Franklin's Unholy Lightning Rod

Written by Al Seckel and John Edwards, 1984

It is well-known that the Catholic and Protestant churches opposed the scientific theories of Galileo and Copernicus, but did you know they also opposed Benjamin Franklin's lightning rod ?

Biblical Meteorology

For centuries, Protestant and Catholic churches, basing their teachings on various texts in the Bible, taught that the air was filled with devils, demons and witches. The great Christian scholar St. Augustine held this belief to be beyond controversy.

St. Thomas Aquinas stated in his Summa Theologica, "Rain and winds, and whatsoever occurs by local impulse alone, can be caused by demons. It is a dogma of faith that the demons can produce winds, storms, and rain of fire from heaven."

Martin Luther asserted that the winds themselves are good or evil spirits. He declared that a stone thrown into a certain pond in his native city would cause a dreadful storm because of the devils kept prisoners there.

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. Lengthy rites were said for the consecration of bells, and priests prayed that their sound might "temper the destruction of hail and cyclones and the force of tempests and lightning; check hostile thunders and great winds; and cast down the spirits of storms and the powers of the air."

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.

One eyewitness to the damaging effects of lightning recorded, "Little by little we took in what happened. A bolt of lightning had struck the tower, partly melting the bell and electrocuting the priest; afterwards, continuing, it had shattered a great part of the ceiling, had passed behind the mistress, whom it deprived of sensibility, and after destroying a picture of the Savior hanging upon the wall, had disappeared through the floor . . ."

Peter Ahlwardts, the author of Reasonable and Theological Considerations about Thunder and Lightning (1745), accordingly advised his readers to seek refuge from storms anywhere except in or around a church. Had not lightning struck only the churches ringing bells during the terrific storm in lower Brittany on Good Friday, 1718?

In 1786, the Parliament of Paris finally signed an edict "to make the custom of ringing church bells during storms illegal on account of the many deaths it caused to those pulling the ropes."

The Heretical Rod

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.

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.

Had the ecclesiastics of the Church of San Nazaro in Brecia given in to repeated urgings to install a lightning rod, they might have averted a terrible catastrophe. The Republic of Venice had stored in the vaults of this church several thousand pounds of gunpowder. In 1767, 17 years after Franklin's discovery, no rod having been placed on the church, it was struck by lightning and the gunpowder exploded. One-sixth of the city was destroyed and over 3,000 lives were lost because the priests refused to install the "heretical rod."

The Rod Spared

Such examples as these, in all parts of Europe, had their effect. The ecclesiastical formulas for preventing storms and consecrating bells to protect against lightning and tempests were still practiced in the Churches, but the lightning rod carried the day. Christian Churches were finally obliged to confess its 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. "


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