At our last reflection on the parish’s early history, I spoke of the Rev. Matthias Plant, who served as rector of Queen Anne’s Chapel from 1722 and St. Paul’s Church from 1751 until his death in 1753, a total of thirty-one years; and of the ten years of acrimonious conflict between him and the vestry, resolved in his ultimate appointment as rector here in 1750. Well, we are not quite done with the Rev. Plant.
In the letters, journal and account books he fastidiously kept since arriving from Great Britain were written the daily activities and events of the parish, and of his own life. Commentary is written in a clear, precise and well-spoken style that reflected the busy life of an educated person. Aside from recording the seemingly endless deaths of infants and women who died in child birth, baptisms, marriages, funerals, local events, the cost of almost anything, and the regular conflicts within the parish and between various Christian groups in the area, Rev. Plant showed an interest in the natural world shared by other learned men of his generation.
From 1727 to 1741 he carefully recorded the occurrence of nearly two hundred large and small earthquakes in Newbury, including what came to be known as the “Great Earthquake of 1727”, estimated to be 5.6 magnitude. It toppled chimneys and split building in Boston, and caused the great Puritan preacher Cotton Mather to invoke the Revelation of John in his sermons to tell all that the voice of God had emerged from the bowels of the earth to warn sinners of their sorry state. Rev. Plant’s response was more tempered, as we might expect from an Anglican. He appointed a day of fasting and prayer, and recorded the following:
“October 29, 1727, being the Lord’s-Day, about forty minutes past ten the same evening, there came a great rumbling noise; but before the noise was heard, or shock perceived, our bricks upon the hearth rose up about three quarters of a foot; and seemed to fall down and loll the other way, which was in half a minute attended with the noise or burst. The tops of our chimneys, stone fences were thrown down; and in some places (in the lower grounds, about three miles from my house) the earth opened and threw out some hundred loads of earth of a different color from that near the surface, something darker than your white marl in England…. It continued roaring, bursting and shocking our houses all that night. Though the first was much the loudest and most terrible, yet eight more that came that night were loud, and roared like a cannon at a distance. It continued roaring and bursting twelve times in a day and night, until Thursday in the said week, and then was not so frequent; but upon Friday in the evening, and about midnight, and about break of day upon Saturday, three very loud roarings; we had the roaring noise upon Saturday, Sunday, Monday, about ten in the morning, although much abated in the noise.”
These observations were captured in a series of letters to the Rev. Dr. Bearcroft, the Secretary for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts in London, his sponsoring missionary organization. In 1742 these letters were formed into an article published in the Journal of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, called Philosophical Transactions. The journal remainsin publication and is the world’s first science journal. Some theologians believe these earthquakes fueled the first Great Awakening in America, a religious revival of evangelicalism that swept through the Colonies and British Isles, and whose preachers, like the Anglican ordained George Whitefield, buried in the Old South Church here in Newburyport, appealed to churchgoers hearts and emotions through fervid, heartfelt, and some said theatrical, preaching to bring sinners to religious conversion, establishing a strong religious evangelical tradition that has flourished to our day.
These historical facts and recollections, interesting thought they are, seem far away from us now until we remember the way overpowering events can intrude into our own lives without any warning or the lives of others such as the people of Japan, just as they did in Rev. Plant’s time. Think of the red Tabernacle light that hangs from the wall in our sanctuary above the aumbry, the small recessed cupboard where Anglicans traditionally store consecrated wine and wavers. The light is a gift from the Bishop family in memory of their three and half year old son Joseph who died in a tragic, freakish accident involving a falling fireplace stone late at night on a Sunday in June 1992 during a California earthquake; or, think of the St. Paul’s church members who traveled to villages in El Salvador last year on their mission trip and experienced earth tremors, an unsettlingly common event in that part of the world; and, of course, we only have to remember the young faces of the youth from Haiti at the Les Petites Chanteurs Haitiens concert held here to raise money for their crumbled homes and destroyed land.
Matthias Plant speaks with us from long ago about overpowering, and often tragic, events as we continue our struggle for understanding through faith.