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These are the Great Instruments of Providence

Throughout American history, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, floods, fires, and other dangerous naturally-occuring phenomena have randomly delivered unsparing destruction in an instant. Many of those who witnessed such tragic ordeals have found themselves leaning into their spiritual beliefs for comfort and explanation in the aftermath. The Clements Library contains many compelling resources that provide insight into religious interpretations of natural disasters.

On November 18, 1755, a 6.0 to 6.3 magnitude earthquake shook Cape Ann, Massachusetts, in what is still considered the most powerful quake to ever hit New England. While no one died, hundreds of buildings were damaged and people were left terrified. Many looked to religion to try and make sense of what had occurred, including clergyman and physician Charles Chauncey (1705-1787), who delivered a sermon, The Earth Delivered from the Curse to Which it is, at Present, Subjected (Boston, 1756), in which he categorized the quake as a stark warning from God. According to Chauncey, the purpose of natural disasters such as “tempests, famines, pestilences, earthquakes, and the like” was “to awaken the attention of a careless world, and call them to the faith, and fear, and service of the great sovereign of the universe; or to put a period to their existence here, if they are incurably turned to infidelity and wickedness . . . these are the great instruments of providence.” Chauncey pointed to the Lisbon earthquake and tsunami of 1755 (which occurred just 17 days prior to the Cape Ann quake and killed tens of thousands in Portugal, Spain, and Northwest Africa) as a possible sign of things to come if iniquity persisted.

However, not everyone was convinced that earthquakes were products of God’s righteous anger. John Winthrop (1714-1779), who at the time of the Cape Ann quake was the Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural History at Harvard, experienced the tremors and delivered an address, published as A Lecture on Earthquakes (Boston, 1755), regarding the incident. Approaching the subject through a more scientific lens, Winthrop believed that earthquakes were not directly caused by God’s wrath but were instead “the necessary and inevitable consequences of such laws of nature, and such powers in matter, as our globe could not well subsist without.” Winthrop believed this naturalistic perspective “ought to silence all the complaints of those who suffer either loss or terror by [earthquakes]; as well as all the objections, which men of skeptical minds have been disposed to make, upon this head, to the order of Providence. . . . For, it is plain, they may be beneficial in a thousand other ways, than we, short-sighted mortals, may pretend to guess at.”

Diary entry by Sarah Woolsey Lloyd (1719-1760) of Stamford, Connecticut, on the morning of November 18, 1755, describing the Cape Ann earthquake. At approximately 4 a.m. she was “waked by a Terrible Earthquake. This is the Second time the Lord arose to shake terribly the Earth in little more than two months besides sundry smaller shocks – what is the Lord about to Do – may we humbly Enquire when Wars and Earthquakes go before him. O Let every Heart tremble for fear of thy Judgment – Lord spare people and save thine inheritance for Jesus sake – amen – amen.”

On the evening of August 9, 1878, a tornado touched down in Wallingford, Connecticut, for around ninety seconds. By the time the twister departed, at least 34 people had been killed, over 70 wounded, and numerous structures destroyed. John B. Kendrick was tasked with writing an analysis of the tragedy, which remains the deadliest tornado in Connecticut’s history. Kendrick wrote in his History of the Wallingford Disaster (Hartford, 1878) that “Many felt strangely bewildered, and thought themselves dazed when, instead of homes, they saw utter destruction; and instead of dwellings, a plain sown with torn and twisted timber, and with debris of every kind. Strong men wept. Strewn here and there, in roads and gutters, and across the Plain, or wedged in among the debris of the wreck, were the lifeless and the maimed, helpless, and, in some cases, clothesless.” Kendrick’s survey of the Wallingford tornado’s impact is rife with disturbing details of the specific ways in which people were killed and how survivors processed what had happened. He sympathized with the mindsets of two women he interviewed who said they had been convinced Judgment Day itself had arrived, writing that “This destruction, so sudden, so complete, so fearful in every respect, coming truly like a ‘thief in the night,’ seemed to them as it would have seemed to us—the agony and passion of earth’s last hour.”

When the time came to bury the dead, the Rev. Father Slocum of New Haven delivered a powerful speech in which he implored people to take heed of the catastrophe as irrefutable confirmation of God’s fury. According to Kendrick, Rev. Slocum stated that God had allowed the tornado to wreak its deadly havoc in order to make it crystal clear that “no matter where a man’s lot is cast he must die,” and that anyone who might doubt the severity of God’s mysterious wrath should “Come here and see these corpses, and then say that He is not a terrible God, if you can.” Rather than allow such events to dampen one’s faith, Rev. Slocum instead encouraged his listeners to recognize the fearsome powers at God’s disposal and urged them to continue to “try and live according to the precepts of the divine commands, so that when we are called upon to die we shall go without fear, but with a conscience prepared for His judgement.”

Kendrick also recorded one darkly amusing anecdote that hints at cross-denominational rivalries. Among the 34 people who lost their lives, all but one were of the Catholic faith and predominantly of Irish heritage. A deacon who visited Wallingford the day after the tornado was intrigued by this statistic. After striking up a conversation with an injured survivor named Pat Cline, the deacon smugly asked, “My poor fellow, how do you account for the fact that none but Catholics were killed yesterday?” To which Cline replied, “Sure and it’s aisy enough accountin’ for that; the Catholics are ready to die any minute, but your folks ain’t good enough to go suddint like.”

A wood engraving from John Kendrick’s History of the Wallingford Disaster (Hartford, 1878) shows the ruins of a Catholic church that was leveled by the powerful tornado of 1878.

The Galveston Hurricane of 1900 remains the deadliest natural disaster in the history of the United States. With fatalities estimated between 6,000 and 12,000 and nearly $35 million worth of damage, it is nigh impossible to fathom the scale of such suffering. On the night of September 8, 1900, the city of Galveston, Texas, was devoured by the ocean as a Category 4 hurricane brought a storm surge that rapidly inundated the city. Paul Lester’s The True Story of the Galveston Flood (Philadelphia, 1900) described the hellish scenes in extensive detail. According to Lester, dead bodies were found almost everywhere in the following days, including many that were buried under huge piles of debris. One search party even located a man who was found “on his knees, his eyes were uplifted, and his clasped hands were extended as in prayer. It was evident that the man had been praying when he was struck and instantly killed.”

In the days and weeks following the hurricane, there were many reported incidents of traumatized survivors experiencing fits of insanity and attempting suicide. Lester noted that mental health issues began “developing among the sufferers at a terrible rate. It is estimated by the medical authorities that there are 500 deranged men and women who should be in asylums, and the number is increasing. . . . Mentally unbalanced by the suddenness and horror of their losses, men and women meet on the streets and compare their losses and then laugh the laugh of insanity as a newcomer joins the group and tells possibly of a loss greater than that of the others. Their laughter is something to chill the blood in the veins of the strongest men.” Amidst such agonizing chaos it is no surprise that there were many who “in their frenzy blaspheme[d] their God for not preventing such a catastrophe.”

Spiritual leaders shouldered the arduous task of restoring people’s shattered faith. According to Lester, the Rev. Dr. Russell H. Conwell (1843-1925) attributed the disaster to “the working of God’s immutable laws, and declared that the calamity in its end was for the good of all things.” Rev. Conwell readily admitted the annihilation of so many decent God-fearing men, women, and children for seemingly no good reason terrified him, yet still he clung to the belief that “the destruction of that city so suddenly was God’s doing, and consequently it must be for good. It was His doing and what He does is right. The hurricane was the necessary outcome of all the working laws of God. . . . We can not understand that; we sit back in our heart’s darkness and say, ‘God is wrong; He is not governing the universe.’”

As horrific as the Galveston hurricane was, the brutality of the storm was matched in equal measure by the charitable responses of many people and organizations that helped the battered city rebuild. Lester’s account includes quotes from Chicago-based ministers, such as Rev. Samuel Fallows (1835-1922), who felt a strong kinship with Galvestonians after having experienced their own apocalyptic disaster in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Rev. Fallows defiantly proclaimed in one inspiring sermon that the “lesson of self-help which this calamity teaches will not be lost. God intended man to conquer nature, to bind its forces, to ride triumphantly on its seemingly resistless energies. Galveston must not be blotted out. It must rise to newness of life. Like our own Chicago, it must be rebuilt on a higher level. It must rear its structures so that the angriest waves shall not dash them to pieces. Another lesson of American pluck and energy will thus be learned by mankind.”

Jakob Dopp
Graphics Division Cataloger