Fire and Brimstone: Religious Interpretations of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

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As we have consistently seen, religion tends to have a significant impact on the interpretation of disasters. From Father Pernin’s narrative of the Peshtigo Fire, to the interpretation of the Chicago fire as cleansing, religious interpretations of disasters abound. Given both the often complex nature of disasters, coupled with the wanton destruction, disasters seem to almost request the meaning which religion may ascribe to them. Furthermore, disaster almost always inspires community unification and religion has often facilitated such unity.

I would like to examine a specific disaster and the religious response which it elicited from the community, on a local or perhaps wider scale. What were the religious or other interpretations of this disaster and its significance? How were interpretations of this disaster shaped by religious leaders and the religious community? How did religious disaster narratives shape the recovery from this disaster? How did the religious landscape change as a result of the disaster or the concomitant changes? In what ways were religious disaster narratives productive or counterproductive, in terms of rebuilding community in the wake of this disaster?

I think that the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire might be particularly interesting to examine, for a variety of reasons. Foremost, the scale of the disaster, which was substantial, would have accentuated any effects that such a disaster might have on a populace or community. Yet, this alone does not distinguish San Francisco’s disaster from some others. Though fires were the most destructive element in this case, they were secondary to an earthquake, in terms of cause. Earthquakes present a particularly interesting disaster in that they are—much more than Mrs. O’Leary or her cow—open to religious interpretation. The trembling of the very earth beneath our feet lends itself to religious interpretation. Moreover, San Francisco in 1906 was a city of cultural clashing, with significant divides between the white and Chinese communities. Doubtless, such cultural conflict played out in the context of religious thinking.

Local and community newspapers will be a great source for this examination, especially if they cater to a specific religious community within the city. I do not, necessarily, need to limit myself to local newspapers but can look on a national and state scale as well, since those have potential to be sources of religious interpretation as well. Within newspapers, I expect editorials to be a particularly good source. Journals or correspondence, though rare, have the potential to be great sources of religious thinking or interpretation, especially that which people might not say publicly. Perhaps there are records of sermons that were given in the aftermath of the disaster or during the recovery that address the disaster in a religious context.