The Great Lisbon Earthquake

Carmo Convent Lisbon


On November 1st 1755, the capital of Portugal was hit by one of the most violent earthquakes ever recorded. It was the Roman Catholic holiday known as All Saints Day. When the earthquake started (it lasted several minutes) it was early morning and the churches we full of devout Roman Catholic believers. Many people died when the churches collapsed. 35 of the 40 Roman Catholic churches in Lisbon were destroyed. After the earthquake, there was a massive fire and somewhere in there a huge tsunami (very rare in Europe) added to the calamity. In an instant, of what seemed a normal day, about 10% of the city’s population died. The British Consul, writing to London two weeks after the earthquake, described it this way:

“The first shock began about a quarter before 10 o’clock in the morning, and as far as I could judge, lasted six or seven minutes, so that in a quarter of an hour, this great city was laid in ruins. Soon after, several fires broke out, which burned for five or six days. The force of the earthquake seemed to be immediately under the city…It is thought to have vented itself at the quay which runs from the Customs House towards the king’s palace, which is entirely carried away, and has totally disappeared. At the time of the earthquake, the waters of the river rose twenty or thirty feet…”

Even though this event has gone down in history as the Lisbon Earthquake, it destroyed several other cities in Portugal and Spain and was felt all the way in France and North Africa. Many authors wrote about the Lisbon earthquake including Voltaire, Rousseau, Casanova. One of the reasons so much was said about the Lisbon Earthquake was because of what had been going on in Lisbon for quite some time. Lisbon was one of the most active stages for the Inquisition. Many Jews, born-again Christians and opposers had been tortured and publicly burned at the stake. Because of this many said that the Lisbon Earthquake was God’s judgment on such atrocities. One year after the Lisbon Earthquake, John Wesley, wrote,

“And what shall we say of the late accounts from Portugal? That several thousand Houses, and many thousand Persons, are no more? That a fair City is now in ruinous Heaps? Is there indeed a God that judges the World? And is He now making Inquisition for Blood? If so, it is not surprising that He should begin there, where so much Blood has been poured on the Ground like Water” (Serious Thoughts, 1756)

I don’t want to say anything about that, that is not the purpose of this post. But I do want to close with the idea that should be considered as we go through another anniversary of this defining day in history. We should not consider what did those people do to deserve that. Rather, we should think weather we are ready if we were to go through something like that. Charles Wesley had a 1750 sermon called “The Cause and Cure of Earthquakes”. In it he writes,

“Of all the Judgments which the righteous God inflicts on sinners here, the most dreadful and destructive is an Earthquake. This He has lately brought on our Part of the Earth, and thereby alarmed our Fears, and bid us prepare to meet our GOD!”

Remember, those people woke up without any indication that that would be the day they would have the give an account to their Creator. Would you be ready if today was that day for you? Are you cured from the fear of earthquakes? If you have already trusted Christ and received forgiveness, isn’t it worthy to share with someone else?