Thursday, May 4, 2005

The Preacher’s Corner
By Rev. Dr. Milton Winter

Where were you when the house shook?

Where were you during the earthquake last Sunday? Did you miss it? I found out about it when I flipped on the TV while eating my breakfast. The Memphis stations had interrupted regular programming and were giving special “breaking news” coverage to the event. According to geologists at the University of Memphis, a 4.1 or so, earthquake occurred at about 7:37 a.m. along the New Madrid fault in Missouri. Three smaller aftershocks followed.

People in Memphis had felt it, and reports were coming in from all over West Tennessee, and a few in North Mississippi had had china rattled, ceiling fans jiggled, and pictures on the wall turned askew. As for me, I was in the shower when it happened and did not hear or feel a thing.

Fortunately the tremor was no big deal. But it set my mind wandering back to other earthquakes in previous years. We do have them from time to time, you know.

Holly Springs lies close enough to the New Madrid fault to feel its movements, and on January 4, 1843, a local citizen, James J. Selby (ancestor of Paul Calame) noted in his daily log of events that “a great shake of an Earthquake was felt which scared the people very much between 8 & 9 o’clock at night.” Selby recorded on February 16 of the next year, “Another Shock of an Earthquake.”

Of course people then remembered and compared every shaking of the ground to the great series of quakes that occurred near New Madrid, Missouri, beginning December 11, 1816. If a mechanism had been available to measure them, they would have been some of the most powerful ever recorded, for they altered the contour of the land and even made the Mississippi River run backward for a time, most notably causing the formation of the Reelfoot Lake in northwest Tennessee, the result of a falling of the land which eventually filled with water to create the lake.

My mother remembered an earthquake in Memphis during her childhood years. They were in the city and staying in a hotel. It came during the night and rattled the glass in the windows very hard, giving everybody a good scare.

In many communities up and down the Mississippi Valley, the earthquakes associated with the New Madrid fault were a stimulus to religious revivals. The churches gained many members as a result of the earthquakes of 1811-1812 at New Madrid, Mo. Some saw “the direct agency of Jehovah in these convulsions and considered them as intimately connected with the moral guilt of the world.” A committee of the Presbyterian Synod of Kentucky expressed gratitude for “providential dealings such as Earthquakes and War that . . . increased attention to the Scriptures and all means of grace — that some have returned to our Communion who formerly went out from us — that Infidels in general have been more silent, and in some instances reclaimed.”

The earthquake I remember most was the one I missed when I was about twelve years old, down in the Mississippi Delta. Like the one this week, the Delta Earthquake occurred on Sunday morning, and to increase its dramatic effect it happened during the church hour. As I say, I was off with my grandmother visiting my aunt and uncle in Charleston, Illinois, but this is what was relayed to us in an excited phone call we received about 1 p.m. that afternoon.

At our Presbyterian Church in Cleveland, Miss., the minister had just begun his sermon when the earthquake began. The people heard a definite rumble and could see a visible rippling in the steep walls of the sanctuary. Mr. Gentry, our pastor, asked the congregation to file out of the room calmly, and said that before they did that, he would lead in prayer. However, when he concluded and opened his eyes, he found that the room was empty!

Meanwhile across town at Immanuel Baptist, where my best friend’s father was pastor, Brother Hurt was preaching on the resurrection, and when the tremor struck, was reading the scripture about the earthquake that opened the tomb. (I have since heard accounts of such “effects” happening in conjunction with ministers’ sermons in various places, but this is one that really happened and I know quite a few people who can verify it. It was written up at the time in The Commercial Appeal.) Mr. Hurt’s congregation tittered a bit at the stirring of the ground, but they stayed put and he delivered his sermon.

Afterward, when people compared stories, there was quite a bit of teasing that the “predestined” Presbyterians had lacked faith and fled their church, while the “free will” Baptists had shown resolve and completed their hour of worship.


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