The Dark Day of May 19, 1780
is discussed by Merton E. Sprengel
in three articles published in Adventist Review
May 22, 1980, May 29, 1980 and June 5, 1980
The originals of the 3 articles can be accessed by clicking on the underlined hyperlinks below.
The Dark Day plus 200 Years
by Merton E. Sprengel
who, at the time of publication,
was an associate professor of chemistry at Union College, Lincoln. Nebraska
The first of three articles investigates candidly what took place on May 19, 1780
Adventist Review, May 22, 1980 (Pages 5-8 and the editorial on pages 13, 14)
It was midmorning. The clouds were low and dark. Some rain had fallen. Bewildered farmers, businessmen, and others in central New England scanned the sky in consternation. An unusual darkness was enveloping the countryside. Indoor activities were soon suspended as the darkness became almost like that of evening twilight. Farmers left their fields and headed home to a noon meal by candlelight. None could remember a day of such darkness before.
The same eerie blackness was soon to cover thousands of inhabitants of the central New England States of North America. So unusual was the darkness that May 19, 1780, became known in many common reference and historical works as the Dark Day.
For almost 130 years, that unusual Friday blackout has had a special significance for Seventh-day Adventist believers. It has been seen as a literal fulfillment of Christ’s prophecy of Matthew 24:29, as well as a historic event marking the opening of the sixth seal of Revelation 6:12.
Since the 1850’s scores of Adventist authors have discussed the Dark Day and its significance. While these writers are in agreement as to the fact of the Dark Day and its prophetic meaning, published opinions differ considerably on other aspects. This variance is particularly evident regarding the extent and cause of the darkness.
Some have considered the darkness miraculous or supernatural. Many state that the true cause is not known, or that scientists have been at a loss to explain it. A few maintain that the darkness was caused by ordinary clouds filled with smoke from forest fires. Some claim that the sun or stars were visible during the darkness. Published claims of the extent of the darkness vary all the way from a portion of the New England States to more than half the earth’s surface.
Despite their varied opinions, most authors give an impressive array of sources to support their views. The reason for the conflict of opinion seems to be that most have not consulted the primary sources from 1780, but have relied on others’ selections from them, or summaries found in post-1780 works. Thus many 1780 facts have been missed, while later speculations and interpretations have become accepted as authoritative. As a consequence, a large number of Seventh-day Adventists hold views about the Dark Day that cannot be substantiated from the 1780 historical record.
In these articles two basic questions will be discussed: (1) How did Adventists in general, and Seventh-day Adventists in particular, come to recognize the May 19, 1780, Dark Day as a fulfillment of prophecy? and (2) What do the extant 1780 publications say regarding this historic event?
The Dark Day affected the populace in different ways. Some saw religious significance in it; others did not. In the newspapers of 1780 these reactions, [Editor’s note: Original spelling and grammar have been preserved in all quotations.] among many others, were expressed: “This unusual phaenomenon excited the fears and apprehensions of many people. Some considered it as . . . the harbinger of the last day, when the sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light.” 1
“The timid view it as ominous; while the more steady and judicious attribute it to some natural cause.” 2
On May 28, 1780, Elam Potter delivered a sermon in which he expressed his opinion: “Some people, I have been told, were in dismay, and thought whether the day of judgement was not drawing on. . . . For my part I really consider the darkness as one of those prodigies foretold in Matthew 24:29, and designed for our admonition and warning.” 3
These comments and many others, written within a few days of the darkness, suggest that the phenomenon produced immediate concern among the general populace. There was much speculation as to its meaning and cause. However, other records show that a number of persons were far from panicky, attempting instead to make observations to determine the cause of the darkness.
Historian William Gordon, writing of his experience near Roxbury, Massachusetts, remembers his reaction: “Your friend, having been accustomed to the dark days at London. . . , regarded it with no special attention till called to do it by his neighbors, who were much alarmed.” 4
Deryl Leggitt notes that the degree of concern and excitement attributed to those who experienced the darkness is dependent on the author of the account and the time it was written: “Later writers have produced some very exaggerated accounts, none of which appeared in any contemporary papers.” 5 While doubtless some portions of these exaggerated accounts are true, there is little question that many were written for their sensational effect, or without knowledge of the 1780 source documents.
The contemporary record of the Dark Day in the public press was short-lived. In less than five weeks no new articles appeared. More than half the original material was written within the first week. This is not surprising, since for most of the people the American Revolution was a much more serious concern than a few hours of unusual darkness.
As the initial fears and apprehensions of the Dark Day abated, apparently its religious significance did also. During the next few decades most Adventist theologians interpreted the signs in the sun, moon, and stars in various ways.
In the 1790’s, Joshua Spaulding considered the Dark Day, auroras, and other sky phenomena as signs of the Advent; but not as direct fulfillments of Matthew 24:29. In a printed lecture he wrote; “To apply this passage fully, even to the present events, would be an extravagance which, of all books, the Bible will the least countenance.” 6
In 1815, Amizi Armstrong suggested a political interpretation: “The sun becoming black, and the moon as blood, and the stars falling to the earth, designate the shrouding in darkness, and covering with blood, and casting down from their high places, the thrones and dominions, and the princes, and the potentates of the earth.” 7
Millerite literature of the early 1840’s includes numerous references to sky phenomena such as comets, meteors, parhelia, and auroras as being considered by those with high expectations of the Advent to be signs of its imminence.
William Miller himself listed many signs of Christ’s coming in his published lectures but did not include cosmic events. His interpretations were figurative. To Miller, Matthew 24:29 applied to the destruction of Jerusalem when “the moral sun—the gospel . . . should become obscured.” The moon not giving her light meant that the “church should not spread her light,” and the falling of the stars foretold the “ministers of the gospel . . . falling from the purity of the gospel into antichristian abominations.” 8
Referring to similar events of the sixth seal of Revelation 6:12, Miller made the following application to the French Revolution: “I understand this to mean in that revolution when the king lost his authority, and tried to disguise himself, and fled from his own subjects, [and] afterwards was beheaded. The queen, too, became blood, and all the nobility of France fell to the earth.” 9
Other Advent writers of the 1840’s expressed similar political or religious interpretations of the signs in the sun, moon, and stars.
Henry Jones, in 1841, appears to be among the first of the Millerites to propose a literal interpretation of these events. He maintained that meteors, dark days, and auroras were of recent origin and “have every appearance of being altogether as supernatural, and fitted to be `great signs’ of such an event, as represented in the prophecies concerning them.” 10
Probably the most influential of those to hold the literal interpretation was Josiah Litch, who became assistant editor of the Millerite Signs of the Times in 1840. Early issues of the Signs contained articles concentrating on signs in the social, political, and spiritual realms, but a number of short references to various cosmic phenomena also were included.
Litch appears to have established his belief in the Dark Day of 1780 in early 1842, when he published a poem with these comments: “The following lines, written soon after the event to which they refer, were handed to us by a friend, and afford a view of the impression of the dark day made on the community at the time. One circumstance is noted which we had never before heard named, vis., the darkening of the moon.” 11
Significant lines of the poem read:
“Nineteenth of May, a gloomy day,
When darkness veiled the sky;
The sun’s decline may be a sign
Some great event is nigh.
Let us remark, how black and dark,
Was the ensuing night
And for a time the moon declined,
And did not give her light.”
Litch’s knowledge of the Dark Day apparently was quite limited at this time. The fact that he had not heard of the darkening of the moon before suggests that he was not familiar with at least several of the 1780 sources, since they describe the darkness of the night and its effect on the appearance of the moon.
Less than four months later, Litch published an opinion that shows an apparent advance in his belief. Referring to the darkening of the sun foretold in Matthew 24:29, he stated: “That event did take place on May 19, 1780, and several times since in different countries. That darkness was supernatural, and not ‘ produced by an eclipse.” 12
By this time, Litch had become persuaded that the Dark Day was a supernatural event, as had been previously implied by Henry Jones. Within a few months, other comments by Litch were published by J. V. Himes, Litch’s employer.
“Has the sun been darkened in these days, as predicted by Joel and the Saviour? It has; and that within the memory of many now living. I refer to the dark day of A.D. 1780, May 19th. That was a day of supernatural darkness. It was not an eclipse of the sun, for the moon was nearly at the full. It was not owing to a thickness in the atmosphere, for the stars were seen. The darkness began about nine o’clock, A.M., and continued through the day and also into, if not through the-night. . . . Such a day of darkness has never been known, so far as I can learn from history, (and I have searched for it most diligently,) since the crucifixion of our Saviour. There have been several such events since, in different countries. If any can produce evidence of such an appearance before 1780, I will thank them most heartily for the information, and make a correction of this statement.” 13
Later on in the same work, Litch reiterates his belief that “the sun has been supernaturally darkened from morning to night: in some places it being cloudy, and the sun entirely invisible, and in others it being visible, but having the same appearance as when totally eclipsed, and the stars being visible.” 14
Regarding these and other widely circulated but undocumented views of Josiah Litch, it should be noted that while some are found in the 1780 record, many others are not, or are at variance with it. The implications that the atmosphere was clear, that the stars were visible, that the sun appeared as if totally eclipsed, find no support in the historic record of 1780. There is consistent evidence that the atmosphere was filled with clouds and smoke wherever and whenever it was dark. In addition, the fact that he had not heard of other dark days before 1780 shows his limited knowledge of the subject, since three newspaper accounts of an almost identical 1762 dark day appeared alongside reports of the 1780 darkness. Other sources discussing such phenomena had been published many years before 1842. The first attempt to document the Dark Day in the Signs was made in 1843. 15 Seven quotations from post1780 sources were used, with at least three of the authors being eyewitnesses. The sources selected emphasized the effects on the people, while ignoring other aspects of the event. Six of these quotations have been used repeatedly by later authors. In the decades that followed the great disappointment of 1844, increasing numbers of authors supported Litch’s claim of supernatural and unexplainable darkness on May 19, 1780. Woodward lists at least ten writers, from 1842 to 1853, who espoused the supernatural-darkness concept. Little supporting evidence was cited from the 1780 record. At the same time, other Adventist theologians held to various figurative interpretations.
Eerie blackness enveloped the central New England countryside the morning of May 19,1780.
None could remember having seen a day of such darkness.
A longtime proponent of the literal interpretation was D. T. Taylor, an Advent Christian minister, whose early ideas on the Dark Day appeared in the 1840’s. In 1871, Taylor described the cause as “cosmic, cometic, and celestial.” 16 His 1891 work, The Great Consummation, contained a detailed and extensive analysis of the nature, extent, and duration of the Dark Day. 17 More than 30 sources, dating from 1780 and later, appeared here in Advent literature for the first time, providing what appeared to be ample and irrefutable support of the supernatural-darkness theory. Although Taylor stopped short of expressing the supernatural claim, the circulation of this book doubtless was a persuasive influence in establishing its validity in the minds of many Adventists of various faiths.
However, highly documented as it was, Taylor’s book did not go unchallenged. One of his fellow ministers, E. P. Woodward, checking every source as well as researching more than 100 others, published a devastating critique of Taylor’s work in 1906.
Woodward’s basic approach was to publish the original sources, most in their entirety, while emphasizing in bold type Taylor’s selections from those sources. A disturbing bias was thus revealed. Taylor had selected only those portions of the 1780 and later record of the Dark Day that suggested that the events were unexplainable, mysterious, a cause for alarm, or in other ways sensational. It was a persuasive demonstration that the numerous references to clouds, smoke, and other atmospheric conditions, which suggested a natural cause, had been avoided.
In the face of immediate criticism from many firm believers in the supernatural theory, Woodward held his ground and went to press again to refute the critics. 18 In all, he published about 200 pages of material on the Dark Day, which appears to be the most extensive work produced to date.
During this same period, many other religious writers added their opinions. Some opposed the supernatural cause theory, but most seemed to have adopted it as truth.
The next article in this series will review the development of Seventh-day Adventist beliefs on the Dark Day.
To be continued
1. Massachusetts Spy, May 25, 1780.
2. Ibid., June 8, 1780.
3. E. P. Woodward, “The Dark Day,” The Safeguard and Armory, April, 1906, pp. 90, 91.
4. William Gordon, The History of the Rise, Progress and Establishment of the Independence of the United States of America, p. 56.
5. Deryl [Herbert] Leggitt, “An Investigation Into the Dark Day of May 19, 1780,” Master’s degree thesis, SDA Theological Seminary, p. 30. 
6. Woodward, op. cit.. p. 70.
7. Amizi Armstrong, A Syllabus of Lectures on the Visions of the Revelation, p. 37.
8. William Miller, A Familiar Exposition of the Twenty-fourth Chapter of Matthew, p. 25.
9. _______, Evidence From Scripture and History of the Second Coming of Christ, About the Year 1843, p. 184.
10. Henry Jones, “Lecture on the Signs of Christ’s Second Coming Quickly,” Second Advent Tracts, No. IX, 1841.
11. Signs of the Times (Millerite), May 18, 1842.
12. Ibid., Sept. 7, 1842.
13 Josiah Litch, Prophetic Expositions, Vol. I, pp. 151-152.
14. Ibid., p. 155.
15. Signs of the Times (Millerite), Oct. 11, 1843.
16. Review and Herald, July 18, 1871.
17. D. T. Taylor, The Great Consummation and the Signs That Herald Its Approach, pp. 234, 235.
18. Woodward, “The Dark Day,” The Safeguard and Armory, October, 1906. 8 (696)
Seventh-day Adventist views on the Dark Day
Ever since the Dark Day there has been a difference of opinion as to whether the darkness was caused by natural means.
Adventist Review, May 29, 1980 (Pages 9-12)
James White probably was the first among the Sabbathkeeping Adventists of the 1840’s to write and publish about the Dark Day. In his first pamphlet (1847) he expressed the belief that “the signs in the sun, moon, and stars, have been literal.” 1 This statement echoes two concepts published earlier in the Millerite papers: (1) that the fulfillment of Matthew 24:29 was literal, and (2) that the signs already had occurred.
Later, James White published a number of articles containing references to the Dark Day in The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, of which he was the founder and editor. Some were reprints from the Advent Herald, the successor to the Millerite Signs of the Times. They included a letter written by Caleb G. Adams on May 26, 1780, 2 and a much longer article by D. T. Taylor. 3 Adams’ letter gave a clear description of the conditions on May 19, stating that the cause was smoke-laden clouds. Taylor also included Adams’ letter in his article.
Sometime in 1853 James White published a book that expanded on the Second Coming themes of Matthew 24. 4 Of 14 quotations in the section on the Dark Day, 11 were found in Taylor’s Advent Herald article, mentioned above, or the first documented Dark Day article in the Millerite Signs of the Times. 5
Several revisions of this book were published. The earlier editions contained four statements referring to clouds on May 19, 1780, but Adams’ letter, which had appeared twice in the REVIEW, was not among them. While James White did not discuss the cause of the Dark Day directly, the four “cloud” references, in context, implied a cause of the darkness.
Between 1850 and 1870, James White evidently became persuaded that the Dark Day was not an event explainable by natural means. In the 1871 edition of his book on Matthew 24, the discussion of the Dark Day was extensively revised. Three of the four “cloud” references were replaced with others not mentioning clouds, and the often-repeated claim that “ ‘the true cause of this Ever since the Dark Day there has remarkable phenomenon is not known’ was introduced. In his own words, James White described the whether the darkness was caused by 1780 event as “the supernatural darkening of the sun.” 6
During the latter decades of the nineteenth century, natural means. several Seventh-day Adventist authors published materials on the Dark Day that have had an impact on Adventist beliefs. Among the first was Uriah Smith. His work on Revelation contained a series of quotations, mostly from post-1780 sources, in which the major concern was the effect of the darkness on the people. 7
During this same time several significant articles appeared in the REVIEW. The first of these was by D. T. Taylor, reprinted from the Boston Journal. Most of the content was an extensive summary of 1780 sources, including the familiar claim that the Dark Day was an unexplained phenomenon. However, Taylor was not satisfied with that. He proposed a theory of his own, which finds no precedent in other literature. He claimed that the most likely cause of the darkness was “cometic or meteoric material consuming in the upper atmosphere in the form of cosmic dust. . . . The cause was evidently cosmic, cometic, and celestial.” 8
Claims that it was supernatural
M. E. Cornell, in 1873, wrote that “at the time, the general opinion [was] that it was supernatural. There were no real clouds, or storm. . . . So unusual, so solemn, so clearly supernatural, was the event that it is even now frequently reverted to in the public prints, candidly described, and admitted to be supernatural.” 9
J. H. Waggoner, in 1888, published a different type of supernatural theory. 10 He claimed that the moon was darkened in the evening because it received no light from the sun. This idea, although it was stated in the Millerite and other Adventist literature, finds no support in the 1780 record.
In 1889, L. A. Smith, assistant editor of the REVIEW, published an editorial titled “Infidel Philosophy on the `Dark Day.’” His view can be seen from the following excerpts:
“The most prominent characteristic of infidel philosophy is its utmost self-confidence. Armed with the mighty weapon of human intelligence, there are few mysteries in the universe with which it will not undertake to grapple, especially if it sees any occasion for disproving the existence of the supernatural. … One of its latest attempts in this line is an explanation of the memorable Dark Day of May 19, 1780, showing it to have been nothing more than the result of a little chance acting in unison with some of the well-known laws of nature. . . .
“The memorable occurrence of May 19, 1780, will remain undivested . . . of that mystery which has made it, in the minds of most Americans, an occasion of awe and wonder, and vividly suggestive in its characteristics, of a direct exercise of supernatural power.” 11
L. A. Smith’s view includes the “unexplainable” and “mysterious” thrust of many others, merged with the “supernatural” cause that had become so widely accepted by that time. Smith used a number of source materials to support his position, but, as was the case with almost all who made similar claims, no 1780 sources were used.
In 1892, G. I. Butler wrote a series of articles on Matthew 24 for the REVIEW. 12 Comparison shows that almost all of the 30 or more sources he used are the same as those used by D. T. Taylor in The Great Consummation.
Since the 1870’s, Seventh-day Adventist publishing houses have issued at least ten editions of what today is called the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Students’ Source Book. These Source Books have proved to be a valuable aid to ministers, scholars, and others in providing historical support for Seventh-day Adventist doctrinal positions. The second edition, published in 1875, was the first to include quotations regarding the Dark Day. It supported the supernatural-cause theory. A series of Bible texts and 17 historical quotations, including at least two from 1780, appeared under the title “Supernatural Darkening of the Sun and Moon, May 19, 1780.”
Among the quotations was Josiah Litch’s much-quoted claim that the darkness was supernatural.
In the 1885 edition, the same quotations were maintained. Two new ones included the popular concept that the cause of the Dark Day was unexplainable. The supernatural claim was softened by removal of that term from the subject title, but Litch’s claim of supernatural cause remained. The revision of 1893 included a two-page introductory statement, which read, in part: “To find a fulfillment of the prophetic specification concerning the sun, we must not look for it in some natural phenomenon. We must seek for this sign in an event that cannot be accounted for on natural or scientific principles. There is one event, and but one, to which we may turn for such a fulfillment of the words of our Saviour. That is the recorded fact of a supernatural darkening of the sun, which occurred on May 19, 1780.” 13
It is evident, from reading these Source Books, that the early authors and editors believed that the 1780 Dark Day was unexplainable and supernatural. But it should be noted that most of the source material used in support of these concepts was not from 1780.
Supernatural claim removed
In the 1919 revision, however, a significant change was made. The supernatural-cause claim was removed. Extensive quotations from six 1780 sources were included. They contained a wealth of material describing weather and atmospheric conditions on May 19, and for several days before. Accounts were included from people who had made observations of smoke and other atmospheric contents and conditions, in attempts to determine the cause. The editors, evidently feeling that readers familiar with the contents of earlier editions might be concerned, added: “Any suggestion of a natural cause or causes for the darkness can in no wise militate against the significance of the event. 14
Many of the 1919 Source Book quotations are found in subsequent editions, to the present. The 1962 edition contained additional “natural cause” materials and included the comment that “it has long been pointed out that it is the fact, and not the cause, of the darkness that is significant.” 15 Since 1919, similar editorial comments have appeared, giving less emphasis to the cause and more emphasis to the timing of the signs of Christ’s return.
Of the scores of Adventist books and magazine articles that discussed the Dark Day between 1919 and 1979, only a few took the natural-cause position introduced in the 1919 Source Book and subsequent editions. One REVIEW editorial, in 1967, supported that viewpoint, 16 but essentially nothing more has been written to publicize it.
Further support for the natural-cause position was provided in 1951, when D. H. Leggitt wrote a Master’s degree thesis at the SDA Theological Seminary. 17 It was the first extensive analysis of the original sources on the Dark Day undertaken by a Seventh-day Adventist.
Ever since the Dark Day there has been a divergence of opinion as to whether it was caused by natural means. If the same event happened today, we probably would be faced with the same dilemma. Each of us operates with a different definition of what constitutes a supernatural event. It also is true that what may be considered supernatural in one era might not be considered so in another, because of advances in knowledge. And there is a sense in which all events are supernatural, since God transcends nature and is the First Cause of every event. But it is not the purpose here to draw fine philosophical lines of distinction.
The basic argument for considering the cause of the Dark Day supernatural is that a number of observers in 1780, as well as later spokesmen, asserted that there was no known cause — that science had not been able to explain it, and therefore it must be supernatural. We will now examine the strength of the argument for the supernatural-cause conclusion by considering the most frequently used sources where the claim is made that the cause is unknown.
1. Several authors use part of an editorial comment from the May 25, 1780, Connecticut Journal: “The appearance was indeed uncommon; and the cause unknown.” The real impact of this statement is seen when the last part of the sentence is included: “Yet, there is no reason to consider it supernatural or ominous.”
2. Noah Webster is often quoted as an eyewitness authority of stature. His statement: “No satisfactory cause has yet been assigned.” As I see it, the logical application of this quotation is misplaced, as Webster actually supported a fanciful, volcanic, natural-cause theory of his own.
3. Herschel, considered to be William Herschel, the British astronomer, by most users of the name, is often quoted as saying that “the dark day in North America was one of those wonderful phenomena of nature which will always be read with interest, but which philosophy is at a loss to explain.” After investigating this statement, Woodward was able only to trace it back to a book published in 1876, from which source, or its revisions, all users quote. 18, 19 Which Herschel is the author of this statement is not known, nor is there evidence that any of the three British-astronomer Herschels ever had anything to say on the subject of the Dark Day. The connection with them seems to be pure supposition.
Another misused statement
4. Another early statement often misused by those who claim that the Dark Day was without natural causes is Samuel Tenney’s comment that “no satisfactory solution has appeared.” A longer portion of his statement reads as follows: “No satisfactory solution has appeared. But it does not thence follow that none can be given. That it was supernatural, was never supposed but by the ignorant and superstitious: it must then admit of a rational and philosophical explanation.” 20
5. It is often claimed that science has not presented a satisfactory explanation of the darkness. Since the Dark Day is not a reproducible event, scientists have only the 1780 data to use. The scientists most qualified to make decisions based on that data would be those who observed the event, and who perhaps had opportunity to make some observations of their own. Two such scientists are known. Samuel Williams, professor of mathematics and philosophy at Harvard, and Samuel Stearns, an astronomer, wrote their conclusions in the 1780’s. They will be discussed in the next article, but suffice it to say here that both men came to the same general conclusion— that the observed cause of the darkness was identifiable and natural. No other extensive scientific analyses of the event are known, but discussions of dark days, including May 19, 1780, found in a few science-oriented periodicals, record natural causes in view of available evidence.
In the next article we will examine some of the physical events of the Dark Day upon which the natural cause concept is based.
1. James White, A Word to the “Little Flock,” p. 6.
2. Review and Herald, Oct. 28, 1852.
3 Ibid., May 26, 1853.
4. James White, The Signs of the Times Showing That the Second Coming of Christ Is at the Doors.
5. Signs of the Times (Millerite), Oct. 11, 1843.
6. James White, The Second Coming of Christ; or a Brief Exposition of Matthew 24, p. 37.
7. Uriah Smith, Thoughts, Critical and Practical, on the Book of Revelation, 1881 ed., pp. 136-138.
8. Review and Herald, July 18, 1871.
9. Ibid., Aug. 5, 1873.
10. J. H. Waggoner, From Eden to Eden, pp. 227-229.
11. Review and Herald, Feb. 26, 1889.
12. Ibid., July 19 and following, 1892.
13. Facts for the Times (4th ed., 1893), chap. IV, pp. 65, 66.
14. Source Book for Bible Students (1919), p. 141.
15. SDA Bible Student’s Source Book (Commentary Reference Series, vol. 9), p. 317.
16. Review and Herald, Dec. 7, 1967.
17. Deryl Leggitt, “An Investigation Into the Dark Day of May 19, 1780.” Master’s degree thesis, SDA Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C., 1951.
18. E. P. Woodward, “The Dark Day,” The Safeguard and Armory, April, 1906.
19. R. M. Devens, Our First Century, 1876.
20. Samuel Tenney, “Dr. Tenney’s Letter on the Dark Day, May 19,” Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society for the Year 1792 (Boston: reprinted by Munroe and Francis, 1806), Vol. 1.
1780 accounts of the Dark Day
The author examines Dark Day descriptions found in 35 known articles or brief reference published in 13 New England newspapers in 1780.
Adventist Review, June 5, 1980 (Pages 11-14
The most extensive eyewitness records of the Dark Day of May 19, 1780, are found in New England newspapers. Thirteen newspapers were in print in the states of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Hampshire during May, 1780. These have been examined in the preparation of this article. There were none in Maine, Vermont, or upstate New York.
These papers included 35 known articles or brief references to the Dark Day, of which 14 were original. The others were copies. Ten of the 14 original articles appeared within the first week after May 19. The last appeared June 22. Only three articles from papers in adjoining states have been found. These were copies of reports from the New England papers. The total original material printed in the newspapers about the Dark Day was quite small. All of it would fit onto two pages of a normal, full-sized newspaper of today. One third of it is descriptive fact. The rest is mainly speculation on such items as the nature of light and the physics of the atmosphere, and personal opinions. In this article I will concentrate on the descriptive facts and observations made during the darkness.
Smoke in the air
Four reports discuss the weather and atmospheric contents prior to Friday, May 19—all in the context of the darkness of the nineteenth. They are the only references to weather conditions for several months and indicate that there was a large amount of smoke in the air.
This report [in which original spelling and grammar have been preserved in all quotations.] comes from Providence, Rhode Island:
“For several Days the Atmosphere has been remarkably charged with dry, smoky Vapors, so that the sun might be viewed easily with the naked Eye, and Spots on his Disk were very plainly seen through the greator Part of Some Days. The Disk of the Moon, through the Nights of Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday last, was of redish Copper Color, somewhat resembling her Appearance at the Time of her being totally eclipsed; there was very little wind, and few clouds were to be seen during these days.” 1
Three other reports originated 100 to 200 miles to the north of Providence. This one from New Hampshire reveals the source of the smoke: “Have also seen nice gentlemen who left Haverhill [New Hampshire, about 120 miles northwest of Boston], on Connecticut River. … These gentlemen say the woods in those parts, as far as Ticonderoga [New York, about 70 miles west of Haverhill], had been burning for some time with amazing fury. The fires were raging to such a degree in several townships through which they passed that they were in danger of being suffocated. … These gentlemen say, as they came down the country, whenever they were upon a high piece of ground, which gave them a prospect, the woods on all quarters seemed to be on fire. The smoak had been so thick, that for several days the sun had been darkened; it appeared as it does through a piece of smoked glass, and before night it was wholly obscured.” 2
The cause of these extensive fires is explained by an eyewitness, Historian William Gordon: “It is the American custom to make large fires in the woods, for the purpose of clearing the lands in the new settlements. This was practised in the spring of the present year  in a much greater degree than usual, through the interruption that had been given to the business for a few years, by the war. In the county of York; in the western parts of New Hampshire and Massachusetts; and in Vermont, uncommonly large fires had been kept up to the extent of many score miles, all around the frontiers. Thus the people in the new towns had been employed for two or three weeks; beside, some large and extensive fires had raged in the woods for several days, before they could be extinguished.” 3
Smoky conditions continued past the nineteenth. The Journal of the House of the Connecticut Legislature, at Hartford (in central Connecticut), for May 19 (as written some time later), records the following statement: “Saturday 3d June P.M. Still dry and hazy, the atmosphere filled with suffocating smoke to the senses of sight and smell, like burning of the woods, gradually rendering the sun at abought two hours height as red as crimson or rather like a body of blood … and became more and more obscure, descending in the thickening hemisphere to the horrizon with its usual appearance through a smoaky glass.” 4
Smoke condition for three weeks
These records show that the smoky condition existed for at least three weeks. It was in this context of fires and smoke already covering a wide area of New England, that the specific atmospheric conditions and events of May 19 occurred.
Typical of several reports of the events of May 19 is this one from Newport, Rhode Island, published the very next day: “In the morning were showers, attended with distant thunder. About 10 o’clock A.M. a darkness came on, which by 11 was perceived to be very unusual and extraordinary. … The darkness became and continued so intense from a little before noon to near 3 o’clock as that persons could not read, and it became necessary to light up candles. … A little after two, P.M., it became somewhat lighter; but the darkness soon returned. About 3 o’clock it began to go off, and at four P.M., the heavens resumed their usual light as in a cloudy day, although the cloudiness continued all the rest of the afternoon. … There was a small breeze from S.W. during the whole darkness.” 5
At Boston a similar report was published: “On Friday last about Ten O’clock, there came over this Town a dark Cloud, which continued increasing darker and darker till near One O’clock when it became so dark that the inhabitants were obliged to quit their Business. The Darkness continued ‘till near Three O’clock, when it gradually grew lighter and lighter, till the light became as usual.” 6
At New Haven, Connecticut, the darkness came on sometime during the morning, ending at noon. It was greatest between 11:00 and 12:00. 7 At Norwich, Connecticut, it began about 10:00 A .m. , and ended a little past one in the afternoon. 8 At Ipswich, in northeastern 12 (748) Massachusetts, the darkness became noticeable about 11:00 A.M. and ended between 3:00 and 4:00 P.M.
Other reports are consistent with these. Corresponding times are usually earlier for western towns than for those in the east. Three to six hours is the typical total time given for the obscuration, including the time during which the light faded and increased again. The most intense darkness lasted little more than one to two hours. Most newspaper reports indicate that it became light again in the afternoon, although it remained cloudy in most places.
From Salem, north of Boston, it was reported that the wind changed to a more northerly direction where a black cloud lay. “The wind brought that body of smoke a[nd] vapor over us in the evening. … This gross darkness held ‘till about 1 o’clock, [Saturday morning]. … Between 1 and 2, the wind freshened up at N.E. and drove the smoke and clouds away.” 9
Most post-1780 authors state that the darkness lasted some 14 hours, or more than two to three times the duration recorded by several 1780 observers. From the above sources it is clear how this misunderstanding has arisen. It is approximately 14 hours from the earliest beginning of noticeable darkness in the westernmost towns to the end of the second obscuration, near midnight, in some eastern towns. There are no reports of 14 hours of darkness in any one location.
After a detailed analysis of many reports from 1780 and later sources, Leggitt describes the area that experienced darkness sometime during the day or night of May 19, 1780. There were reports that it was not dark to the west and southwest of this area: “From the sea coasts of Connecticut and Rhode Island in the south to above Portsmouth, Maine toward the north. From Albany, New York in the west to far out in the ocean eastward … two hundred miles east and west, and one hundred and twenty-five miles north and south.” 10
Leggitt also observes that later authors have made and repeated much larger claims concerning the extent of the darkness. None of the exaggerated claims have source documentation to substantiate them. They seem to be at variance with the 1780 record.
A different aspect of the extent of the darkness, as viewed from one location, is found in this report from observers in Ipswich, Massachusetts: “About one o’clock a glin of light which had continued till this time in the East, shut in, and the darkness was greater than it had been any time before. Between one and two o’clock, the wind from the West freshened a little, and a glin appeared in that quarter., 11
This statement indicates a definite width to the cloud that caused the darkness in this location. As it moved across the landscape, it was only wide enough to completely “shut in” that location for less than an hour. Although insufficient information is available to make a precise calculation, the dark, obscuring cloud could not have been more than a few tens of miles wide, given the weather conditions as reported.
Reports from several locations give some idea of how dark it became. It is not clear in all cases whether the observers were indoors or outdoors, thus intensities may not be comparable. It appears that the intensity varied from place to place. In no case is there any suggestion that it was total at any time. Here are three typical statements: “The greatest darkness was at least equal to what is called candle-lighting in the evening. “ 12
“The obscurity was so great that those who had good eyesight, could scarcely see to read common print. … It was the judgement of many that at about 12 o’clock (the time of greatest obscurity) the daylight was not greater, if so great, as the bright moonlight.” 13
From Providence, Rhode Island, came a report that it was “nearly the same Degree and Appearance of light as at about Half an Hour after Sunset,” about two days after new moon. 14
All of these statements must be understood, of course, in terms of the darkness known only in the days prior to the advent of electricity.
Of all aspects of the Dark Day, the cause has been the most debated, particularly by those who attach religious significance to the event. In the 1780 record we find two fundamentally different types of statements: opinions and deliberate observations. An examination of the observations will help us understand the cause.
As noted earlier, May 19 was one day out of many in New England when the atmosphere was charged with smoke from extensive forest fires. Almost all reports of the darkness mention increasing cloudiness and rain, followed by the darkness. From an unspecified location in New Hampshire these details are provided: “I observed a light gleam in the north and northeast, and a very thick vapour to the south-west which at first I took to be a thunder cloud. There was a thick kind of fog which rested on the tops of the hills at the time of the greatest obscuration. A gentleman riding in the woods above Pennicook says that in the lowlands he could scarcely breathe.” 15
Several writers noted a smell in the atmosphere during the darkness. At Ipswich, it smelled like burned leaves. At a nearby tavern the same observer noted, “The strange appearance and the smell of the rain water that they had been saving in tubs. Upon examining the water, I found a scum over it, which rubbing between my thumb and finger, I found to be nothing but the black ashes of burnt leaves. The water gave the same sooty smell which we had observed in the air, and confirmed me in my opinion, that the smell mentioned above was occasioned by the smoke, or very small particles of burnt leaves, which had obscured the hemisphere for several days past, and were brought down by the rain. 16
“Clouds and smoke”
In another location “there were the remains of a snowdrift which lay before an house and had been so covered with wood chips, that it [had] not dissolved. The day before the darkness, the man had raked off the chips and dirt that the sun might melt it, so that it was as white as in the winter, but by the descent of the vapour on Friday it became all over dark and sooty. These circumstances … are undeniable proofs that the darkness must have been the effect of clouds and smoak.” 17
Two scientists reported on the cause of the darkness. Samuel Stearns apparently made no specific observations as others did, and does not refer to the forest fires raging at the time. But after a lengthy discussion of fog, smoke, vegetable matter, dust, and other types of material which can be suspended in the atmosphere he states his opinion of the “genuine secondary cause.” It was “undoubtedly a vast collection of such particles that caused the late common darkness, which particles, after being exhaled, were driven together by certain winds.” 18
The “first cause” Stearns attributes to “Him that walketh upon the wings of the wind … He at whose voice the stormy winds are obedient.” He also expressed his opinion that the darkness was, perhaps, a token of God’s indignation against the sins of the people, and an omen of some future destruction if they did not repent. This fear was also expressed by others at the time.
Samuel Williams, professor of mathematics and physics at Harvard University, wrote a summary of many accounts of the Dark Day. He also did some simple experiments during the darkness. After a lengthy report of fires in the woods, smoke, and other particles in the atmosphere, scum on the water, the clouds and rain, and the interference of light by various suspended particles, he says: “As the winds had been small and variable for several days, vapors instead of dispersing must have constantly been rising and collecting in the air until the atmosphere became charged with an uncommon quantity of them.” He concludes: “In this way we can account … for all the phenomena that were observed.” 19 It is evident from his report that Williams believed that the darkness was the result of natural causes.
The 1780 record gives a quite consistent statement of observed facts that led a number of 1780 writers to express their belief in a natural cause for the darkness. Of the 14 original newspaper articles, nine discuss the cause. All nine attribute it to a natural phenomenon involving various combinations of clouds, smoke, vapor, or suspended particles.
The evidence shows that a large amount of smoke and suspended, burned, vegetable debris from forest fires in New Hampshire and Vermont had been collecting in the air for several days. On Friday, the nineteenth, a storm front passed across New England towards the northeast, collecting, mixing, and concentrating this sooty material as it went. Thus thick, black clouds were formed, which obscured the sun to a much greater degree than would have been the case with normal, clean storm clouds. These dark clouds apparently were blown out to sea in the late afternoon, but returned over some of the coastal towns when the wind shifted in the evening.
The moon, which was just past full, became visible near midnight when the clouds dispersed. Lingering smoke in the air preferentially scattered the blue light, and made the moon’s first appearance very red, just as it had made both the sun and the moon appear red for several days before.
Some readers may be disturbed to learn that the Dark Day may be accounted for by natural causes. While it would be more satisfying theologically if the event were clearly supernatural, we should remember that there is no such Biblical requirement. Other signs in the natural world are attributable to natural causes.
As we refer to physical phenomena or historic events, it is important that we be informed of the observed facts. In the case of the Dark Day we need to be careful to base our applications on the original historic record of this event rather than on the assumptions and speculations made later on the basis of incomplete evidence. As Ellen White said: “Truth can afford to be fair. No true doctrine will lose anything by close investigation.”—Review and Herald, Dec. 20, 1892.
1. Providence Gazette, May 20, 1780.
2. Independent Chronicle, June 15, 1780.
3. William Gordon, The History of the Rise, Progress and Establishment of the Independence of the United States of America, p. 57.
4. Charles J. Hoadly, The Public Records of the State of Connecticut, p. 4.
5. Massachusetts Spy, June 8, 1780.
6. Boston Gazette, May 22, 1780.
7. Connecticut Journal, May 25, 1780.
8. Norwich Packet, May 25, 1780.
9. Independent Chronicle, May 25, 1780.
10. Deryl Herbert Leggitt, “An Investigation Into the Dark Day of May 19, 1780,” Master’s degree, thesis, SDA Theological Seminary, 1951.
11. Independent Chronicle, May 25, 1780.
12. Connecticut Journal, May 25, 1780.
13. Massachusetts Spy, May 25,.1780.
14. Providence Gazette, May 20, 1780.
15. Independent Ledger, June 5, 1780.
16. Independent Chronicle, May 25, 1780.
17. Providence Gazette, May 20, 1780.
18. Independent Chronicle, June 22, 1780.
19. J. Hugh Pruett, “Dark Days in North America,” The Griffith Observer, XI, March, 1947, p. 28.