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IV. Franklin's Lightning Rod

But in the midst of these efforts by Catholics like Father Vincent and by Protestants like John Wesley to save the old sacred theory, it received its death-blow. In 1752 Franklin made his experiments with the kite on the banks of the Schuylkill; and, at the moment when he drew the electric spark from the cloud, the whole tremendous fabric of theological meteorology reared by the fathers, the popes, the medieval doctors, and the long line of great theologians, Catholic and Protestant, collapsed; the "Prince of the Power of the Air" tumbled from his seat; the great doctrine which had so long afflicted the earth was prostrated forever.

The experiment of Franklin was repeated in various parts of Europe, but, at first, the Church seemed careful to take no notice of it. The old church formulas against the Prince of the Power of the Air were still used, but the theological theory, especially in the Protestant Church, began to grow milder. Four years after Franklin's discovery Pastor Karl Koken, member of the Consistory and official preacher to the City Council of Hildesheim, was moved by a great hailstorm to preach and publish a sermon onThe Revelation of God in Weather.

Of "the Prince of the Power of the Air" he says nothing; the theory of diabolical agency he throws overboard altogether; his whole attempt is to save the older and more harmless theory, that the storm is the voice of God. He insists that, since Christ told Nicodemus that men "know not whence the wind cometh," it can not be of mere natural origin, but is sent directly by God himself, as David intimates in the Psalm, "out of His secret places." As to the hailstorm, he lays great stress upon the plague of hail sent by the Almighty upon Egypt, and clinches all by insisting that God showed at Mount Sinai his purpose to startle the body before impressing the conscience.

While the theory of diabolical agency in storms was thus drooping and dying, very shrewd efforts were made at compromise. The first of these attempts we have already noted, in the effort to explain the efficacy of bells in storms by their simple use in stirring the faithful to prayer, and in the concession made by sundry theologians, and even by the great Lord Bacon himself, that church bells might, under the sanction of Providence, disperse storms by agitating the air. This gained ground somewhat, though it was resisted by one eminent Church authority, who answered shrewdly that, in that case, cannon would be even more pious instruments. Still another argument used in trying to save this part of the theological theory was that the bells were consecrated instruments for this purpose, "like the horns at whose blowing the walls of Jericho fell."[365]

But these compromises were of little avail. In 1766 Father Sterzinger attacked the very groundwork of the whole diabolic theory. He was, of course, bitterly assailed, insulted, and hated; but the Church thought it best not to condemn him. More and more the "Prince of the Power of the Air" retreated before the lightning rod of Franklin. The older Church, while clinging to the old theory, was finally obliged to confess the supremacy of Franklin's theory practically; for his lightning rod did what exorcisms, and holy water, and processions, and theAgnus Dei, and the ringing of church bells, and the rack, and the burning of witches, had failed to do. This was clearly seen, even by the poorest peasants in eastern France, when they observed that the grand spire of Strasburg Cathedral, which neither the sacredness of the place, nor the bells within it, nor the holy water and relics beneath it, could protect from frequent injuries by lightning, was once and for all protected by Franklin's rod. Then came into the minds of multitudes the answer to the question which had so long exercised the leading theologians of Europe and America, namely, "Why should the Almighty strike his own consecrated temples, or suffer Satan to strike them?"

Yet even this practical solution of the question was not received without opposition.

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."

Three years later, John Adams, speaking of a conversation with Arbuthnot, a Boston physician, says: "He began to prate upon the presumption of philosophy in erecting iron rods to draw the lightning from the clouds. He railed and foamed against the points and the presumption that erected them. He talked of presuming upon God, as Peter attempted to walk upon the water, and of attempting to control the artillery of heaven."

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."[366]

In England, the first lightning conductor upon a church was not put up until 1762, ten years after Franklin's discovery. The spire of St. Bride's Church in London was greatly injured by lightning in 1750, and in 1764 a storm so wrecked its masonry that it had to be mainly rebuilt; yet for years after this the authorities refused to attach a lightning rod. The Protestant Cathedral of St. Paul's, in London, was not protected until sixteen years after Franklin's discovery, and the tower of the great Protestant church at Hamburg not until a year later still. As late as 1783 it was declared in Germany, on excellent authority, that within a space of thirty-three years nearly four hundred towers had been damaged and one hundred and twenty bell-ringers killed.

In Roman Catholic countries a similar prejudice was shown, and its cost at times was heavy. In Austria, the church of Rosenberg, in the mountains of Carinthia, was struck so frequently and with such loss of life that the peasants feared at last to attend service. Three times was the spire rebuilt, and it was not until 1778 - twenty-six years after Franklin's discovery - that the authorities permitted a rod to be attached. Then all trouble ceased.

A typical case in Italy was that of the tower of St. Mark's, at Venice. In spite of the angel at its summit and the bells consecrated to ward off the powers of the air, and the relics in the cathedral hard by, and the processions in the adjacent square, the tower was frequently injured and even ruined by lightning. In 1388 it was badly shattered; in 1417, and again in 1489, the wooden spire surmounting it was utterly consumed; it was again greatly injured in 1548, 1565, 1653, and in 1745 was struck so powerfully that the whole tower, which had been rebuilt of stone and brick, was shattered in thirty-seven places. Although the invention of Franklin had been introduced into Italy by the physicist Beccaria, the tower of St. Mark's still went unprotected, and was again badly struck in 1761 and 1762; and not until 1766 - fourteen years after Franklin's discovery - was a lightning rod placed upon it; and it has never been struck since.[368]

So, too, though the beautiful tower of the Cathedral of Siena, protected by all possible theological means, had been struck again and again, much opposition was shown to placing upon it what was generally known as "the heretical rod" "but the tower was at last protected by Franklin's invention, and in 1777, though a very heavy bolt passed down the rod, the church received not the slightest injury. This served to reconcile theology and science, so far as that city was concerned; but the case which did most to convert the Italian theologians to the scientific view was that of the church of San Nazaro, at Brescia. The Republic of Venice had stored in the vaults of this church over two hundred thousand pounds of powder. In 1767, seventeen years after Franklin's discovery, no rod having been placed upon it, it was struck by lightning, the powder in the vaults was exploded, one sixth of the entire city destroyed, and over three thousand lives were lost.[368b]

Such examples as these, in all parts of Europe, had their effect. The formulas for conjuring off storms, for consecrating bells to ward off lightning and tempests, and for putting to flight the powers of the air, were still allowed to stand in the liturgies; but the lightning rod, the barometer, and the thermometer, carried the day. A vigorous line of investigators succeeding Franklin completed his victory, 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.

Yet, even in our own time, attempts to revive the old theological doctrine of meteorology have not been wanting. Two of these, one in a Roman Catholic and another in a Protestant country, will serve as types of many, to show how completely scientific truth has saturated and permeated minds supposed to be entirely surrendered to the theological view.

The Island of St. Honorat, just off the southern coast of France, is deservedly one of the places most venerated in Christendom. The monastery of Lerins, founded there in the fourth century, became a mother of similar institutions in western Europe, and a centre of religious teaching for the Christian world. In its atmosphere, legends and myths grew in beauty and luxuriance.

Here, as the chroniclers tell us, at the touch of St. Honorat, burst forth a stream of living water, which a recent historian of the monastery declares a greater miracle than that of Moses; here he destroyed, with a touch of his staff, the reptiles which infested the island, and then forced the sea to wash away their foul remains. Here, to please his sister, Sainte-Marguerite, a cherry tree burst into full bloom every month; here he threw his cloak upon the waters and it became a raft, which bore him safely to visit the neighbouring island; here St. Patrick received from St. Just the staff with which he imitated St. Honorat by driving all reptiles from Ireland.

Pillaged by Saracens and pirates, the island was made all the more precious by the blood of Christian martyrs. Popes and kings made pilgrimages to it; saints, confessors, and bishops went forth from it into all Europe; in one of its cells St. Vincent of Lerins wrote that famous definition of pure religion which, for nearly fifteen hundred years, has virtually superseded that of St. James. Naturally the monastery became most illustrious, and its seat "the Mediterranean Isle of Saints."

But toward the close of the last century, its inmates having become slothful and corrupt, it was dismantled, all save a small portion torn down, and the island became the property first of impiety, embodied in a French actress, and finally of heresy, embodied in an English clergyman.

Bought back for the Church by the Bishop of Frejus in 1859, there was little revival of life for twelve years. Then came the reaction, religious and political, after the humiliation of France and the Vatican by Germany; and of this reaction the monastery of St. Honorat was made one of the most striking outward and visible signs. Pius IX interested himself directly in it, called into it a body of Cistercian monks, and it became the chief seat of their order in France. To restore its sacredness the strict system of La Trappe was established - labour, silence, meditation on death. The word thus given from Rome was seconded in France by cardinals, archbishops, and all churchmen especially anxious for promotion in this world or salvation in the next. Worn-out dukes and duchesses of the Faubourg Saint-Germain united in this enterprise of pious reaction with the frivolous youngsters, thepetits creves, who haunt the purlieus of Notre Dame de Lorette. The great church of the monastery was handsomely rebuilt and a multitude of altars erected; and beautiful frescoes and stained windows came from the leaders of the reaction. The whole effect was, perhaps, somewhat theatrical and thin, but it showed none the less earnestness in making the old "Isle of Saints" a protest against the hated modern world.

As if to bid defiance still further to modern liberalism, great store of relics was sent in; among these, pieces of the true cross, of the white and purple robes, of the crown of thorns, sponge, lance, and winding-sheet of Christ, - the hair, robe, veil, and girdle of the Blessed Virgin; relics of St. John the Baptist, St. Joseph, St. Mary Magdalene, St. Paul, St. Barnabas, the four evangelists, and a multitude of other saints: so many that the bare mention of these treasures requires twenty-four distinct heads in the official catalogue recently published at the monastery. Besides all this - what was considered even more powerful in warding off harm from the revived monastery - the bones of Christian martyrs were brought from the Roman catacombs and laid beneath the altars.[371]

All was thus conformed to the medieval view; nothing was to be left which could remind one of the nineteenth century; the "ages of faith" were to be restored in their simplicity. Pope Leo XIII commended to the brethren the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas as their one great object of study, and works published at the monastery dwelt upon the miracles of St. Honorat as the most precious refutation of modern science.

High in the cupola, above the altars and relics, were placed the bells. Sent by pious donors, they were solemnly baptized and consecrated in 1871, four bishops officiating, a multitude of the faithful being present from all parts of Europe, and the sponsors of the great tenor bell being the Bourbon claimant to the ducal throne of Parma and his duchess. The good bishop who baptized the bells consecrated them with a formula announcing their efficacy in driving away the "Prince of the Power of the Air" and the lightning and tempests he provokes.

And then, above all, at the summit of the central spire, high above relics, altars, and bells, was placed - a lightning rod![371b]

The account of the monastery, published under the direction of the present worthy abbot, more than hints at the saving, by its bells, of a ship which was wrecked a few years since on that coast; and yet, to protect the bells and church and monks and relics from the very foe whom, in the medieval faith, all these were thought most powerful to drive away, recourse was had to the scientific discovery of that "arch-infidel," Benjamin Franklin!

Perhaps the most striking recent example in Protestant lands of this change from the old to the new occurred not long since in one of the great Pacific dependencies of the British crown. At a time of severe drought an appeal was made to the bishop, Dr. Moorhouse, to order public prayers for rain. The bishop refused, advising the petitioners for the future to take better care of their water supply, virtually telling them, "Heaven helps those who help themselves."

But most noteworthy in this matter was it that the English Government, not long after, scanning the horizon to find some man to take up the good work laid down by the lamented Bishop Fraser, of Manchester, chose Dr. Moorhouse; and his utterance upon meteorology, which a few generations since would have been regarded by the whole Church as blasphemy, was universally alluded to as an example of strong good sense, proving him especially fit for one of the most important bishoprics in England.

Throughout Christendom, the prevalence of the conviction that meteorology is obedient to laws is more and more evident. In cities especially, where men are accustomed each day to see posted in public places charts which show the storms moving over various parts of the country, and to read in the morning papers scientific prophecies as to the weather, the old view can hardly be very influential.

Significant of this was the feeling of the American people during the fearful droughts a few years since in the States west of the Missouri. No days were appointed for fasting and prayer to bring rain; there was no attribution of the calamity to the wrath of God or the malice of Satan; but much was said regarding the folly of our people in allowing the upper regions of their vast rivers to be denuded of forests, thus subjecting the States below to alternations of drought and deluge.

Partly as a result of this, a beginning has been made of teaching forest culture in many schools, tree-planting societies have been formed, and "Arbor Day" is recognised in several of the States. A true and noble theology can hardly fail to recognise, in the love of Nature and care for our fellow-men thus promoted, something far better, both from a religious and a moral point of view, than any efforts to win the Divine favour by flattery, or to avert Satanic malice by fetichism.

History of Warfare of Science with Theology: Main Page

Chapter 11: Index & Contents

Chapter One: Growth of a Theological Theory



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