Mormons of Harkers Island, Introduction

Strengthened by the Storm: The early Mormons of Harkers Island, NC, by Joel G. Hancock.

Introduction to 20th Anniversary Edition

Has it really been twenty years since this book first was published? In more ways than one, it seems like a matter of weeks and months, rather than years and decades. But, the calendar does not lie. The first hardback edition was published in the fall of 1989, and most of the research and writing was done in 1988.

A picture of the cape lookout lighthouse overlooking Shackleford Banks on Harkers Island.

The Cape Lookout Lighthouse Overlooking Shackleford Banks

In preparing this edition and in re-reading the text to make appropriate changes and additions, I often was reminded of the moment when I learned, heard, or settled upon the precise words that made their way onto the pages. Many times I was drawn to my memories of the old folks who shared with me their recollections and their wisdom as I inquired of them about this story and the people who lived it. Almost all of those living witnesses are now gone. Chauncey & Dorothy Guthrie, Carl & Clara Willis, my Aunt Lillian Davis, and many others who were the children and heirs to the legacy that I was trying to preserve. And my most important bond with the past, my own parents, Charlie & Margarette Hancock, are no longer here with me, and no longer able to shed the light of their memory on stories that even twenty years ago had all but faded into black.

My sentiments toward them all are best expressed in a quote I have borrowed from Wendell Berry in his book, Jayber Crow, commenting on the passing of that generation. “They were rememberers,” he writes in conclusion, “carrying in their living thoughts all the history that such places as [Harkers Island] ever have. I listened to them with all my ears, and have tried to remember what they said, though from remembering what I remember I know that much is lost. Things went to the grave with them that will never be known again.”

As I prepare this new edition of Strengthened by the Storm, I am also at work on what I hope will be a more lasting tribute to them, and to many others who were so much a part of my growing up on Harkers Island in the mid 20th century. Over the past several years I have endeavored to compile some of their stories, and their yarns, and hope to be able to weave them into a narrative account of what living with them, and learning from them, was like for me and my generation.

Earlier editions of this book were very much influenced and encouraged by the then serving Presidents of the North Carolina Raleigh Mission of the Church. President Neal Lambert (1986-1989), encouraged the first (hardback) edition. President Robert Hickman (1992-1994) was similarly involved with second (paperback) edition. They and their missionaries were among the most avid readers of, and listeners to, the stories now included in the book. Many of the printed versions are now in the homes of these leaders and the missionaries they directed.

The current Mission President, President Budge Wallis (2006-2009) has carried on that tradition and has been a major impetus in getting this new edition ready for printing. Surely, one reason for his personal interest is that his grandfather, Elder James Wallis, was one of the major characters in the story that is unfolded in these pages. As an assistant to the President of the Southern States Mission (that included North Carolina) in 1905 and 1906, he provided leadership to members and missionaries in responding to
the mounting threats and violence that erupted in January of 1906, and culminated later that summer. One can only imagine the emotions President Wallis must feel as he now lives and serves among the descendants of the very people with whom his grandfather toiled a full century earlier!

My own experiences during these past two decades have not been without their influence on the way this story might be retold, and especially on the storyteller himself. For almost all of that time I have been in the leadership of the LDS Church in this portion of eastern North Carolina. For the last eight years I have been the Stake President. One of my responsibilities has been to visit with the members and leaders in the various wards and to counsel them in matters relative to church organization, and their relations
with other faiths and denominations. From that experience I have gained a broader, and less parochial, perspective on how we, the Latter-day Saints, continue to be perceived by others.

There is, however, one factor that distinguishes the story of the early Mormons of Harkers Island from that of the other wards and branches in eastern North Carolina, and one with which I have in the last two decades become all too familiar. Beginning with the winter storm of 1993 (The Storm of the Century) and through the hurricanes of 1996 (Bertha & Fran), 1998 (Bonnie), 1999 (Dennis & Floyd), 2003 (Isabel), and 2005 (Ophelia), I have gained a far better appreciation for the disruptive effects of hurricanes and storms.  Much like the ones that caused the demise of Diamond City and the rapid settlement of Harkers Island in 1899, I have seen them bring out both the best and the worst in those who have endured them.

Today, I observe very little difference in how the Latter-day Saints are perceived, wherever the church is established in the  eastern section of North Carolina. And looking back, the faith of the members, and the social environment caused by their history, were almost precisely the same on Harkers Island as in other areas in eastern North Carolina from 1897 to 1909. If that be the case, why then the difference in how the early Mormons were accepted and treated on Harkers Island a century ago? I have surmised that it was the upheaval caused by the violent storms that the latter endured, tearing at almost every fabric that bound them as a community, that served as a catalyst to the tumult that eventually engulfed the small flock of believers that included my grandparents. Lest there be any misunderstanding of my perspective, I had grandparents who stood firmly on both sides of the conflict.

Finally, a major influence on both the timing and the tone of this edition has been the public’s reaction to the presidential candidacy of former Massachusetts Governor, Mitt Romney, a lifelong Mormon. Some of the discussions, both public and private, that surrounded him and his religious faith, have opened my eyes in a new way to how the Latter-day Saints continue to be perceived. Included in that reaction has been a host of email messages and web postings that, often by accident, happened across my desk or into my inbox. The general tenor of those publications has convinced me that more than 100 years after the
burning of the LDS meetinghouse on Harkers Island, some of the prejudices and misunderstandings that caused it still simmer – and not always beneath the surface.

Joel G. Hancock
September 2008

Go to Mormons of Harkers Island, Foreward

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