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Feeling the Earth Move: Hancock’s Book Examines Religious and Political Aftermath of New Madrid Earthquakes

CONWAY, Ark. (April 7, 2021) – Imagine living in middle America in the early 1800s when a series of earthquakes disrupts everyday life. How does this literally earth-shaking event affect you, your community, and the spiritual and political forces already at work before the ground began to tremble?

Dr. Jonathan Hancock, associate professor of history at Hendrix College, examines these topics in his new book, Convulsed States: Earthquakes, Prophecy, and the Remaking of Early America (University of North Carolina Press).

The earthquake activity of 1811–12, based in and around the Missouri Bootheel along the New Madrid Fault, included the strongest quakes the region had experienced in at least 500 years.

“Especially closer to the epicenters, the magnitude of the shaking and extent of the damage really shocked eyewitnesses,” Hancock says. “Readers of U.S. newspapers along the East Coast also couldn’t believe stories about the Mississippi River flowing backwards or people disappearing in crevices.”  

Hancock spent 14 years studying archives across the country to learn how people from a variety of backgrounds, locations, and perspectives struggled to understand, explain, and react to the seemingly unprecedented natural phenomena—and how their various interpretations affected the political and religious systems of their time.

“I made some surprising new archival discoveries, including evidence that a Native American prophet foretold the earthquakes four years prior, and that U.S. disaster relief legislation played a role in the establishment of Little Rock and the concurrent dispossession of the Quapaw Nation,” Hancock said.

Hancock_Jonathan_headshot_web.jpgHancock offers insights into the relationship between religious and political authority across Native nations and the United States in the early 19th century. His examination of the earthquakes spans different historical fields, shedding light on a pivotal time in North American history that was influenced by nature’s display of power in the area where Arkansas, Missouri, and Tennessee meet.

“This was a time of great religious revivalism, not only in the United States, but across the Creek and Cherokee Nations, as well as among Native American communities in the Ohio Valley,” Hancock said. “In the trans-Appalachian West, Methodist and Baptist church rolls swelled after the earthquakes, and Native American and Euro American prophets alike situated the earthquakes prominently in bids to remake their respective nations.”

By considering varied peoples’ efforts to understand and deal with the New Madrid earthquakes, Convulsed States illuminates a natural and cultural climate that required inhabitants to wrestle with fundamental human questions relating to war, governance, and spiritual beliefs and authority.

The book includes maps by Hendrix alumna Jasmine Zandi ’20, who used mapmaking skills learned in a Geographic Information Systems [GIS] course at Hendrix taught by Dr. Brett Hill.

About Hendrix College

A private liberal arts college in Conway, Arkansas, Hendrix College consistently earns recognition as one of the country’s leading liberal arts institutions, and is featured in Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About Colleges. Its academic quality and rigor, innovation, and value have established Hendrix as a fixture in numerous college guides, lists, and rankings. Founded in 1876, Hendrix has been affiliated with the United Methodist Church since 1884. To learn more, visit