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“And a Volcano Burst Forth”

By: Ardis E. Parshall - March 06, 2013

This is a nugget that turned up yesterday in my reading of old Church minutes. From early 1910:

Counselor [John] Abbott related a prophecy and its fulfillment in New Zealand. An Elder said that within six years the country where he stood would be destroyed and many should lose their lives. The people rejected him. Six years within a few days from then, several villages had been left and all the people gathered near the lake Rotohmohona in a feast. Two elders sought to find entertainment with them. They were rejected and cast out. They traveled 20 miles and found lodging. Almost immediately an awful convulsion occurred and a volcano burst forth in the lake and destroyed those near it and all the country within twenty miles.1

We Mormons love a good “casting out the prophets” story, a tale of divine retribution for mistreatment of Church leaders or missionaries. Think of all the claims you’ve heard that the persecutors of Joseph Smith died horrible, painful, disgusting deaths. Think of the claims that no crops would grow on the Condor farm in Cane Creek, Tennessee, after the missionaries and members were massacredtherein1884. And wasn’t there a laundry somewhere in your mission that burned down after mockingly displaying someone’s temple garments in their window? None of those Mormon legends are true …but I’d never heard about this one in New Zealand. Maybe it was the real thing? Never mind that it just doesn’t feel right: the Lord just doesn’t work that way (ever? often? in my experience?). The punishment grossly outweighs the crime. Think of how many volcanos should have sprung up in East Texas to destroy those who refused entertainment to Elder Jones on his 1899-1902 mission!

The so-called Pink and White Terraces (photographed only in black and white) on New Zealand’s North Island were world-famous beauty spots. Both delicately colored natural formations were on the edges of Lake Rotomahana, and were formed over the ages from the dried and hardened residue of the water cascading over them from some of the dozens of geysers in this active geothermal active area near the volcano of Mount Tarawera. New Zealanders lived near the lake, and European tourists gathered there to enjoy the beauty and swim in the warm pools.

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On the night of 9-10 June 1886, Mount Terawera erupted. There are romantic claims that a Maori canoe was seen in the mists on the lake, a ghost canoe recognized as the harbinger of disaster. Shapes in the mist are one thing; the physical realities of the eruption are another: Smoke and ash filled the air; hot volcanic mud and stone was thrown five miles from the volcano to land sizzling in the lake; a geologic rift opened from the side of the volcano, splitting the earth from the mountain, through the lake, and beyond. The lake drained and flooded the land, and the Pink and White Terraces were destroyed by the convulsions. (However, parts of both Terraces were rediscovered two years ago during a mapping of the bed of the lake that formed again when the earthquakes and eruption subsided. The complete Terraces may still exist, buried by sediment in their original locations, buried by a lake that is much different, much deeper, than the one that existed prior to 1886.)2

More than 150 people in several destroyed villages lost their lives in the eruption, landslides, and flooding. (Surely they didn’t all deny hospitality to an elder …)

So that’s the dramatic story of destruction. How were Mormon elders treated in 1880 (six years before the events at Rotomahana, as spelled out in the story told in the Oregon meeting in 1910)?

Here is the account of one elder, George Batt, reporting his reception in Oamaru (on the South Island, so some distance from Rotomahana, admittedly) in late July 1880:

I was a perfect stranger in the place, and advertised my arrival, and that I would be prepared to give correct information about the ‘Mormons.’ My presence soon gave rise to a great deal of excitement. On the Sunday following I held two meetings in the St. Andrew’s Hall, which were well attended, and good order was observed throughout. After we left the hall, several inquired further of our principles. I gave to all, who would accept, some of our tracts, and sold some of our Church works. During the week the papers gave as good reports as could be expected. The editor of the North OtagoTimes hoped the ‘Mormon’ elder would be given a fair hearing, and that I would enjoy my visit to Oamaru, although he thought ‘Mormonism’ was out of place and date.3

And there’s a lengthy September 1880 newspaper interview of Elder John P. Sorenson, serving in Gisborn, New Zealand. It’s hard to tell whether the errors in Elder Sorenson’s responses are due to the reporter’s carelessness or the elder’s own misunderstandings, but you recognize enough Mormon-flavored phrasing to know that the elder has in fact been interviewed. And I guarantee you that in 1880 it would have been next to impossible to find a newspaper article in the eastern United States that was as pleasant in its tone as this New Zealand paper was.

Reporter: Do you believe the revelations of the great prophet of the Mormon Church will come to pass?

Bro. S.: Certainly; It is the one real feature of our faith.

Rept.: Name a prophesy that has eventuated.

Bro. S.: The civil war in America was foretold to the very week.

Rep.: Is the report of the Mountain Meadows massacre true.

Bro. S.: Brigham Young was tried and acquitted.

Rept.: What is the object of your mission – to obtain converts? And what do you dwell principally on in your discourses?

Bro. S.: My mission is to preach to sinners that the end is nigh at hand. I preach as I receive the inspiration from God.

Rep.: Explain what you mean by the end is nigh at hand.

Bro. S.: We live in strange times. Human affairs are hastening to a crisis. International struggles are imminent, “nation rising against nation,” for supremacy and existence. Civilized governments are threatened by an internal and destructive agency, in the form of communism. This secret combination assumes different names and forms, according to the fancy of its devotees and the various stages of its advancement.4

Both of these reports by and about elders seem to indicate a fair and civil reception of the missionaries in New Zealand in 1880. I found both accounts quickly because both elders were passengers on the Rotomahana (a steamship named for the lake), but when Googling turns up positive reports in even such a small sample, you have to suspect that this treatment was general, and that traveling missionaries were not being so horrendously mistreated that divine retribution was called for.

But if this account has any basis in reality, who were the elders involved? That would seem to be virtually impossible to discover … unless they wrote about their experiences … hmm …

Google is truly the modern historian’s good friend. Elder Thomas A. Shreeve did write about his mission to Austalasia (Australia and New Zealand), which ended in 1880. He said:

I reached Auckland in due time; and on the last Sunday in June, 1880, I preached in Orange Hall, in Newton, Auckland, my farewell sermon in the Australasian Mission. I was greatly moved in delivering this final message of truth; and in the course of my address I bore a sincere testimony to the truth of the gospel, and then the spirit prompted me to give to the people assembled a solemn warning. I said:

“Other Elders will come to you; but you shall reject their testimony as you now reject mine. But after that, and before six years shall pass away other testimonies will be sent by the Almighty, which you can neither reject nor gainsay. These testimonies will be the testimonies of earthquakes and famines and pestilence; and they will continue to afflict you until but few of you shall life.”

While uttering these words I felt so strongly impressed, so confident of their truth, that I told the people to write my utterance down, and watch for its fulfillment. But when I had finished and the Spirit had left me to my own thoughts, I felt almost horrified at the nature of the prophecy which I had almost unconsciously made. I felt my humility and my weakness most vividly, and I also felt almost ashamed, and certainly very fearful concerning the fulfillment of what I had said. That feeling of doubt and almost anger with myself came upon me during the years following, whenever the subject recurred to my mind.

In June, 1886, I received a visit from a brother who had recently come from New Zealand. We were talking about the experiences of my mission, and I said to him:

“It is now just six years since I left Auckland on my return.”

No sooner were the words uttered than there flashed through my mind a recollection of the strange prediction which the Spirit had uttered through my lips in Orange Hall; and I thought to myself: “I must have been misled. I have watched the papers carefully,. And there is no sign of any such disaster as that which I predicted. If those people did as I requested – if they wrote down the prophecy as it was uttered, some of them now will say, ‘There is a falsehood which a Mormon Elder told.’”

This thing worried me for a week, but before ten days had elapsed I saw by the newspapers that a few days before the term of six years had expired a mighty and destructive earthquake occurred at Lake Rotomahana. The effects of this earthquake had been to sink the famous pink terraces of Lake Rotomahana; to substitute for the lake itself a mud volcano and five or six vomiting volcanoes sending forth steams of mud, dust, hot water and other debris which covered the country round about for miles in every direction to a prodigious depth; to destroy lives and to extinguish one village with most of its inhabitants.5

Aha! This account, published in the Juvenile Instructor’s “Faith-Promoting Series” in 1887, is without question the source of the 1910 testimony of the brother in Mt. Glen, Oregon. But what a transformation has occurred in the speaker’s memory to twist the 1887 account into his 1910 version! There’s no claim of disproportional divine retribution for lack of hospitality; it is, in fact, a fairly standard Mormon interpretation of natural disaster as a general call to repentance.

Still, it would be nice to document that Elder Shreeve had in fact made his prophecy in 1880, and hadn’t twisted his memory to fit later events. He did keep a missionary diary, which would be the most logical place to look, but I do not yet know where that diary is housed.6

I can, however, confirm the date and place of Elder Shreeve’s departure from New Zealand, because the local newspapers kept close track of him. One says, on 29 May 1880, that “The Mormon Elder, Shreeve, takes a batch of converts to Salt Lake by next mail boat.” By 23 June 1880, another paper could report that “Twenty-three Mormon converts from the South and from Australia left yesterday by the mail steamer for Utah in charge of Elders May and Shreeve.” But no report of his dramatic closing speech, and no published recollection of it six years later in connection with the volcanic eruption, so far as I have discovered.7

How do these stories get warped over time in such dramatic and characteristic ways? The “Faith-Promoting Series” account is without doubt the origin of John Abbott’s 1910 version. Maybe he had heard the story retold in the years between 1887 and 1910 (remembering the name “Rotomahana” to say it clearly enough for the ward clerk to record it as “Rotohmohona” in the minutes astonishes me, when so many other presumably more easily remembered details have been so greatly warped). I don’t know. We need the help of folklorists, perhaps, to explain what is at work in the transmission of stories like this. My skills end with tracking down the historical record, and don’t extend to explaining human psychology.

And that’s an unsatisfactory way to wind up this post, I know, but the clock is racing and I have to, too.

  1. Mt. Glen, Oregon. General Minutes. 2 January 1910. []
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pink_and_White_Terraces []
  3. “The Work in New Zealand,” Millennial Star, 29 November 1880, 764-766, reprinting a letter earlier published in the Deseret News []
  4. “A Visit from a Mormon Missionary to Gisborne,” Poverty Bay Herald, 24 September 1880, 2. []
  5. Thomas A. Shreeve, “Finding Comfort,” in Helpful Visions, Designed for the Instruction and Encouragement of Young Latter-day Saints. The Fourteenth Book of the Faith-Promoting Series. Salt Lake City: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1887, 40-81 (quotation on pages 78-80). []
  6. I know Elder Shreeve kept a diary because he incorporated passages from it in a short history he wrote of the Church in Australia and New Zealand. That history does not include any reference to his speech in Auckland, but because the history outlines only which elders served where, and when various branches were established – a narrow chronicle with no personal remarks – nothing should be read into the absence of his prophecy in that source. []
  7. “Latest Telegrams,” Auckland Evening Post, 29 May 1880, 2; “Latest Telegrams,” Poverty Bay Herald, 23 June 1880, 2. []


8 Comments »

  1. Keepasnopes? No, Snopapitchinin? Ummm, Keepasnopin’. Yeah. You’ve taught me a lot about history and being a historian, Ardis. Thanks, again.

    Comment by Carol — March 6, 2013 @ 9:32 am

  2. We just didn’t go around our mission cursing those who wouldn’t listen. We generally just cursed at our companions. (Maybe that’s why the people wouldn’t listen!)

    Comment by Grant — March 6, 2013 @ 11:09 am

  3. Now that is a great story! Thanks Ardis. Oh and happy birthday four days early! :-)

    Comment by Cliff — March 6, 2013 @ 11:47 am

  4. I remember hearing a similar story told about a refinery fire and explosion in Texas City, Texas, near Houston, back in the early 1960s as I recall. It was attributed to the elders dusting their feet after being rejected there. Interestingly enough, my oldest brother married a girl from the same basic area near Houston that he met at BYU, whose family were converted by the missionaries back in the, uh, early 1960s. Keepasnopin indeed.

    Comment by kevinf — March 6, 2013 @ 12:37 pm

  5. Great story. I was expecting something of Sodom and Gomorrah and the rains falling on the just and unjust.

    I was raised in a house where “faith promoting stories” were so generally believed to be embellished that Dad usually called them “faith promoting rumors”

    Comment by The Other Clark — March 6, 2013 @ 12:38 pm

  6. The work of folklorist William A. Wilson sheds a great deal of light on this sort of selective remembering. He spent most of his career collecting Mormon folklore, and most recently, his work has focused on the folklore of Mormon missionaries. He delivered a lecture at USU a number of years ago, titled “On Being Human: The Folklore of Mormon Missionaries.” It has been published as a monograph by Special Collections at the USU library and may be available from them or from USU Press.
    There are many reasons for stories taking the shape they do, but generally they are shaped in human memory to fit pre-existing beliefs, which tend to be much less nuanced than the reality of things.
    I wonder if Bert (William A. Wilson’s nickname) would consider doing a guest post for you responding to this blog entry. It’s a wonderful story of the evolution of a legend. I think I’ll forward the post to him and see what he has to say.

    Comment by Elaine Thatcher — March 6, 2013 @ 1:15 pm

  7. It’s not just Mormon folklore in this vein.
    My husband’s Methodist forebears erected a stone tablet at their pine log church in Rydal, GA (in the hills north of Atlanta) where in 1886 Rev. James Newton Sullivan ended a prayer service saying “Lord, if it takes an earthquake to get these people to repent, let it be”. At that moment, the Charleston-centered earthquake shook the whole Southeastern seabord and rattled the windows and there were many who went forward to the altar call.

    Comment by Allison in Atlanta — March 7, 2013 @ 11:25 am

  8. Another story from a different branch of the Sullivan family is that they were trying to hold a Methodist camp meeting in North Georgia (north of Blue Ridge) and the adjoining farmer would not let the crowds use the spring on his property for water supplies and actually fenced it off from them.

    The next week his spring dried up and essentially “moved” to the side of the fence where the camp was. They put a stone wall around it to hold the water in there and you can go see it on Methodist church property and drink from it to this day.

    Never heard what happened to the farmer when he lost his water supply.

    Comment by Allison in Atlanta — March 7, 2013 @ 11:28 am

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