by Doug Ward

MARCH 2006---Over the last two years, major earthquakes, hurricanes, and typhoons have hit various portions of the globe. Not surprisingly, there has been much speculation about what particular messages God might be trying to convey to the world through these disasters. For example, Hurricane Katrina has been linked in some conservative Christian circles to such things as the sin and debauchery of New Orleans and even to U.S. support for Israel's Gaza disengagement policy.


The recent string of disasters has also been seen by a number of prophets, both religious and secular, as a portent of a more monumental cataclysm to come. Some Christian prophecy enthusiasts suggest that an increase in natural disasters is an indicator that Christ will return very soon, while some environmental prognosticators see the disasters as a warning that catastrophic global climate change lies ahead.


What neither the prophecy preachers nor the global warming alarmists have been able to produce, as far as I know, is evidence that the overall frequency of natural disasters is actually on the rise. As journalist Richard Abanes documents in his book End-Time Visions (Four Walls Eight Windows, 1998), hurricanes and earthquakes, famine, disease, and war have been a constant feature of life on earth throughout recorded history, with no clear pattern in their occurrence.


In his Olivet prophecy, Jesus mentioned such events as characteristic of this age but not in themselves a sign that the end is imminent:


"And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places. All these are the beginning of sorrows" (Matt. 24:6-8, KJV).


The continuing calamities listed in these verses do send a message to us. They are reminders that we live in a fallen world still awaiting a final redemption (see Rom. 8:19-23), a world in which there are always people who need our help. They are invitations to pray, to seek God in repentance and in intercession for others. But they are not reliable predictors of the timing of the end of the world.


Blasts from the Past

One way to gain some helpful perspective on today's natural disasters is to learn more about such events from the past. There are a number of recent books on this subject. (Although there has been no demonstrable increase in the occurrence of natural disasters, there seems to be a proliferation of books about them.) For example, Erik Larson's book Isaac's Storm (Crown Publishers, 1999) tells the story of the 1900 Galveston hurricane, a hurricane that resulted in far more deaths than did Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake is discussed in two recent books, Dennis Smith's San Francisco is Burning (Viking, 2005) and Simon Winchester's A Crack in the Edge of the World (HarperCollins, 2005).


One of my favorites among the new "disaster books" is Jay Feldman's When the Mississippi Ran Backwards (Free Press, 2005), which chronicles the most powerful series of earthquakes in U.S. history, the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812. These quakes, with an epicenter near present-day Blytheville, Arkansas, began at about 2 A.M. on December 16, 1811, and continued into April 1812. The most powerful tremors in the series, which occurred on December 16, January 23, and February 7, are estimated to have had magnitudes in the 7-8 range and were felt as far away as the east coast of the U.S. Feldman reports, "In New York City, nine hundred miles northeast, cups and saucers rattled on breakfast tables, and picture frames jiggled on walls" (p. 172).


Fortunately the region most affected was sparsely populated, so that the number of casualties was small (probably around a hundred). New Madrid, a Mississippi River town that was destroyed by the earthquakes, was one of a handful of settlements in the area at the time. Many of the first-hand reports of the quakes come from people who were on their way down the Mississippi, heading for New Orleans.


Although not many people died in the quakes, the geography of the region was noticeably altered. During the strongest tremors large chunks of land and many trees fell into the Mississippi. Some islands in the river broke up and floated away. New lakes near the river were created, while a few existing lakes disappeared. On December 16 the river was temporarily dammed in one spot, causing a tsunami-like wave that rose to a height of about thirty feet and briefly made the Mississippi flow backward.


Messages from God?

Feldman describes two striking coincidences related to the New Madrid earthquakes. One involves Lilburne Lewis, a nephew of Thomas Jefferson who lived in Livingston County, Kentucky, about seventy five miles northeast of New Madrid. Lewis, who was born into a wealthy Virginia family, suffered a long series of personal and financial disasters that continued after he moved to Kentucky. By 1811 he had begun to drink heavily. On the night of December 15 he brutally murdered one of his slaves, a seventeen-year-old named George, while in a drunken fit of rage.


Hoping to destroy the evidence of his crime, Lewis had George's body chopped into pieces and thrown into a fire in the fireplace of his kitchen cabin. But later that night the first of the New Madrid earthquakes hit, collapsing the chimney and putting out the fire. So on December 16, Lewis had the rest of his slaves rebuild the chimney, incorporating George's remains into the masonry.


Lilburne Lewis's cover up proved to be unsuccessful, however. The February 7 quake brought down the rebuilt chimney, releasing some body parts once again. Before the damage could be repaired, a dog ran away with George's head. A few weeks later, a neighbor who noticed the dog chewing on the head rescued the evidence and took it to the local authorities. Lewis was charged with murder, with the trial scheduled for June. But before the trial could be held, Lewis shot himself on April 10. The shaking of the earth, which had continued through March and into April, finally stopped a few days later.


After reading the story of Lilburne Lewis, I can't help but think of a phrase from Num. 32:23: "and be sure your sin will find you out." I am also reminded of the biblical metaphor of the land of Canaan "spewing out" its sinful inhabitants (e.g. Lev. 18:28; 20:22). It is almost as if the New Madrid earthquakes were a manifestation of God's displeasure and the land's disgust at the evils of slavery. Of course, if even a fraction of human evils were punished in this way, the whole earth would shake nonstop. It is risky to attribute specific divine messages to natural disasters, as suggested by a second New Madrid coincidence.


In 1811 the great American Indian leader Tecumseh traveled around the western frontier, rallying support for an alliance of tribes in opposition to the U.S. policy of appropriating more and more tribal lands. In September he spoke at the Creek village of Tuckhabatchee in what is today Alabama. When he received only lukewarm support, he is said to have predicted that when he reached Detroit a few months later, he would stamp his foot and shake down every house in Tuckhabatchee.


On December 16 Tecumseh did not happen to be in Detroit, but the earthquakes were seen by many Creeks as a fulfillment of Tecumseh's prophecy and a sign that the Great Spirit was on their side. They began to attack U.S. installations in the region, including Fort Mims, north of Mobile. To stop this uprising, Andrew Jackson came south with a militia from Tennessee. When the Creeks were decisively defeated at Talladega and Horseshoe Bend, they were forced to surrender. In the ensuing Treaty of Fort Jackson, they had to give up over twenty million acres to the U.S. government. The Creeks' interpretation of the earthquakes as a sign from heaven thus hastened the loss of their land.


Recovery and Revival

The disaster books show us how little has changed over the years; it is easy to detect parallels between recent disasters and ones from the past. One example: After the 2005 hurricanes, government relief efforts have been inefficient and marred by fraud and corruption. The same was certainly true, only more so, after the New Madrid earthquakes. In February 1815, three years after the earthquakes, Congress passed the New Madrid Relief Act, the first federal disaster relief measure. It allowed Missouri landowners whose land had been damaged by the earthquakes to trade in their land titles for certificates good for tracts of 160-640 acres of unclaimed land elsewhere in the Missouri territory.


Unfortunately, people in the New Madrid area did not hear about the relief act for months. In the meantime, land speculators from St. Louis who knew about the legislation bought up New Madrid land titles and grabbed some certificates for themselves. On the other hand, after the news reached New Madrid, some landowners managed to sell their land multiple times. It took years for Congress and the courts to straighten out the mess, with the last lawsuit finally settled in 1862.


Disasters also tend to promote religious revival. In 1812, many Americans were convinced that the end of the world was near, and revival meetings were well attended. The Western Conference of the Methodist Church, which served the region most affected by the earthquakes, enjoyed a whopping 50% increase in membership in just one year, growing from 30,741 in 1811 to 45,983 in 1812. Some of the new members probably disappeared when things returned to normal, but there still must have been many who were moved to true repentance by the events of that year. Disasters don't tell us when the world will end, but they ultimately can serve some more constructive purposes.


Issue 21


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On 02 Mar 2006, 11:13.