BUT THE EARTHQUAKE WAS ONLY THE FIRST DISASTER of the day. Many survivors scurried to the safety of the waterfront—and were drowned by a tsunami wave. Others retreated inland, leaving behind votive and altar candles that set ablaze curtains and containers of holy oil. Strong winds spread the burning. One eyewitness wrote, “It was a tremendous sight. One saw merchants throwing their riches from the windows in order to save them from the flames.” Those trapped in rubble usually did not burn to death, though: They died of smoke inhalation first.
King José’s new opera house survived the earthquake but burned to the ground in the fire: Molesky writes, “Of all the losses suffered in the disaster, few were more heartbreaking for the king.” Tens of thousands of deaths broke other hearts. Across Europe and the Americas, news of the disaster made ears tingle and minds ask questions. Don Antonio de Barroeta, the archbishop of Lima, Peru, gave one answer: “Divine Justice. Our crimes are the true causes of earthquakes and the destruction of churches.”
De Barroeta was not a know-nothing. He knew one cause was “subterranean volcanic eruptions and fires,” but he said “the true subterranean force is the lascivious burning in men’s hearts.” The London Evening Post agreed that “Earthquakes are Effects of natural Causes,” but God is “the Author and the Lord of Nature, all these Causes are in his Hands, and his Providence is over all his Works.”
That idea insulted Enlightenment progressives. The Lisbon earthquake came at a time when Europe seemed finally on its way out of grinding poverty. In the 1600s, during the “Little Ice Age,” normally free-flowing rivers like the Thames froze over and food production fell—but 18th-century global warming along with farming improvements helped many escape poverty. Yet in 1755 “blind Nature,” as David Hume labeled it, seemed to be striking back.
François-Marie Arouet, who wrote under the name Voltaire, particularly questioned the idea of earthquake as God’s judgment: “Why had Lisbon been leveled? Was she more vicious than London [or] Paris, plunged in pleasures? Lisbon is shattered, and Paris dances.” Of course, Jesus more than 1,700 years earlier had answered in advance Voltaire’s question when some onlookers asked Him about residents of Galilee whom Pontius Pilate has slaughtered: Jesus said they weren’t worse sinners than others, “but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
Jesus drove that point home with His comment on another news event: “Those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Methodist founder John Wesley reflected Biblical thinking in a book he quickly published, Serious Thoughts Occasioned by the Earthquake at Lisbon: It urged readers to repent “before London is as Lisbon.”
Enlightenment leaders minimized the need for repentance and emphasized the importance of new building codes. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who lived in a small house north of Paris with his domestic partner Marie-Thérèse and sent all five of his children to the high-fatality Paris Foundling Hospital soon after their birth, argued that small is beautiful: He blamed Lisbon’s six-story houses and said if residents “had been more evenly dispersed and less densely housed, the losses would have been fewer or perhaps none at all.” Those last few words were factually inaccurate, but Immanuel Kant, in “On the Usefulness of Earthquakes,” also criticized tall buildings.