The Earthquake That Shook the Faith

Cover page of the single-leaf print on the Lisbon earthquake.

Neu eingeloffene bewegliche und umständliche Beschreibung des entsetzlichen Erdbebens, welches den 1. Wintermonats 1755 die trefliche Portugiesische Haupt-Stadt Lissabon Samt umliegenden Gegenden so entsetzlicher Weise betroffen, zerstöret und fast gänzlich zernichtet hat. [“Newly arrived, moving and detailed description of the horrible earthquake that affected, ruined and almost completely destroyed the beautiful Portuguese capital of Lisbon and the surrounding areas so terribly on the 1st of the month of winter in 1755.”]

Printed in 1755 in Strasbourg.

We are back in 1755. It is November 1st, All Saints’ Day, an important feast for the Catholic city of Lisbon. Men and women are preparing themselves to go to church. The altar servers have already lit the candles and filled the incense burner, when, at 9.30 a.m., the ground suddenly collapses around 200 kilometres in front of the coast. First there was an earthquake, then a tsunami. Several tens of thousands of people died in the then fourth largest city of the world. The exact number of people that died that day is still unknown.


Contemporary depiction of the Lisbon earthquake.

The First Media Event of Modern Times

The Lisbon earthquake was not the first disaster of its kind. But back then, the capital of the Kingdom of Portugal was a trade centre with excellent postal connections to all important cities of Europe. Therefore, horseback messengers and ships spread the news all over the world. Madrid was informed within a week. Three weeks after the earthquake, people talked about it in Paris and London. On 2 December, the news arrived at the German cities of Hamburg and Berlin. And from then on, every week you could read something new about the event. At first, the reports gave more details about the earthquake, then they talked about where the quake had been felt, and at last they reported on the misery of the citizens of Lisbon and on the slow reconstruction of the city.

To give them more credibility, many messages were written in the style of a correspondence letter – this is also the case regarding our single-leaf print.

A Good Business

In early modern times, single-leaf prints were a very successful medium for selling news. Their production and distribution were quite cheap. Often – and this is the case with regard to our example – they only consisted of two pages. Back then, countless (illustrated and not illustrated) single-leaf prints were produced. Only some of them have survived to this day.

And as it usually happens in the world of media: The more reports there are on a certain event – which is already terrible enough by itself – the more horrible and detailed they get. 700,000 Portuguese people are said to have died, at least according to our sing-leaf print. The author even made use of the trick of today’s journalist to make a disaster understandable not by listing numbers but by talking about individual fates. Thus, he describes the terrible end of a young groom, his bride and the bride’s father: After nine years of secret love, the couple finally received the father’s permission to marry. But in the course of the wedding ceremony, the earth trembled. They fled and barely reached a ship, which was sunk by the waves of the tsunami a few seconds later.

A Punishment for Catholic Superstition?

But not only did people die. All churches and the royal palace collapsed. And this – Protestant preachers argued mainly in England – had to be understood as the punishment by God for the Catholic’s unnatural superstition and for the Inquisition, which was also active in Portugal! Our single-leaf print also emphasises the fact that only 10 or 12 people from England died even though many of them lived or did business in Lisbon. And since it was a punishment, the house of the Inquisition was devoured by the earth and 300 Jesuits – back then, they were hated by all enlightened citizens – were buried alive. A sign against the Catholic church!

Therefore, everyone should be careful not to repeat Lisbon’s mistake. Or in the words of our author: “This wonderful town of Lisbon is now a pile of stones and a devastated wasteland. God have mercy on it and on us all!”

Voltaire and the Earthquake

Not everyone agreed with the Protestant preachers of hatred. On the contrary, many questioned the Christian faith in general: Can this God that accepted the Lisbon earthquake to happen really be the kind God of whom the Scriptures tell us? Why did it happen on All Saints’ Day? Why were the churches destroyed while the red-light district survived the quake without any damage? Many people discussed this issue. One of them had more extreme and resolute thoughts than his contemporaries: François-Marie Arouet, who is better known today by his pseudonym Voltaire.

A few months after the earthquake, he published a didactic poem hotly debated among intellectuals. The English translation of its title is: Poem on the Lisbon Disaster; Or an Examination of the Axiom, “All is Well”.

Voltaire thus turned against the view held by philosophers like Leibniz, who were of the opinion that God created the best of all possible worlds. And since people prefer satiric novels to didactic poems, Voltaire also wrote “Candide”. This work was published as early as in 1759 and the novel’s hero experiences almost every misfortune imaginable. And, of course, the Lisbon earthquake plays a decisive role in the story.


Since then, happy endings have only been existent in children’s books, light fiction and Hollywood weepies. Respected authors expose their heroes to the terrors of the world and let them fail – more or less gloriously – in the attempt of overcoming them.

Because the world is a bad place. Children and uneducated people may believe that there is a gracious God. But hoping for the good is no longer in fashion.


The Lisbon earthquake was a turning point in our conception of the world. Not because it was worse than other earthquakes, but because the modern media of the time made it the worst earthquake ever.


This detailed article deals with the media coverage of the Lisbon earthquake.

And this paper tells you about the event’s impact on philosophy.

We bought this book at Thomas Rezek’s antiquarian bookshop in Munich.

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