1746 Miracle at the Old South Meeting House

In October of 1746, during the French and Indian War,  French Duke of d’Anville sailed for New England with the most powerful fleet of the time.  It was the largest armada to ever approach the American shores.  They were given orders to recapture Louisburg, Nova Scotia and burn every American harbor from Boston to Charleston sparing no life along the way.

Old South Meeting House

At that time Boston was without the resources to defend itself and what happened next was nothing less than a miracle.

“If the French were coming, they were coming because, like all the nations of Europe, they coveted more than they had. Meanwhile it was good the Governor had proclaimed a Fast Day to pray for deliverance from this present peril. Everywhere men observed it, thronging to the churches.

“In Boston the Reverend Thomas Prince, from the high pulpit of the Old South Meeting house, prayed before hundreds. The morning was clear and calm, people had walked to church through sunshine. ‘Deliver us from the enemy!’ the minister implored. ‘Send thy tempest, Lord, upon the waters to the eastward! Raise Thy right hand. Scatter the ships of our tormentors and drive them hence. Sink their proud frigates beneath the power of Thy winds.’

“He had scarcely pronounced the words when the sun was gone and morning darkened. All the church was in shadow. A wind shrieked round the walls, sudden, violent, hammering at the windows with a giant hand. No man was in the steeple, afterward the sexton swore it – yet the great bell struck twice, a wild uneven sound. Thomas Prince paused in his prayer, both arms raised. ‘We hear Thy voice, 0 Lord!’ he thundered triumphantly. ‘We hear it! Thy breath is upon the waters to the eastward, even upon the deep. Thy bell tolls for the death of our enemies!’ He bowed his head; when he looked up, tears streamed down his face. ‘Thine be the glory, Lord. Amen and amen!’

“‘Amen and amen!’ said Massachusetts, her hope renewed. All the Province heard of this prayer and this answering tempest.. Governor Shirley sent a sloop, the Rising Sun, northward for news. The Rising Sun found the French fleet south of Chebucto (now Halifax Harbor) and got chased for her pains. But she brought news so good it was n-draculous – if one could believe it. The Rangers, a body of men commanded by Captain Gorman of the Boston, had gone, the end of September, to reconnoiter The Rangers were mostly Indians, the French took them for Canadians and talked freely. Two of the largest French frigates had sunk in a storm, they said, on the Isle of Sable. The whole fleet was nearly lost, the men very sick with scurvy or some pestilential fever. Their great admiral, the Duc’d Anville, was dead.

“A week later the news was confirmed by other vessels entering Boston from the northeastward. D’Anville was indeed dead; it said he had poisoned himself in grief and despair when he saw his men dying round him. Two thousand were already buried, four thousands were sick, and not above a thousand of the land forces remained on their feet. Vice Admiral d’Estorunelle had run himself through the heart with his sword. The few remaining ships, halfmanned, were limping off to the southwestward, headed it was thought for the West Indies.

“Pestilence, storm and sudden death – how directly and with what extraordinary vigor the Lord had answered New England prayers. ‘The country fell on its knees. Pharaoh’s host overwhelmed in the Red Sea was no greater miracle. A paper with d’Anville’s orders had been found, instructing him to take Cape Breton Island, then proceed to Boston – ‘Lay that Town in Ashes and destroy all he could upon the coast of North America; then proceed to the West Indies and distress the Islands.’

“Storm and pestilence – why, it was like the destruction of the Spanish Armada! Governor Shirley said so, to the Massachusetts Legislatures assembled. Never had there been so direct an interference of Providence. ‘Affavit Deus,’ said Shirley, et dissipantur – The Lord caused the wind to blow and they were scattered. A day of Thanksgiving and prayer was proclaimed. From every pulpit the good news rang. Hip and thigh the Lord had smitten the Philistines. There was no end to the joyful quotation: If God be for us who can be against us’?’ 1

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote in his Ballad of the French Fleet:

Admiral d’Anville had sworn by cross and crown, to ravage with fire and steel our helpless Boston Town…From mouth to mouth spread tidings of dismay, I stood in the Old South saying humbly: ‘Let us pray!’..Like a potter’s vessel broke, the great ships of the line, were carried away as smoke or sank in the brine.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow “Ballad of the French Fleet”

A FLEET with flags arrayed
Sailed from the port of Brest,
And the Admiral’s ship displayed
The signal: “Steer southwest.”
For this Admiral D’Anville
Had sworn by cross and crown
To ravage with fire and steel
Our helpless Boston Town.

There were rumors in the street,
In the houses there was fear
Of the coming of the fleet,
And the danger hovering near.
And while from mouth to mouth
Spread the tidings of dismay,
I stood in the Old South,
Saying humbly: “Let us pray!

“O Lord! we would not advise;
But if in thy Providence
A tempest should arise
To drive the French Fleet hence,
And scatter it far and wide,
Or sink it in the sea,
We should be satisfied,
And thine the glory be.”

This was the prayer I made,
For my soul was all on flame,
And even as I prayed
The answering tempest came;
It came with a mighty power,
Shaking the windows and walls,
And tolling the bell in the tower,
As it tolls at funerals.

The lightning suddenly
Unsheathed its flaming sword,
And I cried: “Stand still, and see
The salvation of the Lord!”
The heavens were black with cloud,
The sea was white with hail,
And ever more fierce and loud
Blew the October gale.

The fleet it overtook,
And the broad sails in the van
Like the tents of Cushan shook,
Or the curtains of Midian.
Down on the reeling decks
Crashed the o’erwhelming seas;
Ah, never were there wrecks
So pitiful as these!

Like a potter’s vessel broke
The great ships of the line;
They were carried away as a smoke,
Or sank like lead in the brine.
O Lord! before thy path
They vanished and ceased to be,
When thou didst walk in wrath
With thine horses through the sea!

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Notes:

  1. John Adams and the American Revolution, pp. 10- 12)

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