Unholy Lightning Rod
Written by Al Seckel and John Edwards, 1984
We thought the readers
of the ESD Journal would enjoy reading this treatise by Al
Seckel and John Edwards which was written in 1984 about the
times and tribulations of the invention of the lightning rod.
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
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
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
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
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. "