On the morning of November 1, 1755—All Saints' Day—a powerful earthquake struck Lisbon, Portugal. Less than an hour later a huge tidal wave flooded the city. As the water receded, fires engulfed what remained and burned for five days. Out of about 200,000 inhabitants, perhaps 40,000 died and over 85% of all buildings were lost.The question was: why did it happen? For Deists like Voltaire, God had some explaining to do. If Vulcan was god, then how could he allow something so unreasonable to occur? If Yahweh, how could he act in such an unloving manner?
Christians came up with their own variety of responses. Some believed it was a judgment on sinners. They differed, however, on the identity of these sinners and their sins. Was it all Christians in the city? Certain particular Christians? Jews?
Perhaps the most sensible response was made by Sebastião de Melo who, as prime minister of Portugal, was responsible for the government’s response. When asked what to do, Sebastião counseled survivors to bury the dead and feed the living.
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