The Great New England Earthquake of 1663 collapsed walls and frightened colonists from Quebec City to New York, but Puritan ministers and Jesuit priests saw a silver lining: People flocked to church in the immediate aftermath. No one had much question that the tremors came from God, who was trying to tell sinners something. Opinions varied as to exactly what.
The earthquake, also known as the Charlevoix Earthquake, was centered along the Saint Lawrence River, between the mouths of the Malbaie and Ouelle rivers. Geologists estimate it measured 7.3 to 7.9 on the Richter scale. It wreaked the most damage in Canada, but in Boston and Portland it toppled chimneys, tossed pewter off shelves, shook houses and sent frightened men and women into the streets. The aftershocks continued for days.
According to a contemporary account in Canada, the heavens were serene around 6 pm on Jan. 26 (Old Style), 1662-3, when all of a sudden there came a roar ‘like that of a great fire:’
Immediately the buildings were shaken with amazing violence. The doors opened and shut of themselves, with a fearful clattering. The bells rang without being touched. The walls split asunder. The floors separated, and fell down. The fields put on the appearance of precipices, and the mountains seemed to be moving out of their places: and amidst the universal crash which took place, most kinds of animals sent forth fearful cries and howlings.
As the region was sparsely populated, the earthquake caused no recorded loss of life. One Jesuit priest, Father Charles Simon, viewed it as a sign of divine mercy. Puritan ministers reported the earthquake as a sign of divine judgment.
In New England and in New France, the people became more pious. It didn’t last, and the Jesuits and the Puritans began to wish for another earthquake.