The lightning rod invented by the Czechoslovakian priest Prokop Divis in 1754. Image courtesy of Bohemianroots (author) and Wikipedia.
Well, it looks like atheist John Loftus, author of Why I Became an Atheist and Unapologetic: Why Philosophy of Religion Must End, is at it again. In a recent blog post, titled, DC Regular Mattapult On Church Lightning Rods (October 30, 2016), he resurrects the “Warfare” thesis propagated by Andrew Dickson White, and accuses Christian clergymen of obstructing the installation of lightning rods on churches in the eighteenth century. Loftus writes:
How bad was the problem of lightning striking churches?
“For centuries, the devastating scourge of lightning had generally been considered a supernatural phenomenon or expression of God’s will. At the approach of a storm, church bells were rung to ward off the bolts. “The tones of the consecrated metal repel the demon and avert storm and lightning,” declared St. Thomas Aquinas. But even the most religiously faithful were likely to have noticed this was not very effective. During one thirty-five-year period in Germany alone during the mid-1700s, 386 churches were struck and more than one hundred bell ringers killed. In Venice, some three thousand people were killed when tons of gunpowder stored in a church was hit.”
Franklin’s results are well known: he discovered that the electricity could be directed to a lightning rod which would save the building from being burned down. Most were delighted to find protection from this disaster, but not everybody:
“In some circles, especially religious ones, Franklin’s findings stirred controversy. The Abbé Nollet, jealous, continued to denigrate his ideas and claimed that the lightning rod was an offense to God. “He speaks as if he thought it presumption in man to propose guarding himself against the thunders of Heaven!” Franklin wrote a friend. “Surely the thunder of Heaven is no more supernatural than the rain, hail or sunshine of Heaven, against the inconvenience of which we guard by roofs and shades without scruple.”
Excerpts From: Isaacson, Walter. “Benjamin Franklin.” Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. iBooks.
This material may be protected by copyright.
Is Loftus telling the truth?
I was skeptical about Loftus’ claim that some Christian clergymen opposed lightning rods on religious grounds, so I did some sleuthing, and came across an excellent blog post, titled, Lightning Rods and the Church (October 25, 2005) by Dr. James Hannam, a historian of science specializing in the relationship between science and Christianity in the Medieval and Early Modern eras. Dr. Hannam’s work is published as God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science in the U.K. and The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution in the U.S. Since Dr. Hannam’s post is very short, I shall quote it in its entirety (all bolding in the quotes below is mine – VJT):
One of the many stories of the great myth of the conflict between science and religion is that the Christians tried to prevent the use of lightning rods. Whenever I asked for a reference, all I ever got is Andrew Dickson White (extract here) so I knew that there was something fishy going on. However, all serious histories were silent on the subject. I nosed around to see if there was any academic work on the question and dug up an article by IB Cohen called “Popular Prejudice against the Introduction of lightning Rods” (Journal of the Franklin Institute, vol. 253, pp. 393 – 440, 1952). It is rather revealing.
White is correct to say that ringing bells was a popular way to scaring off lightning from church towers. But the it was also known to be dangerous and the Church disliked the practice because it was deemed superstitious (as long ago as the seventeenth century, Cardinal Bellarmine condemned it).
The real problems that caused late adoption were two-fold. Firstly, the working of the rod was not fully understood. It had to be grounded to work, otherwise it just attracted lightning. Abbe Nollet, a French scientist and rival of Franklin, wrote a critique based on this and other misunderstandings that did have some effect on the rods use. But Cohen states that “his objections were grounded in scientific concerns.”
Second, ordinary people were not convinced by scientists saying that attracting lightning and sending it into the ground was harmless. After all, lightning was scary stuff and scientists were as arrogant about popular concerns then as they are today. But, Cohen states, “slowness in adopting the new invention did not proceed from ecclesiastical ban or dogma,” but from local concern about whether the rod worked. In fact, even Pope Benedict XIV had been a supporter of the use of rods. St Mark’s in Venice had one as early as 1766. As Cohen summarises: “Even though the ringing of church bells during lightning storms continued in Catholic Countries long after the invention of the lightning rod, it was by no means the case that the Church as an institution was opposed to the new invention.”
Another myth bites the dust.
Here’s some more interesting information I found:
(1) In a detailed review titled, Did Christianity oppose the use of lightning rods?, Christian apologist J.P. Holding highlighted an interesting fact which completely blows apart the popular atheistic claim that the Christian Church opposed the introduction of lightning rods:
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?
Fr. Divis’ lightning rod is pictured at the top of this post.
Curious to learn more about this priest, I dug up his Wikipedia biography, and here’s what I found:
Dom Prokop Diviš, O.Praem. (26 March 1698 – 21 December 1765) was a Czech canon regular, theologian and natural scientist, who built one of the first grounded lightning rods…
In 1736 he was appointed as pastor of a parish in Přímětice (now part of Znojmo) which was served by the abbey. He served in that capacity for five years, before being recalled to the abbey in April 1741, where he served as its prior…
Back at the parish, Diviš became responsible for the management of farmland belonging to it. He undertook the construction of water conduits on the property. As a result, he became interested in a popular new interest in the scientific community of his day, electricity. He began a series of experiments over the next years, mostly on plant growth and therapy with small electrical voltage…
The news of the death of Georg Wilhelm Richmann, a professor in St. Petersburg, who was killed by lightning in 1753 during his attempt at measuring the intensity of the electric field in the atmosphere, caused Diviš to become interested in atmospheric electricity. Being established in the scientific community, he proposed to several physicists (among them the Academies of Science in St. Petersburg and Vienna, as well as Leonhard Euler) to construct a “weather-machine” – a device that would suppress and prevent thunderstorms and lightning. When he didn’t receive answers, he took it up on himself to build such a machine in his own parish.
On 15 June 1754, he erected a forty metres high, free-standing pole in Přímětice, on which he mounted his “weather-machine”, consisting of several tin boxes and more than 400 metal spikes. A well-established theory in that time was that more pointed spikes would conduct electricity better. The pole was secured by heavy metal chains that inadvertently also grounded his construction, making it actually one of the first grounded lightning rods. He described his invention as being very effective at driving off storms: clouds formed when the pole was taken down and disappeared when erected again. He took these occasional observations as proof of his theory that the pointed spikes extracted latent electricity out of the atmosphere, deposing them safely before lightning could form. Several local newspapers and novelty papers from Southern Germany made reports on his attempts.
His findings weren’t well received in the scientific community that largely decided to ignore him. In 1759, a drought threatened Přímětice’s farmers, who now took action against their priests’ attempts to control the weather and consequently destroyed the first “weather-machine”. This led to a dissent between Diviš and his “unruly flock”, that only ended when the church superiors advised Diviš to stop his experiments and unmount his second “weather-machine”, then securely mounted on the tower of his church, and hand it over to the Louka abbey.
Diviš continued to correspond with scientists and promote his own theory which he called Magia naturalis. Fricker and Oetinger, two like-minded priests from Württemberg who had visited him during the experiments, helped him publish it abroad under the German name “Längst verlangte Theorie von der meteorologischen Electricité” (Much desired theory of the metereological electricity), in the same year that Diviš died. Again, the theory was largely ignored, though Tetens reviewed them a few years after and called it a work of fantasy.…
…Indeed, his free-standing apparatus in 1754 was probably better grounded than Franklin’s experimental lightning rods at that time. The “weather-machine” failed, however, the common purpose of lightning rods: to actually protect a building; while the grounding chains were not remotely secure.
 Radio Praha “Prokop Divis”
 Christa Möhring: Eine Geschichte des Blitzableiters. Die Ableitung des Blitzes und die Neuordnung des Wissens um 1800 (German dissertation; The history of the lightning rod. Conduction of Lightning and the re-ordering of knowledge around 1800) p. 83-105
 Zprvu nepochopený vynálezce hromosvodu (Czech)
 Vynálezce hromosvodu (Czech)
(2) The quote from Aquinas cited by Loftus, on church bells repelling demons, may well turn out to be bogus. (This is old news: blogger Kyle Wheeler cast doubt on its authenticity back in 2006.) I have searched for the quote in vain among Aquinas’ published works in English. The quote can be found on numerous Websites on the Internet, but the original source is an old book by Viktor Rydberg (and translated by August Edgren), published in 1879, titled, Magic of the Middle Ages (New York: H. Holt and Company). The quote comes from pages 73-74, but Rydberg gives no source for his quote in the writings of Aquinas. Here’s the full quote:
“It is,” says Thomas Aquinas, “a dogma of faith that the demons can produce wind, storms, and rain of fire from heaven. The atmosphere is a battle-field between angels and devils. The latter work the constant injury of man, the former his melioration; and the consequence is that changeableness of weather which threatens to frustrate the hopes of husbandry. And when Lucifer is able to bestow even upon man—on sorcerers and wizards—the power to destroy the fields, the vineyards and dwellings of man by rain, hail and lightning, is it to be wondered at if the Church, which is man’s protection against the devil, and whose especial calling it is to fight him, should in this sphere also be his counterpoise, and should seem from the treasury of its divine power, means adequate to frustrate his atmospheric mischiefs? To these means belong the church bells, provided they have been duly consecrated and baptized. The aspiring steeples around which cluster the low dwellings of men, are to be likened, when the bells in them are ringing, to the hen spreading its protecting wings over its chickens; for the tones of the consecrated metal repel the demons and avert storm and lightning” (“Vivos voco, mortuos plango, SULPHURA FRANGO,” a common inscription on church bells).
This quote was gleefully reproduced by Andrew Dickson White in chapter 11 of his epic work, History of the Warfare of Science and Religion in Christendom (scroll down to footnote 243). White adds that he got his citation from Rydberg but provides no further details.
So I have to ask: why does John Loftus uncritically accept the authenticity of this quote from Aquinas?
(3) Aquinas believed storms to be normally of natural origin. Here’s what he wrote in his Commentary on Job (chapter 37 – Hymn to Yahweh), when discussing the speech of Eliud to Job, which treats of natural phenomena and God’s Providence:
On this subject one must consider that the South winds produce the rains and storms. North winds cause cold air. Southern winds come to us from the direction of the South Pole, which is unknown to us, because it is sunk down beneath our horizon by the same distance as the North Pole is elevated above our horizon, and so he [Eliud] says, “From the lower part, storms will arise,” as if to say: A storm comes to us by a wind which proceeds from the part of heaven which is always extended down under our horizon, and this wind is called the South Wind. As to the North Wind he says, “and the cold wind comes from the Arctic.”
On the other hand, Aquinas believed that demons could cause storms, if permitted to do so by God, for in the same work, at the end of his commentary on Chapter 1 (The Third Lesson: The Trial), he argues that angels and demons alike are capable of moving bodies (including the winds), simply by the force of their will:
Consider that since all this aforementioned adversity [the trials of Job – VJT] comes from Satan, it is necessary to confess that with God’s permission demons can bring about turbulence in the air, can stir up the winds and can make fire fall from heaven. For although corporeal matter obeys only the nod of God the Creator for the reception of forms, and does not obey the nod of either the good or the wicked angels, corporeal nature is still born to obey spiritual nature as far as local movement is concerned. Evidence of this appears in men, for the members of the body are moved at the mere command of the will to pursue the act desired by the will. Whatever then can be done only with local motion, can be done by not only the good but also the wicked angels from their natural power, unless prohibited by divine power. The winds the rains and other like disturbances in the atmosphere come about only from the motion of the vapors released from the earth and the water. Thus the natural power of a demon is sufficient to procure these things. However, sometimes they are prohibited from this by divine power so that they are not permitted to do everything which they can do naturally. Nor is this contrary to what is said in Jeremiah, “Are there any among the false gods of the nations which can give rain?” (14:22) For it is one thing that the rain takes place by natural cause and this is the office of God alone who orders natural causes to this; it is another thing to use artificially those natural causes ordered by God to rain to produce rain or wind sometimes in an almost extraordinary way.
Aquinas also believed that the demons were excellent weather forecasters. As he explains in his Summa Contra Gentiles, Book III, chapter 154, paragraph 14, demons, being highly intelligent spirits, are very good at “reading the signs” hidden in natural phenomena:
Of course, among natural causes, the highest and farthest removed from our knowledge are the powers of ,the celestial bodies. That these are known to the spirits under discussion, in accord with what is proper to their nature, is evident from earlier explanations. Therefore, since all lower bodies are controlled through the powers and motions of the higher bodies, these spirits are far more able than any astronomer to foretell future winds and storms, changing conditions of the atmosphere, and other such things which occur in the changing of lower bodies as a result of the motion of the higher bodies.
However, the foregoing argument assumes that storms ordinarily have an entirely natural origin, which would not be the case if they were visitations sent by God. Thus the above quote refutes the atheist canard that in the Middle Ages, people believed that storms came from either God or the Devil.
(4) Apparently, St. Thomas Aquinas had a lifelong fear of thunderstorms – and with good reason, as the following excerpt from his biography in “Lives of the Saints” (John J. Crawley & Co., Inc.) reveals:
While Thomas was still a child, his little sister, who slept in the same room with him and their nurse, was instantly killed one night by a bolt of lightning. This shocking experience caused Thomas to be extremely nervous during thunderstorms all his life long, and while a storm raged he often took refuge in a church. After his death, there arose a popular devotion to him as a protector from thunderstorms and sudden death.
(5) Did educated people in the Middle Ages really believe that lightning was caused by the wrath of God? The answer is a firm “No.” According to the article on “Meteorology” in Medieval Science, Technology, and Medicine: An Encyclopedia, edited by Thomas F. Glick, Steven John Livesey and Faith Wallis (Routledge: New York and London, 2005), medieval people favored naturalistic explanations for bad weather:
In general, Aristotelian concepts were prominent in medieval writings on meteorology, although they were frequently adapted, altered, and transformed. In both antiquity and the Middle Ages, naturalistic explanations for the weather were favored. As a result, the idea that lightning or thunder had Divine origins was widely rejected or ignored.
(6) It is, however, true that bells were once believed to drive away storms, as the article by Fr. Herbert Thurston S.J. on Bells in The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907) acknowledges:
Some rude lines quoted in the gloss of the “Corpus Juris”, and often found in inscriptions, describe the principal functions of a bell (cf. Longfellow, The Golden Legend):
Laudo Deum verum plebem voco congrego clerum
Defunctos ploro, nimbum fugo, festa decoro.
(I praise the true God, I call the people, I assemble the clergy;
I bewail the dead, I dispense storm clouds, I do honour to feasts.)
Funera plango fulmina frango sabbata pango
Excito lentos dissipo ventos paco cruentos
(At obsequies I mourn, the thunderbolts I scatter, I ring in the sabbaths;
I hustle the sluggards, I drive away storms, I proclaim peace after bloodshed.)
But as Dr. James Hannam points out above, even this belief was criticized in the seventeenth century by no less an authority than Cardinal Bellarmine, a leading Thomistic philosopher and a Doctor of the Church.
(7) In Chapter 11 of his work, History of the Warfare of Science and Religion in Christendom, Andrew Dickson White chides the Church for waiting over ten years to install the lightning rods invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1749 (and developed for household use in 1753) in European churches: apparently, St Mark’s cathedral in Venice didn’t install them until 1766. But if we compare this with electronic television, which was first invented in the U.S. by Philo Farnsworth in 1927 and not adopted in Italy until 1939 (fourteen years later), the delay in adopting the innovation appears quite normal.
(8) Atheists are also fond of citing an alleged sermon by Rev. Thomas Prince in 1755, in which he supposedly declares that recent earthquakes in Boston are a punishment from God for that city’s installation of lightning rods. At least, that’s how Al Seckel and John Edwards portray it in their 1984 essay, Franklin’s Unholy Lightning Rod:
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.”
…A typical case was the tower of St. Mark’s in Venice. In spite of the angel at its summit, the bells consecrated to ward off devils and witches in the air, the holy relics in the church below, and the Processions in the adjacent square, the tower was frequently damaged or destroyed by lightning. It was not until 1766 that a lightning rod was placed upon it – and the tower has never been struck since.
I did some digging around, and I happened to come across a series of letters by Rev. Thomas Prince, in which he explains his views on lightning rods:
P.S. [Postscript] The more Points of Iron [lightning rods] are erected round the Earth, to draw the Electrical Substance out of the Air; the more the Earth must needs be charged with it. And therefore it seems to be worthy of Consideration, whether any Part of the Earth being fuller of the terrible Substance, may not be more exposed to
more shocking Earthquakes. In Boston are more erected than any where else in New England; and Boston seems to be more dreadfully shaken. O! there is no getting out of the mighty Hand of GOD!…
(Appendix Concerning the Operation of GOD in Earthquakes by Means of the Electrical Substance, 5 December 1755.)
In the meanwhile ⎯ As to my Postscript about the Points ⎯ As I never was against erecting them with a due Submission to the sovereign Will and Power and Government of GOD in Nature, in humble Hopes of greater Safety, and with a becoming Trust in Him, and not in them; I am of the same Mind still. And tho’ for want of Time for further Consideration, I am yet uncertain about their Influence in Earthquakes, the great Thing I would now inculcate is ⎯ That everyone would consider seriously the mighty Power of GOD acting in this terrible Substance, and carefully guard against a vain and dangerous Security in them: Least, in some way or other . . . the offended Deity make that in which we trust for Safety to be the very Means of our Destruction in a Moment.
(Letter to the Boston Gazette, 26 January 1756.)
Two points should be noted here. First, Rev. Prince expressly declares that he has no theological objections to the installation of lightning rods (or “points”), provided it is done prayerfully and with trust in God. Second, Prince expressed genuine concerns regarding the possibility that diverting electricity to the ground might trigger earthquakes. In other words, his opposition was scientific: he thought that messing with Nature was unwise, as it might lead to even worse problems than the ones which people were trying to solve. (In this respect, he sounds a lot like modern-day environmentalists, who oppose the introduction of genetically modified organisms, because of fears about their long-term consequences for human health.) For these reasons, Prince counselled against reliance on a new technology to keep people safe from atmospheric electricity.
Rev. Prince’s sparring partner, in a very lively exchange of views, was Professor John Winthrop, who mocked Prince’s belief that lightning rods, by diverting electricity to the ground, might cause earthquakes. Such foolish concerns, argued Winthrop, would only “discourage the use of the iron-points [lightning rods], which were erecting in Boston and elsewhere; and which, by the blessing of GOD, might be a means of preventing many of those mischievous and sorrowful accidents, which we have so often seen to follow upon thunderstorms.” The real reason why the effects of recent earthquakes were so much worse around Boston was because its houses were made of brick, rather than wood, and brick tends to shatter very easily in an earthquake, argued Winthrop.
(APPENDIX Concerning the Operation of Electrical Substance in EARTHQUAKES; and the Effects of Iron Points, 20 December 1755.)
What is worth noting about this exchange is that neither of the protagonists had any religious objections to the installation of lightning rods per se. The only question was whether they were safe – and that’s a scientific question, not a religious one.
Seckel and Edwards also make the following claim in their 1984 essay:
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.
However, Jessica Riskin mentions no such religious motives in her essay, “The Lawyer and the Lightning Rod,” (Science in Context, vol. 12, pp. 61-99, April 1999). Here’s how Riskin summarizes the case in her abstract:
Robespierre … persuasively resolved the crucial problem, namely, the proper relations of scientific to legal authority. He exploited the empiricist dogma common to contemporary physics and jurisprudence to argue that judges need not defer to scientific experts, but must only consider the facts, which required no expertise.
Nothing here about religion.
Finally, Dr. Andrew Dickson White makes the following citation in footnote 262 of chapter 11 of his great work, A History of the Warfare of Science and Theology in Christendom: “For reluctance in England to protect churches with Franklin’s rods, see Priestley, History of Electricity, London, 1775, vol. i, pp. 407, 465 et seq.” Well, here it is, and I can’t find anything on those pages about religious objections to the installation of lightning rods.
I conclude that there is no good evidence that either the Christian Church or the Christian clergy opposed the installation of lightning rods, once they were invented. John Loftus should issue a retraction.