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Extraordinary Displays of the DIVINE MAJESTY and POWER

By Wethersfield Historical Society on January 26, 2011 11:56 AM

In colonial New England the work of documenting, describing and explaining the events of the day often fell to the clergy - who, along with lawyers and their clerks, scholars, physicians, and business men were among the privileged people able to write. Many of these clerics expressed themselves in the style of 18th Century apocalyptic preaching, foreseeing a day of judgment and calamity coming upon the land - a style of writing that they used in both their sermons and other writings.  And since most of their audience was illiterate, many of their accounts of natural events were communicated orally, in their sermons

"OCTOBER 29th.  Being the SABBATH DAY, in the night immediately following, between the Hours of Ten and Eleven, there was an EARTHQUAKE in and Probably through New-England, and other parts of Northern America. It came on with a Grave and Heavy Sound (some apprehended the Sound as the Burning of a Chimney, others as Remote thunder) which might possibly be attended with a small Trembling, towards the ending of which Great Sound, there seemed a very strong Shock, and then such Shakings that wrack'd very Strong Buildings so sensibly, as it seemed scarcely life to be tithing them, awakened Person outs of their Sleep, filling many with CONSTERNATION. (VIII)
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The Reverend Stephen Mix was the tenth pastor of First Ecclesiastical Church of Wethersfield.  Mix had graduated from Harvard University in 1690 and was called to the pulpit in Wethersfield in 1693.  He was the grandfather of Stephen Mix Mitchell (after whom a former Wethersfield elementary school, now housing unit, is named) who represented Connecticut in the Continental Congress and the U.S. Senate and was Chief Justice of the state's Supreme Court.  Reverend Mix died on August 28, 1738.

Weather historian Sidney Perley looking back on the event with 20th century eyes and sensibilities provides a less emotional description.  "The greatest earthquake that New England has probably experienced since its settlement by the English occurred October 29, 1727."  (IX)

[N.B. Although the earthquake occurred on November 10, 1727 it is generally reported to have happened on October 29 due the change from the Julian to Gregorian in 1752.]

"The people had suffered much in various ways through the summer and early autumn. A drought continued from the middle of June to the middle of September, the month of July and the first week of August being exceedingly hot. No rain fell in April after the first week, and but twice in May, only one of two slight showers occurring during the sultry, parching heat of the summer. The earth dried to a great depth, and many wells and springs, which had never failed before were now dry. There was much lightning and thunder, but very little rain. On the evening of August 1, at the close of a scorching day, the heavens burst out into a blaze of flame and a roar of thunder, the terrific display continuing for two or three hours. The flashes occurred so frequently that the sky was continually light with them and a writer of that time said it seemed 'as if the heavens being on fire were dissolving and passing away with a great noise, and the earth also with its works was to be burned up.' (X)
And then it got even worse.

"After the drought was broken a violent northeast storm came on, doing much damage among the vessels along the coast, and the trees on shore. This occurred September 16. It caused a high tide which carried away about two hundred loads of hay from the marshes at Newbury, Mass., and drove eight or nine vessels ashore at Salem and thirty-five at Marblehead. (XI)
And still worse.

"After the lightning, thunder, and tempest the country was visited by a tremendous earthquake. October 24, 1727, the weather was very cold; three days later, snow fell, and on the 28th the temperature was still exceedingly low for the season. Sunday, the 29th, was fair and pleasant, and in the evening the moon shone brightly, the air was calm, and no noise disturbed the peacefulness of nature. People retired at their usual hour, and were fast asleep, when at twenty minutes before eleven o'clock a terrible noise followed by a roar and a rush suddenly woke them, and in about half a minute, before they had time to become conscious of what was taking place around them, there came a pounce as if gigantic cannons had rolled against each other from opposite directions. Latches leaped up and doors flew open, houses rocked and trembled as though they would collapse, timber worked in and out of mortises, hearth-stones grated against each other, windows rattled, tops of chimneys pitched and tumbled down, cellar walls fell in, beds shook, pewter fell off shelves, lids of warming pans jumped up and fell back with a clang, and all movable things, especially in the upper rooms, tossed about.
"Most people got up in a moment, and many of them ran out of doors in their night clothes, being so frightened that they knew not what to do. The earth shook so much that they could not stand, and were compelled to sit or recline on the ground.

"People that were awake when the earthquake came said that a flash of light preceded it. It was seen as it passed the windows, and a blaze seemed to run along the ground, dogs that saw it giving a sudden bark as if frightened. Before they had time to consider the source or cause of the light a sound like a gentle murmur floated to them on the still evening air, followed by a slight ruffling wind. Then came a rumbling as of distant thunder, which approached nearer and nearer and grew louder and louder till it sounded as if innumerable heavy carriages were being rapidly driven over pavements, or like the roaring of a great furnace, but incomparably fiercer and more terrible, having a hollow sound as if it came from under the earth. Then the shock came suddenly and severely and the houses were felt to totter and reel with the trembling and heaving of the ground. (XII)

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 The disturbance lasted about two minutes and moved from the northwest to the southeast.   

"At eleven o'clock another shock came, less effective and quieter than the first, but heavy enough to keep the people in a state of fear. At a quarter before twelve another came, and many of the people would not return to their beds, but dressed, and prepared to stay up the remainder of the night, being uncertain as to what might occur before morning came, and apprehending destruction. At Londonderry, N.H., when the pastor of the town, Rev. Mr. MacGregor, became aware of what was occurring around him, his Scottish heart being full of sympathy for the people of his charge, he at once arose, dressed, and started out. He was met by some one with the reminder that this family would need his presence. 'Oh!' said he, 'I have a still greater family which I must care for.' He hastened toward their houses, but had not gone far before he met large numbers of them flocking to his own dwelling, seeking advice and comfort in the trying and dreadful hour. At Salem, Mass., the people sat up nearly all night; and at Rowley they flocked to the house of Rev. Edward Payson, the minister of the town, as if he were able to succor them from pending harm; but the house being too small to hold so large a number, the meeting house was opened at that midnight hour, and there the remainder of the night was spent in prayer and supplication. Rev. Benjamin Colman of Boston wrote the next day that he and his family arose, and did not retire until two o'clock in the morning, spending the time in humble cries to God for themselves and their neighbors and in fervent praises to him for their preservation.
"The shocks were repeated at three and five o'clock, but with abated force, and in due time the sun slowly rose in the eastern sky, greeting with a complacent face the disconsolate and fearful inhabitants. It was a night never to be forgotten by those who experienced it." (XIII)

"On Newcastle Island New Hampshire at twelve midnight the church bell  pealed forth from the belfry. This heightened the feelings of the people, and to the ignorant it seemed to be a knell rung forth by mystic hands. To the more phlegmatic citizens it was but the result of the shaking of the church by natural means; yet the surroundings, the time, and the dreadful commotion could not fail to impress them with a solemn dread.
"The people of New England were affected by this earthquake as they had never been before, being fearful of divine judgments for their sins and lax responsiveness to the call to religious duties. The clergy taught them that it was 'a loud call to the whole land to repent and fear and give glory to God.'
"Shocks of the earthquake continued at intervals through the following week, and from time to time during November and December, growing less and less in force. The great one was felt in New York and Pennsylvania, and it extended all along the coast to the Gulf of Mexico, doing considerable damage in the West India islands."  (XIV)
Amazingly no one in New England died in this earthquake.  So what caused this seismic activity?

"It would be naïve to search in the literature of the 1727 earthquake for a fully developed scientific analysis of the phenomenon; while almost all the published sermons address themselves in varying ways to issues of causation, such concern is uniformly subordinate to theological interest and the practical demands of deriving applicable religious lessons from the earthquake.  Throughout the early years of the eighteenth century apologist maneuvered to mesh the new science with the orthodoxies of revealed religion, conventionally viewing natural philosophy as the 'handmaiden' of religion.  Although Puritan interest in science was always high, it must be recalled in the following discussion that scientific analysis was always secondary to the religious." (XV)

The causes of this earthquake were not to be found in the natural world.  In fact, the tremors themselves were "the cause of several sermons, wherein it was duly 'improved' to the religious sense of the community." (XVI)
Reverend Mix says it all right up front. "ALL Second Causes being disposed, Influenced, Moved and managed by the First Cause as Instruments by the Principal Efficient:  Though EARTHQUAKES (some of them) have their Natural Causes, yet are they Superior Effects and Displays of His Mighty Power, who at His Pleasure Shaketh the Earth out of her Place and maketh its Pillars Tremble."    (XVII)
Within the sermons he went on to present doctrines that both explained why the earthquake occurred, and how his parishioners should have reacted.
"The Extraordinary Displays of the majesty and Power of God are sometimes for the proving [of] men, and the working [of] such fear of God in them, as should be a lasting Restraint upon them from Sin....They prove Good men...They try Evil men...The terrible Displays of Divine Power serve to work the fear of God, that prevents Sinning against him...As they serve to Convince Sinners of the Being and Glory of God." (XVIII)
As mentioned earlier, the natural conditions in 1727 had already been horrendous - drought, violent storms, thunder and lightning.
"God visiting us this Summer (as it seems) Eminently with Thunder & Lightning, the effects of which on Men, Cattle, Buildings, and Trees, I suppose something unusually multiplied; our Sins and Sinfulness, on account of which the Threatnings [sic] of fore Judgment may be applied.  The late EARTHQUAKE here being as it were Conjoined..."
"This Extraordinary Display of Divine Power in the shaking of the Earth may be improved to advantage.  If it should be considered as a warning, then it tends to that fear that puts Sinners on Reforming & Amending their ways...When God makes Glorious & Terrible Displays of his Majesty and Power, then is a time for Persons to try themselves and their ways, and to try others in...God tries men hereby, not that he might better know them but that men might better know themselves.
"His Power is such, That man may be Destroyed without a whole Train of Second Causes suited to his Destruction... Man my be destroyed Suddenly ad Intirely [sic]...The Hand of God is so Extensive, and the Effects of his Power so sudden, that there is no escaping the same.
"What did you think of his Glorious Majesty, his dreadful Wrath, the late Terrible EARTHQUAKE?  Might not some Heads of Families, have looked back on their ways with sorrow and fear, that they might not have walked in a perfect Way in their own Houses; that they might have failed in Teaching their the Fear of the Lord; in Warning them against Evil...Checking and Restraining Licentiousness, their Night Assemblings...
"You have in this earthquake seen the mighty powers of that God whom you are naturally Ignorant of, apt to forget, and whose fear you cast out of your Hearts.  Let the fear of him, be before your faces always.
"Put on a spirit of Solidity, Sobriety, Temperance, Chastity & Piety that will give [you] boldness at the Appearance of GOD the mighty..." (XIX)

Did the people of Wethersfield get the message?
Before you give your answer remember - this is just the second of Wethersfield's Top Ten Natural Disasters.

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