Religion in the Age of Enlightenment


John Fletcher of Madeley, Dreadful Phenomenon, Age of Enlightenment


n the morning of Thursday, May 27, 1773, the evangelical Vicar of Madeley, Shropshire, the Reverend John Fletcher, went with throngs of other curious onlookers to view the dramatic scene of a landslip that had occurred in the early hours on the edge of his parish, at a location known locally as "the Birches." Meeting several of his parishioners there, he announced that he would return the following evening to preach a sermon on this "Dreadful Phenomenon:' He took for his text "If the Lord make a new thing, and the earth open her mouth, and swallow them up ... then ye shall understand that these men have provoked the Lord" (Numbers 16:30), stressing that natural disasters should be seen as warnings of divine judgment on a wicked world, while also affirming that people should give thanks that no lives were lost, nor more damage done. Sermons about natural disasters were no new thing. Fletcher would probably have experienced the London earthquake of March 1750 (a fairly minor tremor), which frightened the populace and resulted in many sermons. Charles Wesley-one of Fletcher's closest friends-left more than a page of his journal blank for Thursday, March 8, the actual date of the quake, apparently intending to write a full account later. Two days later he wrote,

"Saturday, March 10th. Expounded Isaiah 24, a chapter I had not taken much notice of till this awful providence explained it: "Behold, the Lord maketh the earth empty, and maketh it waste, and turneth it upside down, and scattereth abroad the inhabitants thereof .... The foundations of the earth do shake. The earth is utterly broken down, the earth is clean dissolved, the earth is moved exceedingly. The earth shall reel to and fro like a drunkard, and shall be removed like a cottage; and the transgression thereof shall be heavy upon it; and it shall fall, and not rise again:."