A sermon, and early theories of earthquakes

Reading around Maria Graham’s journal of her year in Chile, during which she was present for the megathrust earthquake of 19 November 1822 in Valparaiso, I discovered an article written and published in Santiago a few days later, in edition number 16 of El Mercurio de Chile. Santiago was not so heavily damaged as Valparaiso, but nevertheless the citizenry were understandably perturbed. The article was written by one Camilo Enriquez, it has a distinctly religious bent and indeed the article describes him as a “Theologian, as sensitive as he is pious”.

Don Camilo is clearly concerned that the population, in their fear and lack of understanding of the causes of the earthquake, do not stray too far from the idea of a beneficent God.

What terror is this, Citizens, that still holds your hearts in awe? Is the triumph of fear so firm against reason that, raising its empire over the dejection of your spirit, it occupies all the bosoms of your soul, leaving no room for reflection and no other feeling in your breast than the bitterness that oppresses you? […]

Religion and humanity work at the same time their effects: all concur in believing that man is in these sad catastrophes the object of the furies of earth and heaven, although we always see the system of the stars immutable as if they imitated the immobility of the Omnipotent, showing its impossibility, its bliss, and its unalterable glory.

But, not so fast, he says, because “whoever records the sacred pages of Scripture, will observe that when he [i.e. God] has wished to avenge crime on miserable mortals, he has always warned them with the threat of punishment.” and goes on to quote a chunk of Ezequiel, where the Old Testament God is seen to warn the people of Tyre before laying into them. Curiously, I was unable to locate the text he supposedly quoted in an English language bible. Since his own bible would have been in Latin, he doubtless translated what he wanted into Spanish and I expect my subsequent translation into English drifted too far from at least the King James Version.

Don Camilo argues that this earthquake, for all its violence, is something common to the Earth and a general part of creation not intended to bring retribution for human transgression:

No: the earthquake that suddenly overcame us on the night of the 19th, and that has caused so many disasters in other places, has kept the regular period with which these revolutions ordinarily occur on the terrestrial globe.

And he lists a number of other earthquakes of his knowledge, from all around the globe, noting that “physicists presume that Britain itself was by an earthquake detached from the continent of Europe, and Sicily from the rest of Italy”. Well, we know now that the movement of Earth’s tectonic plates created much of its current form, and that would have involved a fair number of earthquakes, but Britain was separated from Europe by the rising of sea level after the last ice age.

This part in particular rather amused me:

some philosophers think that the Atlantic Ocean took this name from that of the immense island that was absorbed, and that tradition placed between Africa and America, leaving those of Cape Verde, the Canaries, and the Azores as unfortunate vestiges of the tremendous revolution that erased that country from the face of the earth.

Atlantis, of course!

At the time of his writing, a debate was raging in more developed countries, in which Maria Graham herself later got caught up, between Neptunism and Plutonism. Adherents of the former felt that essentially all rocks were sedimentary in origin, and the latter that at least some of them were volcanic or magmatic. Today, we know the latter were closer to correct, but back then it was anybody’s guess. Maria Graham’s observations of sea level changes resulting from the Valparaiso earthquake were squarely on the Plutonist side, much to the ire of the Neptunists. But in remote Chile, no-one knew anything of this, although Don Camilo wrote:

From the Andes to Japan, from Iceland to the Maluku [Indonesia], the bowels of the globe are perpetually torn apart by fires that work without ceasing with more or less violence. Such powerful causes must produce effects that influence the total mass of the earth; they must eventually change its center of gravity, dry up one of its parts to submerge others, and finally help nature to run the circle of its revolutions.

Which sounds close to an idea of Plutonism to me, although later in the same edition of this newspaper, another writer says that the earthquake “was followed by electrical emissions from the volcano in the Cordillera, which indicates that the danger has ceased, and that it was caused by a subterranean tempest, probably originating from the ignition of an immense quantity of hydrogen”. This is in line with other reports of underground gases moving about and seems to be the prevailing popular idea of the cause of earthquakes in a land where generally smaller ones were and still are a near daily experience. Just this morning, I felt the rumble of an earthquake under my home, and yes, if I did not know better, I could imagine it to have been caused by the rumbling’s of Earth’s intestinal gasses.

Don Camilo brings us from these theories back to his preferred idea of a benevolent God:

… the fermentation of the fuels that embrace the interior of the earth, the air enclosed in it, dilated by its fires, and which makes considerable efforts to expand and flee – the water reduced to vapors, and which raises with prodigious force everything that opposes its expansion; Here are the agents that originate the earthquake, and not the purpose of a God who has the pleasure [ . . . ] to rise up in a bad mood like ideological men, and to take pleasure in seeing for a moment those who were not torn to pieces by the earthquake tear their flesh.

Instead, he demands that the survivors not “tear their flesh” in despair, but count their blessings and that “Misericordia Domini quia non sumus consumpti” (it is the Lord’s mercy that we are not consumed), finishing with exhortation to help the less fortunate:

Let us do for them what we would like to do for ourselves. Their misfortune is too great for us to be able to deafen the cry of humanity. […] In the shade of a tree God will be worshiped with the same respect on our part and with better satisfaction on His part than under sumptuous roofs, and in the midst of magnificent altars, to the altars of which I would look with horror if those who, in order to make a pleasure of which divinity has no need, had not stretched out their hands to the indigent, and preferred the sacrifice of fanaticism.

Preaching to the crowd in Valparaiso, 1822, after the earthquake
(Famín, C. (1839). Historia de Chile. Barcelona: Imprenta de Guardia Nacional, figure 19.)

All-in-all it would have made quite the sermon and an appeal to reason and humanity to hear and read in the streets surrounded by the rubble left by a terrifying earthquake on the edge of the world 200 years ago.

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