J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, February 09, 2019

“Soon after the fire broke out, he caused his wind to blow”

Given Boston’s religious heritage, the Great Fire of 1760 naturally caused people to ask what God meant by it.

On 23 March, the Sunday after the fire, the Rev. Jonathan Mayhew preached about the calamity at the West Meetinghouse. That sermon said the destruction must be the result of divine will:
When this fire broke out, and for some time before, it was almost calm. And had it continued so, the fire might probably have been extinguished in a short time, before it had done much damage; considering the remarkable resolution and dexterity of many people amongst us on such occasions.

But it seems that God, who had spared us before beyond our hopes, was now determined to let loose his wrath upon us; to “rebuke us in his anger, and chasten us in his hot displeasure [a riff on Psalm 38:1].” In order to the accomplishing of which design, soon after the fire broke out, he caused his wind to blow; and suddenly raised it to such a height, that all endeavors to put a stop to the raging flames, were ineffectual: though there seems to have been no want, either of any pains or prudence, which could be expected at such a time.

The Lord had purposed, and who should disannul it? His hand was stretched out, and who should turn it back [Isaiah 14:27].[”] “When he giveth quietness, who then can make trouble? And when he hideth his face, who then can behold him? Whether it be done against a nation, or against a man only [Job 34:29].”

It had been a dry season for some time; unusually so for the time of the year. The houses, and other things were as fuel prepared for the fire to feed on: and the flames were suddenly spread, and propagated to distant places. So that, in the space of a few hours, the fire swept all before it in the direction of the wind; spreading wider and wider from the place where it began, till it reached the water. Nor did it stop even there, without the destruction of the wharfs, with several vessels lying at them, and the imminent danger of many others.

We may now, with sufficient propriety, adopt the words of the psalmist, and apply them to our own calamitous circumstances, “Come, behold the works of the Lord, what desolation he hath made in the earth. [Psalm 46:8]” So melancholy a scene, occasioned by fire, was, to be sure, never beheld before in America; at least not in the British dominions. And when I add, God grant that the like may never be beheld again, I am sure you will all say, Amen!

In short, this must needs be considered, not only as a very great, but public calamity. It will be many years before this town, long burdened with so great, not to say, disproportionate, a share of the public expenses, will recover itself from the terrible blow. Nor will this metropolis only be affected and prejudiced hereby. The whole province will feel it. For such are the dependencies and connections in civil society, regularly constituted.
At the same time, Mayhew explicitly refrained from casting blame on any particular sinners in Boston and warned his listeners against doing the same. He reminded his congregation of what he said were divine blessings, such as the lack of fatalities and how the war was going so well.

Mayhew’s sermon was quickly printed by Richard Draper, Edes and Gill, and the Fleet brothers together. That pamphlet included footnotes noting that the Massachusetts General Court had already voted to draw “about two thousand two hundred and fifty pounds sterling…out of the public treasury” for disaster relief, and “his Excellency the Governor [was] desired to send briefs throughout the province, recommending a general contribution for the unhappy sufferers.”

Further footnotes made an explicit appeal for charity:
About a thousand pounds lawful money was collected in the several religious assemblies in the town, for the relief of the sufferers by the late fire near Oliver’s dock: A large sum, considering the impoverish’d and declining state of the town, and the greatness of the public taxes. And tho’ the dispo|sition of the people be still the same, and the present occasion much greater, and more urgent than the former; yet it will naturally be remember’d that our ability is now less than it was then. . . .

It is to be hoped therefore, that our friends and brethren who live in the country, where their situation secures them so effectually against calamities of this nature, will seriously consider the present distressed condition of the town and shew their christian benevolence on this occasion agreeably to the Brief which his Excellency the Governor has issued out.
Later in the 1760s, much the same argument about Boston’s situation—that people were already generous, that the economy was declining, that the taxes were too high—would resurface in response to Parliament’s new taxes.

TOMORROW: Another religious response.

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