Lacunza and his influence

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Catastrophism Theory around 1800 AD

Berlin · 2007  Uwe Topper topper

Lacunza was right in his lifetime a famous and suspected author, after his death in 1801 he slowly faded into oblivion and nowadays he is rather unknown. Some theologians rise him into heaven, others of the same Catholic Church would rather see him suffering in Purgatory or even deeper down. So what was so exciting about his teachings that they were put on the Catholic index of forbidden writings, and what was so new in them that many an enlightened head in Europe was interested in his works and changed letters with him?

It is not fair to answer with just some words, yet this I shall try here.

Lacunza coined a new approach to the Holy Scriptures by relating them to some cosmic catastrophes humanity had undergone in history. Taken at its face value, catastrophes of cosmic origin, i.e. provoked by God Almighty, would not have indexed his works at that time as the Bible gives more than one example of such actions of God, but new was the geophysical interpretation of those happenings which Lacunza developed in a scientific manner, and also his expectance of the next such catastrophe which would spare only few people.

Lacunza did not prophesize (as so many fanatics had done even in his time) nor did he foretell any special year in the future, yet he was sure that the model as a whole had to be discussed wether pertaining to the future or the past. He constantly exhorted his readers to think for themselves and to correct him whenever he made mistakes. The basic idea that the Earth is nothing more than a wobbling ball in a chaotic cosmos and can be overturned by God any moment is standing like a rock in all his writings, and just this had wakened up a number of contemporaries and enlightened them. This was the strength of the socalled Lacunzism and a real danger for the Church.

The author of those brainmoving theories was well aware of the power of the Church that could destroy him yet he fearlessly wrote down what he believed to be forced to by his intuition. He published under pseudonym which somehow confused people: Juan Josafat Ben-Ezra (John, God judges, Son of Ezra – a famous Jewish family name). In a letter dated Oct. 9th, 1788,  to the Spanish secretary of State Antonio Porlier (published by Mario Góngora in Revista Chilena de Historia y Geografia, No. 123, 1954/5) Lacunza wrote he had taken the pseudonym Ben-Ezra because that was one of the most learned Jewish rabbis who like himself was driven out of his home (in that case Spain) and had to live in exile (on the isle of Crete). In fact there are more parallels between the two scientists (some note on Ben-Ezra is planned to follow on this site in future): They had in common a thorough understanding of the fragility of the planetary system which contradicted the teachings of Aristoteles then in favour in Christianity.
Reading the sentence the Inquisition indicted on Sept. 6th, 1824 against Lacunza, 23 years after his death, one becomes aware how sophistical and partly absurd those accusations were, and that it was nothing more than trying to save the long time obsolete dogmas of Church science.

Lacunza insited on using popular languages like Spanish even in theological discussions which also was an annoying innovation in his time. His clear and simple Spanish helped to propagate his ideas widely. He read the Bible in Greek and Hebraic and translated quotations himself which is a pleasure to read. In questions of faith he made no concessions to the Church as he stressed several times.

Some biographical data

Manuel Lacunza was born as son of a basque sailor (some say of noble descent) on July 19th 1731 in Santiago de Chile and entered the school of Francis Xaver at the age of ten where he studied six years. On Sept. 7th, 1747 he joined the Company of Jesus, became priest and made the four pledges to the Order during the following twenty years.

When the Jesuits were driven out of Chile in 1767, Lacunza came to Europe and settled down in Imola (Vatican State) where he lived until his death as eremit.

From time to time he visited a Mexican Jesuit in the neighbourhood. A Chilean Jesuit wrote down dayly what Lacunza dictated. He mostly worked at night after a little walk. Five hours every day he remained silent in prayer, and in general he lived very modest and ascetic receiving only a small pension payed by the king of Spain to all exiled Jesuits, and some irregular gifts by his family with whom he corresponded by letters.


Two important books – one on the life of Jesus, the other on the Gospel according to St. John – remained unfinished and are today regarded as lost. His main work which founded his renown was completed around 1790 but parts of it already circulated earlier (to the dismay of the author). On June 17th, 1801 his corpse was found at the bord of the little stream that passes through Imola.


Lacunza’s main work is titled „La Venida del Mesias en Gloria y Magestad“ which makes one think of milenarist thoughts uninteresting for Non-Christians: „The Return of the Saviour in Glory and Majesty“. However, the new interpretations of prophetic texts of the Bible brought forward in this book are forming a unique construction which could still today find attention. The first impression was in 1796 in La Isla de Leon (Cádiz) in three volumes and is the base to all later editions even when enlarged. When in 1812 the Spanish Parliament was seated in Cádiz there reigned a short lived freedom from Catholic yoke, the Pope was imprisoned, and the citiziens could vote freely, in this time the best edition of Lacunzas work came to light. 

Then there is a London edition of 1816 arranged by the embassador of Argentine, Manuel Belgrano, printed by Charles Wood in Fleet Street, in four volumes of together about 2000 pages. In 1821 in Puebla (Seville) another complete edition in three volumes was printed already under severe danger, and likewise in 1825 in Mexico. In the next year Parmentier in Paris published the work, and in the same year appeared the up to date mostly used edition of Ackermann in London, followed by an English translation in the same editorial house 1827.

„Members of the clergy began in great numbers accept the thoughts of Ben-Ezra, and if freedom of distribution had allowed it, an awakening of the Church of unprecedented scope would have been inevitable.“ (Antomarchi 1963, p. 9 f)

There is a severe refutation of the book by the royal Spanish secretary Judas Tadaeus de Reyes from 1824 which triggered the indexation after the dissemination had been prohibited by the Inquisition in Cádiz already in 1812, as well as 1819 in Mexico. Even in 1941, the Holy Office of the Vatican (the successor to the Inquisition) thought it necessary to issue expressively a condamnation of the ideas of Lacunza because again theologians indulged in this type of milenarism called Lacunzism. Nicolay Berdyayeff wrote in 1947 a high appraisal of those ideas (told by Góngora, p.14 f)

My first acquaintance with Lacunzas writings came through a rare but inspired French translation from 1934 of part of the original made by Antonio Antomarchi (who died 1952), called „A Prophet has talked: Ben-Ezra“ and reedited by a sister-in-law of Antomarchi in Bonne-s-Menoge (H.S., France). Antomarchi used an original which was found at M. W. Smart’s in Los Angeles (California), presumably the edition of Wood 1816.

Through some very singular circumstance – again a moment of temporary freedom of the press – in 1969 under the presidence of S. Allende, an abridged version could appear in Lacunzas homeland as pocket book in the Institute for Chilean Literature as vol. 4 of the series ‚Colonial Authors of Chile‘, edited and commented by Mario Góngora, of which I had a fotocopy when writing my research into the Revelation of St. John (Das Letzte Buch, 1993).

A biography of Lacunza was written by Alfred Felix Vaucher: „Une célébrité oublié. Le P. Manuel de Lacunza y Diaz (1731-1801)“ (Imp. Fides, Collonges-sous-Salève, 1941/1968).
Commemorating the 200th anniversary of Lacunzas death some people in Chile made an effort to reedit his main work completely, but I don’t know wether this was successful. All the three volumes of the edition Ackermann are available online in the Chilean Library.

Main items of Lacunza

Only in some short phrases I shall resume the model od catastrophes Lacunza forwarded, skipping quotations from the Bible which Lacunza readily inserted at any instant. I refer to the chapter: The New Sky and the New Earth.

Just as Sky and Earth once vanished through the great flood, so the present Sky and Earth shall perish by fire. In the great flood the Earth as a globe did not perish nor the Sky as cosmos, but the state of the Earth changed, especially the aspect of the continents, and the state of the Sky as well, as there are the atmosphere, the climates, the seasons. For mankind the change was worsening his condition, whereas the coming catastrophe will improve living conditions. The coming world will be the best of all hitherto. In fact, sinful men will further live on Earth, this means that not life after death is described here but a real world like ours.

The comparison of the future event with the deluge of Noah is always present: The Hygrosphere (the waters on Earth) and the Abism (the waters underneath) had been the two great regions. A displacement of the poles triggered the great flood. The Abism opened as well as the gates of the Sky. During fourty days all firm land was drowned. Lacunza explains widely that the two watery regions – the terrestrial and the celestial – are separated from each other, the first one of shallow depth and never higher than the ‚original‘ mountains, the other very high up into the heaven and thoroughly atomized.

Lacunza sharply defines his concept against his contemporaries and predecessors especially as the trigger is concerned that produces the catastrophe: It is a sudden jolt of the poles which has nothing to do with meteores or comets. In section 65 he says that it is the hand of God that intervenes and moves the axis of the Earth which from then on had an obliquity of 23,5° while originaly it stood perpendicular. „By the sudden tilting of the axis the Earth necessarily suffered the consequences such as: all that existed on the surface of the globe, liquid or firm, lost its balance, and after this reigned highest disorder and upheaval, not less horrible, and worldwide, so that everything fell around, turned upside down, changed places, fell over each other, and mingled with each other, even broke into peaces, as the Holy Scripture says.“

Let us resume: Lacunza was convinced that catastrophes were triggered by a change of the position of the axis, not by near clashes with comets or meteors, and also that the event was sudden and like a lightning. He also believed that the ocean waters earlier had covered parts of what are now dry continents for a long time, and that the so called second mountains are a product of those cataclysms (section 63).

By the jolt of the poles „the sea became dry and the land became sea, new seas formed, new rivers and new valleys, new mountains – in general: a new Earth and a new World came into being, different from the one that had existed before.“ (64) The jolt of the poles also changed the position of the sun, the moon and the stars in the sky as seen from Earth. The invisible hand of the Creator (here Lacunza lets us see that he himself did not understand the mechanism of the jolts) moved the axis by 23,5 degress so that it points now to the star known to us as Polar star at the tip of the tail of Ursa Minor. (65)
In the earlier state when the axis stood perpendicular to the rotation, that is when there was only one Equinox altogether, Lacunza says, there were no seasons but eternal spring, there were no thunderstorms and no hurricanes, deseases were seldom for humans and animals, some people lived to the age of 900 years. This time of bliss was finished by the deluge of Noah, after which our present state of nature reigns.

The coming catastrophe will cleanse mankind through fire. There shall be a rain of shooting stars and immense earthquakes and floodings but no deluge as had been last time. The gates of the sky will remain closed. Only a small number of people shall survive, and they shall live happily and peacefully for thousand years. Only a small rest of Israel shall enjoy this new world (Lacunza had a special view of Israel which I shall explain further on).

Against the accusation that he introduced religious novelties (a heretic action) Lacunza had to defend himself because fundamentalists in his time held very firm to their understanding of the Bible. His arguments were: Many a text of the prophets was hiterhto ununderstandable because their time had not come yet, i.e. man had not been prepared for the understanding of those texts. If now the time has come for this than it is a blessing because those texts could not have been written in vain. Thus only the understanding is new, not the wordings of the prophets. Nearly all prophecies had been interpreted relative to the Jesus of the past and none to the Jesus who is to come. This will now change as the enigmatic verses of the prophets are interpreted in this sense. Our ancestors comprehended only little of the Bible, but the coming generations shall understand it much better than we nowadays. It is for this reason that those verses of the Bible had been redacted. (Note the laic approach of Lacunza towards the Holy Scriptures.)

Old and New Testament formed a genuine entity to Lacunza, so he could feel as Jew and as Christian at the same time. He expressed this in his pseudonym John Josaphat Ben-Ezra. As for him there is only one community of believers, the bride of the Lord. She shall pass through three phases: 1. Since Noah she is credited with a treaty as the selected of God, 2. exiled and robbed of her jewels (the lifetime of Lacunza), and 3. reconducted from all nations and adorned with new honours for an everlasting union.

In order to grasp how novel and scandalizing this interpretation of the Bible was in his time, we should read some of Lacunza’s contemporaries and forerunners. He himself quotes one author thus (section 59, possibly refering to Abbé Pluche): „I think it utterly unlikely that this Earth or this earthen globe on which we live does not have the same aspect and does not occupy the same position today as it had from the beginning until the great intercession of the deluge.“

In section 69 Lacunza admits that he read volume 6 of the great work of Pluche, „Espectaculo de la Naturaleza“ (edition Naples, pp. 255 ff) which was well diffused in the 18th century. Pluche continued the English theologian Thomas Burnet (1635-1715), as Góngora says (p. 115). One has to consider that catastrophism from renaissance times on had been always discussed, and Lacunza therefore found open ears.


Ben-Ezra, Juan Josafat: La Venida del Mesias en Gloria y Magestad (edition Ackermann in 3 vols., London 1826) - (1969) abridged version of the Institut for Chilean Literature, edited and commented by Mario Góngora (Santiago de Chile)
Pluche, Abbé Noël-Antoine, born 1688 in Reims, died 1761 near Paris; his main work: Spectacle de la nature, 1732 (9 vols.), translated at once into all european languages, often abridged.
Topper, Uwe: Das Letzte Buch (Munich 1993)

Originally written in German. Translated by the author, Uwe Topper, July 2009

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