Spectacular Meteor Shower Might Repeat
by John P. Pratt
When the Saints were driven from Jackson County, the stars fell.
Have you ever wanted to see a truly spectacular meteor shower? There is a chance that the annual shower during the pre-dawn hours of November 18 will be truly magnificent this year. If that night is clear, it may well be worth the effort to be watching the sky beginning soon after midnight, especially if you live in Europe or the eastern United States. But no matter where you live, you still have a chance to see the best meteor shower that you may ever see. The intensity of meteor showers is nortoriouly hard to predict. The official forecasts from a variety of meteor scientists for the number of meteors range from “only a few” to “we may get rates as high as 7,000 per hour.” If the “falling stars” are seen at even one tenth that latter rate, it would mean seeing a meteor about every five seconds. The normal rate is one every minute or two, so it could be rare treat indeed. Not even binoculars are required; simply face east in a comfortable reclining lawn chair, and enjoy!
Several meteor showers occur on about the same day every year, when the earth passes through the orbit of a comet. When the earth, traveling at some 18 miles per second, encounters the pebble-sized debris left by the comet, those particles race through our upper atmosphere and heat up and glow intensely, appearing to be “falling stars.” The chance for a major meteor shower is best in the year or so after the comet has passed by. The comet associated with this shower has a 33-year period. Exactly 33 years ago in 1966, a wonderful display occurred, with over 100,000 meteors being witnessed during the peak hour. That is about 30 meteors per second! That was the first meteor shower to rival the “Night the Stars Fell” in 1833, which was a memorable event in L.D.S. Church history. The rest of this article summarizes several eye witness accounts of that night, both from LDS Church members and from other reliable witnesses recorded by scientists, for whom it marked the beginning of modern meteor science.
Reports from Latter-day Saints
As the saints were being driven from Jackson County, Missouri, in November, 1833, several hundred refugees lay on the banks of the Missouri River, many sleeping on the ground under the open sky. They were awakened about 2 a.m. on November 13th to witness one of the most spectacular showers of meteors in recorded history, which has been referred to as “the night the stars fell.” Elder Parley P. Pratt, an LDS apostle, was there and described it:
“About two o’clock the next morning we were called up by the cry of signs in the heavens. We arose, and to our great astonishment all the firmament seemed enveloped in splendid fireworks, as if every star in the broad expanse had been hurled from its course, and sent lawless through the wilds of the ether. Thousands of bright meteors were shooting through space in every direction, with long trains of light following their course. This lasted for several hours, and was only closed by the dawn of the rising sun. Every heart was filled with joy at this majestic display of signs and wonders. . .”
Edward Stevenson, who joined the church shortly after the event, described the event and also mentioned the effect on nearby enemies of those saints:
I witnessed the falling stars–which was the grandest and most sublime sight eye ever beheld. No fear entered my mind, but joy rather than awe; this was in the fall, September I believe. If ever stars in the heavens had been on the move, it could not have excelled the sight. It appeared to me as some of the meteors, or stars, came down near to the surface of Silver Lake, on the banks of which I stood. And what makes it still more interesting was that a mob had assembled in Missouri to mob the Latter-day Saints who had just been driven from Jackson County, Missouri, and were in their tents, canopies, wagons and etc. on the banks of the Missouri River. God frightened the mob by this one of the signs of the last days so that great fear came upon the people, and the mob fled saying that the judgment day had come.”
Eliza Lyman also mentioned the effect on the enemies of the Church:
“The next day we crossed the river into Clay County…. It was here that I saw the stars fall. They came down almost as thick as snowflakes and could be seen until the daylight hid them from sight. Some of our enemies thought the day of judgment had come and were very much frightened but the Saints rejoiced…”
The Prophet Joseph Smith also included the event in his history of the church, taken from his eyewitness account in Kirtland, Ohio, recorded in his personal journal. He explained that the still future sign of the Second Coming will be even more impressive:
“November 13. About 4 o’clock a.m. I was awakened by Brother Davis knocking at my door, and calling me to arise and behold the signs in the heavens. I arose, and to my great joy, beheld the stars fall from heaven like a shower of hailstones…
“Some at times appeared like bright shooting meteors, with long trains of light following in their course, and in numbers resembled large drops of rain in sunshine. These seemed to vanish when they fell behind the trees, or came near the ground. Some of the long trains of light following the meteoric stars, were visible for some seconds; these streaks would curl and twist up like serpents writhing. The appearance was beautiful, grand, and sublime beyond description; and it seemed as if the artillery and fireworks of eternity were set in motion to enchant and entertain the Saints, and terrify and awe the sinners of the earth. Beautiful and terrific as was the scenery, it will not fully compare with the time when the sun shall become black like sack-cloth of hair, the moon like blood, and the stars fall to the earth–Rev. vi:13 (italics added).
It is clear from the final sentence of this quote that the Prophet interpreted the phenomenon only as a precursor to the great sign which would later be given of the Second Coming of Christ. LDS leaders, such as Oliver Cowdery and Sidney Rigdon followed his lead, and even shortly afterward noted that the sign of the falling of the stars would be a future event.
Philo Dibble, a prominent member of the church at that time, recorded the following observations made by Joseph Hancock, the brother of Levi Hancock, near Kirtland, Ohio, on that night:
“On one occasion Joseph was preaching in Kirtland, sometime in the fall of 1833. Quite a number of persons were present who did not belong to the Church, and one man, more bitter and skeptical than others, made note with pencil and paper of a prophecy uttered on that occasion, wherein Joseph said that ‘Forty days shall not pass, and the stars shall fall from heaven.’
“Such an event would certainly be very unusual and improbable to the natural man, and the skeptic wrote the words as a sure evidence to prove Joseph to be a false prophet.
“On the thirty-ninth day after the utterance of that prophecy, a man and brother in the Church, by the name of Joseph Hancock,… and another brother wereout hunting game and got lost. They wandered about until night, when they found themselves at the house of this unbeliever, who exultingly produced this note of Joseph Smith’s prophecy and asked Brother Hancock what he thought of his prophet now that thirty-nine days had passed and the prophecy was not fulfilled.
“Brother Hancock was unmoved and quietly remarked, ‘There is one night left of the time, and if Joseph said so, the stars will certainly fall tonight. The prophecy will all be fulfilled.’
“The matter weighed upon the mind of Brother Hancock, who watched that night, and it proved to be the historical one, known in all the world as ‘the night of the falling of the stars.’
“He stayed that night at the house of the skeptical unbeliever, as it was too far from home to return by night, and in the midst of the falling of the stars, he went to the door of his host and called him out to witness what he had thought impossible and the most improbable thing that could happen, especially as that was the last night in which Joseph Smith could be saved from the condemnation of a ‘false prophet.’
“The whole heavens were lit up with the falling meteors, and the countenance of the new spectator was plainly seen and closely watched by Brother Hancock, who said that he turned pale as death and spoke not a word.”
This latter account includes a prophecy which does not appear to have been recorded elsewhere, and which, being a third-hand report is unlikely to be correct in every detail. It is included here only as a parallel account of the stars falling. In particular, the detail that the skeptic looked “pale as death” is specifically noted in other accounts which reported that there was sufficient light on that moonless night even to discern the color of a man’s beard.
Scientific Reports of Eyewitnesses
Let us now consider accounts by other credible witnesses, which both show that the phenomenon was witnessed over all of the eastern states and also emphasize just how spectacular it was. Professor Denison Olmsted of Yale University collected and published the following eyewitness accounts . The event was so significant that one recent researcher has noted that “The early morning storm of meteors seen in the eastern United States on November 13, 1833, marked the birth of modern meteor astronomy” . Here are some excerpts from Prof. Olmsted’s collection:
The Columbian Centinel in Boston reported: “This morning there was the appearance of a thick shower of fire. It was occasioned by the incessant falling of innumerable meteors … about half as thick as the flakes of snow in one of our common snow falls.”
The Salt River Journal in Bowling Green, Missouri, published “Above all, around the firmament–thicker than the stars themselves, which were uncommonly bright, large and beautiful–we beheld innumerable fire-balls… Though there was no moon…their brilliancy was so great, that we could, at times, read common sized print, without much difficulty, and the light which they afforded was much whiter than that of the moon.” The report added that “the very countenances of men wore the aspect and hue of death…” and that “There was a grand, peculiar, and indescribable gloom on all around.” It went on to report that “there was scarcely a space in the firmament which was not filled at every instant with these falling stars…” and that “at times they would shower down in groups–calling to mind the ‘fig tree, casting her untimely figs when shaken by a mighty wind …'” The report also agreed with others that, “there was not a space in the firmament equal in extent to three diameters of the moon, which was not filled at every instant with falling stars ; all of which left luminous traces from five to ten degrees in length, that lasted for seven or eight seconds…”
A civil engineer at West Point wrote that “[some of them] shot along like falling lamps, followed by a small short and pointed flame so brilliant as to pain the sight for an instant. In sensible magnitude these might be compared to the morning star, and in intensity of brilliance to lightning.” He recorded one “red fiery ball of perhaps one fifth the moon’s apparent diameter.”
The President of St. John’s College, Annapolis, stated that “The light was so intense that apartments, where persons were sleeping, were strongly illuminated, and some were aroused under the apprehensions that their dwellings were in flames…. In the words of most, they fell, like flakes of snow. … It was well ascertained that several of the meteors appeared to burst into numbers of smaller stars as they fell … One in particular, is stated by several, to have been as large as the moon …”
A chemistry professor in Maryland observed: “…the scene was altogether brilliant beyond conception … the meteors in numbers exceeding the visible stars, and in intensity of light often rivalling the rays of the full moon.”
A medical doctor traveling all night in North Carolina reported that the “most magnificent meteor … appeared somewhat larger than the full moon rising” and that its track “was visible at least twenty minutes.”
Thus, many witnesses all over the entire eastern part of the United States recorded this spectacular event.
Let’s Be Watching
The Lord has told us to be watching for the signs of his Second Coming:
“And it shall come to pass that he that feareth me shall be looking forth for the great day of the Lord to come, even for the signs of the coming of the Son of Man.” (D.& C. 45:39)
One of those signs is that the stars shall fall from heaven, which might well refer to a great meteor shower. The Prophet Joseph Smith implied that that event would be even more wonderful than the Night the Stars Fell in 1833. Should not we be watching the skies, hoping to see that marvelous occurrence? The morning of Nov. 18, 1999, gives us an opportunity to practice watching, in anticipation of the day when the true sign of His Coming will be given.
- Joe Rao, “The Leonid Meteor Storm: Is This the Year?”, Sky and Telescope 98:5 (Nov. 1999), 29-35.
- Parley P. Pratt, Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co., 1985), p. 83.
- J.G.Stevenson, ed., Autobiography of Edward Stevenson, (1986), p 5.
- Eliza Lyman, BYU-S, p.4.
- DHC 1:439, from Times and Seasons 6, p.898.
- For example Oliver Cowdery (Evening and Morning Star, Dec. 1833, p. 116) and Sidney Rigdon (ibid., Jun 1834, p. 161).
- The Juvenile Instructor, 27 (Jan. 1892), p. 23.
- If the Prophet did preach publicly in Kirtland exactly 40 days before Nov. 13, 1833, it would have been on Friday, Oct 4, 1833, the day prior to his departure for a mission to Canada. That seems unlikely, because such a remarkable prophecy which was fulfilled in such a spectacular manner would almost certainly have been recorded by others. Instead, the “skeptic” was apparently the only one who recorded the prophecy. On the other hand, Joseph Hancock was a faithful member of the church who would hardly have fabricated the account. It seems more likely that the Prophet encountered the skeptic on Oct. 5, after he had left Kirtland. Apparently the skeptic lived well outside of Kirtland because his house was discovered while Bro. Hancock was lost and was too far from his home for him to return that night. Perhaps the skeptic was at Lamb’s Tavern in Astabula, about 40 miles from Kirtland, where the Prophet spent that Saturday night (DHC I:416).
- Denison Olmsted, “Observations on the Meteors of November 13th, 1833,” American J. Sci. Arts 25 (1834), 354-411.
- D.K. Yeomans, “Comet Tempel-Tuttle and the Leonid Meteors,” Icarus, 47, 492-499 (1981).
- This data would imply a rate of at least 50 meteors per second.
2001 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.