Human Folly & the Paradox of Human Intelligence

The Problem with Lightning

Before science took over the role of explaining the Big Picture, it fell to the representatives of established religion to communicate God's Purpose and God's Requirements. There would, however, always be some phenomena that defied explanation. For those who dispensed certainties (who were usually aligned with the established authority) this deficiency in their knowledge could be extremely embarrassing. The history of the Church's explanations of the cause and purpose of lightning is a case in point.

For the ancients there was little doubt as to the cause of thunder and lightning. It was perfectly clear that these were an expression of divine displeasure. Mere mortals quailed when the likes of Jupiter or Thor hurled down their thunderbolts - there was little to be done other than to wait until their temper had subsided. But when the Christian Church took over responsibility for explaining and interpreting these hostile, and occasionally destructive, phenomena there was something of a division of theological opinion on the matter. There were those who felt that lightning, in common with such other devastating events as earthquakes and floods, were an expression of God's wrath, either to punish sinners or for other, equally good, but inexplicable reasons. But there were others who felt that such things were entirely the work of demons.

The Church had established, as early as the 2nd century, that all the older gods of the Classical and Near-Eastern worlds were, in fact, demons. So it was a simple matter to interpret their activities in this light. Tertullian, who could always be relied on to provide a definitive assertion, firmly identified lightning with hellfire (a notion that was supported by the 'sulphurous' smell experienced during thunderstorms), and since he was regarded as a 'Church Father', a founder of the Church, this notion became incorporated into official dogma. There was a further viewpoint that sought to combine the two streams of thought on this subject, which held that thunder and lightning were indeed the result of daemonic activity, but that God was using demons for his own greater purpose.

By the time of the Middle Ages, and with the building of magnificent new cathedrals throughout Christendom, theological elucidation on the subject had become rather more pressing, since God, or some more malignant agency (with or without His sanction), was in the habit of visiting unmistakable signs of displeasure on these monuments to His greater glory. It was all very mysterious. Those most obvious abodes of sin, taverns, bathhouses, brothels and other low dives, were seldom struck by lightning, but churches and cathedrals were - and with embarrassing frequency. What was God's intention in this? Why did he strike his own consecrated House, or even allow Satan to do so? Quite apart from the amusement that it offered to certain low types, there was always the danger that the lack of any convincing explanation of these events would undoubtedly encourage those unspeakable heretics who were forever prating on about the Church's greed, luxury and godlessness.

But to the Church's continuing discomfort they remained a mystery. Such records that have survived indicate that it was a relatively common event for a church to be struck by lightning. In fact many were struck repeatedly and often sustained such damage that their spires needed to be entirely rebuilt. St. Marks in Venice is a typical example. Its tower was badly shattered in 1388; in 1417, and again in 1489, its spire was completely destroyed. It was again seriously damaged in 1548, in 1565, and in 1653. In 1745 the tower, which had only recently been entirely rebuilt in brick and stone, was once again completely shattered. There was a similar pattern throughout Europe. Some cathedrals were hit so frequently that their congregations became afraid to use them.

Although the need was pressing, no theological explanation of these events could be generally agreed on. The weakness in the argument of those who favoured the Daemonic, as against the Divine, nature of lightning was, of course, its origination, which was clearly from the heavenly direction but as everyone knew only too well, Satan and his fiendish crew were ensconced in the lower regions. The theologians had their work cut out to explain this discrepancy, but they managed to come up with a doctrine of a diabolical 'power of the air', by which means certain demons were able to gain control of the airy element solely for the purpose of tormenting humanity. Surprisingly (and essentially by default), this curious doctrine became the Church's official explanation of lightning strikes - except, of course, in those cases in which an obvious sinner had been struck. This doctrine was sanctioned by successive Popes throughout the Middle Ages.

Once the demonic nature of these attacks had been determined it was clear that there was a need for some sort of defensive response. This usually took the form of a religious service, involving prayers and exorcisms, during thunderstorms, in order to counter the foul spirits gathering above. Occasionally a cathedrals statues and holy relics would be paraded through the streets - measures that met, one imagines, with varying degrees of success. Other methods included the lighting of huge foul-smelling bonfire (in order to smoke the demons out), and a sustained ringing of the cathedrals (consecrated) bells. By ringing bells during a thunderstorm it was hoped that malign influences might be driven away or at least that their fiery darts might be deflected. This was a very common practice. Unfortunately there were many reported cases of priests being struck by lightning in the very act of ringing the bells (and many more, one suspects, that were hushed up). Although these methods were practised in most parts of Europe for centuries there was always a minority of divines who frowned on such facile attempts to avoid God's wrath. In fact the propriety, or otherwise, of ringing church bells to counter demonic influence became a prolonged theological controversy on its own account.

In the post-Medieval period the doctrine of ariel demonic influence gradually gave way to an altogether more sinister explanation for unfavourable natural events, namely, that of a wilful collusion on the part of certain individuals with the forces of darkness, i.e. witchcraft. During the dreadful years of the European witch-craze of the 16th and 17th centuries, thousands of confessions of 'weather-working' were extracted from quite innocent women, under torture. The results of this appalling catalogue of persecution, which was not only sanctioned, but encouraged by the Church, served to confirm their own paranoid beliefs in the doctrine of satanic agency. It became a dangerous business indeed to cast any doubt on the pervasive power of demons. But in spite of all their efforts to extirpate these imagined malign influences, crops were still inexplicably blighted, unusual frosts and hailstones were just as likely to wreak havoc, and churches continued to be damaged by lightning during thunderstorms.

When the practice of torturing those accused of witchcraft was finally abandoned (as late as the early 18th century in some places) there were, of course, no more 'confessions' by the supposed Devil's assistants. The Church was then obliged to rethink its position on this matter. The leading theologians of the time, ready, as ever, to repair a doctrinal rent, began to pronounce what was essentially a holding stance - although thunder and lightning were usually caused by demons, these malign spirits were not invariably responsible (although even this concession was deeply resented by some of the more conservative clergy). However, by this time an entirely new explanation of the phenomena was beginning to emerge.

In 1752 an American, Benjamin Franklin, bravely flew a kite into a storm cloud and observed an electrical charge that issued from it. Further experiments lead him to devise 'rods' which, when attached to a building, would conduct any number of lightning strikes harmlessly to earth. His scheme to protect buildings by this means was very quickly taken up in his native America, and proved entirely successful. The device was soon being tried out in various parts of Europe and was found to be as effective in the Old World as it had been in the New. There seemed to be no doubt about it - buildings that were fitted with 'Franklin's Rod's' appeared to be quite immune to lightning-bolts. The age-old problem had been resolved - and the entire fabric of theological ‘explanations’ was exposed as mere fantasy.

Needless to say (and despite the possibility of its becoming a primary beneficiary of the new device) the Church was, at first, deeply suspicious. Initially, most religious authorities simply chose to ignore the invention. This stance was followed by a sort of rear-guard resistance in which lightning conductors were blamed, among other things, for causing earthquakes. The devastating Lisbon earthquake of 1755 was attributed by some clerics to the introduction of the 'rods', as was a contemporary earthquake in Massachusetts. But the obvious effectiveness of the device was such that there was a slow and begrudging acceptance by the ecclesiastical authorities. The doctrine of the demonic 'power of the air', like so many other medieval hangovers, was quietly forgotten about (q.f.a.), and lightning conductors began to be installed on Churches as a matter of course.