Miracles Versus God’s Providence

What follows is a tale about the providence of God, summarized from The American Covenant, by Marshall Foster and Mary-Elaine Swanson. Sorry for the length, but I think you’ll find this untold story fascinating.

In 1746 the American colonists lived in fear that the French would colonize their region. Why? Because wherever the French went, they allowed only the Roman Catholic religion. As long as the Catholic Stuarts ruled England, there was peace with France. But then William of Orange, a Protestant, ascended the English crown, and the French began savagely attacking the colonists. With the aid of a British squadron, the Americans captured Louisbourg in Nova Scotia. Throughout the expedition, they had perfect weather. Said one colonist, “The English appear to have enlisted Heaven in their interest.”

The French were incensed. They made plans for a devastating response and on June 20, 1746, the Duc d’Anville sailed toward America with seventy ships, about half the French navy. Its purpose was “to lay waste the whole seacoast from Nova Scotia to Georgia.” The fleet evaded a British squadron charged with guarding the French shores. If they reached America, they would crush the fledgling colonies.

Just as the fleet set sail, a prolonged calm delayed them. Then some storms and lightning disabled several ships. Next pestilence broke out on board and many seamen died. As if this wasn’t enough, a new round of storms hit that were so intense, “[the ships] were…so dispersed in the midst of the Ocean that by Aug. 26, they had left but twelve Ships of the Line and forty-one others.” ship-in-stormThen on Sept. 2 another violent storm destroyed even more vessels. Finally, Duc d’Anville’s battered fleet sailed into Halifax harbor. There they were to rendezvous with still more French ships from the West Indies. But the West Indian fleet had long ago arrived, waited, and, discouraged by the long wait, gave up and returned south.

Meanwhile, when the colonists saw the French fleet off their shores, the people were “filled with consternation. The streets filled with men, marching for the defence of the seaports, and the distresses of women and children, trembling for the event, made…deep impressions upon the minds of those who remember these scenes. But never did the religion, for which the country was settled, appear more important, nor prayer more prevalent, than on this occasion. A prayer-hearing God stretched forth the arm of His power, and destroyed that mighty Armament, in a manner almost as extraordinary as the drowning of the Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea.”

What happened after the colonists prayed? The Duc d’Anville waited while more ships limped into port. Then the realization hit him. His men were ill, too many had died at sea, and their supplies were almost gone. The commander “finding his few Ships so shattered, so many Men dead, so many sickly, and no more of his Fleet come in; he sunk into discouragement, and Sept. 15 died; but in such a Condition…it was generally tho’t he poysoned himself, and was buried without Ceremony.”

A second commander took over. Days later, he too committed suicide by falling on his sword. Then a third officer, La Jonquiere, assumed command. He ordered men ashore to recruit French and Indians to attack nearby Annapolis. But before they left Halifax, 2,000 to 3,000 died of pestilence. Then on October 13, La Jonquiere ordered the fleet to sail for Annapolis to lay waste to that town.

Unknown to the French commander, the colonists had set aside October 16 as a day of fasting and prayer for their deliverance. What happened next? From the Rev. French: “On this great emergency and day of darkness and doubtful expectation, the 16th of October was observed as a day of Fasting and Prayer throughout the Province. And, wonderful to relate, that very night God sent upon them a more dreadful storm than either of the former, and completed their destruction. Some overset, some foundered, and a remnant only of this miserable fleet returned to France to carry the news. Thus New England Stood Still, and Saw the Salvation of God.”

Surely this is an amazing, untold story. The storms, the disease, the departure of the rendezvous fleet, the suicides of two captains—all of it was so unusual and timed so perfectly, how could we call it coincidence? No, these events seemed to have been planned, ordered, and set into motion for a reason. To answer prayer and to save the colonies. We must therefore conclude that the salvation of the American colonies from a devastating French attack was an act of God.

By themselves, storms and pestilence are regular, expected phenomena, not miracles. But they occurred at such a precise moment that they saved the colonies. So instead of calling it a miracle, we call it providence. A subtle difference, I grant you. Often we simply call both kinds of events a miracle.

In any event, both miracles and providence are acts of God. But when some people hear that, they reject the notion that God is involved in the world. So my next post will address the question: Is God involved in the world?