Stormy church service – ‘without gown or surplice’!

“And he said to the disciples, ‘The days are coming when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. And they will say to you, Look, there! or Look, here! Do not go out or follow them. For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day.” (Luke 17:22-24).

Last post I wrote about the Rev Laurence Lovell who died this month. Laurence Lovell served at St Keverne, Cornwall, and I was interested to see where his parish was located having stayed at Falmouth, Cornwall a few years ago. On their website, I came across this fascinating account of a thunderstorm service in 1770 when the church was struck by lightning. It was too good to pass by.

An account of a remarkable thunder-storm. 

In a letter from the Rev. Anthony Williams, Rector of St. Keverne, to the Rev. William Borlase, dated February 1770.

“For several days before the thunder storm which fell on St. Keverne spire and Church on Sunday the 18th day of February last, the wind was very hard at North and the North wind accompanicd with violent showers of hail, which had done some damage to the roof of the Church and many houses in Churchtown.

On the Sunday morning above mentioned, the wind was excessive hard and about six, I saw some few faint flashes of lightning, which as day came on, if it continued, became imperceptible. The weather being too bad, prevented a great number of people coming to Church which in all human probability was a happy circumstance, for about a quarter after eleven o’clock, while I was in the latter end of the Litany Service, we had a very fierce flash of lightning, followed at a distance of four or five seconds by the loudest thunder I remember ever to have heard, but which did no damage, nor seemed in the least to disturb any of the congregation, though at the same time the roof of the Church was ‘riffling’ and the hail made a noise terrible to be heard. In half a minute after this, as nearly as I can possibly guess, the whole congregation, except five or six persons, were at once struck out of their senses. I myself received the shock so suddenly as not to remember if I either heard the thunder or saw the lightning.

The first thing that I can recollect with a degree of certainty is that I found myself in the Vicarage seat, which is very near the desk, without gown or surplice, bearing in my arms, as I then thought, a dead sister, and God knows it was a miracle she was not so. I perceived a very strong sulphurous smell, almost suffocating and a great heat. At this time the confusion amongst the congregation was inconceivable, some running out of the Church for safety and returning into it again (for stones from the roof were falling on our heads both in and out of the Church). Some of them fell to their knees imploring for Divine assistance, giving themselves up to a certain destruction and a great many in different places of the Church were lying quite motionless, whom I thought then to be quite dead.

In the afternoon, my thoughts being a little composed (I believe for a full two hours I could not said to be rightly in my senses) I walked to the Church to see what damage was done; and such a scene presented is as horrible to think of, much more to see. The Churchyard is also full of ruins; the spire which was about 48 foot high from the battlements of the tower, was carried halfway down, and the remaining part cracked in four places, very irregularly down to the bottom. The North side of the tower from the battlements to the arch of the bell chamber window was quite out, except the corner stone which remained firm and unmoved; the lead on the top of the tower was greatly damaged, melted in several places and as if it were rolled together. The arch of the belfry door, which was very strongly built, with a remarkable hard iron stone laid in lead was also greatly damaged; some of the stones were cracked crossways and just removed out of their places. Others were quite hove out and the lead between the joints not only melted, but loosened so as you might pick it out with your fingers. The traces of lightning were here discovered along the surface of the earth, the stones were thrown from the top of the spire onto the tops of many houses in the Churchtown, but did no great hurt. On a gentleman’s house one stone weighing l4lb. fell through the roof onto the chamber but did no further hurt than to make a hole in the roof and plastering. It is to be observed that the stones from the spire were scattered in all directions, as well as against the wind as with it, some of which, but not very large, were found but a little short of a quarter of a mile. The spire from the top six feet downwards was solid, through which passed an iron spike to fix the weather cock on. Did not the lightning strike first on this spike and was conducted through the solid part of the spire, having no iron to conduct it any more, burst into the hollow part of the spire and threw the stones in all directions. It is so remarkable that the spike was found in the bell chamber, and the weather cock in the battlements.

The bells were not in the least damaged, though a deal board that lay across the beams to which the bells were hung, was split lengthways in two pieces. Every seat in Church had rubbish in it, some more, some less, and stones of a large size from 1501bs. in weight and upwards scattered here and there amongst the congregation, which damaged the seats, but did no hurt to the people though they sat in those very seats where the stones fell. The lightning entered the Church at the West end and went out through the East end. The holes where it came in and went out are not large, neither are the walls much damaged. The belfry window was shattered to pieces, not one whole pane, I believe, may be found in it. Many other windows also suffered greatly, the glass being much shattered. The lightning entered also through two places in the roof, one near the singing loft and struck upon a pillar just by it, the traces of it are to be seen from the top of the pillar almost to the bottom. There were, sitting by the pillar, two young men, one in the singing loft and the other under him in the Church, who were both lightly scorched; he in the loft, from head to foot and the other in the face only; but it is remarkable that his hat which hung on a nail just above him was cut in two pieces.

In the other place, the lightning entered just above the desk and pulpit and fell in like manner on a pillar, which stands in the Vicarage seat. But here it was a great deal more violent and as the object of its prey was my sister, I hope you will excuse my being very particular. Upon this pillar rested a large oak seat, the bottom of which was burst into pieces and one of these pieces being a very large one was thrown from its place to a distance of about 20ft. and appeared to be burnt, and the other piece did not fall. From thence the lightning came down the pillar with great force, tore the seat into many pieces, knocked my sister down and made its way through the bottom of the seat into the earth. She had pattens on and the wooden part was broken into three pieces. The holes through which the ribbon is put to tie them together were quite burnt out and the ribbon found in the seat without the least damage or so much as the knot unloosened. Her shoe was burnt and rent from toe to buckle, Gut the buckle which rivets of silver remained unhurt. Her stocking was burnt and rent in the foot, just in the same manner as her shoe and scorched along to the garter and two little holes were burnt through in the leg of it. Her apron, petticoats etc. were burnt through and through and she had received slight burns on her body, besides two bruises on her head and breast caused by rubbish which fell into the seat. As she was carried out of the Church, she greatly complained of a deadness in her legs, which, as she could not move them at all, I supposed was broke. However, they was not broke, only a little burnt and turned black as ink; which by timely care, not only came to their natural colour by Tuesday noon, but could support her also to come downstairs, and excepting a hurry of spirits, grew quite well that week.

Not more than ten persons out of the congregation were hurt and none of them to any great degree. One young fellow was more frightened than hurt and remained ill a long time, but I believe he is quite well now. The lightning touched the watch in his pocket, the marks of which may be seen on the crystal and silver parts to this day. Nobody remembers to have heard any more thunder or seen any more lightning after this though the weather continued very stormy all day.So that the thunder storm, from beginning to end, could last but a very short time. The damage we suffer by it, (which is now repairing, will amount to about £450).

Thus, sir, I have given you a particular account of the dreadful accident, by which a great number of people, had it not been for the favourable, I may say,miraculous interposition of Providence must inevitably have perished. It must really incite to our wonder to consider that not only was not one life lost, but that no person was hurt to such a degree as to confine him for more than two or three days. I remember to have seen an observation of yours, “How deplorable would be the consequence of such blasts of lightning, if they happened where there are large congregations, in the time of Divine Service.” Here you see, Sir, they happened under the very circumstances in which you then thought they must prove fatal. But Providence has let us know in this remarkable case, let the danger be ever great,and seemingly, to us, unavoidable, yet He is willing, as well as able, to save us.

I am,

Dear Sir,

Your most obedient, humble servant,

Anthony Williams.

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