Darkness over New England: The Apocalyptic Scare of 1780 Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Darkness over New England: The Apocalyptic Scare of 1780

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An artist's impression of the sky turning dark during the day.
The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and the terrible day of the LORD come.
  – Joel 2:31 KJV1.

It could be said that the Christian World is divided between those who believe this verse of the Bible to be literally true, and those who do not. It could equally be said that the Christian World is divided into those who believe this event hasn't happened yet, and those who believe that, in fact, it has. In 1780, to be exact.

Was 19 May, 1780, a sign of the end of the world? If so, why did the 'Dark Day' afflict only Puritan New England, while ignoring Quaker Pennsylvania? And what, if anything, did this event have to do with Mother Ann Lee and her tribe of mystical Shakers?

Read on and find out.

Who Turned Out the Lights?

19 May, 1780, did not dawn like any other day in New England. The air was smoky. The rising sun was red. A pall seemed to hang over the landscape. Instead of getting brighter, the day got dimmer. By noon, it was dark. The animal kingdom decided it was night: chickens went to roost, nocturnal birds started singing, bats flew around, and cows headed for the barn. People in Massachusetts couldn't see to read, even outdoors. They didn't know what to think.

Some citizens headed off to the tavern, feeling a stiff drink was called for. Many others went to church. It had not escaped the notice of Bible readers that the 'Dark Day' presented some of the features of prophecies regarding the Second Coming. There were no telephones back then, and communications were slow. No one knew how widespread the phenomenon was. Putting together information from the written records, we now know that the darkness travelled south through New England at about 25 miles per hour, spreading from Portland, Maine, to parts of New Jersey. Philadelphia, capital of the fledgling United States, was spared.

The fear of Biblical portents was not dispelled by evening. When the full moon rose, if people could see it at all, they got the shock of their lives: the heavenly body was 'red as blood'.

Clearly, it was time to start praying.

Jesus is Coming, Look Busy

In Hartford, Connecticut, the legislature was in session. Nervous legislators considered whether they should adjourn due to unforeseen apocalypse. One member, Colonel Abraham Davenport, demurred. 'I am against an adjournment. The day of judgment is either approaching, or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause of an adjournment: if it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. I wish therefore that candles may be brought, and we proceed to business.' The Connecticut Legislature lit the candles and kept working.

People found Colonel Davenport pretty brave. Years later, John Greenleaf Whittier immortalised Davenport's courage in a famous poem, and John F Kennedy mentioned him approvingly in a 1960 campaign speech.

1780 was in the middle of what people in the US call the Revolutionary War. General George Washington was busy in Morristown, New Jersey, but he made a note of the strange darkness in his diary. The Continentals kept fighting. (They didn't really think God was an Englishman.)

Kingdom Coming?

To everybody's relief, the world didn't end. Life went on. Some communities observed the anniversary of the 'Dark Day' as a time of prayer and fasting, and people remained puzzled – sort of, 'what was that all about?'

The 'Dark Day' had longer effects, however, on the fortunes of a religious group in upper-state New York. The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, or Shakers, a tiny group led by 'Mother' Ann Lee, had crossed over from England in 1774. Up until 1780, the group of ecstatic, pacifist mystics (who practised celibacy and gender equality) had kept a low profile. After experiencing the 'Dark Day', Lee and her followers decided to take their message public and began sending missionaries around the area. The Shakers were persecuted – not only because of their unusual beliefs2, but because their neutrality in the war made them suspect. The Shakers were accused of being British spies.

Another group that was to have its thinking affected by the 'Dark Day' of 1780 wasn't even a gleam in its founder's eye yet. The Seventh-Day Adventist Church grew out of the Millerite movement of the 1840s. Reverend Miller predicted that Jesus would return to Earth (and, presumably, make an appearance in upstate New York) on 22 October, 1844. This didn't happen, or at least no one claims it did. Most of Miller's followers went back to their own churches, but a dedicated remnant created the Seventh-Day Adventists, a group that placed great emphasis on eschatology.

Eschatology, the study of theological theories about the end of the world, can be a knotty subject and involve a lot of maths. Part of figuring out the 'End Times' requires calculating the '70 weeks of the Prophet Daniel' as well as a set of 'days' (sometimes interpreted as years) listed in the Bible. Finally, of course, there is the most significant number for eschatologists: 42. 42 months, or the 'Time of the Gentiles', must also be reckoned into the mix. Some, but not all, Seventh-Day Adventist eschatologists consider the New England 'Dark Day' to be one of the portents associated with the opening of the Seven Seals, an event that takes place in heaven, according to the Book of Revelation.

Millennialists might be concerned, but once the sun came out again, the birds, farm animals, and New Englanders calmed down and got back to business. The 'Dark Day' remained an odd footnote to US history.

Oh, and a couple of years after the 'Dark Day', in 1783, the United States won its independence from Great Britain. The Treaty of Paris contains no reference to a connection between the 'Dark Day' and the eventual success of General Washington's strategy.

So What Caused the 'Dark Day'?

And well you might ask. For over 200 years, no one knew. Finally, in 2007, a paper published in the International Journal of Wildland Fire offered a possible solution. It appears that an examination of tree rings indicates that there was a massive forest fire around that time – in Canada. Smoke and ash created a cloud that drifted down over New England, blackening the sky, and confusing livestock and people.

Lacking access to NASA's satellite imagery, the poor New Englanders were prey to an outbreak of environmentally-induced, and thoroughly needless, messianism.

This might be why people in the US are always so grateful for leaders of the calibre of Abraham Davenport.

1This quote is from the King James, or Authorised Version, of the Bible.2Among other things, the Shakers came to believe that Mother Ann was the 'female Christ'.

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