Strengthened by the Storm: The Early Mormons of Harkers Island, NC, by Joel G. Hancock.
Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you. (Matthew 5: 11-12)
The 19th century did not go quietly; not for the country as a whole, and not for the still sleepy backwater that was eastern Carteret County. Looking back through the prism of time, it is interesting to note just how similar the turn of the 19th century was to the one witnessed less than a decade ago. Indeed, it is a tragic irony of North Carolina weather history that the last several years of both centuries witnessed two of the most destructive storms for several decades. Many today will recall the hurricanes of 1996, especially Fran in September of that year. Almost exactly three years later, Floyd in the same month of 1999, was one of the most destructive natural disasters ever to hit the Tarheel state. But similar storms in 1896 and again in 1899 might have been equally as powerful, and even more disruptive, at least to the small group of people who lived on the lower Outer Banks.
Yet the broader similarities in how time honored traditions seemed to be challenged and overturned as the centuries waned are much more sweeping than any meteorological coincidences would suggest. Most people cannot help but remember the anxiety associated with Y2K, as the turn of the 21st century came to be known. But the advent of the 20th century had some of its own strains. Not the least of them resulted from the dawn of a new industrial and technological age that in its own way, was at least as revolutionary as the information and communications upheavals of the most recent two decades. What may be even more telling is that in the 1890’s, and again a hundred years later, patterns of living that had changed but little over the previous decades, seemed suddenly to be turned on their heads, and people were forced to adjust to a new way of life, long before most felt ready.
In 1890, Americans in general, and the people of eastern Carteret County in particular, lived much as their grandparents had lived for generations uncounted, when most things moved at a speed somewhere between that at which a man could walk and a horse could run. Printed images and information could travel no faster than whatever the postal service could offer. Yet their children would live in a vastly different world. Some of them would live to drive in their own automobiles, and many of their grandchildren would watch live on television as the first man stepped down upon the surface of the moon.
By the 1890s, Thomas Edison’s electric lights were beginning to show up in private homes as well as atop the lamp posts of towns and cities, and Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone had begun to replace the telegraph as the mode of long-distance communication. Word had begun to spread about the “horseless carriages” that could maneuver over paths and dirt roads much faster than the horses they were intended to replace. Steel forges were pouring out ever stronger and more affordable beams and girders that had transformed both the skylines of cities, and the mills and factories that employed more and more of their people. Small and efficient air-cooled gas engines were even beginning to replace the canvas sails that had powered the skiffs and dories of Carteret County watermen for two hundred years. Then, soon after the turn of the century, in 1903, the world’s very first airplane would take off, and then touch down, less than one hundred miles north of shores where the Bankers of Carteret County still marveled at the waterfowl that glided just above them.
Though the “Gilded Age” of American history was coming to a close, large corporations and the “robber barons” who owned them still lorded over much of American commerce and society. But a “populist” and “progressive” movement had begun to take hold. In his unsuccessful campaign for the Presidency in 1896, William Jennings Bryan, had delivered his famous “cross of gold” speech, and though he lost the election, he had ignited a movement that would leave its mark on both of the major political parties in little more than a decade.
Yet, in the South, social movement in the years just before and after 1900 had been in the opposite direction of the progress that was by then the hallmark of science, commerce, and industry. With the end of the “Reconstruction” that had followed the Civil War, there arose a strong and often violent reaction by Southern whites who sought to “redeem their states.” The previous forty years were viewed as an extended nightmare that had been imposed upon them in turn by abolitionists, the Union Army, congressional radicals, carpetbaggers & scallywags, and by Northerners in general. Their redemption seemed finally to have been secured when in 1896 the United States Supreme Court had given legal sanction to separation of the races. And, by then, separation had come to mean the total subjugation of all Negroes with little regard for even the most basic of their civil and legal rights.
Repression of Blacks, always coercive and often violent, helped to create an atmosphere and an attitude that was easily extended beyond racial differences. It was often directed towards anyone or anything that seemed to threaten the accepted status-quo of the lifestyle they felt needed protection— or at least the one they assumed that their parents and grand-parents had enjoyed. Recent immigrants from southern and eastern Europe and from Asia, union-organizers and social workers from the north, as well as Jews and Catholics from almost anywhere, all came to know and fear the vigilante groups that were formed to impose their social and religious orthodoxy on everyone else. This systematic intimidation of anyone and anything that was deemed as threatening was made more pervasive and forbidding by sheriffs and prosecutors, as well as judges and juries, that often were willing to look the other way.
It was into this sociological and political mix that Mormon missionaries, mostly from Utah, arrived in North Carolina at the beginning of the last decade of the 19th century, and in coastal sections of the state by the late fall of 1897. By the time that matters reached a crisis state on Harkers Island in late 1904, there was already an ominous history of violence against the missionaries and their converts in the Southern states. A Mormon elder, Joseph Standing, had been brutally murdered by a mob in southern Georgia in 1879, and in 1884 two missionaries and two members were murdered by a similar mob in Lewis County, Tennessee. With this as a backdrop, threats of violence against both property and persons had to be taken seriously.
Still, the young Mormon elders who were sent to coastal North Carolina, were little deterred by what they may have heard about the welcome that awaited them. Poised with their message, and confident in their mission, they came as they had been directed, and within weeks some of them had found a following and a home among the bankers and watermen of the coast. Soon they and their friends would be both tried and tested, but time would prove them equal to the challenge, and the testing to have helped ensure the success and survival of their work and their legacy. The pages that follow is their story, and of their efforts, and especially of the people that greeted them.
* * *
Modern visitors to Harkers Island, North Carolina, see a wide variety of trees lining the several roads that bisect the community. Elms, willows, poplars, and myrtles now stand beside the pines, cedars, and maples that once ruled the terrain. But even today, along the south shore, the skyline is dominated by twisted oaks; oaks of a variety that appears to be native to Harkers Island alone. Each is distinctive in its trunk and branches, but they are enough alike to be clearly recognizable as Island Oaks.
For in spite of their many unique features, the shoreline oaks of Harkers Island all share the same southern facade that slopes gently and smoothly upward. In early spring their bright new leaves appear to have been fashioned by a master landscaper as they steadily incline toward the higher ground. But no mere mortal hands have given the oaks such a distinctive shape. Instead they have been sculptured by centuries of exposure to the prevailing southwesters that carry humid salt air in their otherwise refreshing breezes. This upward grade of the windward branches gives lift to the breeze and helps to spare the less sturdy inland trees from the destructive effects of the salty mists.
Yet in the face of hurricane-force winds even the protective shield of the oaks is unable to deflect all of the salty air from reaching the more tender needles and leaves. Within weeks after a serious storm, leaves fall from the maples and willows, while the needles of the cedars and pines turn a dreary burnt orange. The mighty oaks alone give an appearance of having withstood the ravages of the tempest.
Local tradition holds that the oaks are not just more durable than the rest, but that they are, in fact, made greener and fuller by the storm itself. The torrential rains that accompany the winds are said to soak deep into the sandy soil and give added nourishment to the roots of the sturdy hardwoods. The weaker trees may be damaged by the rampaging winds, but not the oaks. They are strengthened by the passing storms.
Early converts to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Harkers Island also were exposed to raging storms. But instead of a salty mist, they faced the winds of intolerance, prejudice, and persecution. Much like the tender inland trees, the faith of some of the first members fell victim to the strident opposition. But many others took added resolve from the things they endured. Like the oaks under which they were forced to hold their meetings, they were strengthened by the storm.
Emily Marlowe Hancock, October 22, 1987
On my trip to the shore I did see
Aged, wind-blown oaks looking over the ocean
As if endlessly waiting for a lost love.
Their shield from the cold, the warm sun above.
Their comfort, the buzzing of a boat passing by.
Their playmates, the carefree birds floating in the sky.
Their security, the quick flash of the lighthouse at night.
Oh my, oh my, what a lovely sight!