Strengthened by the Storm: The Early Mormons of Harkers Island, NC, by Joel G. Hancock.
And we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know . . . (2 Nephi 25:26)
Latter-day Saints (Mormons) in the Southeastern United States have their own distinctive history. Often, however, it is assumed that the story of Mormonism had its beginning in upstate New York and continues only within the Great Basin of the Rocky Mountains. That feeling is subconsciously reinforced as many of the local wards and stakes of the Church are led by members whose roots go back through Utah. “Pioneer stories” inevitably become anecdotes about a trek westward across the Great Plains. Among followers of a religion about which it has been asserted that it “uses its history as its theology,”1 any perception of an historical void is of no small concern.
Likewise, many Southerners fail to appreciate that Mormons have been part of their religious landscape for more than a century. In a region known as the “Bible Belt,” it is tempting to overlook the contributions, or even the presence, of religious sects other than mainstream or fundamentalist Protestant denominations.
In reality the South has had its own Latter-day Saint pioneers of which it justifiably can be proud. Their stories are less well known than those of their western counterparts, but they are just as dramatic and equally as heroic. And though Mormons are few in number when compared to some other denominations, the growth and development of their sect confirm a religious diversity in the South far greater than generally is supposed. Indicative of both suggestions is the story of the traumatic birth of Mormonism at Harkers Island, North Carolina.
In some ways it parallels in a microcosm the rise of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a whole. The players and the plot are similar, only the faces and names are different. It is the story of valiant young missionaries earnestly fulfilling their calls to serve; of a few special families who listened and then accepted what they heard; of a short period of acceptance and prosperity followed by a decade of intense persecution; and finally, of a resurgent and determined band of believers fulfilling their leaders’ prophecy that theirs could become a “Mormon Paradise.”
My mother, Margarette Lewis Hancock, took special care to assure that each of her ten children was made aware of this unique Mormon heritage. I vividly recall how she would tell us stories from the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the Restoration period of the nineteenth century. But I especially remember the heartfelt emotion with which she would relate to us, her children, the early days of Mormonism at Harkers Island.
Her rendition was based upon the stories told to her by her mother, Bertha Willis Lewis. My grandmother had witnessed or participated in many of those earlier dramatic events. The impression of those experiences was profound upon her and all of those who shared them with her. What they came to believe, and sacrificed in its behalf, became badges of honor to every one of them. They challenged their children to keep those things alive in their memory. My mother responded to that challenge and tried to instill in her children that same responsibility.
The following pages are my confirmation to her, and to others, that I have accepted her charge. Even with the passing of almost a century, the images and impressions of that era are still fresh and clear to some. Yet the memory of specific details was blurred by time, and finally erased by the death of those very first Harkers Island Mormons. Unfortunately, many of the particulars that earlier might have been obvious, had been seemingly lost to the present generation. I have tried, in so far as possible, to reconstruct from the available records an account of those early events.
I must confess that I did not set out with the intention that this work would be quite so involved or detailed. The fine art of storytelling, in which my parents were so gifted, is not my forté. So, at first, I proposed only to leave a written record for the children, mine and theirs. I soon decided, however, that I should make the story one that each of the local members of the Church might like to share.
But because the story necessarily involved all who lived at and around Harkers Island during that period, it seemed fitting that it be told from a perspective that all Harkers Islanders might appreciate. Finally, I was encouraged to include enough background and explanation to make those events understandable to a potential reader who is neither Mormon nor from Harkers Island.
The reader is nonetheless forewarned; I write from the distinct perspective of being both a Mormon, by tradition as well as faith, and a child of the unique culture that is Harkers Island. It is hoped that the added sensitivity caused by those influences will help to atone for what may be lost in objectivity.
Perhaps I should apologize for being so late in starting serious research into this subject. Had I been only five years earlier, I might have gathered much valuable information from Bessie Willis Hancock, the last of the “first generation” of Harkers Island Mormons. Aunt Bessie died in 1982, taking with her the last eyewitness account of many of the important events that I will attempt to describe. Still earlier, I might have asked specific questions of Jasper Wade, Henrietta Salter, or Letha Lewis. Each was an important player in the story I am about to tell, and all have passed away in my lifetime. I also have known many others of the children of those first members, but, unfortunately, I did not think to inquire of them until it was too late.
Thankfully, some of those first generation children are still around to answer my questions. Though they were not there in person, their account, taken from the narratives of their parents, remains vivid and detailed. It is evident that they have both heard and told these stories many times throughout their lives. I am grateful that I did get to them in time to record and transcribe their accounts.
I also should add that those recollections have been retained by many non-Mormons as well. They too have been very willing to share their anecdotes and stories. Like their Mormon friends, they take pride in the fact that together they were able to overcome the problems of the past.
I recognize that oral traditions are often limited and sometimes unreliable. But the written records from that period, most of which were unknown to local residents until this effort began, have served to verify those traditions to be impressively accurate even if they are not always complete. Perhaps because of the stability of the population of the Island, with very little movement to or away from the community, oral chronicles have remained remarkably true to fact. Each succeeding generation has retained a feeling for both the setting and the circumstances of the stories told to them by their parents.
Thankfully, however, I did not have to rely on oral traditions alone. Latter-day Saints are noted for their ubiquitous journals and diaries and their voluminous files and registers. The early members themselves did not leave much in the way of journals or other written records. But I was able to find many relevant reports originating from the Island that now are found in the Church’s archives in Salt Lake City. Most of these are in the manuscript files of the Southern States Mission.
The baptismal records of the Church, also on file in Salt Lake City, likewise proved invaluable. They revealed when and who was baptized with each such entry telling a distinct story to a perceptive reviewer. They also record who performed the ordinance and as such gave leads for finding further information.
It was from the latter that I was able to uncover my most extensive and precise records from that era; the private journals of the various missionaries who served at the Island during those years. After literally hundreds of phone calls and letters, I was able to find and contact the descendants of many of them. And, most importantly, several of them were able to locate and make available the journals that were to tell much of the story that I feared was lost.
I was especially fortunate to gain access to several specific journals that related to particularly significant episodes and events. Elder William Hansen’s journal chronicled in detail the first missionary visit to the Island. Sadly, the journal of his companion, Elder John Telford, was lost in a house fire many years ago. But I did uncover his daily log book that briefly listed each day’s activities and contacts.
Elder James Godfrey’s journal recorded the rapidly moving events of 1899 and 1900 when so many joined the Church. The diaries of Elders William Adams and James Taylor gave a vivid picture of what life was like in 1901 and 1902, an early high point of Mormon tolerance and acceptance at the Island. Elders William Hobbs and Lewis Johnson described the continued growth in numbers, as well as the tension that surrounded the building of the first Latter-day Saint meetinghouse. Elder William Petty’s journal was a stirring account of the traumatic events of 1906.
It is unfortunate that there are no written records left by those who came to oppose the growth of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at Harkers Island. I am sure they had their own viewpoint and some heartfelt reasons for what they did. I have tried to speculate as to what these might have been. Several non-Mormon friends have been most helpful in offering suggestions in this regard. But I would prefer to have had more concrete evidence of what caused them to take the positions they assumed. In spite of that deficiency, I hope that this rendering of the events in question will be judged to have been reasonable and fair, even if it is not completely balanced.
Ultimately, this work ought not to be viewed only as a religious study, though of necessity it must deal with that subject. Nor should it be regarded merely as an historical record, though I have tried to be both thorough and accurate. Rather, it is intended that it might be accepted as one man’s account of his recent ancestors; of a small group of people united by what they believed, and by what they were willing to endure rather than deny it. It is hoped that it might prove a fitting tribute, as well as a lasting memorial, to those whose faith and courage are chronicled in the pages that follow.
The Second Edition was not very different from the first, except that it was on smaller pages and in paperback. There were the obligatory grammatical corrections and a few stylistic changes intended to make the text more readable. Footnotes were at the end of the text, rather than at the bottom of pages, for much the same reason.
The second printing also included several poems that were inspired by the stories told in the narrative. They were inserted as close as was practical to the relevant accounts.
The Second Edition would not have been possible without the generous help of the current North Carolina Raleigh Mission President, Robert Hickman, and that of his wife, Lucy. The Hickmans were an inspiration, as well as the benefactors that allowed me to go ahead at that time with something I had not anticipated for another decade. The missionaries they directed were the most avid readers of the original volume, and attentive listeners to this story as I related it at firesides over the years. In short, without the Hickmans and their missionaries, the second printing would not have been practical. (1993)
The Special Web Edition was renamed Strengthened by the Storm, The Early Mormons of Harkers Island, NC, only because the original name (The Coming of the Mormons to Harkers Island, NC 1897-1909) was so hard to say and remember. (2000)
*1 Adele Brannon McCollum, “The First Vision: Re-Visioning Historical Experience,” Literature of Belief, (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1981) p. 193.