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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

In an era before the Weather Channel and satellite images, the colonists had no idea the hurricane was coming until it was too late. Hundreds of sailors off the North Carolina and Virginia coast were killed by the monstrous storm surge and mountainous waves that throttled their ships.

Even British men-of-war ships, which were raiding the coasts of Virginia, could not withstand the fury of the storm and were thrown ashore. Angry patriots looted and summarily burned the warships.

Two months before, Virginia governor Lord Dunmore had issued his infamous proclamation freeing the slaves. Hundreds of them had escaped to the British forces. When the Hurricane of Independence grounded the ships, escaped slaves were captured and returned to their masters. One master thanked God for the “providential return” of his slaves; his chattel likely regarded it as an ill wind, instead.

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If Americans believed God to be on their side through the divine agency of the storm, they were presented with confusing facts. The Hurricane of Independence swept into the Revolutionary capitals of Annapolis, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. The tempest struck both sides in Virginia, hit Philadelphia just as the Continental Congress was convening, and again assailed both armies massed in Boston, making soldiers on both sides miserable in their muddy tents.

If the ways of heaven were inscrutable in directing the hurricane in the rebellious colonies, they were even more mysterious in Newfoundland. Thousands of innocent young men from England, Ireland and France were there for the summer fishing for cod, one of North America’s most valuable exports.

The Hurricane of Independence thundered into Newfoundland, where more than 4,000 of those unfortunate fishermen had their three-man boats smashed to pieces on the rocky shore by a thirty-foot storm surge. Hundreds of bodies were caught up in fishing nets, deposited far inland, or swept out to sea for burial.

Actually, the Newfoundland storm was probably another hurricane a week later, but a British government report noted that some American sympathizers in London were saying that the calamity killed young Britons in Newfoundland “as a sort of judgment from heaven against those who made laws to deprive mankind of the benefits of nature.”

Certainly, most Americans believed God was on their side. When General George Washington looked back on the war in his Farewell Orders to the Army on November 2, 1783, he credited “the singular interpositions of Providence in our feeble condition” for the victory over the British that “was little short of a standing miracle.”

 

My questions are: Every country likes to believe God is on its side. How did Americans reconcile Enlightenment thought and popular religion, not only to understand weather events but also to define their natural rights? What events of the American Revolution supported or conflicted with those beliefs?

 

Post a comment below to offer your answers to these questions. After two weeks, we’ll post the author’s own POV on the answers.

Learn more about Hurricane of Independence and author Tony Williams.

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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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