eighty years or more, the families of those missionaries have retained an awareness of the special appreciation that their father or grandfather had for Harkers Island. When I had identified myself and my purpose, many would respond immediately, “Oh yes, that’s where my (grand)father served on his mission!”
Throughout their period of isolation, the members made a determined effort to exhibit no overt bitterness toward their opponents. In so far as they could do so without compromising their principles or standards, they mingled freely with their neighbors. They “took every occasion to do them a good turn, and proved that there were no ranklings in their hearts on account of the past.”5 They assumed such to be the safest and surest method for overcoming the earlier antagonisms.
Impromptu worship services often were held as the Saints gathered together as friends and families. During these meetings testimonies were shared and mutual encouragement offered. Plans also were laid for how they might proceed with the work of the Church when finally matters returned to “normal.” Yet they always were careful not to attract the attention of their opponents and thereby risk arousing a resumption of mob activity.
During one such gathering at a home adjacent to where their chapel had stood, the members reported an event that startled all who were present. It occurred late in the evening of a beautiful day in March of 1907. According to their report, “… a very startling bright light was seen on the exact spot where the church was burned. Many reliable persons witnessed the same while standing on the ground in the midst of the light. The affair caused quite a stir among the people.”6
The Mission and Conference Presidencies continued to stay in close contact with the members by mail. The Saints were kept appraised of developments in the mission and throughout the Church. The Conference President regularly inquired as to affairs on the Island. His hope was to determine the earliest possible date for the resumption of normal Church services and the return of the Elders. The members also received books and pamphlets that were used as guides for personal studies and devotions. They were constantly reassured that their welfare was at the forefront of the concerns of the leaders of the Church at every level.
AN ELDER RETURNS!
“Time changes all things, so in time, the persecution began to lessen.”7 So wrote Lillian Davis in regard to the subsequent softening in attitudes at Harkers Island toward The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its members. The Reverend Morgan eventually was reassigned to another area and his replacement might have been less militant in attitude toward the Mormons. The Northern Methodist Church itself lost much of its following to a growing congregation of Southern Methodists. The rapid growth of new and different denominations at the Island helped to increase the spirit of tolerance in many people. And, as those same people became more secure in their own faiths, they felt less threatened by the Latter-day Saints. According to Lillian Davis, some of the former members of the mob “… had gotten religion and confessed to the members of the Church the things they had done. One man, on his death bed, pleaded [for] forgiveness from the members.”8
Charles A. Callis was named the new President of the Southern States Mission in 1908. President Callis was originally from Ireland but had moved to Liverpool, England, where his family had been converted. The family settled in Utah in 1875 when Charles was ten years old. President Callis had been trained as a lawyer but had spent most of his adult life as a missionary for the Church. He was admitted to the Bar of several states while serving in the South and remained as President of the Mission until he was called as an Apostle in 1933.9
On April 18, 1909, President Callis assigned Elder Robert B. White, President of the North Carolina Conference, to visit at Harkers Island. President White, from Beaver, Utah, had been in the mission field for almost three years and had earned a reputation for being very adept at working through difficult situations. President Callis assumed that Elder White was uniquely qualified to assess affairs at the Island and then to make a recommendation for a future course of action.
The local members recently had reported that there had been an appreciable change in the attitude of their former enemies. But wary of how a Mormon missionary might be viewed by the remaining opposition, Elder White appeared at the Island unannounced, and at first concealed the fact that he was an emissary of the Church. He interviewed both members and non-members alike in an effort to ascertain how missionaries might be received were they to return.
Elder White was quite impressed with the way the Saints had maintained their testimonies during their years apart from direct contact with Church officials. He observed that they were “… a sincere and faithful lot of people, who think a great deal of their religion, and are ready to both live and die for it, as the past has proved.”10
Before leaving Harkers Island, Elder White revealed his identity to the members, who were overwhelmed with excitement. He was the first official Church representative they had seen in three years. From every corner of the Island they ran to the home of Oscar and Armecia Brooks as word spread that one of their “Elders” had returned.
They were “overjoyed” finally to see another missionary and “crowded around him and greeted him in the warmest manner.”11
Elder White quite probably was told of how the Saints had persevered during the period of their isolation; of how they had drawn upon each others’ faith and resolve; and of how they had met in secret in defiance of their adversaries. He also would have learned that a few of their number had been unable to remain firm in the face of their trials and no longer were counted among their group. And, sadly, he might have been told of how three of the Church’s most devoted followers had passed away since the last Elders had been forced to flee.
Sabra Nelson was married to Tom Rose in September of 1906. In 1907 she gave birth to a daughter, Emma, but died a few days later with complications resulting from the birth. In 1907, her cousin, Thomas Nelson, also passed away. Though he had never officially joined the Church, he had been a hero among the Saints since his bold defiance of the mob at Rush Point in 1906. He had vowed to be baptized when the Elders returned but never had the opportunity. His wife, Marian, did become a member and her children went on to become leaders among the Saints.
Then, in October of 1908, Mary Willis had passed away at the age of fifty-six. She had been matriarch of the largest extended family of Mormons on the Island. Mary Willis left behind nine children who already were, or soon would be, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The Saints prevailed upon Elder White to hold five meetings before he left the Island. In addition to conducting services, he baptized Ruth Willis Guthrie, another of Mary Willis’ children. Elder White also blessed four newborn children.
Upon completing his visit, he happily reported to the Mission President that “… the old spirit of prejudice is changing to one of friendship. The people have found that they have made a mistake by opposing this work. Many of them now express regrets for the past and assurance of good will toward us in the future.” 12
Still, President Callis remained hesitant to assign missionaries to the Island on a permanent basis for several more years. He chose instead to send Elders for short visits that focused on helping the local members to grow more self-sufficient.
Elder Robert Andrus succeeded Robert White as President of the North Carolina Conference, just one month after the latter’s visit to Harkers Island. Five months later, in October of 1909, President Andrus and his companion, Elder Edward Webb, again visited the Island. They held six meetings with the Saints during their brief stay. Like Elder White, they too reported that the “prejudice … is waning very much, and many of those who a few years ago aided in mobbing the Elders now come to their meetings and listen with interest.”13
While at the Island, the Conference President learned that one of the most valiant and talented of the local Saints had died unexpectedly. Thirty-year old Armecia Nelson had been at the forefront of the affairs of the Church since her baptism in 1901. Besides heading the M. I. A. and teaching at the school, she had been their spokesperson in reporting to Mission headquarters and responding to their opponents. No less importantly, on two occasions she had run almost the entire length of the Island to warn the Elders of impending danger.
Early in 1909, Armecia had been injured in an accident that at first seemed quite innocuous. But she failed to recover as expected and in her weakened condition contracted typhoid fever. She was transported to Wilmington for special treatment but while there she passed away. In fact, it is uncertain whether or not she was still at the Island to have witnessed the happy return of Elder Robert White in the spring of that year.
WELCOMING THE ELDERS
As Elders began again to visit the Island, there developed a unique system of welcoming and preparing them to meet the local Saints. The missionaries would give advance notice of their coming by mail and send specific instructions as to the date of their arrival. By then the Post Office had begun regular service to the Island by mailboat. The boat docked each day at the pier of Cleveland Davis’ shore-front store.
The store was near the mid-point of the Island and only a very short distance from, and almost adjacent to, where the Latter-day Saint chapel had stood. It was therefore necessary for the mailboat to travel about two miles parallel to the south shore of the Island while in route to its destination. This course took the boat directly past many of the homes of the Saints scattered along that same south shoreline.
On any day scheduled for the arrival of Elders, the members would await the mailboat’s arrival with eager anticipation. As the vessel drew near their homes, they would run to the shore and wave white handkerchiefs to greet their guests. The Elders had been alerted to be on the lookout for such signals. They, too, waved their handkerchiefs to acknowledge that they had observed the greeting.
The “white handkerchief welcome” was significant for more than the obvious reasons. It also clearly denoted to the new visitors where they might find a friendly welcome as they began to walk back along the shore. The Elders remained somewhat cautious for many years about knocking at the doors of unidentified homes. Later, when the missionaries completed their appointed stay among the Saints, the members often waved goodbye to their departing guests in the same manner that they had greeted them. Again the families of the Saints would gather at the shore and wave white handkerchiefs as they bid farewell to their beloved Elders.
AN UNDERCURRENT OF ANIMOSITY
The period of overt and flagrant persecution of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints appeared to have ended by 1909. Yet there remained a strong undercurrent of enmity toward the Church, if not towards the members themselves, for many years to come. Indicative of this feeling, and its perception among the members, was that they did not feel free to build another church building at the Island until almost three decades later. The sentiment was evidenced most often in the continued, albeit sporadic, “chunking” of homes in which Latter-day Saint services were being conducted. This petty vandalism was quite probably the work of young hooligans rather than of an ordained minister and his fanatical followers. But it may have been unconsciously encouraged by the continued defamation and slander of the Mormon Church to which so many on the Island still were exposed.
The author’s father, Charlie William Hancock (b. 1909), was raised in a non-Mormon home on the Island. He tells that when he was a young boy, he often went with other youngsters to stand watch outside homes where Latter-day Saint missionaries were conducting services. They assumed that something exciting might happen at anytime, and they wanted to be there to see it.
Bertie Clyde Willis (b. 1918), grandson of Joe Wallace Willis and son of John Telford Willis, remembered what it was like as a child to be inside a home while awaiting an expected hail of rocks or clam shells. Mostly, he recalled hoping that whatever was thrown might hit the roof or the outer walls rather than the windows. The din of the shattering glass, he pointed out, was especially terrifying to the youngsters in attendance. The men would hurry out to confront the attackers, but almost always the molesters would have fled into the woods or the night.
Carl Macon Willis, the son of Joseph Willis and, at the time this book was researched, one of the oldest living members of the Church on the Island, was born in 1905. He vividly recalls an evening in 1913, when he was eight years old and was helping his father to hang net in the family’s outdoor shed. Suddenly, they were interrupted by the sound of shattered glass and terrified screams that came from the home of his uncle, Cicero, who lived next door.
Running to see what had happened, Carl and his father found his aunt, Angelina, lying on the floor. Her face was covered with blood, having been hit by a large rock that had been thrown through the window. Obviously, someone was unhappy that Mormon Elders were staying at the Willis home that evening.14
It was not just the homes that actually housed the Elders that were subject to vandalism. Lillian Davis records a personal story of somewhat similar circumstances dating to 1911 when she was one year old. Her account is as follows;
On this particular evening my mother [Bertha Willis Lewis] had made arrangements with her father [Joe
Wallace Willis] to take care of me during a meeting of the Saints …
Mother had gotten me ready for bed and put me in the cradle that sat beneath the window. After she had left
the house and gone just a few hundred feet away, something seemed to stop her. It seemed to say, “Go back! Get
the baby!” Mother tried to dismiss the impression as being only her imagination, but she heard the same voice
again. Still she resisted. But on the third time it was so forceful that she could not resist and so she hurried back to
Upon reaching the house my mother told her father that she felt she should take me with her to the meeting.
Having heard of the experience which my mother had just had, her father still decided to stay home.
After the church meeting was over and she had returned home, she could see no lights on in the house. She
then went to the door and called for her father. When he answered, he called out that the house had been attacked
by the mob, who had stormed around the house and thrown brick bats, shells, and many other things at the house. The mob had broken windows, etc. The particular window beneath which my mother had previously placed the cradle had been broken. At that very spot, there were many items which had come through the window and which would have undoubtedly hit me. Without question, I would have been seriously injured or even killed, for bricks, shells, and other items were lying in my cradle.15
Dorothy Willis Guthrie and her mother, Missouri, did not officially join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints until May 12, 1921. Once she decided to become a member, Missouri waited for several months for the missionaries to return to the Island. In the interim, she grew impatient and even asked if one of the sisters, Margaret Willis, could perform the ordinance. Missouri, called Dewey, had become gravely ill and feared that she might die before the Elders arrived. It took the best efforts of several of the members to convince her that she had to wait until someone with the proper authority arrived.
When finally the missionaries showed up, arrangements were made to hold a baptismal service at the water’s edge the next morning. Despite the day being unseasonably cold, the baptism proceeded according to schedule.
After Missouri’s baptism, she was given a special blessing of healing by the Elders. She soon recovered from her illness and lived for another forty-nine years. It is significant that even at the relatively late date of 1921, Dorothy recalls having felt obliged to “sneak to the shore” along with her mother, the Elders, and a few of their Mormon friends. They feared that public announcement of their intentions inevitably would result in some sort of disruption or trouble.16
Yet even the isolated incidents of vandalism and harassment eventually ended. By the beginning of the 1930’s, the antagonisms and hatreds of the past were a fleeting memory for members and non-members alike. When the Saints on the Island finally began to build a new chapel, they sometimes were assisted by non-member friends; many of whom were the children or grandchildren of those who had participated in the organized opposition to the Latter-day Saints thirty years earlier. With the passing of another generation, the incidents of 1906 and the attitudes that caused them were all but forgotten by most non-Latter-day Saints.
This is not to suggest that all distinctions between Mormons and non-Mormons have been erased. On the contrary, there remains at the Island a vivid awareness of those differences, an awareness shared by members and by non-members alike. The proselyting of Latter-day Saint missionaries still is resented by many. Likewise books, films, and videos that attack the doctrines of the Church, are often endorsed by some of the other denominations. But now the interest in such things can be attributed as much to curiosity as to prejudice or any desire to persecute.
Any overt anti-Mormon sentiments at the Island generally are vented in a more subtle manner, almost never as open hostility. For example, when the Saints are called upon to participate in school and civic affairs, their Church often is referred to as the “Church of the Latter-day Saints.” The omission of “Jesus Christ” from the name is sometimes intentional, and is an indication of an unwillingness to acknowledge that the Latter-day Saints do indeed worship the Savior, and affirm his divinity.
Even among the Saints themselves, recollections of the dramatic episodes of their early history are fading a bit. Most have an awareness that their first meetinghouse was burned by a mob, and they can tell of some of the events that surrounded it. Yet they properly perceive that the tumult that surrounded the birth of their Church at the Island now belongs to another time and era. They remain intensely proud of their “religious forefathers” and their sacrifices, and recognize their singularity among the various religious denominations on the Island. But they harbor no latent bitterness or resentment based on a sense of having been mistreated in the distant past.
To the contrary, since 1906 there has been among the Latter-day Saints a subtle, perhaps unconscious, effort to absolve those who participated in the earlier unhappy incidents. The Saints still wear as a badge of honor the fact that their parents and grandparents were able to remain firm and faithful amid intense persecution. But their continued appreciation of those events does not include casting aspersion on the memory of any particular individuals.
When older members are asked about those who were responsible for the early persecution, they consistently refuse to divulge any names. Few remember William Graham or Thomas Morgan, such that even they have escaped any culpability in the hearts and minds of later Mormons. Only after repeated inquiries would they divulge to the author the identities of those who had joined the mob; and then only after receiving assurances that those names would never be mentioned. In the years after 1906, most of their former opponents sought forgiveness from individual members for their earlier trespasses. Clear evidence that such forgiveness indeed was extended is the willingness of the Saints to include forgetting along with the forgiving.
PRESIDENT CALLIS VISITS HARKERS ISLAND
Early in the spring of 1911, President Callis traveled to North Carolina to visit with the rapidly growing number of Latter-day Saints in the state. After conducting a conference among the missionaries, he decided to make an impromptu visit to Harkers Island. He, along with Elders Eugene Branch and William Fracom, arrived at the Island on Saturday, May 6, 1911. So many Saints began to gather to hear the Mission President that it was decided to seek to use of the Academy Field church for the service.
This same building had been the setting for Elder Telford and Hansen’s first meetings on the Island thirteen years earlier. It had subsequently been abandoned by the two Methodist congregations on the Island when they built new and bigger places of worship. But the fact that the Latter-day Saints felt free to seek permission to use the building is a sign of significant improvement in attitudes toward the Church in the community. President Callis was so impressed by the reception he received that he encouraged the Saints to begin plans to erect a new meetinghouse.
He noted that even some of the non-members had offered to contribute to such an effort.17
Following the visit of the Mission President, arrangements were made to conduct a conference at the Island. The conference convened on Sunday, October 1, 1911, and included three open-air meetings and a cottage meeting at the home of one of the members.18 From that point onward such conferences were held every year. By April of 1913, four missionaries had gathered to hold conference on the Island and reported over one hundred and fifty people present for their Sunday morning session. The Elders — Silas Smith, Duncan Maxwell, Ray Shurtliff, and Wallace Strong, recorded that they had “an excellent time.” They added that they “… felt much encouraged with the conditions there, … [and that] many who had previously been bitter towards the Mormons were in attendance.”19 One of the Elders overheard a non-member exclaim while leaving, “They can not tell me any more that those Elders are not preaching the Gospel.”20
Elder Smith soon afterwards was called to serve as Conference President. When he returned to the Island in September of the same year he noted “two hundred people attended his meetings and manifested much interest in what was said.”
He also reported that the Saints were busy with plans for the construction of a new meetinghouse on which they anticipated beginning by that winter. Yet construction of the new chapel for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at Harkers Island did not begin that winter as had been hoped. It would not be until after the passing of two more decades that those plans would materialize.
MORE BAPTISMS OF NEW CONVERTS
By 1911, the widespread baptism of new converts had begun again as seven members were added. Almost all subsequent baptisms were of family members of those who had joined the church prior to 1906. The new members of 1911 were an example of that tendency. Sadie Ray Johnson was the daughter of John and Annie Laurie Johnson.
John and Hannah Nelson were the son and daughter-in-law of Betty Nelson. Blanch Willis was the daughter of Mary Willis, while Leah, Roberta, and Rachel Willis were Mary’s granddaughters and the daughters of Cicero and Angelina Willis.
As the children of those first members reached the age for baptism, they steadily increased the Church’ official membership. In 1914, for example, Joseph Willis’ sons Carl and David were baptized along with Earl Greenwood Johnson, the son of John Johnson. By 1921, five of the seven baptisms were of direct descendants of those converted before 1906; including Bertha Willis Lewis’ oldest daughter, Lillian, and her brother, Telford, along with Telford’s wife, Gertrude. A year later the new members included; Edith Guthrie, Armecia Brooks’ granddaughter; Bertha Lewis’ father, Joe Wallace; Mary Willis’ son Alford; and Annie Scott Rose, the daughter of Captain William Anderson Scott of Marshallberg. The following year, 1923, saw a total of eleven new members, including the niece of Sabra Nelson, Thelma Guthrie; Edith Guthrie’s parents, Tom Martin and Evolina Guthrie; Joseph Willis’s son, Guy; Alford Willis’ son, Larry; and three more daughters of Bertha Willis Lewis, Bertha Gray, Helen, and Margarette. The latter was the author’s mother.
THE DECADE OF THE 1920’S
Meetings continued to be held in the homes of members all through the decade of the 1920’s. In January of 1923, Elders Edward Gubler and Arthur Larsen reported having several “spirited meetings” at the Island, including one at the site of where the original chapel had stood. Annual 21 services at that location eventually developed into a tradition as subsequent missionaries continued to report of those gatherings. In 1924, Elders Carl Slater and Asa Merrill reported “one of the largest crowds ever gathered on the Island” for such a meeting.22
Elder Merrill was named as President of the North Carolina Conference soon afterwards and returned to Harkers Island early in 1925 to visit with Elders Reed Nielson and Isaac Rogers who were serving on the Island at that time. While there, President Merrill conducted a Branch Conference and reported a very large crowd, with some worshipers traveling by boat from as far away as thirty miles. He was, no doubt, referring to the family of Henrietta Willis Salter who lived at Sea Level. He also organized a new Sunday School and a women’s auxiliary, called the Relief Society. He concluded his report by noting that “some of the people were opposed to having a Mormon Sunday School on the Island.”23 Insofar as can be determined, his was the last recorded account of any open opposition at Harkers Island to allowing full religious freedom for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day
AUNT MEECE’S HOUSE
The Sunday School organized in 1925 met at the home of Armecia Brooks. Her beloved husband, Oscar, had passed away ten years earlier on October 24, 1915. Throughout the long period that followed the burning of the first meetinghouse, most meetings had been held at her home. With the organization of the new Sunday School and the resumption of regularly scheduled services, Armecia’s small residence at the westard became the un-official home for the Latter-day Saints at Harkers Island. Sacrament, Relief Society, M. I. A., or similar meetings still might be held at any of the other homes of the Saints. But until a new church building finally was erected in 1936, a Sunday morning walk to “Aunt Meese’s” was a Latter-day Saint tradition.
Telford Willis had been called in 1926 to serve as Superintendent of the newly organized Sunday School. That calling signaled a passing of the torch of local leadership to a new generation of Saints at Harkers Island. This should not be construed as any drastic change in the demographics or composition of the membership. Rather, it evidenced the maturation of the children of those very first members to the point that they were ready to assume the mantle of leadership in the affairs of the Church. That they were both capable and willing to assume that responsibility was clear indication that the Latter-day Saint community at Harkers Island was to be enduring.
On February 21, 1932, Jasper Wade, Telford Willis, and Alford Willis were called to receive the Melchizedek Priesthood and were ordained to the office of Elder. Their designation as such was another significant bench mark for the Saints at Harkers Island. With those callings the local members became increasingly independent of the direct supervision of the traveling missionaries and the Mission President.
In 1934, work finally began on construction of a new meetinghouse that was completed in 1936. The new church was on a larger tract of land less than a hundred yards from the site of the original chapel. The clear ownership to that earlier location had been one of the few things lost to the Saints during the preceding years. After Sabra Nelson’s death in 1907, the property had been claimed by her brothers and sisters and they asserted that the Church’s title was invalid.
The Saints therefore negotiated for the purchase of another piece of property. The site was bordered on the south by the main road that by then extended through the length of the Island. To the east of the new location lay the home of Willie and Lillie Willis, while to the north there was ample virgin land available for future expansions.
Ironically, just to the west of the new site was the meetinghouse of the Northern Methodist Church. The two churches would stand side by side from 1936 until after 1939 when there was a consolidation of the Northern and Southern Methodist denominations. Walter Pavey, the pastor sent by the Methodist Conference to oversee the unification, at first alternated services between the two congregations. But many of the members of the Northern group chose not to join in the reunification, and ultimately left the Methodist Church.24
The meetinghouse of the Northern Methodists eventually was abandoned and sold by the Methodist Conference. Within a few years the building had been dismantled and removed, and replaced by a private dwelling, which as of this writing (2008), is the home of the Latter-day Saint Bishop on the Island. Today relatively few of the Island’s residents remember either the building or the specific denomination that it housed. Yet in the very shadow where once had stood the edifice from which Thomas Morgan had called on his followers to drive the Mormons from Harkers Island, the Church he ridiculed has both endured and flourished.
A NEW LATTER DAY SAINT MEETINGHOUSE
The new Latter-day Saint meetinghouse was completed and ready for use by the spring of 1936. The chapel measured twenty-four by thirty-six feet and could seat over one hundred worshipers. It was flanked on the east and west by two twelve-by-fourteen-feet classrooms. Jasper Wade by then had been called as Sunday School Superintendent, and Chauncey Guthrie, the son of Thomas Nelson’s widow, Marian, was serving as his Secretary.
While interviewing Chauncey researching this book, he pointed out that exactly eighty persons showed up for that first Sunday morning meeting. In the weeks that followed, attendance generally would vary from as few as forty to as many as sixty members.
As the Saints at Harkers Island moved into their new chapel, the generalization could be made that their “season in the sun” had returned. It was not to be exactly the same as it had been in the halcyon days just after the turn of the century. The turmoil of 1906 had so divided the community in regard to Mormonism that proselyting activity would never proceed so freely as it had in the beginning. Attendance at regular Latter-day Saint meetings following that period was limited almost entirely to members and their families. Most non-members were unwilling to risk the ridicule of their family and pastor that usually followed the presumption that someone might be “investigating Mormonism.”
1936 was also significant for the Saints in that it marked a return to an era in which they could worship in their own building and without fear of any reprisals. Attendance at regular Latter-day Saint services finally had risen again to about the same level as it had been just prior to the burning of the original chapel. In effect, it had taken three decades for Church participation to recover from the shockwaves created by the earlier storm of persecution.
Understandably, many of the faces in the congregations of 1936 were different from those of thirty years earlier. The passing of time had taken its inevitable toll among the very first members. The sadness at their loss was deepened out of regret that they had not lived long enough to see the rebuilding of a Latter-day Saint meetinghouse.
Mary Nelson, whose three daughters all had followed her in accepting Mormonism, had died in 1911. Then, in 1915, three of the literal “founding fathers” were lost as Reuben Wade, John Hamilton, and Oscar Brooks passed away. Rachel Nelson Lawrence also died that same year. In 1918, Wellington Hamilton fell victim to that year’s great flu epidemic. Two years later, in 1920, Mary Willis’ daughter, Angelina, became the first of her mother’s many Mormon children to pass away.
The next Latter-day Saint funeral was not until September of 1932 when services were held for Bertha Willis. She was only forty-seven years old but was injured in an auto accident and never fully recovered. Her influence, however, did not die with her. Her many descendants still continue to swell the membership rolls of the Church.
The year 1933 saw the passing of Joseph Willis and John Johnson. Both were sixty-three years old and had been closely associated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since 1898. Each had welcomed the early missionaries into their homes at Diamond City and had nurtured the Elders’ friendship after relocating to Harkers Island. Together they had been in the forefront of the long but successful struggle that assured the survival of their new religion at the Island.
Two years later, both Annie Laurie Johnson and her mother, the beloved Aunt Meese, passed away. The loss of Armecia Brooks created a spiritual and emotional void among the membership at Harkers Island that endured for at least another generation. More than half a century later, her name and her memory remain vivid among those who enjoy the fruits of the legacy she helped to fashion.
Even in death, those early Saints continued indirectly to promote spreading the message of their faith at the Island. It was only at funerals that most non-members of the Church allowed themselves to be exposed to the preaching of the “Restored Gospel.”
Latter-day Saint memorial services generally were very well attended, at least in part because some of their friends could then avail themselves of the opportunity to listen to the sermons of the Mormon Elders without having to suggest any willingness to accept what they might hear. For example, at memorial services for Angelina Willis on January 31, 1920, Elders William Lewis and John West both reported to Conference headquarters that “many non-members were in attendance.”25
Soon after the members moved into their new meetinghouse, it was decided by the Mission Presidency that Harkers Island should be organized as an independent Branch of the Church. In 1938 Jasper Wade was called to serve as the first Branch President. He was assisted by Alford Willis as First Counselor and by Chauncey Guthrie as Second Counselor. Membership figures from that year show that the total official membership had grown to over eighty members.
HARKERS ISLAND MORMONS
The close friendships forged among those who had grown up together as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is suggested in a story recounted by the daughter of Alford Willis. It tells of her father’s relationship with Jasper Wade, a companionship renewed every Sunday morning as together they walked to the church before their 8:00 Priesthood meeting.
Pa and Jasper Wade were very close friends. Sunday mornings were very special to these two friends, for there was always time for a gospel discussion as they walked to Priesthood meeting. Brother Wade would come up the walkway to the house and Pa would go out to meet him. These two men would greet each other and call each other by the sacred name of Brother. Anyone listening would understand at once the reverence and love with which it was spoken. Then, side-by-side, they would slowly walk the rest of the way to the church, arriving there before 8:00, renewed and refreshed from the conversation and company.26
Their story is representative of many more similar relationships that have developed among subsequent generations of the Latter-day Saints at Harkers Island. They think of each other quite literally as family. Collectively they realize that they are unique. An awareness of that distinction over the years has made them especially appreciative of what they share with each other. Their hearts and lives have been intertwined by a common heritage and shared beliefs.
Later generations of Latter-day Saints at Harkers Island are just as devoted to their faith as were their spiritual progenitors. Whereas their parents were called upon to endure hardships and sacrifice, the children have remained firm through the much longer, less obvious struggle that followed. They have resisted the spiritual complacency that might have resulted from their relative affluence and freedom from the overt antagonism known by their parents.
They are as steadfastly “Mormon and LDS” as were their forefathers. In spite of any petty differences or perceived distinctions, they staunchly maintain the veracity of the basic tenets of their faith: that Jesus is the Christ; that early in the spring of 1820, he appeared to the Prophet Joseph Smith; that the eventual result of that and subsequent visits was the “Restoration” of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the reestablishment of His Church on the Earth; and that they themselves are part and parcel of the work of Jesus Christ and of His Church.
For most of them, the love of their Island home is surpassed only by their affection for their family and their faith. They are intensely loyal to their community and proud of their heritage as the sons and daughters of seamen and sailors. Association with both their home and their Church is acknowledged as a privilege and a compliment.
A MORMON PARADISE
In the spring of 1938, the Saints at Harkers Island were honored to entertain Elder Melvin J. Ballard, who then served as a member of the Church’s Quorum of Twelve Apostles. Latter-day Saints look upon modern Apostles as the literal heirs to the authority and powers held by their ancient predecessors. Each member of that Quorum is sustained by the membership of the Church as a “Prophet, Seer, and Revelator.” The collective members of that Quorum are viewed as being equal in authority with the First Presidency of the Church.
Elder Ballard was touring various areas throughout the South and had particularly requested to visit Harkers Island because of its history which by then had become quite well in known in Latter-day Saint circles. After having visited with the Saints, and in the course of his farewell address to the assembled membership, he is said to have prophesied that, “This Island someday will become a Mormon Paradise!”
In the years that have followed, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has grown and prospered at Harkers Island. Official membership now totals over four hundred, and average Sunday attendance is in excess of two hundred worshipers.
Church members stand at the forefront of their community in almost every avenue of achievement. And, by any measurable standards, the Harkers Island Ward is among the leaders of the Kinston, North Carolina Stake, of which it is a part.
Latter-day Saint families in Eastern Carteret County now live as far to the north as Atlantic, and in almost every hamlet that lies between there and Harkers Island. Those members are a vital part of the Mormon community that centers at the Island; from which almost all of them trace their lineage. There also is a large group of Latter-day Saints that meets at Morehead City, with members as far to the east as Beaufort. It too had its beginning as an outgrowth of the Harkers Island Ward. The sons and daughters of the Island Saints have served missions for their Church in every corner of the world. Others now live far away from the Island but proudly acknowledge that their religious roots still are planted in Harkers Island’s rich soil.
Out of the ashes of 1906, the Latter-day Saints at Harkers Island have been able both to reconstruct their building and to reaffirm their faith. They worship freely and openly, and are an accepted component of the Island community. Some of the old problems remain, new ones have arisen, and others wait on the horizon. But Harkers Island now is seen by many Mormons as an almost idyllic setting in which to live and worship as Latter-day Saints.
They would be quick to admit their bias, but more than a few of the children and grandchildren of those who sat in attendance as Elder Ballad made his prophetic promise in 1938 consider his prophecy already to have been fulfilled.