THE LISBON EARTHQUAKE OF 1755
"Lo, There Was a Great Earthquake"
The first of a series of signs of the approaching end is thus described by the revelator:
"I beheld when He had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake." Rev. 6:12.
The verses immediately preceding this scripture plainly describe the days of persecution of the saints of God, and the era of protest and reform that cut short that time of tribulation. Then this first sign appears. This is in harmony with Christ's statement that the signs of His second coming should begin to appear following the tribulation of those days.
Just about the close of the days of tribulation occurred the Lisbon earthquake, as it is called, though its effects reached far beyond Portugal. Prof. W.H. Hobbs, geologist, says of it:
"Among the earth movements which in historic times have affected the kingdom of Portugal, that of Nov. 1, 1755, takes first rank, as it does, also, in some respects, among all recorded earthquakes.... In six minutes sixty thousand people perished."—"Earthquakes," pp. 142, 143.
"Lo, there was a great earthquake," the revelator said. It was indeed "a great earthquake," and great was its influence. In all the world, men's hearts were mightily stirred. James Parton, an English author, says of it:
"The Lisbon earthquake of Nov. 1, 1755, appears to have put both the theologians and philosophers on the defensive.... At twenty minutes to ten that morning, Lisbon was firm and magnificent, on one of the most picturesque and commanding sites in the world,—a city of superb approach, placed precisely where every circumstance had concurred to say to the founders, Build here! In six minutes the city was in ruins.... Half the world felt the convulsion.... For many weeks, as we see in the letters and memoirs of that time, people in distant parts of Europe went to bed in alarm, relieved in the morning to find that they had escaped the fate of Lisbon one night more."—"Life of Voltaire," Vol. II, pp. 208, 209.
The World Set to Thinking
This earthquake set men to thinking of the great day of God. Voltaire, the French philosopher, was "profoundly moved" by it, we are told. "It was the last judgment for that region," he wrote; "nothing was wanting to it except the trumpet." More than a month afterward, while still the perturbations of the earth were continuing, this skeptic wrote a poem upon the problem presented, voicing the sentiment:
"My heart oppress'd demands
Aid of the God who formed me with his hands.
Sons of the God supreme to suffer all
Fated alike, we on our Father call....
Sad is the present if no future state,
No blissful retribution mortals wait,
If fate's decrees the thinking being doom
To lose existence in the silent tomb.
All may be well; that hope can man sustain.
All now is well; 'tis an illusion vain.
The sages held me forth delusive light,
Divine instructions only can be right.
Humbly I sigh, submissive suffer pain,
Nor more the ways of Providence arraign."
—"Poem on the Destruction of Lisbon,"
Smollet's translation; Works, Vol. XXXIII, ed. 1761.
Just at the time, plans were under way for the opening of a theater at Lausanne for the special performance of some of Voltaire's rationalistic dramas. But the enterprise was deferred. One writer says:
"The earthquake had made all men thoughtful. They mistrusted their love of the drama, and filled the churches instead."—Tallentyre, "Life of Voltaire," p. 319.
So, in an age of rationalism and unbelief, men's thoughts were turned toward God, and human helplessness and earth's instability were recognized.
Extent of the Lisbon Earthquake
As to the extent of the earthquake, a writer of the period shows that it was felt in Sweden and in Africa and in the West Indies, adding:
"The effects were distributed over very nearly four millions of square English miles of the earth's surface, and greatly surpassed anything of the kind ever recorded in history."—"History and Philosophy of Earthquakes" (London, 1757), p. 333.
The commander of an English ship, lying off Lisbon at the time, thus described the scene in a letter to the ship's owners:
"Almost all the palaces and large churches were rent down, or part fallen, and scarce one house of this vast city is left habitable. Everybody that was not crushed to death ran out into the large places, and those near the river ran down to save themselves by boats, or any other floating convenience, running, crying, and calling to the ships for assistance; but whilst the multitude were gathered near the riverside, the water rose to such a height that it overflowed the lower part of the city, which so terrified the miserable and already dismayed inhabitants, who ran to and fro with dreadful cries, which we heard plainly on board, that it made them believe the dissolution of the world was at hand; every one falling on his knees and entreating the Almighty for His assistance.... By two o'clock the ships' boats began to ply, and took multitudes on board.... The fear, the sorrow, the cries and lamentations of the poor inhabitants are unexpressible; every one begging pardon, and embracing each other, crying, Forgive me, friend, brother, sister! Oh! what will become of us! neither water nor land will protect us, and the third element, fire, seems now to threaten our total destruction! as in effect it happened. The conflagration lasted a whole week."—Thomas Hunter, "Historical Account of Earthquakes" (Liverpool, 1756), pp. 72-74.
Recognized as a Sign
Looking down through the ages, the prophet of the Revelation saw the coming of the latter days, when signs of the approaching end were to begin to appear. Just there he beheld "a great earthquake." The terrible event was noted by inspiration as a sign of the coming of the final judgment. Earthquakes there had been before, and increasing earthquakes were to follow after,—"earthquakes in divers places,"—as Christ foretold, speaking of the signs of His second coming. But as befitted this first of the series of signs of the approaching end, a conviction from God seemed to come into the hearts of men in that generation, that this was indeed a token to remind the world of a coming day of doom.
In the year of the disaster, an English poet, John Biddolf, published a book of verse, pointing some of the lessons of the hour, from which we quote a few descriptive stanzas:
"Calm was the sky; the sun serenely bright
Shot o'er the sea long dazzling streams of light.
Through orange groves soft breathing breezes play'd
And gathered sweets like bees where'er they stray'd.
In fair relievo stood the lofty town,
Set off by radiant lights and shadows brown.
"Ill-fated city! there were revels kept;
Devoid of fear, they ate, they drank, they slept.
No friendly voice like that of ancient Rome
Was sent to give them warning of their doom:
No airy warriors to each other clung,
Such as 'tis said o'er destin'd Sion hung,
But like a nightly thief their dreadful fate
Unlooked for came and undermined their state....
"Lo, what a sudden change! On ruin's brink
The proud turn humble, and the thoughtless think.
Dark, gloomy sadness overclouds the gay,
And hypocrites for once sincerely pray....
But let it not be thought their horrid deeds
Had pulled this dreadful judgment on their heads,
Or that for crimes too horrible to tell,
Like guilty Sodom, thunderstruck they fell....
"Who can with curious eyes this globe survey,
And not behold it tottering with decay?
All things created, God's designs fulfil,
And natural causes work His destined will.
And that eternal Word, which cannot lie,
To mortals hath revealed in prophecy
That in these latter days such signs should come,
Preludes and prologues to the general doom.
But not the Son of man can tell that day;
Then, lest it find you sleeping, watch and pray."
Thus this first of the predicted latter-day signs bore its message to men. Its immediate scene was set in the Old World, but its warning was world-wide. The next sign foretold was to appear in the New World, but like the Lisbon earthquake, its message of warning was for all men.