A spectacular Northern Lights display on Dec. 11, 1719, sent New Englanders screaming into the night and inspired Puritan ministers to publish detailed descriptions of the phenomenon.
New Englanders hadn’t seenmuch of the Northern Lights up until then. There had been a dearth of solar activity for about a century, though the Northern Lights weren’t completely unknown. During the 17th century, Gov. John Winthrop and Chief Justice Samuel Sewall had described in their journals borealis-like phenomena.
Still, the Northern Lights were so uncommon that their unexpected appearance in December 1719 alarmed the citizenry. The 1836 Regents Report of the State of New York reported that the Northern Lights caused such terror there was a suspension of “all business, all amusements and even sleep.”
Many people thought the nighttime display portended the Day of Judgment. The Every Day Book of History and Chronology, published in 1858, reported that on Dec. 11, “Aurora borealis first noticed in this country, and filled the people with alarm and consternation. It was of course viewed as a sign of the last judgment.” (Some accounts put the sighting on Dec. 17, but all agree on the alarm it raised.)
Witnesses described an amazing display. The Northern Lights started with a brightening of the sky in the northeast, then spread from east to west, streaming with white flames. Stars could be seenthrough the glade of light, which undulated like the sea. Thick clouds, glowing at the edges, lay on the horizon. Later that night the Northern Lights took on a dreadful appearance, resembling a blood-red flame.
When Judgment Day didn’t arrive, New Englanders didn't know whether Divine Providence was trying to reveal something through the wonders of nature, or if there wasa scientific explanation?
Cottom Mather, the influential Puritan minister, wasn’t sure. He wrote a pamphlet called A Voice From Heaven – An Account of a Late Uncommon Appearance in the Heavens. Though Mather did much to promote scientific thought, he couldn’t shake the feeling that the Northern Lights were a bad omen. “When we see a Pillar of Smoke and a Flame ascending in Heaven,” he wrote, “We must conclude, That Evil is upon us.”
Thomas Robie of Harvard most emphatically disagreed. In a letter, he wrote, “As to prognostications from it, I abhor and detest them all, and look upon these to be but the effect of ignorance and fancy…no man should fright himself by supposing that dreadful things will follow, such as famine, sword or sickness.” Robie believed the Northern Lights were caused by a fiery vapor that collided with combustible particles in the air.
Thomas Prince, another Puritan minister, wrote a description of Northern Lights he’d seen in England three years earlier. Prince declined to speculate on what they meant or what caused them.
After the sudden, spectacular display in 1719, the Northern Lights began to appear more frequently. Seeing no day of reckoning, New Englanders began to relax.
Sidney Perley, in his 1891 book, Historic Storms of New England, wrote that the next year “other luminous appearances in the evening sky occurred.
“Though at first the people were fearful of the consequences of such sights, the feeling wore off as they became more frequent and it was found that they were without any apparent effect upon the world.”