At 9:51 p.m. on August 31, 1886, the most powerful earthquake ever to hit the East Coast struck South Carolina and pummeled Charleston. By 9:52 p.m. that morning, more than 150 people were dead and nearly 90 percent of the historic city’s masonry buildings were reduced to rubble and dust. Two-thirds of the city’s 40,000 inhabitants were homeless.
While scientific equipment to gauge the strength of seismic activity was not available at the time, scientists have since estimated that the earthquake that rocked Charleston that morning might have registered between seven and eight on the Richter scale, a quake of profound strength. “Within ten minutes, it had spread terror throughout half the nation, causing panic and damage as far north as Toronto, east to Long Island, south to Cuba, and west to St. Louis,” wrote historian Richard N. Cote. “The nation was stunned. No one in Charleston, or anywhere on the East coast, ever thought such an unthinkable catastrophe of such magnitude could possibly strike east of the Mississippi. They were very, very wrong.”
So strong was the quake, that the captain guiding the American vessel, the Robert Dixon, said he felt the shockwave while sailing in 2000 fathoms of water: “a strong vibration went through the vessel, causing all on board to think for a moment that she had grounded.”
Thou Hast Made the Earth to Tremble
The Baptist Courier of South Carolina prepared an extensive first-hand account of the quake for its September 1, 1886 edition, but was unable to print it because compositors refused to work when fresh aftershocks were forecast across the state. On September 8, one of the editors described the battered city from his own vantage point on Broad Street.
“The station house, a massive brick building across the street, had apparently lost its roof, which had fallen around it. A little further on, the roof of the portico of Hibernian hall, the handsome building, in Grecian style, had crashed to the ground, carrying down a part of the massive granite pillars with it. All the way up Meeting street, which in respect of its general direction and importance, may be called the Broadway of Charleston, the roadway was piled with debris from the tops of the walls.”
Henry Holcombe Tucker, a Baptist theologian and journalist who had lived in Charleston for several years as a young man, was among those so stunned. Tucker owned and edited the Christian Index, Georgia’s Baptist newspaper. While no twenty-four-hour news services existed in the eighteenth century, news of the quake arrived in Atlanta almost immediately. With the September 2, 1886 edition of the Index already at the press, Tucker had to wait until the following week to comment.
Because of the profundity of the destruction, the entire nation had learned of the devastation in Charleston by the time Tucker was able to set ink to paper, so he focused on examining the theological questions that the tremor would inevitably push to the surface: “for what our readers have not experienced, they have, doubtless, learned from the secular press…be it ours to regard the subject in its religious aspects.” The biblical text that adorned his editorial well summarized Tucker’s view of the quake: “Thou hast made the earth to tremble.”
Natural Disaster Preaches 6 Doctrines
What was the point of the earthquake to Tucker’s mind? It was a preacher, he wrote, sent by divine providence to “impress upon the country six great doctrines:” the existence of God, the greatness of God, the insignificance of man, the guilt of man, the responsibility of man to his Maker, and the duty and value of prayer. God had sent the quake to rouse his slumbering people as well as to awaken those living carelessly, “as in the days of Noah,” their hearts imprisoned by a practical atheism.
“When the continent trembled, millions of people thought of God. A large proportion of these were of that class in all whose thoughts, from day to day, God is not. Millions of people were impressed with a sense of human helplessness and insignificance…In the heyday of prosperity men invent arguments to disprove these six doctrines, but when appalling danger comes suddenly upon them they forget the arguments and remember the doctrines, showing that deep down in the human heart there is an intuition which acknowledges God, and recognizes our proper relations to him.”
Tucker further reminded his readers that God rules not merely over extraordinary events such as earthquakes and great floods, but also exercises a meticulous providence over the everyday minutiae of life: “God speaks to us in the ordinary ordering of his providence. To accentuate these he speaks again in extraordinary orderings.”
Tucker also reminded readers that God often shook the earth to proclaim his sovereignty within the pages of Scripture, once freeing Paul and Silas from a Philippian jail and again capturing the attention of many during the crucifixion of the Lord. Demonstrating his deep care for readers, both converted and unconverted, Tucker used the earthquake as an occasion to warn them that there was a greater shaking of the earth still to come, one that would usher in a final redemption for some and the white-hot fury of God’s judgment for others.
“An earthquake will be the closing scene in the biography of the human race. There is a day coming, the great and awful day of the Lord, when the rocks will be rent, when the mountains will be overturned, when the earth and sea will give up the dead that are in them. In that day some will cry out: “O, rocks crush us; O, mountains fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb.” Rev. 6:16. Others, rejoicing in this last and most glorious manifestation of God’s presence to the world, will rise in triumph above its confusion “to meet the Lord in the air.”
Over the next few weeks, Tucker continued to write and print articles on the Charleston earthquake. On September 23, 1886, several articles appeared in the Index on the disaster, including one by Tucker in which he spoke fondly of his four years as a resident of Charleston and as a member of First Baptist Church of Charleston. He also established a fund for the rebuilding of the earthquake-ravaged church building and solicited donations for several weeks from readers.
On the front page of the same edition, Tucker printed a comment from an editorial that appeared in the Charleston News and Courier a few days before the quake touting the city’s seemingly unstoppable forward commercial progress. The words chilled Tucker, as they bespoke the arrogant and presumptuous nature of man: “Charleston cannot be pulled back and it will not be kept down.” Tucker replied by applying the truth of James 4:15, where the apostle speaks of the arrogance of the man who makes plans without considering the overruling hand of God: “And on this let the Apostle James make a comment,” Tucker wrote. Tucker wanted his readers to remember that God would have the last word.
Sovereign Mercy Is Our Comfort
In the midst of his coverage of the Charleston tragedy, Tucker published an article from the Southern Presbyterian which spotlighted the ability of Calvinism, and its emphasis on divine sovereignty, to hold up as a doctrinal system in the face of human suffering, an article no doubt designed to help readers apply their theology to circumstances such as the Charleston earthquake.
“There is no particular in which Calvinism shows its superiority to all opposing systems of doctrine more clearly than in its fitness to sustain and comfort in affliction. Cold fatalism on the one hand is not much less cheering than are the vague generalities of Arminianism on the other. True Calvinism is equally removed from both…Its teachings are positive and strong, and consist of truths which for a solid groundwork for the confidence of God’s children. In fact, what weakens and nullifies the comfort which Arminianism offers to the sons and daughters of affliction is the attempt to put all classes on the same footing. It denies that any of the consolations of God are peculiar to his own people, and therefore withholds from them those which it may not promise to the ungodly. …The grand feature of Calvinism is the assertion of the sovereignty of God, supreme, absolute, and all-comprehensive. He does his own pleasure in the armies of heaven and amongst the inhabitants of the earth. His will prevail all the time and everywhere and in all things, even in calamitous events and human sins.
The Calvinist believes that God has a plan by which he performs his gracious will towards his people—a plan not only general but particular; not vague, but definite; not dependent on the caprices of others, but fully-formed and all-efficient…We do not say that Arminians enjoy no support and comfort in their afflictions. We know large numbers of them are God’s true children, and that he does not leave them comfortless. But they enjoy this rather in opposition than in conformity with their professed system of doctrine. As in many other instances, they are happily inconsistent.”
The doctrines of grace and their experimental application in both God’s work in redemption and in his meticulous governance over creation was a product of Tucker’s understanding of the authority and utter sufficiency of Scripture; man was not to attempt to “figure out” God, but to take comfort in the things he had revealed—especially when it pleases God to shake the creation through natural disaster. This alone would provide shelter and comfort for God’s people amid even amid the darkest days of affliction.