1900 Galveston Hurricane, 6/8: Finding a Vengeful God in the Whirlwind

By October 22, 2008

Earlier I wrote about Mormons who found evidence of God’s mercy or of His one true church in the 1900 Galveston Hurricane. A parallel thread in those documents was that the Lord was also vengeful, or at least millenarian. The Galveston Elders described how they and their message had been rejected; the News did likewise [1]. In 1907, the Liahona mentioned Galveston as evidence of the Last Days, concluding: “A lesson to the inhabitants of the earth: repent, stop these practices and escape these calamities to come” [2].

Other authors did similarly. For example, a poem in the Young Woman’s Journal in 1913 used Galveston in a litany of disasters illustrating that “There is no safety anywhere / Upon the face of Earth” but, though attributing the events to God, specified that they are “To warn His wayward children / … / That only through His care, / And tender mercy, will they find / A haven anywhere.” Along the same lines, a stake president writing for the Liahona in 1920 found in Galveston a fulfillment of his 1894 patriarchal blessing, which promised that he would live “upon the earth when the elements would run lawless” [3].

Closer to the storm, in 1901, Apostle Matthias Cowley mentioned some of the public-relations cost in labeling Divine vengeance and illustrated a portion of Mormon feelings about the South [4]. He began with a minister’s statement “that the Elders were claiming that the judgments of God had come upon the City of Galveston, Texas, because the inhabitants would not hearken unto the testimony of the Elder that traveled, distributed tracts and preached the Gospel in that city.” As I have demonstrated, at least some Elders, some times, were, in fact, so claiming. Elder Cowley continued:

I wish to say to you that the judgments of God do not come upon the earth simply to please the Elders of Israel. It does not please them to see the destruction of the inhabitants of the earth. That is not the idea at all. These judgments of god come upon the earth because…man has become indifferent and rebellious against the principles and authority which the Lord has established…. These judgments come upon the earth not simply because the Elders bear this testimony; but it should be put in another light, that the Elders desire to see the salvation of the people. …[A]and because they desire to see such desirable results, and because they have received a testimony…they have gone forth…and if calamity shall come upon the wicked, how can we help it? It is not in our hands to stay it. It was not in our power to provide for it. It is done by the purposes and determination of the Almighty, and is based upon conditions; and when those conditions exist, the results are bound to follow.

Thus, Elder Cowley endorsed the idea that destruction follows wickedness but recasts the missionaries as the lifeguard’s line and not the hangman’s noose. He then went all sinners-in-the-hands-of-an-angry-God about Southern cities.

If because a desolating fire occurred in Jacksonville, Florida, a few weeks ago and almost destroyed the property of the town—if it is a fact that John Z. Brown and other Elders who traversed the streets of that city and were turned out to sleep among the dry goods boxes, and were also mistreated by the police of that city, stood upon the streets and testified that if the people would not repent of their sins calamity would befall them, I cannot help it. It was not I who put the Spirit into their mouth. I could not if I would. It was done by the inspiration of Almighty God, and their words have been verified. If calamities recently overtook Birmingham, Alabama, and Meriden, Mississippi, and some other parts of the state which had participated in the shedding of the blood of A. P. Richards, and Joseph Standing, and John Gibbs, and William Berry, and the Condor boys, I cannot help that. I want to testify here this afternoon that the judgments of God will come upon the earth, and it will be in no imaginary way, it will come as a literal reality, a combination of the elements to purify the earth and prepare the way for the people of God to establish themselves in power upon the earth and to prepare the kingdom for the coming of our Lord and Savior to reign upon the earth.

Elder Cowley, like many of his co-religionists and as well-described elsewhere, preached from within a “kingdom” tradition—one that was in the process of being replaced by a more image-conscious, less-urgently millenarian Mormon “church” [5].

Much more recently, President Hinckley spoke about calamities in General Conference of 2005—only weeks after Katrina, Stan, Rita, and other disasters [6]. He listed several tragedies including the 1900 Galveston storm and noted: “How portentous are the words of revelation…concerning the calamities that should befall after the testimonies of the elders…. [Quotes D&C 88:89–91] …What we have experienced in the past was all foretold, and the end is not yet.” President Hinckley, like the other cited authors (and following the Doctrine and Covenants), correlated calamity with rejected testimony but took a far less condemnatory tone.
_________________

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

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

[2] Unsigned, “Ancient American Prophets,” Liahona, The Elders’ Journal 5, no. 23 (1907 Nov 23): 630-632. “These are the ‘last days’…referred to in…Nephi’s great prophecy [2 Ne. 37]. …And it would seem that the results…have already begun, as San Francisco’s terrible fate, and that of Galveston testify….”

[3] James W. Lesueur, “A Patriarchal Blessing and Its Fulfillment,” Liahona, The Elders’ Journal 17, no. 25 (1920 June 08): 423-425. Coral Jakeman Black, “O Safety! Where Art Thou?The Young Woman’s Journal 24, no. 8 (1913 Aug): 489-490.

[4] Matthias F. Cowley, “Proper Observance of the Sabbath Day. Discourse delivered at the Tabernacle, Salt Lake City, Sunday, June 23, 1901,” Deseret Evening News, 1901 Jul 27, p. 23.

[5] Elder Cowley’s experiences and fate are described in various books on Mormon polygamy. I take the church/kingdom distinction from Kathleen Flake’s The Politics of American Religious Identity.

[6] Gordon B. Hinckley, “If Ye Are Prepared Ye Shall Not Fear,” Ensign, Nov 2005, p. 60-62. Paragraphing changed.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. Your research is phenomenal, Edje — however did you find the 1913 poem mentioning the storm?

    Elder Cowley’s ruminations don’t do much for me, for the reasons I mentioned in my comment on the last part, but I *am* glad that he mentioned the Condor boys — so often local members are ignored while missionaries’ lives are celebrated. And he seems to leave no doubt that *he* at least thought there was foul play in the case of Alma P. Richards, although the evidence could as easily have supported a tragic accident.

    Favorite line: “He then went all sinners-in-the-hands-of-an-angry-God about Southern cities.” (BTW, the Protestant preacher at Marysvale, Utah is named Jonathan Edwards. If I had married an Edwards, I think I would have had to have named my son Jonathan, too.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 23, 2008 @ 3:46 pm

  2. I think it is a very common thing for missionaries to think that they are surrounded by vile and wicked sinners. I know I did. Towards the end of my mission I had a very new elder who had only been out for a few weeks ask me very seriously about the ordinance of shaking off the dust of our feet. He wanted to do it to the entire city of Berlin. I got a good laugh at his expense, but later had to admit that if I had know how to do it, I would have been tempted to do it more than once.

    Comment by Mark Brown — October 23, 2008 @ 4:52 pm

  3. “however did you find the 1913 poem mentioning the storm?”

    Well, it was something other than “phenomenal” research—it was a computer search. Instead of meticulously reading the entire run of the Young Woman’s Journal, I found it by entering “Galveston” into BYU’s “Twentieth-Century Mormon Documents” search engine. It was a little tedious, but it was only hours of work. The slowest part was waiting for the pages to load.

    Comment by Edje — October 23, 2008 @ 4:54 pm

  4. On Elder Cowley’s mentioning of the Condor boys… it was the first thing I noticed when I read through the piece. It is striking how invisible the local members are in many of the accounts.

    Comment by Edje — October 23, 2008 @ 4:59 pm

  5. Mark, that’s a funny story—and reflective of my own experience and immaturity. If God used the ctrl+alt+smite command on His computer with the frequency and intensity that I thought he should have as a nineteen-year-old, you’d be able to trace my path through Brazil by satellite.

    Comment by Edje — October 23, 2008 @ 5:04 pm

  6. Dusting the feet stories seem appropriate here, especially relating to the Galveston area. Before I was born, Texas City, across Galveston Bay from Galveston, suffered through fires and explosions of three freighters docked at Texas City, one of them carrying ammonium nitrate. The explosions and fires on April 16, 1947, killed almost 600 persons, and injured over 3,000. As a primary child in the 50’s and 60’s, I heard stories about how missionaries had dusted off their feet for Texas City, which brought about the explosions.

    Texas City, however, seems to have an ability to recover from these kinds of events. There have been multiple refinery and chemical plant explosions, the most recent in 2005, I believe, plus the odd hurricane or two, Ike being the most current.

    New line of instructions in the missionary handbook:

    Tract, suffer rejection, dust feet. Repeat as necessary.

    Comment by kevinf — October 23, 2008 @ 5:28 pm

  7. ctrl+alt+smite — I’ll have to remember that. 🙂 And the research was phenomenal — you make it sound like anybody could do it, but you’re the one who actually did.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — October 23, 2008 @ 5:29 pm

  8. Wow, I loved this…I need it in print!

    Comment by PJD — October 23, 2008 @ 7:48 pm

  9. Thanks, Kevin, Ardis, and PJD.

    Comment by Edje — October 23, 2008 @ 9:52 pm


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