The Day Benjamin Franklin Caused an Earthquake

Posted on 2011/11/09

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Feature Image - The Day Ben Franklin Caused and Earthquake

In the early morning of November 18th 1755, eastern American felt the strongest earthquake the colonies had ever experienced. Witnesses reported it lasted for an uninterrupted 4 minutes. The earth cracked and walls fell. Chimneys collapsed and thousands of buildings were damaged.

And it was all Benjamin Franklin’s fault.

Well, that’s what Boston’s Rev. Thomas Prince claimed in a sermon following the quake. Prince maintained that Franklin’s invention of the lightning rod, and its implementation across the American colonies, was the cause of the earthquake. That, and god’s divine punishment.

He later incorporated his sermon into a reprint of his 1727 book “Earthquakes the Works of God”. Here are the salient passages:

“The more Points of Iron are erected round the Earth to draw the Electrical Substance out of the Air; the more the Earth must needs be charged with it (…)”

“In Boston are more erected than any where else in New England; and Boston seems to be more dreadfully shaken. Oh! there is no getting out of the mighty Hand of God! If we think to avoid it in the Air, we cannot in the Earth: Yea it may grow more fatal.”

Rev. Thomas Prince (1755 edition of the 1727 original) “Earthquakes the Works of God”

To grasp the relevance of these claims, it is necessary to understand the history of Christianity’s teachings on meteorology and morality. For hundreds of years, they believed many types of weather, lightning included, to be a divine punishment for sin.

This had two motivations. Firstly, there are Biblical references to lightning (for example, Job 28:26-28). Those supposing the Bible to be a high-fidelity historical record, noticed that it appears to be both God’s favorite device for dramatic emphasis, and his weapon of choice for implementing justice. Secondly, it was an ‘explanation’-an agency that caused lightning-in the absence of any better understanding.

This initial claim eventually required additional assumptions, as it gradually became apparent that seemingly good people were also struck by lightning. Even the most pious men and women would lose their lives to a bolt from the sky.

When the technological advances of the 1600s brought improved structural engineering, metallic roofs, gutters and bells, churches were often the first buildings to benefit from these improvements. As one of the most prosperous institutions in the land, Christian buildings were the tallest and most advanced. An unexpected consequence of these developments was a greater frequently with which these places of worship were struck by lightning. And the flock began to notice.

Perhaps God still has problem with tall buildings, a dislike he has presumably fostered since Babel.

In the absence of a better understanding as to why these buildings were struck more than others, a large strain was placed upon theologians of the day. The same strain anyone feels when they think it wise to pretend every new discovery fits their expectations. Reluctant to admit they might have been wrong, and withdraw their claims about lightning, ministers found other additional explanations to restore plausibility.

Churches were being struck by lightning, they said, not because they were sinful, but because they allowed sin to occur within their flocks. They were implicated though their inaction to prevent or punish the sins of others.

And so began a flourishing industry for the punishment of imaginary crimes. The witch trials across Massachusetts during 1692 to 1693 is likely, in part, to be a consequence of this type of thinking. Exorcisms and other pretend incantations escalated as the church tried to find distraction from the increasing obviousness of its ignorance.

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This style of thinking continued into the early 1700s, the time when Benjamin Frankin was born. While a young man, Franklin was very much aware of the destructive abilities of lightning, and the terrible fires it could cause. In 1736, he formed the first volunteer firefighting company in American. Later, in 1746, while conducting his electrical experiments, Franklin was able to create sparks of discharge so substantial, that their similarity to his experiences of lightning was evidently seen, and felt.

Franklin’s suggestion that lightning was an electric phenomenon can be likened to the more familiar work of Isaac Newton on gravitation. Newton showed the celestial and terrestrial gravitational force could be described by a single pattern, uniting these previously disparate observations. Franklin’s synthesis between celestial and terrestrial electricity was achieved not by way of mathematical equation, but by direct observational comparison. Celestial gravitation was only experienced as a series of dots in the sky, hence the need for geometric analysis. Lightning, however, was an dramatic interaction between the sky and the ground, enabling Franklin to make a more qualitative comparison.

By 1750, Franklin was experimenting with the discharge of sparks, with aim to protect buildings against lightning. He was able to demonstrate with a prototype that a metal rod extending from above a building, fixed into the earth, offered a way of preventing fires caused by lightning strikes. Deliberately choosing not to patent the device, his invention was quickly utilized across Europe and America, saving a substantial amount of property and many lives.

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To maintain that lightning was still a moral punishment became very difficult after Franklin’s work. If people could be protected against lightning, then either it is not divine punishment, or god is not all-powerful. The mortal Franklin has outwitted God, and everyone who erects a lightning rod has overpowered him.

Again, the church could admit that it was wrong regarding lightning and embrace Franklin’s invention as a gift from god. If they did take this course, they would be required to start with a great list of apologies for punishments exacted due to their misinterpretation of the weather.

It was a mistake the church was either not willing to admit, or too deluded to see. Hence Prince’s remarks. Only an minister could view a cataclysmic earthquake as a fortunate opportunity for rhetorical clarification.

Franklin had not overpowered god, but the punishment had become displaced, delayed and amplified in the form of an earthquake.  Instead of just those originally deemed punishable by lightning, the whole of Eastern America was being punished for allowing the use of lightning rods.

Prince’s claims were another example of the capacity for exceptional hubris in the church’s ministry. In addition, the church was unwilling to use the lightning rod on their buildings and discouraged others from doing so, causing many more needless deaths.

When Franklin heard of this, he responded by asking,  “[w]hy is it acceptable to build a roof to keep out the rain but blasphemy to place a rod upon the roof to keep out the lightning?”

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It is often thought that the advance of scientific understanding is the greatest trouble to theologians of this kind. This is not the case. They have a sufficiently plastic relationship with determinism and with god’s will so that they can be stretched around any of their declarations about the almighty.

Even if a scientific theory offers a description of a phenomena, they maintain that this does not pull it from the realm of god’s will. No, there is a difference between agency and description, we are told.

This brings our own free will, and the possibility of sin, into question. How could the whole universe operate under patterns designed for our punishment, yet we operate under free will that leads us to sin? However, subtle questions such as these are seldom asked.

What is even more troublesome to this type of religious thinking is not theoretical progress, but a technological advance. Once scientific inquiry has been actualized as a piece of technology, previous divine punishments can be prevented, bring God’s power in question.

The only way to answer this question, as Prince discovered, is to claim the punishment has been transfered to a presently uncontrollable phenomena. This includes parts of the universe that scientific investigation has provided an understanding, but we are yet to tame.

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You might think this style of rhetoric has mostly died away from Christian ministry. You’d be wrong.

This is what a senior Church of England official had to say about the floods that caused the deaths of 13 people in the UK during the summer of 2007:

“The sexual orientation regulations [which give greater rights to gays] are part of a general scene of permissiveness. We are in a situation where we are liable for God’s judgment, which is intended to call us to repentance.”

Rt. Rev. Graham Dow quoted in “Floods are judgment on society, say bishops” The Daily Telegraph July 1st 2007

And here is what a Southern Baptist pastor had to say in about the AIDS virus, a disease that kills 2 million people per year:

“AIDS is not just God’s punishment for homosexuals, it is God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals.”

Rev. Jerry Fawell http://www.milforddailynews.com/opinion/x1987843539

Clearly some still think it acceptable to use present day incapabilities as justification for the punishing of imaginary crimes or to launder hate under the guise of an imagined will of God.

There is an expression for the claim to see god’s divine hand in the realms of human ignorance. It is called the ‘god of the gaps’. This is subtly different. It is the claim that god exacts his punishments though the ever decreasing set phenomena that we are yet to control. A ruthless bloodthirsty God, yet one who also succumbs to human ingenuity.

What will be said when we eventually cure AIDs or prevent the weather’s ability to harm us? There will still be natural threats that we are yet restrain, and this is where the religious will harvest excuses for oppression and legitimize their claims to moral insight.

Anyone who supposes that morality and scientific inquiry are separate disciplines should read this as a cautionary fable.