The wonder of lightning has captivated and intrigued humans throughout history, often sparking mythological interpretations (eg Thor is the Norse god of thunder). These interpretations occurred long before science could answer some of the questions that kept humans in awe. Even in more traditional religions, thunder and lightning have spiritual connotations.  In Judaism, it’s customary to recite the blessing, בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ אֱלֹקֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁכֹּחוֹ וּגְבוּרָתוֹ מָלֵא עוֹלָם (Blessed are You, Hashem, King of the universe Whose power and might fill the world) upon seeing a lightning strike. In Islam, the Quran states, “Do you not see that Allah drives clouds? Then He brings them together; then He makes them into a mass, and you see the rain emerge from within it. And He sends down from the sky, mountains [of clouds] within which is hail, and He strikes with it who He wills and averts it from who He wills. The flash of its lightning almost takes away the eyesight.” Lightning also strikes within the religions of Hindu and Shinto, plus traditional religions of the African Bantu tribes and other religions of the world.

In Medieval Europe, many churches that were on hills above the town and would burn to the ground when lightning struck. The clergy began to fear lightning strikes. They inscribed in church bells, for a time, the phrase “Fulgura Frango,” meaning “I break up lightning flashes.” They believed that ringing church bells could ward off lightning strikes. Others thought the pealing bells would somehow change the air’s flow, breaking the lightning’s path toward the church tower. In France, between 1753 and 1786, lightning strikes killed 103 bell ringers during thunderstorms. Dispelling these myths was a massive undertaking and well into the 18th Century, people referred to all electrical phenomenon as “electric magic.”  Even today, when lightning strikes, it is referred to as an “act of god.” 

In 1747, at the age of 41, Benjamin Franklin was mostly retired from his successful printing business and set about to quench his myriad curiosities, foremost of which was the nature of electricity. He quickly became engrossed in experiment, doing everything from devising a basic battery to killing a turkey with an electric shock, noting that the meat was “uncommonly tender” compared to that of a conventionally slaughtered turkey. But all of these inventions are overshadowed by the lightning rod, then called the ‘Franklin rod’, a pointed iron pole affixed to the top of buildings in order to direct the energy from a lightning strike to the ground rather than to the structure itself. Despite its effectiveness at safeguarding property and life from damage during storms, however, some religious leaders objected that Franklin was attempting to interfere with one of God’s most effective methods of punishing sinners.   Ever the pragmatist, when these religious zealots objected, Franklin quipped “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.” 

From the time of Socrates to the present, many people have sought to use religious power and authority to suppress what are known today as the basic freedoms and basic human rights. The motivations of religious authorities, from ancient times to the present, to engage in these suppressions, belong far more in the realm of the struggle for political hegemony and the control of material resources than any theological imperative.  As Lord Acton remarked in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

In Socrates time, the existential threat to religion was reason, in Franklin’s it was science, today its human rights and individual choice.  Today’s antivaxxers are no different from the “religious purists” who would have people’s houses burn when they could have been saved by a simple lightning rod.  Fortunately, we have both Freedom of Religion and Freedom from Religion in America.  We should be certain we never lose these rights, no matter how compelling the arguments for their dissolution become.  I am all for supporting anyone’s right to express their religious doctrines ON THEMSELVES but not in support of allowing them to force these doctrines onto others.  If you are opposed to abortion, fine – don’t have one; if you don’t think alternative gender is a thing, fine but don’t demand that everyone else conform to your views; if you are stupid enough to think lightning is the wrath of god, by all means, take hold of a tall pole and stand on a mountain during a thunderstorm; but don’t impose these backward ideas on everyone else.

Published by Michael Carver

My goal is to bring history alive through interactive portrayal of ordinary American life in the late 18th Century (1750—1799) My persona are: Journeyman Brewer; Cordwainer (leather tradesman but not cobbler), Statesman and Orator; Chandler (candle and soap maker); Gentleman Scientist; and, Soldier in either the British Regular Army, the Centennial Army, or one of the various Militia. Let me help you experience history 1st hand!

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