Appendix 3: Of Falling Stars (an essay)

1833 crowds watch LeonidsLate Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning, November 12-13, 1833, the stars appeared to fall over eastern North America. Nothing like this star shower had ever been seen before by the crowds that stepped outside to witness the display. Some compared it with a snow shower. Some said it was a like a giant umbrella. In some places people were terrorized by what they were watching. One man reported that the more enlightened of the populace “were awed at contemplating so vivid a picture of the Apocalyptic image — that of the stars falling to the earth, even as a fig tree casting her untimely figs, when she is shaken by a mighty wind.”1

This meteoric shower coincided with a widespread interest in Biblical prophecy. In the forefront of preaching on this subject was William Miller who considered the Biblical “time of the end” to have begun in A.D. 1798. Consequently “these meteors, because of their preeminence and their timing, were taken by many of his followers and, subsequently, by Seventh-day Adventists as the fulfillment of certain Bible prophecies of signs in the natural world heralding the last days (Matthew 24:29; Revelation 6:13; etc.).”2

In 1834 Denison Olmsted, an eyewitness, published that this “was probably more extensive and magnificent than any similar one hitherto recorded.”3 For decades it was continued to be looked upon as such. This view continues to be accepted by the Seventh-day Adventist church.4

Seventh-day Adventist continuing interest in the 1833 Leonid shower
Lawrence Maxwell’s statement in the children’s readings of the Week of Prayer in the “Adventist Review” of October 24, 1985, was intended to teach that the 1833 meteoric shower was a sign of the Lord’s soon return and that it could be accepted as such because it was the greatest meteoric shower in history.

The next sign Jesus gave was that the stars would fall — and that took place in November, 1833. The night of November 12-13 was clear and crisp across North America. Stars began falling soon after dark and increased so much that by midnight tens of thousands of people were outdoors watching them. Then they really began to fall! By two o’clock they were coming by the hundreds of millions, and they kept this up till daylight grew too bright to see them, True, there have been other nights when stars fell. You can see a few falling stars almost any night. But this was the greatest star shower in history. It came after the dark day and night, as Jesus said it would, and just before Jesus comes.

The 1833 and 1966 Leonid showers
The KidsView5 November 2002 Calendar entry for November 12/13 read, “During the night, in 1833, the USA had the largest meteoric shower in history.”

This entry was made despite the following letter having already been published seven years earlier by the church in the “Adventist Review” of November 28, 1985, page 4:

On page 27 of the Week of Prayer (Oct. 24) issue I read that “the greatest star shower in history” took place the night of November 12-13, 1833.

Time, November 18, 1966, explains Leonid (shooting star) showers, the 1833 rate of 10,000 per hour, and the reason for less spectacular showers in 1866, 1899, and 1932.

Time, November 25, 1966, reports on the November 17 Leonid shower of that year: “About 5:00 A.M. stars fell on Arizona. ‘It was like a snowfall of meteors,’ said Dennis Milon, head of the team [of University of Arizona students who ascended Kitt Peak to observe the spectacle]. ‘Many outshone Jupiter.’ During a 20-minute period of activity, he estimated, the meteors were falling at a rate of 140,000 per hour.”

The rest of the article indicates the extent of the observable display, the reason for its nonobservation in certain places, and the date of the next. One observer called it a “historic shower,” possibly greater than any in the past.

National Geographic World, August, 1982, page 25, states: “On the morning of November 17, 1966, a record number of meteors—the trails of light left by burning meteoroids— streaked over North America.”

The Guinness Book of World Records (1978), page 69: “The greatest meteor ‘shower’ on record occurred on the night of November 16-17, 1966, when the Leonid meteors (which occur every 33¼ years) were visible between western North America and eastern U.S.S.R.” Indeed, the meteoric shower of 1966 was the greatest star shower in history!

ANGUS MCPHEE South Australia

◼︎ You’re correct. [Editors]

Seven weeks later, the “Adventist Review” of January 16, 1986, page 2) published this response to that letter, and without any comment:

Lawrence Maxwell’s statement that the November 13, 1833, falling of the stars “was the greatest star shower in history” is correct, rather than Angus McPhee’s 1966 date (Nov. 28). The 1833 star shower fulfilled Matthew 24:29 and Revelation 6:12, 13, and for more than 100 years our ministers, teachers, and people have quite wholeheartedly believed this and taught it. This date is also in accordance with Ellen White’s statement: “This prophecy received a striking and impressive fulfillment in the great meteoric shower of November 13, 1833. That was the most extensive and wonderful display of falling stars which has ever been recorded.”—The Great Controversy, p. 333.

R. E. DELAFIELD Bonners Ferry, Idaho

Notice R.E. Delafield’s appeal
1. to prophecy and, implicitly, the year-day principle of interpretation by which the endtimes were calculated to have begun in A.D. 1798, and
2. a statement by Ellen White published in 1888 in her book The Great Controversy.
The credibility of his first point depends upon its being true in the first place. The credibility of his second point is questionable given subsequent history, viz., the 1966 shower.

A description of the 1966 shower can be found on line.6
Visit http://www.space.com/3096-shooting-star-reflections-leonid-meteor-storm-1966.html

Meteors, meteorites and meteoric showers
The trail of light that appears to be a “shooting star”, occurs when a particle, also in orbit around the sun, succumbs to Earth’s gravity and glows as it plummets through the air toward the Earth’s surface. Occasionally these objects are so large that they impact the planet. Most times they are so small that they are incinerated before impact. Today, it is generally accepted that the trail of light is called a “meteor” and the particle is called a “meteorite” or a “meteoroid”.7

meteoric shower diagramA meteoric shower is caused when the Earth, in its orbit, intercepts particles in clusters of different concentrations. Comets, as they disintegrate in their passage through space, leave trails of particles all along their orbit. The particles themselves are also in motion as they too orbit with the density of the clusters in the trails varying for several reasons. The size of the shower is determined by where the Earth intercepts the cluster and also by the position of Earth in relation to the cluster. Large showers are more likely to occur where the Earth intersects the trail where there is a dense cluster and smaller showers where the cluster is not so dense.

Meteoric showers are named by the constellation from which they appear to originate. To the observer on the ground Leonids appear to come from Leo; Perseids from Perseus; Orionids from Orion and so on. Leo, Perseus and Orion form the background for the respective showers. Because Earth passes through these clusters at certain times of the year the meteoric showers occur annually with the Leonids appearing in mid November, the Perseids in mid August and the Orionids in late October. Of course these three mentioned are only a few of the annual showers and their number and visibility are determined by where the Earth intercepts the cluster or trail and the weather conditions at the time. Such meteors are visible to the naked eye at night. Lucky observers have to be at the right place on the planet, at the right time and with clear skies!

The spectacular shower of November 1833 was a Leonid shower. As mentioned above, it was discovered that Earth experiences spectacular showers from that cluster every 33¼ years. Subsequent showers until that of 1966 were not as spectacular because Earth intercepted a less dense part of the trail. In fact the Leonid material has its origin in the tail of the comet Temple-Tuttle.

An Old Testament prophet’s forecast of falling stars

In the Old Testament the motif of falling stars is found in a prophecy against Edom.

“Come near, you nations, and listen; pay attention, you peoples! … The LORD is angry with all nations; his wrath is upon all their armies. He will totally destroy them, he will give them over to slaughter. Their slain will be thrown out, their dead bodies will send up a stench; the mountains will be soaked with their blood. All the stars of the heavens will be dissolved and the sky rolled up like a scroll; all the starry host will fall like withered leaves from the vine, like shriveled figs from the fig tree. My sword has drunk its fill in the heavens; see, it descends in judgment on Edom, the people I have totally destroyed. … (Isaiah 34:1-6, NIV).”

Jesus’ forecast of falling stars

In the New Testament the same theme was adopted by Jesus.
Matthew records Jesus saying,

“Immediately after the distress of those days ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ At that time [Gk. τοτε tote = then, at that time] the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other. Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door (Matthew 24:29-33, NIV).”

Mark’s record of Jesus’ statement reads:

“So be on your guard; I have told you everything ahead of time. But in those days, following that distress, ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ At that time [Gk. τοτε tote = then, at that time] men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens. Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door (Mark 13:23-29, NIV).”

And Luke:

“There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. Men will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time [Gk. τοτε tote = then, at that time] they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” He told them this parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near (Luke 21:25-31, NIV).”

John saw this in vision:

I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as late figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. The sky receded like a scroll, rolling up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and every slave and every free man hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand? (Revelation 6:12-17, NIV)”

In these four citations the phenomena occur in immediate association with the return of the Lord and His appearance in the skies. Notice that Matthew, Mark and Luke all record Jesus saying, “At that time …”

Were the Biblical forecasts about a meteoric shower or something else?
One must ask then, “Because meteoric showers occur annually, some with greater spectacle than others, were Isaiah and Christ predicting a meteoric shower8, or, rather, some other cosmic display?” It might be suggested that they were referring to meteoric showers and were just using “the language of appearance.” However, this could hardly be the case because meteoric showers are common and regular. If, perchance they were referring to a meteoric shower, it follows then, “To which one were they referring?”

When these prophecies are considered, like Ezekiel’s against Egypt

● “When I snuff you out, I will cover the heavens and darken their stars; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon will not give its light. All the shining lights in the heavens I will darken over you; I will bring darkness over your land, declares the Sovereign LORD (32:7, 8).”

and Joel’s of the future Day of the LORD

● Before them the earth shakes, the sky trembles, the sun and moon are darkened, and the stars no longer shine (2:10).

● The sun and moon will be darkened, and the stars no longer shine (3:15).

one might instead think it reasonable to accept that their language is the language of poetry, metaphor and even hyperbole.

Nonetheless, Luke’s recollection of Jesus’ forecast does place these signs in the context of His return and of the terrifying.

“There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. Men will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken (Luke 21:25-26).”

Needless to say then, the words of our Lord himself are intended to warn that, on that day of His return, nature will be in an upheaval. Who will be able to stand? (Revelation 6:17) The answer is found in our Lord’s own words to His people: “When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near (Luke 21:28, NIV).”

Endnotes
1 Seventh-day Adventist Bible Students’ Source Book, (1962), art. 737.
2 Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia (1976), page 449.
3 Denison Olmsted, “Observations on the Meteors of November 13th, 1833”. See Seventh-day Adventist Bible Student’s Source Book (1962), entry 730. The editor’s note at the end of this entry affirm’s Olmsted’s position by saying that “it is still true.”
4 See Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology, pages 905-906. The material on these pages is comprehensive. A short quotation would not do justice to the line of argument adopted by William H. Shea, the contributor, and which involves the year-day principle of interpreting time periods in apocalyptic prophecies. Suffice to say this is current Seventh-day Adventist theology.
5 “KidsView” is a periodical supplement to the Seventh-day Adventist church magazine “Adventist Review.”

6 The 1966 Leonid shower

From 6,850-foot Kitt Peak in southern Arizona, thirteen amateur astronomers started watching at 1:30 a.m. local time, counting 33 Leonids in their first hour. “This gave no indication,” the leader of group later noted, “of the spectacle to come.” During the second hour, the rate rose to 192. The meteors were now coming faster and faster and trying to make accurate counts was quickly becoming a fruitless task.  Rates had climbed to about 30 per minute at 4:10, when a fireball about 30 times brighter than Venus suddenly exploded.  By 4:30 several hundred Leonids were falling per minute and by 4:45, the observers were trying to guess how many could be seen by a sweep of their heads in one second. The consensus of the group was that the peak occurred at 4:54 when the staggering rate of 40 per second (144,000 per hour) was reached!

7 As late as the eighteenth century … it had been generally believed that meteors were formed in our atmosphere as a result of certain weather conditions. In fact, “meteor” is derived from the Greek word meaning “something in the air.” (Neff, Merlin L., Ph.D., The Glory of the Stars, page 127)

8 In other words: “The sun and the moon will be darkened and there will be a meteoric shower.”

Today, with our knowledge, the term “falling stars,” when used with the exception of poetry, is definitely not the language of science or of appearance but of ignorance. It is in the same category as “air pocket” for a down draft and “ant hill” for a termite mound. Unlike the terms “sunrise” and “sunset”, which do refer to the sun itself, the “stars” that appear to fall are not stars at all. When the shower has ended, the constellations from which they seemed to have come are still there!

It is unfortunate that in serious literature of today a popular but inaccurate term (“falling of the stars”) has been applied to a particular meteoric shower (of November 12-13, 1833) in order to identify that one as the fulfillment of an event which Christ said would occur with the shaking of the heavenly bodies at the time of His return.

Further reading

Ken CroswellCroswell, Ken, Magnificent Universe (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1999)
“Ken Croswell’s lyrical prose and the artfully chosen array of stunning images create an informative and compelling journey through the cosmos”. — Brian Greene, Columbia University. 210 pages.

 

 

Roy A. GallantGallant, Roy A., National Geographic Picture Atlas of Our Universe (Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 1980)
Written for all ages from teens upward. Color illustrations on every page. 276 pages.

 

 

 

Merlin L. NeffNeff, Merlin L., Ph.D., The Glory of the Stars (Mountain View CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1952)
This book is by a Seventh-day Adventist author who admitted to not having been trained as an astronomer but had astronomy as a hobby and has written in terms easy to understand. The book is well-documented and illustrated with pictures and charts. 216 pages.

 

 

cpgPayne-Gaposchkin, Cecilia, Introduction to Astronomy (London: Methuen and Company Ltd., University paperbacks, 1954)

“This book is intended to introduce the elements of astronomy to the student and to the general reader who may have little background to mathematics or physics.” (from the Preface) Although there have been many discoveries since its publication, its principles are still valid. 508 pages.

 

Illustration: A famous depiction of the 1833 meteor storm, produced in 1889 for the Seventh-day Adventist book Bible Readings for the Home Circle.

Diagram to illustrate how particle clusters of different densities produce greater or lesser meteoric showers where they are intercepted by the Earth.  (2015, Angus McPhee)

© 2015, Angus McPhee