HOUSMAIL HM#086 - THE DARK DAY OF MAY 19, 1780   13 December 2001

On the 19 May 1780, in the North East of the USA, there occurred a day when an unusual darkness covered the central New England states.

A thunderstorm from the southwest was accompanied by dark clouds and vapours so dense that it became necessary to light candles at midday. Farmers came in from the fields, birds returned to their roosts, and cows to their barns. Many people became so fearful that they abandoned their normal daily activities, and gathered in Churches to find "comfort" in religious services.

Of course it wasn't long before the "doomsday prophets" began to exploit the incident with a "sensational" emphasis, to gain a following, attract audiences, or sell books. It was, they claimed, a fulfilment of the Bible prophecy in Rev 6:12 -- "The sun became as black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood.".

By mid 19th Century, although vigorously opposed by some better informed writers, it had become for many, a Church tradition, inherited from earlier generations, to sensationalise the event as "unexplained", or even "supernatural"!

This tradition is still strongly held and defended by many Seventh Day Adventists,(1) Mormons, and members of some other smaller denominations.

However, from examining the eye witness evidence available in 1780, (and still on record), it seems to this writer that a grievous error has been made by those writers who reported it as "unexplained" or "supernatural". Some of them we may sympathetically regard as uninformed, and simply repeating in good faith what they have been told, without checking the source. (Prov 18:13!) But others have been clearly guilty of either wishful thinking, carelessness, or even in some cases, intellectual dishonesty and selective reporting which ignores known facts!

Some of this evidence is summarised below, for the benefit of 21st Century readers who may find themselves confronted by ill informed and unreasonable claims about this incident as "fulfilled prophecy".


SUMMARY

In fairness it must be mentioned that several of the early reports of the time said that there was no satisfactory explanation for the cause of the "dark day". One of these reads: "No satisfactory solution has appeared. But it does not follow that none can be given. That it was supernatural, was never supposed but by the ignorant and superstitious: it must then admit of a rational and philosophical explanation."(2)

1. In the New England states of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Hampshire, there were 13 newspapers in print. There were none in Maine, Vermont, or upstate New York. Sprengel says that a total of 35 Articles appeared referring to the Dark Day. Only 14 of these were original. The rest were copies. The total original material printed amounted to about two pages of a modern full size newspaper. (3)

2. NINE of the fourteen original newspaper articles discuss the cause of the "Dark day". ALL OF THESE NINE attribute it to a natural phenomenon resulting from various combinations of smoke vapour, or suspended particles, which had been building up in the atmosphere for several days prior to the event. (3)

3. Various eyewitness reports mention heavy concentration of atmospheric smoke over several days, and as much as three weeks preceding the event. One report says that for several days the sun had been darkened to the extent that it looked much the same as when viewed through smoked glass. (3)

4. Several writers reported a smell in the atmosphere during the darkness. One from Ipswich said that the smell was like burned leaves. (3)

5. Yet another report from Newport Rhode Island, mentions showers of rain, and distant thunder on the morning of 19 May, and cloudiness which continued all afternoon after the darkness passed. (3) (4)

6. The same observer just quoted in 4 above, reported a scum over rain water collected that day, which on examination, he found to be «the black ashes of burnt leaves». (3)

7. Another eye witness report from New Hampshire, refers to forest fires which "had been burning for some time with amazing fury". Eyewitness Historian William Gordon says of these fires, that it was the "American custom to make large fires in the woods, for the purpose of clearing the lands in new settlements". Gordon says that the practice had been resumed in 1780, to a much greater degree than usual, after an interruption of several years. (3) (It is more than reasonable to conclude that this would mean a lot of new understory growth was available to fuel the 1780 fires)


OTHER DARK DAYS!

A Forest Service source quoted by the Springfield Journal,(4) says that the "dark day" was NOT a unique event. It is claimed that there are records of 18 such events between 1706 and 1910, with HALF of them occurring in New England. Today with greater control over forest fires, it is much less likely that similar events might be experienced on the scale of 1780.

A DARK DAY IN MELBOURNE, February 1983

Back in February 1983, Melbourne experienced its own "dark day". Following several days of out of control bushfires (which is the Aussie name for forest fires) Melbourne was covered by a pall of black smoke, combined with dust from a huge inland dust storm. It probably wasn't quite as dark as what was experienced in New England 221 years ago. (But who can tell after all this time?) However my wife Doreen recalls that it was so dark during daylight hours that she had to switch our household lights on, in order to be able to see.

I wasn't here to experience it. I was away from home on an engineering assignment under bright clear blue skies, in the middle of the Saudi Arabian desert. But I heard about it on the radio I carried with me. And when I returned home, I read many accurate eye witness reports from the newspapers of the time, none of them any more or any less compelling than those from 1780! Could I ever be convinced that it was even remotely possible that what happened in Melbourne was a fulfilment of Rev 6:12? Not likely! And I feel exactly the same way about the New England Dark Day!

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CONCLUSION

The evidence summarised above justifies a more than reasonable conclusion that an unusually large concentration of smoke and suspended burned vegetable matter had been collecting for several days. On 19 May this condition reached a peak which combined with a large storm front to produce several hours of unusual and intense darkness.

Of course God was in control of this unusual weather, just as much as He always is for the rain, or flood, and lightning, and thunder, and storm, and tornados! BUT ...... it was clearly what we call a "natural" event as opposed to what we normally mean by "supernatural". The evidence certainly does not justify claims which single it out from many other similar "dark days" for special recognition as a fulfilled prophecy!

There is a powerful lesson in all this for 21st century «would be» teachers! Let us make sure of our facts before we rush into print -- especially about unprovable claims of "supernatural" events! The alternative is to gain a reputation as a "false prophet", and bring great discredit on the Gospel we preach! (Matt 24:24)


Footnotes & Sources:
1. The cause of the "Dark Day" appears to be a topic which is still strongly debated amongst SDAs. A letter is on record written by Caleb G. Adams, May 26 1780, (only a week after the "dark day") describing the event, and concluding that the cause was "smoke laden clouds". This letter appears to have been well known amongst early Adventists, as indicated by its publication in Review and Herald , Oct 28, 1853. However in 1871 James White, (husband of Ellen G. White) published a later edition of his 1853 book, which ignored earlier evidence and said that "the true cause of this remarkable phenomenon is not known ", and described the event as "the supernatural darkening of the sun". (In James White, The Signs of the Times Showing that the Second Coming of Christ is at the Doors . ( See Note 3 below for source)

2. Samuel Tenney, "Dr Tenney's Letter on the Dark Day, May 19" Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society for the year 1792 (Boston: reprinted by Munroe and Francis, 1806) Vol. 1. ( See Note 3 below for source)

3. "The Dark Day Plus 200 Years", Merton E Sprengel, Adventist Review, May 22, May 29, and June 5, 1980.
(Photocopies in my possession kindly provided by the Archives Section at the SDA Offices in Sydney, Australia.)

4. "A Day Without Daylight", Richard Sanderson, Springfield Journal , Vol. 26 No. 9 November 2, 2000.
On Line at - http://www.springfieldjournal.com/archives/11-2-2000/celestialwanderings.html

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