THE DARK DAY OF 1780
"The Sun Shall be Darkened"
We recall that in the vision of latter-day signs given to the prophet John, he saw the "great earthquake" followed by a sign in the heavens:
"The sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood." Rev. 6:12.
Of this event our Saviour spoke, in giving the signs of His second coming which were to begin to appear following the cutting short of the days of persecution. We repeat His words:
"Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light." Matt. 24:29.
The Prophecy Fulfilled
True to the order of the prophecy, following the great earthquake of 1755 in Europe, there came, in America, the second sign of the approaching end, the wonderful darkening of the sun, known in history as "The Dark Day."
This sign appeared at the time indicated in the prophecy, "immediately after the tribulation of those days;" or as Mark has it, "in those days, after that tribulation." On May 19, 1780, the sun was darkened, and the following night the moon did not give her light. Whatever explanation men may have to offer as to the cause of the phenomenon, the fact remains that when the time of the prophecy came, the sign appeared.
The first volume of the "Memoirs of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences," published in Boston in 1785, contains a paper entitled, "An Account of a Very Uncommon Darkness in the States of New England, May 19, 1780. By Samuel Williams, A.M., Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Philosophy in the University at Cambridge [Massachusetts]."
Of the extent, duration, and degree of darkness on that occasion, this scientific observer said:
"The extent of this darkness was very remarkable.... From the accounts that have been received, it seems to have extended all over the New England States. It was observed as far east as Falmouth [Portland, Maine]. To the westward, we hear of its reaching to the furthest parts of Connecticut, and Albany. To the southward, it was observed all along the seacoasts. And to the north as far as our settlements extend....
"With regard to its duration, it continued in this place at least fourteen hours: but it is probable this was not exactly the same in different parts of the country. The appearance and effects were such as tended to make the prospect extremely dull and gloomy. Candles were lighted up in the houses; the birds having sung their evening songs, disappeared, and became silent; the fowls retired to roost; the cocks were crowing all around as at break of day; objects could not be distinguished but at a very little distance; and everything bore the appearance and gloom of night." (See pages 234-246.)
Whittier has commemorated it in the poem, "Abraham Davenport:"
"'Twas on a May day of the far old year
Seventeen hundred eighty, that there fell
Over the bloom and sweet life of the spring,
Over the fresh earth and the heaven of noon,
A horror of great darkness....
"Birds ceased to sing, and all the barnyard fowls
Roosted; the cattle at the pasture bars
Lowed, and looked homeward; bats on leathern wings
Flitted abroad; the sounds of labor died;
Men prayed, and women wept; all ears grew sharp
To hear the doom blast of the trumpet shatter
The black sky."
The words of the poet are substantiated by the plain prose of the dictionary maker. In the department explanatory of "Noted Names," Webster's Unabridged Dictionary (edition 1883) says:
"The Dark Day, May 19, 1780—so called on account of a remarkable darkness on that day extending over all New England.... The obscuration began about ten o'clock in the morning, and continued till the middle of the next night, but with difference of degree and duration in different places.... The true cause of this remarkable phenomenon is not known."
At the time, some explained the darkness as being due to smoke from forest fires, others to the exceptional rise of vapors and atmospheric dust in the warm spring following the melting of unusually heavy winter snows. But forest fires were not of extraordinary occurrence in these regions, and many a springtime since has seen the melting of heavy winter snows and the rise of vapors; yet May 19, 1780, still stands unique in the annals of modern times as "the dark day." However observers and writers disagreed as to the nature of the mantle of darkness that was drawn over New England that day, they were one in recognizing the extraordinary character of the event.
The facts are fully covered by the statement in the dictionary, "The true cause of this remarkable phenomenon is not known."
What we do know is that the Saviour's prophecy declared, "Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light." And when the time for it came, the sign appeared.
Though the comparatively small-sized newspapers of the day were crowded with news of the progress of the Revolutionary War, then raging, no little space was given to reports and discussions of this remarkable darkening of the sun.
A correspondent of the Boston Gazette and Country Journal (of May 29, 1780) reported observations made at Ipswich Hamlet, Mass., "by several gentlemen of liberal education:"
"About eleven o'clock the darkness was such as to demand our attention, and put us upon making observations. At half past eleven, in a room with three windows, twenty-four panes each, all open toward the southeast and south, large print could not be read by persons of good eyes.
"About twelve o'clock, the windows being still open, a candle cast a shade so well defined on the wall, as that profiles were taken with as much ease as they could have been in the night.
"About one o'clock a glint of light which had continued to this time in the east, shut in, and the darkness was greater than it had been for any time before.... We dined about two, the windows all open, and two candles burning on the table.
"In the time of the greatest darkness some of the ... fowls went to their roost. Cocks crowed in answer to one another as they commonly do in the night. Woodcocks, which are night birds, whistled as they do only in the dark. Frogs peeped. In short, there was the appearance of midnight at noonday.
"About three o'clock the light in the west increased, the motion of the clouds [became] more quick, their color higher and more brassy than at any time before. There appeared to be quick flashes or coruscations, not unlike the aurora borealis.... About half past four our company, which had passed an unexpected night very cheerfully together, broke up."
Of the night following, this gentleman (then at Salem) wrote:
"Perhaps it never was darker since the children of Israel left the house of bondage. This gross darkness held till about one o'clock, although the moon had fulled but the day before."
The Boston Independent Chronicle of June 8 quoted from Thomas's Massachusetts Spy:
"During the whole time a sickly, melancholy gloom overcast the face of nature. Nor was the darkness of the night less uncommon and terrifying than that of the day; notwithstanding there was almost a full moon, no object was discernible, but by the help of some artificial light, which when seen from the neighboring houses and other places at a distance, appeared through a kind of Egyptian darkness, which seemed almost impervious to the rays.
"This unusual phenomenon excited the fears and apprehensions of many people. Some considered it as a portentous omen of the wrath of Heaven in vengeance denounced against the land, others as the immediate harbinger of the last day, when 'the sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light.'"
Not only over the land, but out at sea also, the unnatural darkness of the day and night of May 19, 1780, was observed. In the Independent Chronicle of June 15, 1780, a correspondent, telling of interviews with various observers, said:
"I have also seen a very sensible captain of a vessel, who was that morning about forty leagues southeast of Boston. He says the cloud which appeared at the west was the blackest he ever saw. About eleven o'clock there was a little rain, and it grew dark. Between one and two he was obliged to light a large candle to steer by.... Between nine and ten at night, he ordered his men to take in some of the sails, but it was so dark that they could not find the way from one mast to the other."
Thoughts Turned to the Judgment
This writer commented as follows concerning the feelings awakened by the event:
"Various have been the sentiments of people concerning the designs of Providence in spreading the unusual darkness over us. Some suppose it portentous of the last scene. I wish it may have some good effect on the minds of the wicked, and that they may be excited to prepare for that solemn day."
The Independent Chronicle of June 22, 1780, printed a letter from Dr. Samuel Stearns, who had been appealed to because of his knowledge "in philosophy and astronomy." First, he disposed of one suggestion that had been made:
"That the darkness was not caused by an eclipse is manifest by the various positions of the planets of our system at that time; for the moon was more than one hundred and fifty degrees from the sun all that day."
Then, in the rather heavy language of the science of that period, this writer told how the action of the sun's heat was continually projecting into the atmosphere particles of earthy matter; and in his opinion it was some "vast collection of such particles that caused the late uncommon darkness." But as to the real accounting for the phenomenon he wrote:
"The primary cause must be imputed to Him that walketh through the circuit of heaven, who stretcheth out the heaven like a curtain, who maketh the clouds His chariot, who walketh upon the wings of the wind. It was He, at whose voice the stormy winds are obedient, that commanded these exhalations to be collected and condensed together, that with them He might darken both the day and the night; which darkness was, perhaps, not only a token of His indignation against the crying iniquities and abominations of the people, but an omen of some future destruction."
Thus men's minds were exercised by this sign "in the sun, and in the moon."
The early records of New York City tell of the interest excited there, though evidently the darkness was not so marked as it was farther north.
In the Connecticut Legislature
President Timothy Dwight, of Yale College, a contemporary, left the following account of one of the historic incidents of the day:
"The legislature of Connecticut was then in session at Hartford. A very general opinion prevailed that the day of judgment was at hand. The house of representatives, being unable to transact their business, adjourned. A proposal to adjourn the council [a second legislative body called the Governor's Council] was under consideration. When the opinion of Colonel Davenport was asked, he answered, 'I am against an adjournment. The day of judgment is either approaching or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for an adjournment; if it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. I wish therefore that candles may be brought.'"—Barber, "Connecticut Historical Collections," p. 403.
It was this striking incident that Whittier described with the poet's pen:
"Meanwhile in the old Statehouse, dim as ghosts,
Sat the lawgivers of Connecticut,
Trembling beneath their legislative robes.
'It is the Lord's great day! Let us adjourn,'
Some said; and then, as with one accord,
All eyes were turned to Abraham Davenport.
He rose, slow cleaving with his steady voice
The intolerable hush. 'This well may be
The day of judgment which the world awaits;
But be it so or not, I only know
My present duty, and my Lord's command
To occupy till He come. So at the post
Where He hath set me in His providence
I choose, for one, to meet Him face to face,—
No faithless servant, frightened from my task,
But ready when the Lord of the harvest calls;
And therefore, with all reverence, I would say,
Let God do His work, we will see to ours.
Bring in the candles.'"
Thus, in a manner that arrested the attention of men and put awe and solemnity into their hearts, with thoughts of the coming of the great day of God, the first of the predicted signs in the heavens was revealed.
At a later time, when students of the Bible seemed moved upon simultaneously, in both Europe and America, to give attention to the doctrine of Christ's second coming, it was more generally understood that these signs had come in fulfilment of prophecy.
As we look to the past, we see how truly the tokens of the coming King began to appear as the church of Christ emerged fully from the long, dark period of tribulation. A new era was dawning, in which the Lord was to fill the earth with light before His second appearing, according to His word to Daniel the prophet:
"Thou, O Daniel, shut up the words, and seal the book, even to the time of the end: many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased." Dan. 12:4.
At last the time of the end was at hand, and the signs of the latter days had begun to appear in the earth and in the heavens. The Lord was preparing to send to all the world the closing gospel message of Christ's soon coming in glory.