For centuries Protestant and Catholic churches, basing their teachings on various
texts in the Bible, taught that the air was filled with devils, tempests, and witches.
Saint Augustine held this belief to be beyond controversy. Saint Thomas Aquinas
stated in his Summa Theologica, “Rain and winds, and whatsoever occurs by local
impulse alone, can be caused by demons. It is a dogma of faith that the demons can
produce winds, storms, and rain of fire from heaven.” Martin Luther asserted that the
winds themselves are only good or evil spirits, and declared that a stone thrown into
a certain pond in his native city would cause a dreadful storm because of the devils
kept prisoner there.
Christian churches tried to ward off the damaging effects of storms and lightning by
prayers, the consecrating of church bells, sprinkling of holy water, and the burning of
witches. Lengthy rites were said for the consecrating of bells, and priests prayed that
their sound might "temper the destruction of hail and cyclones and the force of
tempests and lightning; check hostile thunders and great winds; and cast down the
spirits of storms and the powers of the air." Unfortunately, all these efforts were to no
avail. The priest ought to have prayed for the bell ringer who was frequently
electrocuted while ringing the blessed bells. The church tower, usually the highest
structure in the village, was normally the building most often struck by lightning, while
the brothels and gambling houses next door were left untouched. One eyewitness to
the damaging effects of lightning recorded, "Little by little we took in what happened.
A bolt of lightning had struck the tower, partly melting the bell and electrocuting the
priest”; afterwards, continuing, “The lightning had shattered a great part of the
ceiling, had passed behind the mistress, whom it deprived of sensibility, and after
destroying a picture of the Savior hanging upon the wall, had disappeared through
Peter Ahlwardts, the author of "Reasonable and Theological Considerations About
Thunder and Lightning," accordingly advised his readers to seek refuge from storms
anywhere except in or around a church. Hadn't lighting struck only the churches
ringing bells during the terrific storm in lower Brittany on Good Friday of 1718?
Thunder, nonetheless, continued to start the bells, and lightning to electrocute the bell
ringers. Even the poorest peasants in eastern France could see that the grand spire
of Strasburg Cathedral could not be saved from its frequent destruction by lightning
through pious ringing of church bells, sprinkling of holy water, prayers, exorcisms, or
the torture and burning of witches.
The first major blow was struck against these biblical pronouncements about storms
and lightning in 1752 when Benjamin Franklin made his famous electrical
experiments with a kite. The second and fatal blow was struck later in the same year
when he invented the lightning rod.
It was not until Franklin's scientific explanations of lightning came along that the
question could finally be answered that had so long taxed the minds of the world's
leading theologians: Why should the Almighty strike his own consecrated temples, or
suffer Satan to strike them?
Because thunder and lightning were considered tokens of God's displeasure, it was
considered impious to prevent them from doing their full work, despite the fact that in
Germany, within a space of thirty-three years, nearly four hundred towers had been
damaged and one hundred and twenty bell-ringers killed. In 1786 the parliament of
Paris finally signed an edict "to make the custom illegal on account of the many
deaths it caused to those pulling the ropes."
In Switzerland, France, and Italy, popular prejudice against the lightning rod was
ignited and fueled by the churches and resulted in the tearing down of lightning rods
from many homes, including one from the Institute of Bologna, the leading scientific
institution in Italy. The Swiss chemist de Saussure had erected a rod on his house in
Geneva in 1771, which had caused so much anxiety to his neighbors that he feared
a riot. In 1780-1784 a lawsuit about lightning rods gave Monsieur de St. Omer the
right to have a lightning rod on top of his house, despite the religious objections of
his neighbors, and this victory established the fame of the lawyer in the case, a
young Monsieur Robespierre.
In America, Reverend Thomas Prince, pastor of the Old South Church, blamed
Franklin and his invention of the lightning rod for causing the Massachusetts
earthquake of 1755. In Prince's sermon on the topic he expressed the opinion that
the frequency of earthquakes may be due to the erection of "iron points invented by
the sagacious Mr. Franklin." He went on to argue that "in Boston more are erected
than anywhere else in New England, and Boston seems to be more dreadfully
shaken. Oh! there is no getting out of the mighty hand of God!”
To quiet the Charleston populace who were alarmed at the possibility of incurring the
divine wrath as a result of putting up lightning rods, the South Carolina and American
General Gazette suggested, “raising lightning rods to the glory of God.”
It took many years for scientists to convince the clergy to attach a lightning rod on the
spire of St. Bride's Church in London, even though it had been destroyed by lightning
several times. This resistance prompted the following letter from the president of
Harvard University to Benjamin Franklin,
"How astonishing is the force of prejudice even in an age of so much knowledge and free In Austria, the church of Rosenburg was struck so frequently, and with such loss of
inquiry. It is amazing to me, that after the full demonstration you have given, that they should
even think of repairing that steeple without such conductors."
life, that the peasants feared to attend services. Several times the spire had to be
rebuilt. It was not until 1778, twenty-six years after Franklin's discovery, that the
church authorities finally gave in and permitted a rod to be attached, and the trouble
A typical case was that of the tower of St. Mark's in Italy. In spite of the angel at its
summit and the bells consecrated to ward off the devils and witches in the air, and
the holy relics in the church below, and the processions in the adjacent square, the
tower was frequently injured and even ruined by lightning. It was not until 1766,
fourteen years after Franklin's discovery, that a lightning rod was placed upon it, and
the tower has never been struck since.
Had the ecclesiastics at the Church of San Nazaro in Brecia given in to the repeated
urgings to install a lightning rod they might have averted a terrible catastrophe. The
Republic of Venice had stored in the vaults of this church several thousand pounds of
gunpowder. In 1767, seventeen years after Franklin's discovery, no rod having been
placed upon the church, it was struck by lightning and the gunpowder in the vaults
was set off. One sixth of the city was destroyed and three thousand lives were lost,
just because the clergy had refused to install the "heretical rod."
Such examples as these, in all parts of Europe, eventually had their effect. The
ecclesiastical formulas for conjuring away storms, for consecrating bells to ward off
lightning and tempests, were still allowed to be practiced in the churches; but the
lightning rod, the barometer, and the thermometer, carried the day. Christian
churches were finally obliged to confess the supremacy of the lightning rod, and the
few theologians who stuck to the old theories and fumed against the rods and of
Franklin's attempts to control the artillery of heaven were finally silenced, for the most
part, by the power of science.
Today’s program was based on one of our freethought data sheets, researched and
written by Mr. Al Sekel. We have dozens of such data sheets available through our
bookstore, and you’re welcome to browse through them at our general membership
Until next week at this same time, this is Lee Carter speaking for Atheists United –
the Rational Minority.
Christian Churches vs. the Lightning Rod