Did Christianity oppose the use of lightning rods?

Here are some charges for consideration from an article that is recopied in various places online:

Protestant and Catholic churches, basing their teachings on various texts in the Bible, taught that the air was filled with devils, demons and witches....Christian churches tried to ward off the damaging effects of storms and lightning by saying prayers, consecrating church bells, sprinkling holy water and burning witches....
...Unfortunately, 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 or town, was the building most often hit, while the brothels and gambling houses next door were left untouched...
The first major blow against these biblical superstitions about storms and lightning was struck 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. With Franklin's scientific explanations of lightning, the question 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"-could finally be answered rationally.
Thunder and lightning were considered tokens of God's displeasure. It was considered impious to prevent their doing damage. This was despite the fact that in Germany, within a span of 33 years, nearly 400 towers were damaged and 120 bell ringers were killed.
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 and buildings, including one from the Institute of Bologna, the leading scientific institution in Italy. The Swiss chemist, M. de Saussure, removed a rod he had erected on his house in Geneva in 1771 when it caused his neighbors so much anxiety that he feared a riot.
In 1780-1784, a lawsuit about lightning rods gave M. de St. Omer the right to have a lightning rod on top of his house despite the religious objections of his neighbors. This victory established the fame of the lawyer in the case, young Robespierre.
In America, Rev. Thomas Prince, pastor of Old South Church, blamed Franklin's 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 "points invented by the sagacious Mr. Franklin." He goes 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."
It took many years for scientists to convince the priests to attach a lightning rod to the spire of St. Bride's Church in London, even though it had been destroyed by lightning several times.
The priests' refusals prompted the following letter from the president of Harvard University to Franklin: "How astonishing is the force of prejudice even in an age of so much knowledge and free inquiry. It is amazing to me, that after the full demonstration you have given . . . they should even think of repairing that steeple without such conductors."
In Austria, the Church of Rosenburg was struck so frequently and with such loss of life that the peasants feared to attend services. Several times the spire had to be rebuilt. It was not until 1778, 26 years after Franklin's discovery, that church authorities finally permitted a rod to be attached. Then all trouble ceased.

The item closes, "Christian Churches were finally obliged to confess [the lightning rod's] practicality. The few theologians who stuck to the old theories and fumed against Franklin's attempts to 'control the artillery of heaven' were finally silenced, like the lightning, by Franklin's lighting rod and the supremacy of the scientific method."

Is there any truth to any of this? Yes, but that won't be a problem. The article leaves out (or perhaps, is unaware of) certain details that exculpate the particularly Christian, and show that they were not the ones at the root of the problem. The real problem, as is often the case, is that man himself (regardless of orientation) tends to scuttle things when in an intellectual quandry.

Exculpability Factor #1: Not from Christianity, but from paganism.

The reader will note at once, of course, that there is no Biblical basis for forbidding lightning rods (sorry, Prov. 24:13, "He that spareth his rod hateth his son," isn't related to that!), so whatever reasons the church had for opposition were obviously based on a chain of thought not Biblically-based.

That finds its origins in the theory of demonic agency of natural disasters -- which goes back not in origin to Christianity, but to pagan suppositions which Christian missionaries found it easier to work with than to refute. A thoroughly atheistic site found linked below tells us:

While the fathers and schoolmen were labouring to deduce a science of meteorology from our sacred books, there oozed up in European society a mass of traditions and observances which had been lurking since the days of paganism; and, although here and there appeared a churchman to oppose them, the theologians and ecclesiastics ere long began to adopt them and to clothe them with the authority of religion.
Both among the pagans of the Roman Empire and among the barbarians of the North the Christian missionaries had found it easier to prove the new God supreme than to prove the old gods powerless. Faith in the miracles of the new religion seemed to increase rather than to diminish faith in the miracles of the old; and the Church at last began admitting the latter as facts, but ascribing them to the devil. Jupiter and Odin sank into the category of ministers of Satan, and transferred to that master all their former powers. A renewed study of Scripture by theologians elicited overwhelming proofs of the truth of this doctrine. Stress was especially laid on the declaration of Scripture, "The gods of the heathen are devils."[336] Supported by this and other texts, it soon became a dogma. So strong was the hold it took, under the influence of the Church, that not until late in the seventeenth century did its substantial truth begin to be questioned.
It was, indeed, no great step, for those whose simple faith accepted rain or sunshine as an answer to their prayers, to suspect that the untimely storms or droughts, which baffled their most earnest petitions, were the work of the archenemy, "the prince of the power of the air."

The site alludes to the one Biblical passage which it specifically states (other than fallacious arguments that specific judgments, i.e, the plague of hail upon Egypt, represents the normal source for ALL such meteorological events) was behind Christian adaptation of this demonology: "Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience..." (Eph. 2:2)

The passage of course speaks of demonic work in human hearts, not human weather, and there was no idea in Judaism of Satan being a weatherman, so this one was due to pagan influence, not Christian culpability.

From here at any rate the Church endorsed the idea -- not because of any real Biblical warrant, but because it baptized what was regarded as truth by non-Christians by using the Scriptures. It is the same pattern found with Galileo -- whose churchly opposition founded its case on the Bible only as a "baptizer" but primarily from Aristotle -- and which continues today with such teachings as the health and wealth gospel.

In the name of driving away these putative demonic lightning, endorsed were all manner of equally unscriptural, unjustified practices such as using relics, special prayers, or ringing bells to ward off the lightning. As an example:

The ritual of Paris embraces the petition that, "whensoever this bell shall sound, it shall drive away the malign influences of the assailing spirits, the horror of their apparitions, the rush of whirlwinds, the stroke of lightning, the harm of thunder, the disasters of storms, and all the spirits of the tempest." Another prayer begs that "the sound of this bell may put to flight the fiery darts of the enemy of men"; and others vary the form but not the substance of this petition.
As late as the end of the seventeenth century we find the bells of Protestant churches in northern Germany rung for the dispelling of tempests. In Catholic Austria this bell-ringing seems to have become a nuisance in the last century, for the Emperor Joseph II found it necessary to issue an edict against it; but this doctrine had gained too large headway to be arrested by argument or edict, and the bells may be heard ringing during storms to this day in various remote districts in Europe.[348b] For this was no mere superficial view. It was really part of a deep theological current steadily developed through the Middle Ages, the fundamental idea of the whole being the direct influence of the bells upon the "Power of the Air"; and it is perhaps worth our while to go back a little and glance over the coming of this current into the modern world. Having grown steadily through the Middle Ages, it appeared in full strength at the Reformation period; and in the sixteenth century Olaus Magnus, Archbishop of Upsala and Primate of Sweden, in his great work on the northern nations, declares it a well-established fact that cities and harvests may be saved from lightning by the ringing of bells and the burning of consecrated incense, accompanied by prayers; and he cautions his readers that the workings of the thunderbolt are rather to be marvelled at than inquired into.

Thus pinning this one on Christianity isn't on target to begin with. Nothing in the Judeo-Christian scriptures actually teach "demonic agency" as a normal way of things being. I would designate the responsible philosophy a sort of "Christianized paganism" rather than Christianity itself.

And it is finally of note that the practice continues today, even in a Europe that is highly secularized, yet still apparently afflicted by the superstitious paganized "Christianity":

The traveller in remote districts of Europe still hears the church bells ringing during tempests; the Polish or Italian peasant is still persuaded to pay fees for sounding bells to keep off hailstorms; but the universal tendency favours more and more the use of the lightning-rod, and of the insurance offices where men can be relieved of the ruinous results of meteorological disturbances in accordance with the scientific laws of average, based upon the ascertained recurrence of storms. So, too, though many a poor seaman trusts to his charm that has been bathed in holy water, or that has touched some relic, the tendency among mariners is to value more and more those warnings which are sent far and wide each day over the earth and under the sea by the electric wires in accordance with laws ascertained by observation.

As a side note, this is most commonly repeated concerning early opposition to Franklin's invention:

In America the earthquake of 1755 was widely ascribed, especially in Massachusetts, to Franklin's rod. The Rev. Thomas Prince, pastor of the Old South Church, published a sermon on the subject, and in the appendix expressed the opinion that the frequency of earthquakes may be due to the erection of ``iron points invented by the sagacious Mr. Franklin.'' He goes on to argue that ``in Boston are more 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.''

This tells not quite the whole story, and seems to imply that Prince supposed that God was sending earthquakes as punishment for use of lightning rods. Not at all; though some undoubtedly did hold such a view (with no more evidence or value than "demonic agency" to begin with) Prince himself apparently worked upon the hypothesis that the rods were sending lightning into the ground, which in turn was causing the earthquakes, and that God's hand was only a matter of turning human wisdom on itself.

Not very scientific, but in an era when science itself believed some odd stuff (luminous ether, spontaneous generation, and earlier, geocentrism) Skeptics don't have much to justly object to. Prince was no less informed than some scientists of his day.

Exculpatory Factor #2: Christians With a Different Point of View.

At the same time, not all would have agreed that lightning was a means of judgment to begin with, as the atheistic site notes further:

As late as 1770 religious scruples regarding lightning-rods were still felt, the theory being that, as thunder and lightning were tokens of the Divine displeasure, it was impiety to prevent their doing their full work. Fortunately, Prof. John Winthrop, of Harvard, showed himself wise in this, as in so many other things: in a lecture on earthquakes he opposed the dominant theology; and as to arguments against Franklin's rods, he declared, ``It is as much our duty to secure ourselves against the effects of lightning as against those of rain, snow, and wind by the means God has put into our hands.''
Still, for some years theological sentiment had to be regarded carefully. In Philadelphia, a popular lecturer on science for some time after Franklin's discovery thought it best in advertising his lectures to explain that ``the erection of lightning-rods is not chargeable with presumption nor inconsistent with any of the principles either of natural or revealed religion.''

One other note should be tucked into this discussion. Franklin is widely credited for inventing the lightning rod, but at almost exactly the same time, and quite independently, a lightning rod was also invented by a gentleman in Czechoslovakia named Prokop Divis -- a scientist who just happened to be a priest in the Premonstratensian order. Lightning rods had their own Gregor Mendel; did Divis' religion stop him from making the same discovery Franklin did?

Exculpatory Factor #3: Non-Religious Disagreement.

Was it just the churches being stubborn? Not at all. When Ben Franklin invented his rod, he used rods with sharp points. However, his scientific colleagues in England preferred blunt-tipped lightning rods, supposing that sharp ones attracted lightning and increased the risk of strikes. As a site linked below offering histories of inventions reports:

King George III had his palace equipped with a blunt lightning rod. When it came time to equip the colonies' buildings with lightning rods, the decision became a political statement. The favored pointed lightning rod expressed support for Franklin's theories of protecting public buildings and the rejection of theories supported by the King. The English thought this was just another way for the flourishing colonies to be disobedient to them.

Given this bickering over "sharp or blunt" I would expect Skeptics to cut the church some slack. The real problem is not "religion" but us.

As an added bonus, a news report (now offline) vindicates both sides of this debate, noting that Franklin's sharp design "was flawed and the rods work better if they are blunt-tipped instead of being sharp...In fact, when [researchers] left rods with various tips on the 12,000-foot summit of South Baldy Peak in the Magdalena Mountains of central New Mexico, the blunt-tipped rods were the only ones that managed to attract lightning."

So will the Skeptics condemn all politicians because some of them made "blunt or sharp" into a political issue in the 1700s?

Conclusion

The history of "lightning rod rejection" is not a history of the church being stubborn and Christianity being culpable, but of men baptizing their perceptions with Christian paint.

-JPH

  1. Link
  2. Link