THE popular beliefs of classic antiquity regarding storms, thunder, and lightning, took shape in myths representing Vulcan as forging thunderbolts, Jupiter as flinging them at his enemies, AEolus intrusting the winds in a bag to AEneas, and the like. An attempt at their further theological development is seen in the Pythagorean statement that lightnings are intended to terrify the damned in Tartarus.

But at a very early period we see the beginning of a scientific view. In Greece, the Ionic philosophers held that such phenomena are obedient to law. Plato, Aristotle, and many lesser lights, attempted to account for them on natural grounds; and their explanations, though crude, were based upon observation and thought. In Rome, Lucretius, Seneca, Pliny, and others, inadequate as their statements were, implanted at least the germs of a science. But, as the Christian Church rose to power, this evolution was checked; the new leaders of thought found, in the Scriptures recognized by them as sacred, the basis for a new view, or rather for a modification of the old view.

This ending of a scientific evolution based upon observation and reason, and this beginning of a sacred science based upon the letter of Scripture and on theology, are seen in the utterances of various fathers in the early Church. As to the general features of this new development, Tertullian held that sundry passages of Scripture prove lightning identical with hell-fire; and this idea was transmitted from generation to generation of later churchmen, who found an especial support of Tertullian's view in the sulphurous smell experienced during thunderstorms. St. Hilary thought the firmament very much lower than the heavens, and that it was created not only for the support of the upper waters, but also for the tempering of our atmosphere.[324] St. Ambrose held that thunder is caused by the winds breaking through the solid firmament, and cited from the prophet Amos the sublime passage regarding "Him that establisheth the thunders."[324b] He shows, indeed, some conception of the true source of rain; but his whole reasoning is limited by various scriptural texts. He lays great stress upon the firmament as a solid outer shell of the universe: the heavens he holds to be not far outside this outer shell, and argues regarding their character from St. Paul's Epistle to the Corinthians and from the one hundred and forty-eighth Psalm. As to "the waters which are above the firmament," he takes up the objection of those who hold that, this outside of the universe being spherical, the waters must slide off it, especially if the firmament revolves; and he points out that it is by no means certain that the _outside_ of the firmament _is_ spherical, and insists that, if it does revolve, the water is just what is needed to lubricate and cool its axis.

St. Jerome held that God at the Creation, having spread out the firmament between heaven and earth, and having separated the upper waters from the lower, caused the upper waters to be frozen into ice, in order to keep all in place. A proof of this view Jerome found in the words of Ezekiel regarding "the crystal stretched above the cherubim."[324c]

The germinal principle in accordance with which all these theories were evolved was most clearly proclaimed to the world by St. Augustine in his famous utterance: "Nothing is to be accepted save on the authority of Scripture, since greater is that authority than all the powers of the human mind."[325] No treatise was safe thereafter which did not breathe the spirit and conform to the letter of this maxim. Unfortunately, what was generally understood by the "authority of Scripture" was the tyranny of sacred books imperfectly transcribed, viewed through distorting superstitions, and frequently interpreted by party spirit.

Following this precept of St. Augustine there were developed, in every field, theological views of science which have never led to a single truth--which, without exception, have forced mankind away from the truth, and have caused Christendom to stumble for centuries into abysses of error and sorrow. In meteorology, as in every other science with which he dealt, Augustine based everything upon the letter of the sacred text; and it is characteristic of the result that this man, so great when untrammelled, thought it his duty to guard especially the whole theory of the "waters above the heavens."

In the sixth century this theological reasoning was still further developed, as we have seen, by Cosmas Indicopleustes. Finding a sanction for the old Egyptian theory of the universe in the ninth chapter of Hebrews, he insisted that the earth is a flat parallelogram, and that from its outer edges rise immense walls supporting the firmament; then, throwing together the reference to the firmament in Genesis and the outburst of poetry in the Psalms regarding the "waters that be above the heavens," he insisted that over the terrestrial universe are solid arches bearing a vault supporting a vast cistern "containing the waters"; finally, taking from Genesis the expression regarding the "windows of heaven," he insisted that these windows are opened and closed by the angels whenever the Almighty wishes to send rain upon the earth or to withhold it.

This was accepted by the universal Church as a vast contribution to thought; for several centuries it was the orthodox doctrine, and various leaders in theology devoted themselves to developing and supplementing it.

About the beginning of the seventh century, Isidore, Bishop of Seville, was the ablest prelate in Christendom, and was showing those great qualities which led to his enrolment among the saints of the Church. His theological view of science marks an epoch. As to the "waters above the firmament," Isidore contends that they must be lower than, the uppermost heaven, though higher than the lower heaven, because in the one hundred and forty-eighth Psalm they are mentioned _after_ the heavenly bodies and the "heaven of heavens," but _before_ the terrestrial elements. As to their purpose, he hesitates between those who held that they were stored up there by the prescience of God for the destruction of the world at the Flood, as the words of Scripture that "the windows of heaven were opened" seemed to indicate, and those who held that they were kept there to moderate the heat of the heavenly bodies. As to the firmament, he is in doubt whether it envelops the earth "like an eggshell," or is merely spread over it "like a curtain"; for he holds that the passage in the one hundred and fourth Psalm may be used to support either view.

Having laid these scriptural foundations, Isidore shows considerable power of thought; indeed, at times, when he discusses the rainbow, rain, hail, snow, and frost, his theories are rational, and give evidence that, if he could have broken away from his adhesion to the letter of Scripture, he might have given a strong impulse to the evolution of a true science.[326]

About a century later appeared, at the other extremity of Europe, the second in the trio of theological men of science in the early Middle Ages--Bede the Venerable. The nucleus of his theory also is to be found in the accepted view of the "firmament" and of the "waters above the heavens," derived from Genesis. The firmament he holds to be spherical, and of a nature subtile and fiery; the upper heavens, he says, which contain the angels, God has tempered with ice, lest they inflame the lower elements. As to the waters placed above the firmament, lower than the spiritual heavens, but higher than all corporeal creatures, he says, "Some declare that they were stored there for the Deluge, but others, more correctly, that they are intended to temper the fire of the stars." He goes on with long discussions as to various elements and forces in Nature, and dwells at length upon the air, of which he says that the upper, serene air is over the heavens; while the lower, which is coarse, with humid exhalations, is sent off from the earth, and that in this are lightning, hail, Snow, ice, and tempests, finding proof of this in the one hundred and forty-eighth Psalm, where these are commanded to "praise the Lord from the earth."[327]

So great was Bede's authority, that nearly all the anonymous speculations of the next following centuries upon these subjects were eventually ascribed to him. In one of these spurious treatises an attempt is made to get new light upon the sources of the waters above the heavens, the main reliance being the sheet containing the animals let down from heaven, in the vision of St. Peter. Another of these treatises is still more curious, for it endeavours to account for earthquakes and tides by means of the leviathan mentioned in Scripture. This characteristic passage runs as follows: "Some say that the earth contains the animal leviathan, and that he holds his tail after a fashion of his own, so that it is sometimes scorched by the sun, whereupon he strives to get hold of the sun, and so the earth is shaken by the motion of his indignation; he drinks in also, at times, such huge masses of the waves that when he belches them forth all the seas feel their effect." And this theological theory of the tides, as caused by the alternate suction and belching of leviathan, went far and wide.[327]

In the writings thus covered with the name of Bede there is much showing a scientific spirit, which might have come to something of permanent value had it not been hampered by the supposed necessity of conforming to the letter of Scripture. It is as startling as it is refreshing to hear one of these medieval theorists burst out as follows against those who are content to explain everything by the power of God: "What is more pitiable than to say that a thing _is_, because God is able to do it, and not to show any reason why it is so, nor any purpose for which it is so; just as if God did everything that he is able to do! You talk like one who says that God is able to make a calf out of a log. But _did_ he ever do it? Either, then, show a reason why a thing is so, or a purpose wherefore it is so, or else cease to declare it so."[328]

The most permanent contribution of Bede to scientific thought in this field was his revival of the view that the firmament is made of ice; and he supported this from the words in the twenty-sixth chapter of Job, "He bindeth up the waters in his thick cloud, and the cloud is not rent under them."

About the beginning of the ninth century appeared the third in that triumvirate of churchmen who were the oracles of sacred science throughout the early Middle Ages--Rabanus Maurus, Abbot of Fulda and Archbishop of Mayence. Starting, like all his predecessors, from the first chapter of Genesis, borrowing here and there from the ancient philosophers, and excluding everything that could conflict with the letter of Scripture, he follows, in his work upon the universe, his two predecessors, Isidore and Bede, developing especially St. Jerome's theory, drawn from Ezekiel, that the firmament is strong enough to hold up the "waters above the heavens," because it is made of ice.

For centuries the authority of these three great teachers was unquestioned, and in countless manuals and catechisms their doctrine was translated and diluted for the common mind. But about the second quarter of the twelfth century a priest, Honorius of Autun, produced several treatises which show that thought on this subject had made some little progress. He explained the rain rationally, and mainly in the modern manner; with the thunder he is less successful, but insists that the thunderbolt "is not stone, as some assert." His thinking is vigorous and independent. Had theorists such as he been many, a new science could have been rapidly evolved, but the theological current was too strong.[329]

The strength of this current which overwhelmed the thought of Honorius is seen again in the work of the Dominican monk, John of San Geminiano, who in the thirteenth century gave forth his _Summa de Exemplis_ for the use of preachers in his order. Of its thousand pages, over two hundred are devoted to illustrations drawn from the heavens and the elements. A characteristic specimen is his explanation of the Psalmist's phrase, "The arrows of the thunder." These, he tells us, are forged out of a dry vapour rising from the earth and kindled by the heat of the upper air, which then, coming into contact with a cloud just turning into rain, "is conglutinated like flour into dough," but, being too hot to be extinguished, its particles become merely sharpened at the lower end, and so blazing arrows, cleaving and burning everything they touch.[329b]

But far more important, in the thirteenth century, was the fact that the most eminent scientific authority of that age, Albert the Great, Bishop of Ratisbon, attempted to reconcile the speculations of Aristotle with theological views derived from the fathers. In one very important respect he improved upon the meteorological views of his great master. The thunderbolt, he says, is no mere fire, but the product of black clouds containing much mud, which, when it is baked by the intense heat, forms a fiery black or red stone that falls from the sky, tearing beams and crushing walls in its course: such he has seen with his own eyes.[330]

The monkish encyclopedists of the later Middle Ages added little to these theories. As we glance over the pages of Vincent of Beauvais, the monk Bartholomew, and William of Conches, we note only a growing deference to the authority of Aristotle as supplementing that of Isidore and Bede and explaining sacred Scripture. Aristotle is treated like a Church father, but extreme care is taken not to go beyond the great maxim of St. Augustine; then, little by little, Bede and Isidore fall into the background, Aristotle fills the whole horizon, and his utterances are second in sacredness only to the text of Holy Writ.

A curious illustration of the difficulties these medieval scholars had to meet in reconciling the scientific theories of Aristotle with the letter of the Bible is seen in the case of the rainbow. It is to the honour of Aristotle that his conclusions regarding the rainbow, though slightly erroneous, were based upon careful observation and evolved by reasoning alone; but his Christian commentators, while anxious to follow him, had to bear in mind the scriptural statement that God had created the rainbow as a sign to Noah that there should never again be a Flood on the earth. Even so bold a thinker as Cardinal d'Ailly, whose speculations as to the geography of the earth did so much afterward in stimulating Columbus, faltered before this statement, acknowledging that God alone could explain it; but suggested that possibly never before the Deluge had a cloud been suffered to take such a position toward the sun as to cause a rainbow.

The learned cardinal was also constrained to believe that certain stars and constellations have something to do in causing the rain, since these would best explain Noah's foreknowledge of the Deluge. In connection with this scriptural doctrine of winds came a scriptural doctrine of earthquakes: they were believed to be caused by winds issuing from the earth, and this view was based upon the passage in the one hundred and thirty-fifth Psalm, "He bringeth the wind out of his treasuries."[331]

Such were the main typical attempts during nearly fourteen centuries to build up under theological guidance and within scriptural limitations a sacred science of meteorology. But these theories were mainly evolved in the effort to establish a basis and general theory of phenomena: it still remained to account for special manifestations, and here came a twofold development of theological thought.

On one hand, these phenomena were attributed to the Almighty, and, on the other, to Satan. As to the first of these theories, we constantly find the Divine wrath mentioned by the earlier fathers as the cause of lightning, hailstorms, hurricanes, and the like.

In the early days of Christianity we see a curious struggle between pagan and Christian belief upon this point. Near the close of the second century the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, in his effort to save the empire, fought a hotly contested battle with the Quadi, in what is now Hungary. While the issue of this great battle was yet doubtful there came suddenly a blinding storm beating into the faces of the Quadi, and this gave the Roman troops the advantage, enabling Marcus Aurelius to win a decisive victory. Votaries of each of the great religions claimed that this storm was caused by the object of their own adoration. The pagans insisted that Jupiter had sent the storm in obedience to their prayers, and on the Antonine Column at Rome we may still see the figure of Olympian Jove casting his thunderbolts and pouring a storm of rain from the open heavens against the Quadi. On the other hand, the Christians insisted that the storm had been sent by Jehovah in obedience to _their_ prayers; and Tertullian, Eusebius, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Jerome were among those who insisted upon this meteorological miracle; the first two, indeed, in the fervour of their arguments for its reality, allowing themselves to be carried considerably beyond exact historical truth.[332]

As time went on, the fathers developed this view more and more from various texts in the Jewish and Christian sacred books, substituting for Jupiter flinging his thunderbolts the Almighty wrapped in thunder and sending forth his lightnings. Through the Middle Ages this was fostered until it came to be accepted as a mere truism, entering into all medieval thinking, and was still further developed by an attempt to specify the particular sins which were thus punished. Thus even the rational Florentine historian Villani ascribed floods and fires to the "too great pride of the city of Florence and the ingratitude of the citizens toward God," which, "of course," says a recent historian, "meant their insufficient attention to the ceremonies of religion."[332b]

In the thirteenth century the Cistercian monk, Cesarius of Heisterbach, popularized the doctrine in central Europe. His rich collection of anecdotes for the illustration of religious truths was the favourite recreative reading in the convents for three centuries, and exercised great influence over the thought of the later Middle Ages. In this work he relates several instances of the Divine use of lightning, both for rescue and for punishment. Thus he tells us how the steward (_cellerarius_) of his own monastery was saved from the clutch of a robber by a clap of thunder which, in answer to his prayer, burst suddenly from the sky and frightened the bandit from his purpose: how, in a Saxon theatre, twenty men were struck down, while a priest escaped, not because he was not a greater sinner than the rest, but because the thunderbolt had respect for his profession! It is Cesarius, too, who tells us the story of the priest of Treves, struck by lightning in his own church, whither he had gone to ring the bell against the storm, and whose sins were revealed by the course of the lightning, for it tore his clothes from him and consumed certain parts of his body, showing that the sins for which he was punished were vanity and unchastity.[333]

This mode of explaining the Divine interference more minutely is developed century after century, and we find both Catholics and Protestants assigning as causes of unpleasant meteorological phenomena whatever appears to them wicked or even unorthodox. Among the English Reformers, Tyndale quotes in this kind of argument the thirteenth chapter of I. Samuel, showing that, when God gave Israel a king, it thundered and rained. Archbishop Whitgift, Bishop Bale, and Bishop Pilkington insisted on the same view. In Protestant Germany, about the same period, Plieninger took a dislike to the new Gregorian calendar and published a volume of _Brief Reflections_, in which he insisted that the elements had given utterance to God's anger against it, calling attention to the fact that violent storms raged over almost all Germany during the very ten days which the Pope had taken out for the correction of the year, and that great floods began with the first days of the corrected year.[333b]

Early in the seventeenth century, Majoli, Bishop of Voltoraria, in southern Italy, produced his huge work _Dies Canicularii_, or Dog Days, which remained a favourite encyclopedia in Catholic lands for over a hundred years. Treating of thunder and lightning, he compares them to bombs against the wicked, and says that the thunderbolt is "an exhalation condensed and cooked into stone," and that "it is not to be doubted that, of all instruments of God's vengeance, the thunderbolt is the chief"; that by means of it Sennacherib and his army were consumed; that Luther was struck by lightning in his youth as a caution against departing from the Catholic faith; that blasphemy and Sabbath-breaking are the sins to which this punishment is especially assigned, and he cites the case of Dathan and Abiram. Fifty years later the Jesuit Stengel developed this line of thought still further in four thick quarto volumes on the judgments of God, adding an elaborate schedule for the use of preachers in the sermons of an entire year. Three chapters were devoted to thunder, lightning, and storms. That the author teaches the agency in these of diabolical powers goes without saying; but this can only act, he declares, by Divine permission, and the thunderbolt is always the finger of God, which rarely strikes a man save for his sins, and the nature of the special sin thus punished may be inferred from the bodily organs smitten. A few years later, in Protestant Swabia, Pastor Georg Nuber issued a volume of "weather-sermons," in which he discusses nearly every sort of elemental disturbances--storms, floods, droughts, lightning, and hail. These, he says, come direct from God for human sins, yet no doubt with discrimination, for there are five sins which God especially punishes with lightning and hail--namely, impenitence, incredulity, neglect of the repair of churches, fraud in the payment of tithes to the clergy, and oppression of subordinates, each of which points he supports with a mass of scriptural texts.[334]

This doctrine having become especially precious both to Catholics and to Protestants, there were issued handbooks of prayers against bad weather: among these was the _Spiritual Thunder and Storm Booklet_, produced in 1731 by a Protestant scholar, Stoltzlin, whose three or four hundred pages of prayer and song, "sighs for use when it lightens fearfully," and "cries of anguish when the hailstorm is drawing on," show a wonderful adaptability to all possible meteorological emergencies. The preface of this volume is contributed by Prof. Dilherr, pastor of the great church of St. Sebald at Nuremberg, who, in discussing the Divine purposes of storms, adds to the three usually assigned--namely, God's wish to manifest his power, to display his anger, and to drive sinners to repentance--a fourth, which, he says, is that God may show us "with what sort of a stormbell he will one day ring in the last judgment."

About the end of the first quarter of the eighteenth century we find, in Switzerland, even the eminent and rational Professor of Mathematics, Scheuchzer, publishing his _Physica Sacra_, with the Bible as a basis, and forced to admit that the elements, in the most literal sense, utter the voice of God. The same pressure was felt in New England. Typical are the sermons of Increase Mather on _The Voice of God in Stormy Winds_. He especially lays stress on the voice of God speaking to Job out of the whirlwind, and upon the text, "Stormy wind fulfilling his word." He declares, "When there are great tempests, the angels oftentimes have a hand therein,... yea, and sometimes evil angels." He gives several cases of blasphemers struck by lightning, and says, "Nothing can be more dangerous for mortals than to contemn dreadful providences, and, in particular, dreadful tempests."

His distinguished son, Cotton Mather, disentangled himself somewhat from the old view, as he had done in the interpretation of comets. In his _Christian Philosopher_, his _Thoughts for the Day of Rain_, and his _Sermon preached at the Time of the Late Storm_ (in 1723), he is evidently tending toward the modern view. Yet, from time to time, the older view has reasserted itself, and in France, as recently as the year 1870, we find the Bishop of Verdun ascribing the drought afflicting his diocese to the sin of Sabbath-breaking.[335]

This theory, which attributed injurious meteorological phenomnena mainly to the purposes of God, was a natural development, and comparatively harmless; but at a very early period there was evolved another theory, which, having been ripened into a doctrine, cost the earth dear indeed. Never, perhaps, in the modern world has there been a dogma more prolific of physical, mental, and moral agony throughout whole nations and during whole centuries. This theory, its development by theology, its fearful results to mankind, and its destruction by scientific observation and thought, will next be considered.


The content and opinions expressed on this Web page do not necessarily reflect the views of nor are they endorsed by the University of

The content and opinions expressed on this Web page do not necessarily reflect the views of nor are they endorsed by the University of Georgia or the University System of Georgia.