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Posted on Jul 17, 2008 in Stuff We Like

Author POV – Hurricane of Independence: Natural Event or the Hand of God?

By Tony Williams

When a deadly storm crashed ashore in the early days of the American Revolution, some saw it as a natural disaster; others swore it was the work of God, meant to affirm the colonists in their struggle for liberty. Author Tony Williams examined primary sources to present the little-known story of this less-than-perfect storm in his first book, Hurricane of Independence: The Untold Story. Here, he asks questions about the clash between Enlightenment thought and patriotic and spiritual beliefs.

If the ways of heaven were inscrutable in directing the hurricane in the rebellious colonies, they were even more mysterious in Newfoundland.

On September 2, 1775, only months after the battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, a hurricane crashed into Norfolk, Virginia. The storm has been aptly named the Hurricane of Independence, for it struck at the deciding moment in the American struggle for liberty and rights.

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The natural causes of hurricanes were understood (to some degree) in the scientific and empirical eighteenth-century Enlightenment, but they were also seen as an instrument of divine providence.

Several disasters, such as the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, were interpreted to be a sign of divine disfavor, but the American Revolution added a new and interesting twist. Many Americans believed that they were God’s chosen people. As such they not only received divine punishment for their sins, but God’s chastisement reminded them to be virtuous as well.

During worship services, Americans also learned from many pulpits that God had made them free and gave them natural rights. Thus, they had duty to defend their rights and liberties against British tyranny. The British, ministers sermonized, were on the side of wrong and the Devil.

This vision all fit rather well with the republican ideals of liberty, virtue, and natural rights that animated American colonists to pick up their muskets and march off to war.

During the 1775 hurricane, wealthy planter Landon Carter on the Northern Neck of Virginia filled his diary with pages of theological speculations. “We have but one hope, and that is in a merciful good. It is true we can’t plead for protection from any goodness of ours; but his mercy has always hitherto exceeded his judgments and may it do so now.”

Carter also believed in natural rights from God early in the resistance against Great Britain. In 1764, he wrote the petition to King and Parliament opposing the Stamp Act. Taking an expansive view of liberty, he claimed that American had a right to enjoy “freedom which all men, especially those who derive their constitution from Britain.”

Ezra Stiles was an amateur scientist and future president of Yale who reconciled his Puritan faith with science. He made meteorological observations about the Hurricane of Independence’s wind direction and precipitation. In the midst of recordings of the “day of distress!” is the prayer: “The good Lord direct all our ways and protect us.”

Stiles saw self-government-by-consent as a matter of moral right. He wrote that, “No subjects be taxed but by themselves … Indeed a parliamentary taxation of America effectually strikes at the root of American liberty and rights and effectually reduces us to slavery.” After Lexington and Concord, he encouraged patriots to oppose tyranny with virtue. He told them to “fight courageously and manfully and behave themselves bravely for liberty—commanding them to behave like men and not like cowards.”

Benjamin Franklin, the internationally renowned man of science during the Enlightenment, was one of the first who adopted a more modern view of focusing exclusively on the natural causes of weather. “Surely the thunder of heaven is no more supernatural than the rain, hail, or sunshine of heaven, against the inconvenience of which we guard by roofs and shades without scruple,” proposed the inventor of the lightning rod.

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3 Comments

  1. That God has power over “nature” and uses it to advance His Divine Plan…is beyond question to the person of Judeo-Christian faith. Man is unqualified to accurately discern God’s full intent from “nature’s fury.” Here is a link I found useful in examining these questions:

    http://www.christiananswers.net/q-eden/edn-c023.html

    Man may surmise and presume about God’s intentions when so called “natural disasters” strike. We may know with far greater certainty what God declares to be sinful…and that while God loves sinners, he is Divinely hateful of sin.

    Interesting premise for a book, which I look forward to reading.

  2. I am very impressed with Mr. Williams’ skill in crafting an interesting and insightful narrative based on thorough and detailed research. The result is an excellent history that offers new perspectives and raises some interesting questions related to our country’s war for independence.

    I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in American history or those looking for a new way to think about why things happen the way they do.

  3. Author Tony Williams provides these thoughts in answer to the questions he posed here:

    The political sermons preached from the pulpit in the decades leading up to and during the American Revolution provide an excellent lens to understand how the revolutionaries reconciled Enlightenment faith, reason, and politics. Their belief in natural law allowed them to see God dictating the laws of morality, natural rights, and the weather.

    The revolutionaries believed that there were certain unalienable right in nature from God, particularly life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These “self-evident” truths could be discovered in nature by human reason. When the British violated these rights and ruled their colonies tyrannically, the ministers preached that the Americans had a duty to defend their sacred liberties.

    The Americans were thus on the side of right in the eyes of the ministers, while they starkly maintained that the British enemy was acting on the side of wrong, of the Devil. Concomitant with these ideas was the widespread belief that Americans were God’s chosen people and a “city upon a hill” with covenantal duties and divine protection. They believed they had a heavenly responsibility to defend their freedoms, and their ministers told them so.

    Thus, the ministers routinely entered the political fray of the 1760s and 1770s, and urged the men in their congregations to pick up their muskets and march off to war. Not many Americans read John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, but their ministers had already been preaching Lockean ideas of liberty and the Enlightenment ideals of the Declaration of Independence. As a result, the populace throughout the colonies became infused with commonplace republican ideals from the pulpits.

    The revolutionaries believed that God acted providentially in the world, governing the affairs of nature and humans. They pled for divine mercy during disasters such as the Hurricane of Independence and thanked God for sparing them worse destruction. Letters, diaries, and public proceedings from the war are filled with thanks for the fortuitous circumstances that led the Continental Army to victory or allowed them to narrowly escape the clutches of defeat. The storm that prevented Howe’s attack on Dorchester Heights in Boston, the fog that allowed Washington to cross with his men after the disastrous Battle of Long Island, the miraculous victories at Trenton and Princeton in the midst of a Christmas nor’easter, the stunning victory at Yorktown after a gale trapped General Cornwallis – all were attributed to divine intervention in favor of America. On the other hand, defeat was an opportunity to examine one’s faith and conscience.

    Americans, no less than other peoples throughout history (including their British adversary), had a widespread belief that God was on their side. We may not know whether they are correct, but their faith contributed to their courage and perseverance through eight long years of war to defend their liberty and gain their independence.

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