Why the deaths of 1,000+ people and wholesale destruction of parts of 15 states—beginning Easter Sunday 1913? Pastors grappled for meaning
Easter Sunday was supposed to be Christians’ highest religious festival: celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and His promise to mankind of forgiveness of sins and eternal life. And in 1913, Easter, March 23
cartoon “Lilies and Crepe” appeared on the front page of the March 25, 1913 St. Joseph Gazette (Missouri) just two
days following fateful Easter Sunday 1913. The cartoon is heavy with symbolism.
(used for the bow) may indicate the Victorian custom of veiling mirrors to
prevent the spirit of the deceased from being trapped in the reflection. Lilies symbolized
many things, chiefly the Resurrection of Christ celebrated as Easter—the day
the tornadoes killed hundreds (the skeletal hand of death is writing in the
Bible) and the torrential rains began, bringing the record flood.
was greeted with the front pages of Sunday newspapers across the land proclaiming the good news, and churches adorned with lilies opening their doors and inviting all to join in singing hymns of praise.
But hours later, just as families were sitting down to Easter dinner, a dozen tornadoes struck one after another. Within four hours, 250 people had been slaughtered by violent twisters roaring across Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, and Indiana (see “‘My Conception of Hell’,” “To Build a Tornado,” and “Terror in Terre Haute”). That same evening, torrential rains began to fall relentlessly across the Midwest, especially intense over Indiana and Ohio (see “Be Very Afraid”). Within days, Noachian floods swelled without warning and swept away houses and businesses. By the time the waters were receding at the week’s end, at least 1,000 people were dead, and the angry waters were continuing their destruction down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers (see “‘Death Rode Ruthless’” and “Like a War Zone”).
Over that first week, grief-stricken ministers and congregations alike wrestled with finding meaning in apparently senseless forces that killed a thousand, injured tens of thousands, and rendered homeless hundreds of thousands more. So in 1913, the Sunday after Easter (sometimes called “low Sunday” because attendance often was lowest then after the build-up of Lent through Easter), sanctuaries were filled with bewildered parishioners seeking comfort—and comprehension of how, why such devastating calamities could befall a world governed by a good, merciful, and loving God.
Many newspapers—not just in the Midwest or Great Plains, but all the way to California—published on Monday, March 31, 1913 summarized sermons given by pastors the day before. The accuracy of the summary depended, of course, on the skill and understanding of the reporter. But details aside, the summaries give an idea of the range of lessons ministers drew.
A few ministers in 1913 alluded to the notion that God sent the devastating tornadoes and floods to chastise or punish humans—an interpretation that would have been nearly standard fare 150 or 200 years earlier and apparently still had some currency in the popular mind. At least one minister might have ventured close: “Without disaster the world forgets God,” warned the Rev. Johnstone Myers to the congregation of the Immanuel Baptist Church in Chicago.
|Piersel. Illinois |
3/31/1913 p 2
Rev. Alba C. Piersel of the First Methodist Episcopal Church in Springfield, Illinois, reinforced that message. In a sermon titled “Deity and Disaster, or Christ and Calamity” (the inspiration for the title of this post), Piersel declared: “Man is prone to overestimate…himself. …Striding the streams with cities and towns, establishing squatter sovereignty on their banks, denuding the plains of forests, making dams to stand the strain—all of this brings disaster in its train” because in overestimating himself, man underestimates God.
“God is still supreme,” Piersel reminded his listeners, and “God speaks from His pulpit in the great disaster or calamity,” reminding humanity “in flame, or flood, or tornado—‘Be still and know that I am God’.” The lesson, he asserted, is “[n]ever to be presumptive toward God.” “Suffering and sorrow are for punishment, or for perfecting” although, he hastened to add, “It is not to be presumed that those who suffer so in our recent widespread disasters are wicked.”
Other pastors disagreed. “God never hurt anybody in the whole history of the world just to show that he is great,” objected the Rev. Frederick E. Hopkins, Park Manor Congregational Church in Chicago. “The doctrine that God hated Nebraska, Ohio, and Indiana with such hatred that he could find no way to satisfy it except by such a calamity would make more infidels…in one week…since man began to believe…”
|Hayes, Hopkins, |
3/31/1913 p 3
The Rev. F. L. Hayes of the California Avenue Congregational Church in Chicago ventured to place some blame: “It was not God who brought the destruction of the floods but the carelessness of men. The lack of the proper building of bridges, the insufficiency of protection in the making of reservoirs, the indifferent inspection are the responsible causes. The law of the flood must be met by the law of the high ground. …It is the love of God that gives us the fire and the water to be our servants, but as masters they become tyrants.”
“The Ohio flood was not sent by Providence as a punishment,” declared the Rev. R. J. MacAlpine from the pulpit of Boulevard Presbyterian Church in Cleveland. Instead, “[t]he Creator seems to permit his works in nature to take their complex course, without respect of persons or circumstances. We should, therefore, learn the ominous lesson that, so far as is humanly possible, we must…impregnably defend ourselves against [nature’s] most sudden violence,” such as locating cities well back from lowlands or erecting other protections “by all the power of human genius.”
3/31/1913 p 14
“Many say the tornado is the wrath of God upon his people. I cannot see it that way,” stated the Rev. Nathaniel McGriffin at the Lowe Avenue Presbyterian Church in devastated Omaha, Nebraska. “God…permits the forces of nature to be in motion.” But he drew the line at putting faith in the works of man as an adequate defense. “The tornado shows us the futility of man’s power, ingenuity and invention. Man builds mighty works, but nature’s slightest demonstration may overwhelm them.”
In McGriffin’s view, “No more important lesson is taught in this terrible crisis than that…Man in the flesh is crushed, but his spirit is inconquerable. See it rise out of the ruins and set about the task of rehabilitation. …But let us get the full force of this lesson and recognize that this inconquerable spirit…has come down from above, the spirit of God, eternal and unchangeable, which vanquisheth not and is not bowed down. It comes to still the tempest and repair the wreck.”
|McGriffin. Omaha Bee 3/31/1913, p. 10|
Speaking to a congregation of 1,000 at the First Methodist Church in Omaha, some of whom were dressed in mourning black crepe, the Rev. M. B. Williams urged that “God can do wonders with those who will but trust in Him.” His sermon, “A Voice in the Storm,” was based on Mark 4:39–40, from the account of the disciples in a boat with Jesus on the Sea of Galilee being terrified when a storm blew up with high winds and surging waves. “And He [Jesus] arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, ‘Peace, be still.’ And the wind ceased and there was a great calm. And He said unto them, ‘Why are ye so fearful? How is it that ye have no faith?’”
Omaha Bee 3/31/1913, p. 10
Meantime in Omaha, the Omaha World-Herald reported a tragic drama among the rubble left marking the path of the tornado: “From out of a brick pile that once had been a building, but was torn away on one side and boarded up like a rough shed, came the sound of a pipe organ and anthems of praise, devotion and thanksgiving.” That was the congregation inside what remained of Trinity Methodist Church. From nearby piles of debris came the “rat-tat-tat” of the carpenter’s hammer and the rasping noise of the saw.
Yes, thanksgiving. For despite the death and destruction, so many were thankful that they and their loved ones were still alive. Despite the fact that the parish of St. Cecilia’s Church suffered the heaviest losses than any other Catholic congregation in the city of Omaha—15 houses demolished and another 50 seriously damaged—Father Daniel Harrington offered a mass of “thanksgiving that so many were spared from the destruction of the tornado.”
|St. Cecilia’s. Omaha Bee 3/31/1913, p. 10|
©2018 Trudy E. Bell
Next time: Desperate Medicine
Bell, Trudy E., The Great Dayton Flood of 1913, Arcadia Publishing, 2008. Picture book of nearly 200 images of the flood in Dayton, rescue efforts, recovery, and the construction of the Miami Conservancy District dry dams for flood control, including several pictures of Cox. (Author’s shameless marketing plug: Copies are available directly from me for the cover price of $21.99 plus $4.00 shipping, complete with inscription of your choice; for details, e-mail me), or order from the publisher.