When a mighty comet streaked across the night sky in 1664, Samuel Danforth predicted a series of catastrophes for his fellow Puritans who lived in the howling wilderness of New England.
He even did it in some of the first verses published in the New World:
There, with long bloody Hair, a Blazing Star
Threatens the World with Famine, Plague & War :
To Princes, death ; to Kingdomes many crosses : To all Estates, Inevitable Losses …
Danforth, both an astronomer and minister, created the first known almanac in America. He also delivered sermons described as powerful, eloquent and tearful.
In a pamphlet published about the comet of 1664, Danforth wrote the Bible made the purpose of comets very clear: as signals of great and notable changes.
And bad things had already started to happen in New England.
Samuel Danforth was born Oct. 17, 1626 in Framingham, England. He migrated with his father and five siblings to Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1634. He studied astronomy at Harvard College. After graduation in 1643 he stayed on as a tutor and published almanacs in 1647, 1648 and 1649. Those are the earliest surviving almanacs in America.
Ordained a minister in 1650, he became pastor of the church in Roxbury, Mass.
In 1670, he delivered one of the most famous sermons in history, A Brief Recognition of New-Englands Errand into the Wilderness, to the Massachusetts General Court.
Danforth, typical of the Puritans frightened by the frontier that crowded in on them, asked a question in the sermon. “What is it that distinguisheth New England from other Colonies and Plantations in America? ” The answer: They entered the “waste and howling wilderness” to “walk in the Faith of the Gospel with all good Conscience according to the Order of the Gospel, and your enjoyment of the pure Worship of God according to his Institution, without humane Mixtures and Impositions.”
Danforth was also a true product of the Puritan culture of condemnation. He rebuked tavern-goers when he saw them through his study window. When a young man named Benjamin Goad was hanged for having sex with a ‘lady horse’ in broad daylight, Danforth delivered a sermon justifying his execution as essential to preserving the church and society.
Comet of 1664
In the winter of 1664, a comet crossed the night sky and caught the attention of such European notables as Christopher Wren, Samuel Pepys and Isaac Newton. Pepys, in his diary, recorded “mighty talk” about the comet, and the king and queen had stayed up to watch it. Ordinary people went into a frenzy, prophesizing awful events – which did happen. They included one of the coldest winters in history, the plague and the Great Fire of 1666.
In New England, Danforth couldn’t resist offering a theological interpretation to the comet in a pamphlet. He gave it the daunting title An Astronomical Description of the Late Comet or Blazing Star; As it appeared in New-England in the 9th, 10th, 11th, and in the beginning of the 12th Moneth, 1664. Together with a Brief Theological Application thereof.
Though he lived in a howling wilderness, his conclusions about the comet conformed to contemporary scientific thought in Europe.
This Comet is not a new fixed Star, but a Planetick or Erratick Body, wandring up & down in the etherial firmament under the fixed stars.
The rest of it revealed pure Puritanical thinking. He wrote, for example,
The Holy Scriptures, which are the Authentick and un- erring Canon of truth, teach us to look at Comets, as Portentous and Signal of great and notable Changes.
Danforth also noted that an earthquake provided a similar warning four years earlier. The earthquake of 1663 caused some houses to be “rock’t like cradles” and might portend the “Lords shaking the foundations of our Churches and of our civil state.”
And he offered several examples of recent calamities: The death of Puritan ministers. Mr. John Norton, “translated into an higher Orb” and of whom New England was not worthy. Also the death of Samuel Stone, “the strength and glory of Connecticut” who “fell a sleep sweetly and placidly in the Lord.” (Stone was assistant to Thomas Hoooker, and Hartford was named for his home town.)
Their principal grain was turned into “an husk and rotteness” by “the sad Mildew and Blasting.”
A severe drought the previous summer burnt up their pastures, and early frosts “smote our Indian corn.”
He then concluded:
God forbid that any of us, should be Ασε΄ρες πλανη˜τας wandring Stars, Eccentrick and Erratick in our motions, as all Seducers and Impostors are for whom is reserved the blackness of darkness for ever.
Samuel Danforth lived another 10 years, dying on died November 19, 1674 at the age of 48.
This story updated in 2021.