1900 Galveston Hurricane, 5/8: Finding a Merciful God in the Whirlwind

By October 22, 2008

Missionaries and other church members detected God’s will in the 1900 Galveston Hurricane’s destruction and in the Elders’ preservation therefrom. Elder Folkman and President Duffin acknowledged divine involvement in their initial diary entries: “the Lord spared us while the city was half distroyed” [1]; “We feel deeply grateful to our Father in Heaven, for his watchful care over his servants” [2]. The Deseret Evening News emphasized the apparent miracle in its first report [3]:

…there were four Elders in the city…and they all were preserved as by a miracle, while thousands fell on the right hand, and thousands more on their left. These Elders had then been laboring in Galveston for the past three months and a half. It seems, however that their testimony had been rejected, and they were about to leave, when the flood came.

…As the water rose and reached the house…the Elders…went upstairs and commended themselves to the care of divine Providence. When morning broke and the desolation wrought stood forth in all its awe-inspiring details, it was found that the house in which the Elders were, was the only one in that entire neighborhood that had escaped damage. It seems these missionaries were, during the entire night of horror, unconscious of the extent of the visitation. …When in the morning they went out to see what damage had been done, they were astonished to learn the extent of the disaster….

The miraculous preservation of the house in which the “Mormon” Elders had been given shelter that night, must have been a powerful testimony to some of the people who had rejected their message. And there are many such testimonies both in the history of the Latter-day Saints’ mission, and in the experience of Church members. If they were written they would form a volume of peculiar interest. To the eye of faith they would demonstrate that God is the same to-day as He was in the time of Moses and of the first Apostles. …

The British Mission’s Millennial Star reprinted the article one month later [4]. There are a few familiar rhetorical patterns: like Gomorrah, rejected testimony precedes destruction; like the young man with Elisha (2 Kings 6:16), the beneficiaries of the miracle are unaware as it happens; and the signs that “follow them that believe” (Mark 16:17) identify the true church. These tropes are familiar from both nineteenth-century and present-day devotional literature. The “unaware witness” reveals both how powerful God is (His protection is so sure that the beneficiaries don’t even know the danger) and how unbiased the witnesses are (they weren’t out to prove anything, it just happened to them). I will discussion the vengeful God idea in the next post.

Interestingly, the Deseret Evening News printed the original letter a week after the first report. I don’t know why they didn’t just print the letter right off. The Elders emphasize the miracle more and set up the divine punishment morality play more clearly, but then they disavow judgment [5].

Four Elders of the Church…have been laboring as missionaries in the city of Galveston, Texas, for the past three months’ and a half. …We feel that we have done all that we could, and the rest will be left with God.

When, on the 8th of September, that great wind and flood came upon the city…we moved upstairs, took the bed clothes and a few chairs and trusted in the Lord to bring us safe through. We were confident that He would take care of His servants, and we proved it to be a fact, for that house was the only one in that neighborhood that was not damaged. When the people came back the next morning very badly frightened, the lady told us that she had wished many times in the night that she had stayed with us, for she knew we were God-serving men, and that if He saved any one, He would us. And we told them that we slept, while they wandered about in fear, as the house in which they were, rocked like a cradle. We feel truly thankful to our heavenly Father for the preservation of our lives, for if He had not heard and answered our prayers, we are satisfied, under the circumstances, we would have been numbered with the dead.

After we had talked with the people for a while, we went to see the damage that was done, when, to our astonishment, we found about half of the city in ruins, and dead and wounded on every hand. We thought we had witnessed scenes before that were heart-rending, but it was terrible to behold men, women and children lying all around us dead, either drowned or killed by the falling houses. They were hauling corpses in by the wagon loads, and they were disposed of like so many hogs, rich and poor, black and white, together; it made no difference.

…Whether God brought this destruction upon the city for its wickedness, we are not to judge.

The Elders use some of the same rhetorical strategies. They are more emphatic about the strength of the testimony, its rejection, and its connection to destruction; instead of simple, unknowing beneficiaries, they are like Daniel with the lions, calm and trusting beforehand—and then surprised at the extent of the miracle afterwards; they paint their preservation as evidence of being the Lord’s servants, but take a less didactic approach than the News. The Elders also include the “testimony” of the non-Mormon (and thus presented as unbiased) observer, Mrs. Daniels, which the News omitted. By portraying themselves as foretrusting in providence, the Elders decrease their reliability as witnesses. They augment their testimony with a second, non-foretrusting witness.

_________________

For links to other posts in this series, please see here.

[1] Folkman diary, 1900 Sep 08.

[2] Duffin diary, 1900 Sep 18. On the same day that President Duffin first learned about Galveston (1900 Sep 12) he was in a train wreck. He found God’s protective hand there also: “I was lying down on my seat the time of the wreck, but I was not thrown off my seat. It was very remarkable how our car was preserved, and I know it was by the power of God to protect his servants in the discharge of their duties. Our preservation is a great testimony to me of the watchful care of my Father in Heaven over me, and I feel very grateful for it.”

[3] “Elders at Galveston Safe,” Deseret Evening News, 1900 Sep 18, p. 4. Paragraphing changed.

[4] “A Wonderful Manifestation,” The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star 62, no. 42 (1900 Oct 18): 670-671. The content is the same except for one sentence addressed to “The friends of the four Elders…,” which is omitted in the British version.

[5] Peter A. Norton, Samuel Shaw, Horace L. Johnson, Heber N. Folkman, “The Disaster to Galveston. Four Latter-day Saint Elders Miraculously Preserved.” Deseret Evening News, 1900 Sep 22, p. 22. Paragraphing changed.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. This is another fascinating glimpse into this whole dramatic episode. It seems very Mormon — or is it just very human? — to try to understand terrible events by finding a reason or cause, and when there is no reason by assuming that God directed it to be exactly so.

    Frankly, when I go through old documents looking for history, I much prefer the materials that give additional details about the event — what did it smell like? how did the writer feel? how many? how big? what color? — and I get frustrated when accounts skim lightly over events and then go on for paragraphs thanking God or cursing the evil people or whatever. I find God more by imagining myself into the history, which requires detail, and almost not at all by reading the thanks or the testimonials in first person accounts like these. Sometimes I wish I could shake people of the past and say “Don’t tell me! *Show* me!”

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 23, 2008 @ 3:39 pm

  2. Amen, Ardis!

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 23, 2008 @ 4:07 pm

  3. Preach it, sister. I sometimes wade through a missionary diary and end up thinking, “you carried this thing for thousands of hot, miserable miles and wrote in it when you would rather have been resting. You paid the price, why not write something substantive?” (Says me, whose mission diary has frequent entries saying only, “Tired.”)

    I think it is a very nearly universal reflex to stick causes in front events. These accounts are Mormon only in the details—which rejected testimony, who is saved and who not.

    Comment by Edje — October 23, 2008 @ 4:49 pm


Series

Recent Comments

Steve Taysom on Guest Post: Introducing Foundational: “This looks amazing”


Jacob H. on Guest Post: Introducing Foundational: “The authors and topics all look fantastic”


Ben P on Guest Post: Introducing Foundational: “Really looking forward to this, Mark.”


H. Michael Marquardt on Guest Post: Introducing Foundational: “Thanks Mark. I ordered a copy of the book on December 1.”


Hannah N. on 2017 in Retrospect: An: “Whoops! Realized it was an older book after I posted the comment. Thank you!”


Ben P on 2017 in Retrospect: An: “Hannah: that's because we highlighted the book last year!”

Topics


juvenileinstructor.org