I have been discussing the effects of global changes in weather and climate on the history of religions. Sometimes, those developments can be related to long-term climatic developments, such as the Little Ice Age, but in other instances, we see the impact of transient catastrophes.
A growing number of books have traced the impact of volcanic eruptions on global weather patters. When on a sufficiently large scale, such eruptions have literally darkened the skies worldwide, and caused serious cooling, with devastating effects on crops and commerce for some years afterwards. Some such events have killed millions. Such for instance was the Laki eruption in Iceland in 1783, or the titanic explosion of Tambora in 1815. Without the slightest hyperbole, we can say that each transformed the world.
Here is Gilbert White in 1783, describing Laki’s effects in England,
The sun, at noon, looked as blank as a clouded moon, and shed a rust-coloured ferruginous light on the ground, and floors of rooms; but was particularly lurid and blood-coloured at rising and setting. At the same time the heat was so intense that butchers’ meat could hardly be eaten on the day after it was killed; and the flies swarmed so in the lanes and hedges that they rendered the horses half frantic . . . the country people began to look with a superstitious awe, at the red, louring aspect of the sun.
Benjamin Franklin wrote of “a constant fog over all Europe, and a great part of North America.” By some estimates, the Chalisa Famine in India killed eleven million people in 1783-84, and that was just the impact in one region. Without the global effects of Laki, France would likely not have experienced the agricultural disasters that provoked the French Revolution.
You won’t be surprised to learn that Laki’s exact contribution to these horrors remains controversial.
The best-recorded impact was that of the volcano Tambora (April 1815), which created “the year without a Summer,” and which (fairly literally) cast its shadow from 1816 through 1819. To quote Wikipedia, 1816 was called “the Poverty Year, the Summer that Never Was, Year There Was No Summer, and Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death.” I quote Matthew Hennessey:
In the United States, the summer of 1816 announced itself as truly unusual on June 7. In the heavily populated northeast, temperatures hovered around freezing all day. In Ohio and Pennsylvania, budding fruit trees succumbed to the frost. At higher elevations in New York State, snow covered the ground. Migratory birds fell dead. Recently shorn sheep died when they could find no forage on the frozen ground.
Weird weather persisted all summer and into the early fall. High winds kept the air dry. Drought caused wells to fail, streams to dry up, and wildfires to rage. August felt more like October, with freezing temps and heavy frost killing crops from Maine to South Carolina. Farms failed across New England, leading many who relied on the land for a living to pick up and move west.
Old timers declared there had never been anything like it in living memory. “We have had the most extraordinary year of drought and cold ever known in the history of America,” wrote 73-year-old Thomas Jefferson to a former colleague. Theories abounded. Some blamed sun spots. Others chalked it up to a change in the flow of “electrical fluid” between the atmosphere and the earth’s surface. Some said it was all in God’s hands.
By 1816, after months of global cooling, the coldest instrumentally recorded year in Britain began. The summer months were the coldest ever measured, and were relentlessly wet. In North America winter frosts persisted through spring, and snow blanketed New England on 6–7 June while Quebec was buried by more than a foot of snow….
In most European countries, the cost of every basic foodstuff rose out of the reach of the poor, and even the rich saw their household bills increase dramatically. Sulfur dioxide spread right across the planet, with the highest concentrations of sulfates measured in the Greenland ice cores for 2,000 years.Nobbs actually suggests that Tambora decided the Napoleonic Wars, because:
Napoleon’s forces at Waterloo fell foul of weeks of rain, when the heavy cannons his troops had used so effectively before were rendered useless as they sank deep into the flooded earth.
Not until 1818 was anything like normality restored.
The result was a terrifying subsistence crisis across Europe and the West – really, the last outbreak of pre-Modern starvation conditions not directly caused by warfare. Books like Wood’s also show the enormous cultural impact of such events, which even affected the writing of Frankenstein.
But think through the religious impact. Skies darkened, astonishing clouds filled the heavens, crops failed, people starved, unrest flared… if anyone was not reading these as apocalyptic signs, they were not paying attention.
In some cases, the crisis caused immediate religious upsurges, and revivals flared across the US in the ghastly year of 1816-17. But I also wonder about the long-term impact. We know that the US in the 1830s and 1840s had an enormous efflorescence of religious sects with a strongly apocalyptic cast, and in most cases, the leaders and primary members of those movements would have grown up during the post-Tambora horrors.
Joseph Smith, for instance, the Mormon prophet, was born in 1805, and would have been at an impressionable age during these years when the Heavens darkened. It was the crop failures of those years that forced his family to move from Vermont to western New York. William Miller, founder of Adventism, was a much older man in these years, but this was the time when his thoughts were decisively shifting to religious concerns.
Almost certainly, there were other instances as well in earlier eras. The description of global calamity around 535-36 AD sounds very much like the result of a volcanic event, or even some kind of cosmic impact. Recently, Ilopango volcano in El Salvador has been identified as the likely culprit. The disruptions of the 530s provoked famine, which in turn weakened populations in the face of the great plagues of the 540s. That may have been the worst global pandemic before the Black Death of the 1340s. William Rosen has an excellent book on the plague of this era in his Justinian’s Flea (2007).
Together, these disasters contributed powerfully to ending the Roman Empire and indeed the ancient world, and ushering in a new and grimmer early medieval reality. They also massively inflamed the Empire’s ongoing religious crisis, and the violent splits between Orthodox/Catholic believers and the Monophysites.
Of necessity too, there must have been plenty of other big eruptions between 536 (say) and Laki in 1783.
Can we speak of volcanic faith?
As a footnote, a recent theory holds that volcanoes actually played a critical role in the emergence of modern humanity. According to this view, early humans lived in close proximity to African volcanoes, and that fact contributed to the discovery of fire, with all that implied for cooking and food choices, and in general to the rise of intelligence, brain size and sociability.
In the wise words of Germaine Greer, “Perhaps catastrophe is the natural human environment, and even though we spend a good deal of energy trying to get away from it, we are programmed for survival amid catastrophe.”
Some of the recent books in question are:
William K. Klingaman and Nicholas P. Klingaman, The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano That Darkened the World and Changed History (2013).
Gillen D’Arcy Wood, Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World (2014).
Alexandra Witze, Island on Fire: The Extraordinary Story of a Forgotten Volcano That Changed the World (2015).