Diseases transmitted by mosquitoes have often caused fear in the population just as is currently the case with respect to Zika. One of the most fearsome of the diseases, yellow fever, also called “Yellow Jack,” was often transmitted by the needle-bearing insects as they attacked the residents of several cities near the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf Coast, and inland waterways of the United States. Between the 1793 epidemic in Philadelphia and the last recorded United States outbreak in New Orleans in 1905, other cities stricken–sometimes more than once–included New York and Boston, Baltimore, Wilmington, N.C., Charleston, Savannah, St. Augustine, Memphis, and Mobile. In 1855, Portsmouth and Norfolk which are across the Elizabeth River from each other in Virginia were devastated by an epidemic that robbed the two cities of about 3,000 of their combined population of roughly 23,000. At the time of the Yellow Jack plague, Rev. George D. Armstrong had been the minister of the First Presbyterian Church of Norfolk for about four years. He would minister to his congregation, to those of other denominations, and to many others afflicted and mourning residents of his city.
George Dodd was born to Rev. Amzi and Polly (Dodd) Armstrong in Mendham, New Jersey, in 1813. Amzi had taught school before his ordination in 1796 to serve in the Presbyterian Church in Mendham where he would pastor for two decades. Though George grew up with a minister father, it appears his interests were in the sciences when he attended Princeton College and graduated in 1832. He moved to Richmond, Virginia, where his brother, William J. Armstrong, was the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church having succeeded John Holt Rice. During George’s stay with his brother, he taught school for his living and was apparently influenced by his brother to become a minister. George continued teaching while he prepared for the ministry at the Presbyterian seminary in Farmville, Union Theological Seminary. He completed his studies in 1837. Lexington Presbytery licensed him to preach that fall, but the following January he became Professor of Chemistry and Mechanics in Washington College at Lexington in the scenic Shenandoah Valley. It was during his combined teaching and preaching work that he married Mehetable Hughes Porter in 1840. He was not ordained until 1843 when he was called by his presbytery to be an evangelist with duties that included supplying the Presbyterian pulpit at Timber Ridge. Evangelist Armstrong continued his preaching and college work until 1851 when he accepted the pastoral call to First Presbyterian Church, Norfolk, Virginia.
It was mentioned in the opening paragraph that after just a few years in Norfolk, Rev. Armstrong was faced with the challenges of ministry during a catastrophic epidemic of yellow fever. Armstrong’s first published book was The Summer of the Pestilence, 1856, which provided insight into his ministerial thoughts, concerns, and challenges during the catastrophic epidemic. The first cases of yellow fever occurred about mid July 1855 in Portsmouth and the source of the contagion was believed to be a steamer from the island of St. Thomas. The citizens of Norfolk were concerned that the fever would be transmitted across the Elizabeth River to infect its citizens. Their fears were confirmed in short order when cases were diagnosed in Norfolk. As the severity of the epidemic in both cities unfolded, Rev. Armstrong struggled with whether or not a minister should remain in the city or flee with the others seeking safety. He decided to stay with his family and he would pay a price for his decision. However, his decision to stay rested upon the providence and sovereignty of God.
For myself, I can say that, in the prospect of the possible spread of the fever throughout our city, I have no anxious thought. The pestilence, when raging in its most terrible violence, and when man stands appalled before it, is yet ever under God’s control, and can claim no victims but such as are given it (p. 29).
By mid August, twenty of the sixty reported cases had resulted in death, and by the last week of the month Armstrong’s congregation lost its first member to the pestilence, Edmund James, who happened to be Armstrong’s nephew. Whole households of the First Presbyterian Church and those of other churches along with those without a church were sick with the fever. On the Lord’s Day of September 2, Armstrong reported that the congregants in attendance at First Church, which was one of the three largest of the denomination in Virginia, numbered but twenty seven out of a communicant membership of 296. As the days of September passed, the mortality rate increased. Writing on Wednesday, September 12, Armstrong commented that he was regularly burying one or more members of his church daily, so that when he awoke in the morning he would ask himself, “Whom have I to bury today?” The Armstrong’s eldest daughter, twelve-year-old Mary, was stricken with the fever, but then enjoyed some recovery only to die late in September when the fever’s rage returned for another attack. The dignity of personal funeral services could no longer be allowed in many cases because sufficient coffins were not available and the fear of other diseases arising from decaying bodies led to the use of mass graves. On one particular day a gravedigger told Rev. Armstrong that he had over ninety coffins to bury and this number did not include those to be interred in the Roman Catholic cemetery. Every where one turned in Norfolk and Portsmouth there were coffins awaiting remains and others awaiting burial. They were on the decks of steamers coming from Baltimore, hauled in the beds of wagons traversing the streets, stacked around the doors of hospitals, or at the cemetery awaiting burial. Even Rev. Armstrong was afflicted with the scourge at one point, but he survived to continue his ministry. However, his family had not fared so well because not only Edmund and lovely Mary had died, but also his wife Mehetable and her sister Hatty Potter. Two younger children, Cornelia and Grace, were very sick with the fever but they were blessed with recovery and would live to be adults. The new cases of yellow fever reported waned so that by the second week of November there were two deaths. The signs of the disease abating prompted Armstrong to have a worship service in his church for the first time in many weeks. However, even though the epidemic was coming to an end, he noticed considerable evidence of its rage. There were only three families in the congregation not wearing mourning attire and in every part of the church “there were vacant seats, which called up to memory the forms of those who once occupied them” (p. 157). There was also a special area of the church where about sixty children between the ages of two and fourteen that had been orphaned by the pestilence were seated. Some of the children had been found alive in their homes next to the body of a mother or father recently deceased. How does a seminary prepare ministerial students to shepherd their flocks and bring the gospel to the lost in an environment of catastrophic wholesale death of the image bearers of God?
After the epidemic, Rev. Armstrong continued in what would be his one and only call as a fulltime minister. He married Lucretia Nash Reid of Norfolk in 1857. When the Civil War began he served as a chaplain for the Confederacy and at one point was imprisoned by the Union Army. His forty years of ministry to his own flock and others within the area had led to the establishment of several new churches. He was an active participant in the church courts, though he was not honored by serving as the moderator of a general assembly. He was recognized for his work with an honorary doctorate given by the College of William and Mary in 1854, and then with the LL.D. by Washington and Lee in 1886. In 1891, when he retired from active ministry at First Church, Dr. Armstrong was honored with a special celebration that was led by ministers from the local churches including Moses D. Hoge of the Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond.
George Dodd Armstrong, D.D., LL.D., died in Norfolk on May 11, 1899. His ministry as pastor and citizen was recounted in his lengthy obituary in Norfolk’s Virginian-Pilot for Friday, May 12, with page one coverage. He was buried in Elmwood Cemetery where included on his obelisk grave marker is inscribed “For I determined not to know anything among you save Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).
Dr. Armstrong continued writing after the publication of The Summer of the Pestilence in 1856. He published the books, Doctrine of Baptisms, 1857, Theology of Christian Experience, 1860, The Sacraments of the New Testament, 1861, and The Two Books of Nature and Revelation Collated, 1886. His shorter works included Study of Natural Science as a Means of Intellectual Culture, 1841, Two Discourses on Infant Baptism, 1852, The Lesson of the Pestilence: A Discourse Preached in the Presbyterian Church, Norfolk, Virginia, Dec. 2, 1855, Politics and the Pulpit, 1856, Thanksgiving Sermon on the Victory of Manassas, 1861, Historical Discourse of Twenty-Five Years’ Ministry in the First Church, Norfolk, Virginia, 1876, and The Higher Criticism and its Conclusions-Three Discourses Preached in the First Presbyterian Church, Norfolk, Va., 1884. Included in The Presbyterian Quarterly of October 1888 was his article, “The Pentateuch Story of Creation,” on pages 345-368.
BY BARRY WAUGH
Notes–Some sources say G. D. Armstrong’s mother’s name was Mary and one mentions that Polly was her nickname. The brother that George lived with in Richmond, William, drowned in Long Island Sound in 1846. A history of Armstrong’s church in Norfolk is available under the title, The Church on the Elizabeth River: A Memorial of the Two Hundred and Tenth Anniversary of the First Presbyterian Church of Norfolk, VA. 1682-1892, Richmond: Whittet and Shepperson, circa 1892, published by order of the session.
Sources–The portrait of Armstrong was provided by Director Wayne Sparkman, C.A., Th.M., of the P.C.A. Historical Center in St. Louis, Missouri. I have spared readers the grizzly symptoms of the horrible disease that is yellow fever, which the Spanish called vómito negro because victims’ vomit was black. For a summary of its symptoms see pages 33-34 of J. R. McNeill’s, Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914, Cambridge University Press, 2010. A review of McNeill’s book is available on Presbyterians of the Past by clicking HERE. The map showing the Norfolk-Portsmouth region is from, Appleton’s Atlas of the United States, New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1888. The populations of Norfolk and Portsmouth used were from the 1850 census as tallied on www.census.gov/population/www/documentation/twps0027/tab08.txt.