Mount St. Helens became a popular news item in 1980, stirring up a new awareness and interest among the public about volcanoes in general. Any volcanic eruption is apt to be very dramatic, affect many people, and consequently draw much interest. But as the volcano resumes its dormant state, public curiosity wanes, and the eruption is relegated to historic footnotes and all but forgotten.
Among these historic footnotes is the record of one volcanic eruption that has the distinction of being the largest eruption ever recorded. It also has the little-known distinction of having played a small role in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That volcano was Mount Tambora on the island of Sumbawa, east of Java, in the year 1815.
The exact date of the eruption is given variously as April 5 or 7, depending on the source of information and what is defined as an eruption. If April 7 is used and time zones considered, the volcano erupted April 6, 1815, North American time.
When Tambora erupted, roughly 4,000 feet of the mountain’s summit disappeared, and a caldera over fifteen miles across was created. Estimates on the amount of debris ejected vary, but the most common figure is thirty-six cubic miles. The shoreline of the town of Tambora dropped eighteen feet, and the explosion was noted 1,000 miles away. The greatest damage occurred within a 300-mile radius, where there was total darkness for over three days, much like the darkness recorded in the eighth chapter of Third Nephi in the Book of Mormon. The hot air rising from the mountain caused hurricane winds to converge from all directions, drawing up entire buildings and all forms of life.
Of interest to Latter-day Saints is the role this eruption came to play in the story of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mount Tambora ejected so much matter into the atmosphere that it shaded the sun’s rays and cooled the earth by over one degree Centigrade. Many believe this cooling caused the year of 1816 to be known as “the year without a summer”; in the northeastern United States snow fell in June and July, and frost killed crops in August. Coming after several years of hardships, the crop failure was more than the Smith family could handle. This, with other factors, caused them to leave Vermont. Packing their belongings, they moved to Palmyra, New York, where young Joseph was to receive a series of remarkable visions and the Book of Mormon.
NOTES: For further information, see Don L. Leet and Sheldon Judson, Physical Geology, 3rd. ed., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1965; Norris McWhirter, Guiness Book of World Records 1981, New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., 1981; Barbara Tufty, 1,000 Questions about Natural Land Disasters, New York: Dodd Mead, 1970; and Kent H. Wilcoxson, Chains of Fire: The Story of Volcanoes, New York: Chilton Books, 1966.