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[It was not my intent to use this poem today, but Matthew’s comments yesterday offered an opening. Jelle Pelmulder, Sioux County’s (IA) first school master, wrote this poem in 1874, within a fragile community only four years old. His theology may strike contemporary readers as harsh, but his concern is with the community he serves. Amid his doubts and fears, Pelmulder conveys at least something of that warmth Matthew’s post honors.  

The manuscript belongs to and is on display at the Sioux County Museum, Orange City, Iowa. 

An estimated 12.5 trillion Rocky Mountain locusts descended on the rural Midwest from July 20 to July 30, 1874. They virtually devoured everything in a swath of land  measuring almost 200,000 square miles. Pelmulder’s prayers, I’m sure, were not alone.]


An Outburst of Prayer*
at the coming of the locusts
July 17, 1874

In the northern heavens something rises,
from the horizon–fog maybe
or smoke billowing so far up into the sky
it takes my breath away, so high,
it seems the wind has wings.

Oh, my God,
they swarm as countless
as the sand on the shores of the sea.

The fields all around,
the hopes of every farmer here,
will go up like smoke and vapor,
consumed by locusts whose appetites
will not be filled ‘til everything is gone.

To forget the sheer delight we all just felt
from lovely grains in gardens and in fields? —
Will they take every tree, every bush?

Can you see my tears, Lord?
will you hear my voice?
I lift my soul to you on high:
Must all of what we have be lost?

Forgive my iniquitous complaints,
but when I see the poor among us,
in perfect rows set for slaughter,
really, Lord, must all of it go?
gardens and fields, bushes and trees?
Must all of what we have be lost?

Merciful Father, I’m on my knees.
That host of locusts in the sky
live and breathe at your command.
That endless cloud, that legion,
now rising between sun and land,
that sky-born plague and scourge
is it sent, in fact, by my Father’s hand?

Nothing we devise will stand between us
and your omnipotence.
Faint and powerless,
every bit of strength we have is gone.

If in our temerity
some errant curse escapes our lips,
if you wish it so and by your hand,
we fall into the dust beneath our feet.

O Lord God, bring your mercy
to task here-and-now so that our thanks
may once more soar unto your throne.
Deliver us so we can praise your name.
From our knees we come before you,
in the name of your Son, our Savior.


God, our Father, spare our land, our crops,
Lest those in poverty fall to despair
When, in cold, the north winds howl.

Have mercy, oh God! have mercy.
Look down upon us and refresh us
once again with the blessed hope
of a good and healthy crop.

Please make it happen, Lord,
Our very faith is in your hands.
Show us the love you promise–
Avert the swarms above
that threaten every living thing.

We live in your hands; you alone have power
to rid us of this contagion once again
—as you did so long ago in Pharaoh’s land,
when Moses stood and prayed before the roaring sea.

Teach us the trust that never ends, Lord,
the hope that rests in you alone.

July, 1874
Sioux County, Iowa

*Ontboezeming bij het aankomen der sprinkhanen op zondags den 19 den Juli 1874.

Translated from the Dutch by Johan Hegeman.
By way of this version, I’ve attempted to make Pelmulder’s “Outburst of Prayer” more accessible to many readers.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

One Comment

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Gena’ o God, gena’ hoor mijn gebed.
    ‘k Hef mijn ziel o God der Goden.
    This guy was informed by De Psalmen Davids.
    Which means you’re not alone.

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