Lightning and Enlightenment - Ben Franklin and the Lightning Rod

Benjamin Franklin and Lightning

Christians used to believe that thunder storms and lightning bolts were directed by God to “discipline his servants and teach us important lessons,” or they were directed by Satan (“the Prince of the Power of the Air”) and his demons, or they were called forth by “witches” to “try and destroy God's holy sanctuaries and ministers.” Such “sacred” explanations were vouched for by leading Christian authorities. For instance, the Catholic theologian, Thomas Aquinas wrote, “It is a dogma of faith that demons can produce winds, storms, and rains of fire (lightning) from heaven.” While, Pope Gregory XIII advocated “exorcising the demons” who “do stir up the clouds.” The Protestant theologian, Martin Luther supported the superstition even more zealously, asserting at times his belief that the winds themselves are only good or evil spirits, and declaring that a stone thrown into a certain pond in his native region would cause a dreadful storm because of the devils kept prisoners there.

Numerous pious authors also testified how well the old “sacred” remedies succeeded in protecting churches and cathedrals from the ravages of lightning strikes and storms. Such “sacred” remedies included ringing church-bells and reciting special prayers. Hence, when Benjamin Franklin invented his “lightning rod” in 1752, most Christians were far from eager to place a “rod of iron” designed by an “arch-heretic” at the top of their churches near the holy cross of Christ. Neither did they desire to abandon the ancient Christian game of praising God (or blaming the devil), for lightning strikes and storms.

In America the earthquake of 1755 was widely ascribed, especially in Massachusetts, to Franklin's rod. The Rev. Thomas Prince, pastor of the Old South Church, published a sermon on the subject, and in the appendix expressed the opinion that the frequency of earthquakes may be due to the erection of “iron points invented by the sagacious Mr. Franklin.” He goes on to argue that “in Boston are more 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.”

Commemorative Postage Stamp
1752 Lightning Rod
On June 15, 1752, Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) discovers the electrical nature of lightning by flying a kite in a thunderstorm. The kite has a wire conductor, a key at the end of its wet twine kite string, and a silk insulator which Franklin keeps dry by standing in a doorway. He sends his friends in London a paper entitled “Experiments and Observations in Electricity Made at Philadelphia.” In September 1752, he equips his house with a lightning rod, connecting it to bells that ring when the rod is electrified. The lightning rod when placed at the apex of a barn, church steeple, or a house, conducts lightning harmlessly into the ground and prevents fire in electrical storms. In 1752, Franklin also founded the first American fire insurance company. The 1956 postage stamp honors the 250th anniversary of Franklin's birth. It shows an elder Franklin assisted by allegory of youth in his famous kite experiment.

Three years later, John Adams, speaking of a conversation with a Boston physician, says, “He began to go on about the presumption of erecting iron rods to draw the lightning from the clouds. He talked of presuming upon God, as Peter, attempted to walk upon the water, and of attempting to control the artillery of heaven.”

As late as 1770 many religious Americans still felt that, since thunder and lightning were tokens of the divine displeasure, it was impiety to prevent their doing their full work. It took a few decades for the devout to abandon their religious prejudices regarding the use of the lightning rod, but eventually it was demonstrated to all but the most dense that both the “vengeance of God” and the “Prince of the Power of the Air” were forced to retreat before the lightning-rod of a heretic.

- A. D. White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology & E.T.B.

Churches in Germany shunned Franklin's new invention for three decades, during which time some 400 church towers were damaged by lightning and 120 bell ringers killed. In one church a bolt of lightning struck the tower and melted the bell, electrocuted the priest, deprived a parishioner of her sensibilities and destroyed a painting of the Savior. Church towers, being the highest structures in a village, are commonly struck by lightning, while brothels and saloons next door escape untouched.
- William Deitz, Creation/Evolution Satiricon

It was long before the churches consented to be protected by the heretical tool. The tower of St. Mark's in Venice had at the time of Franklin's invention been struck again and again by lightning, sometimes with such disastrous effects that it had been almost destroyed. The Almighty, or alternatively the Powers of Darkness, seemed to have singled it out for special punishment, in spite of the angel that adorned its summit, the consecrated bells which were repeatedly rung to drive away the thunder, the holy relics in the cathedral nearby and the processions of the Virgin and the patron saint. The tower was struck again in two successive summers, whereupon the authorities succumbed and a lightning rod was erected. The edifice has never been damaged by lightning since, but God alone has received the thanks of a grateful people. In Austria the church of Rosenberg was struck so frequently and with such loss of life that the peasants feared to attend services. Three times the spire had to be rebuilt, until the devil was exorcised by an iron rod. Such was also the history of St. Bride's and St. Paul's in London, the cathedrals of Sienna and Strasburg and of other churches throughout Europe and America; they were protected only after it was evident that not to do so was to lay them open to repeated injury.
- Homer W. Smith, Man and His Gods (Boston: Little Brown and Co., 1952)

Lightning Rod in Action

The case which did the most to convert the Italian theologians to the scientific view of lightning and the use of the lightning rod was that of the church of San Nazaro, at Brescia. The Republic of Venice had stored in the vaults of this church over two hundred thousand pounds of gunpowder. In 1767, seventeen years after Franklin's discovery, no rod having been placed upon it, it was struck by lightning, the powder in the vaults was exploded, one sixth of the entire city destroyed, and over three thousand lives were lost.

Examples like that had their effect. The formulas for conjuring off storms, for consecrating bells to ward off lightning and tempests, and for putting to flight the powers of the air, were still allowed to stand in the liturgies; but the lightning-rod, the barometer, and the thermometer, carried the day.
- A. D. White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology & E.T.B.

Ben Franklin's life-saving invention, the lightning rod, was condemned by many Christians as an insult to Almighty God, or at least, to his aim. Because the Bible says God “sends forth lightnings...He covers His hands with the lightning. And commands it to strike the mark. Its noise declares His presence?Under the whole heaven He lets it loose, And His lightning to the ends of the earth... Whether for correction, or for His world, Or for loving kindness, He causes it to happen.”
[Job 36:27-33 & 37:1-13 & 38:35]

And Ben Franklin sang, “Nya, nya-nya, nya, nya. Can't hit me!”
- E.T.B.


Lighthouses are more helpful than churches. [I later discovered this quotation is spurious, but it’s likely that it came from a letter he wrote to his wife in July 1757, after he narrowly escaped a shipwreck off the British coast: “The bell ringing for church, we went thither immediately, and with hearts full of gratitude [for not having shipwrecked], returned sincere thanks to God for the mercies we had received. Were I a Roman Catholic, perhaps I should on this occasion vow to build a chapel to some saint; but as I am not, if I were to vow at all, it should be to build a light-house.”]

Original sin is as ridiculous as imputed righteousness.

As to Jesus, I have some doubt as to his divinity.

- Benjamin Franklin, quoted in Benjamin Franklin: His Wit, Wisdom, and Women by Seymour Stanton Block


  1. Benjamin Franklin pointed to a historical tendency among Christians to persecution:

    If we look back into history for the character of the present sects in Christianity, we shall find few that have not in their turns been persecutors, and complainers of persecution. The primitive Christians thought persecution extremely wrong in the Pagans, but practiced it on one another. The first Protestants of the Church of England blamed persecution in the Romish Church, but practiced it upon the Puritans. These found it wrong in the Bishops, but fell into the same practice themselves both here [England] and in New England.


  2. Is it true that the Church condemned the lightning rod of Franklin?
    No. All I say this is supported by the aforementioned historian Andrew Dickson White. There is no other reference or I can discover. James Hannam, a British expert on the history of science, has discovered a scholarly work on this myth. Namely a 1952 article by historian IB Cohen. White was right in saying that ring the bells was a popular form of "scare" thunder and lightning. But he knew it was foolhardy and the Church did not like the practice because he considered superstitious (in the seventeenth century, Cardinal Belarmino condemned).
    The real problems that provoked the invention of the lightning rod were essentially two. First, the operation of the arrester is not fully understood, and that physics was still little progress regarding the understanding of electrical phenomena. The new invention had to be grounded because otherwise what you did was attract lightning, with disastrous consequences. The ignorance on this point and consequent accidents contributed to the emergence of a certain mistrust of the lightning rod. For example, German physicist Wilhelm Richmann George died of shock while experimenting with a lightning rod for his invention. Jean-Antoine Nollet (1700-1770), French priest and scientist, opponent of Franklin, wrote a critique of lightning rods on the basis of this and other misunderstandings. Cohen acknowledges, however, that "their objections were based on scientific concerns."
    Secondly, it was very hard to convince ordinary people that the attraction of lightning to soil was harmless. On this point, Cohen notes that the "slowness in adopting the new invention did not come from the ecclesiastical ban or the dogma."
    What thought the clergy, then, about the lightning rod?
    The clergy gave enthusiastic support to the lightning rod. Among other reasons because his co-inventor was the Norbertine priest and monk Divisch Prokop. Prokop Diviš was a Czech scientist known. In 1720 he entered the Premonstratensian Monastery in Louka near Znojmo and was ordained priest. Since 1736 he was parish priest in Přímětice where in his free time conducted experiments, mainly with static electricity. Series excels inventions, especially his lightning rod which he called weather machine. Not only that: the priests Giuseppe Toaldo, the aforementioned Prokop Divisch and escolapio Battista Beccaria, among many other clerics; They gave special importance to the study of atmospheric electricity and the protection of buildings and houses against lightning and lightning arrester through, and vigorously advocated their use. Toaldo, devout Catholic priest, was the author of works such as "Della maniera di difendere gli edificii fulmine dal" (1772) and monographs as "Dei conduttori metallici to preservazione degli edifici fulmine dal" (1774) contributed greatly to discard prejudices against Franklin and Divisch invention. Thanks to their efforts arresters were placed in the Siena Cathedral and the Tower of San Marco in Venice and magazines and boats of the Venetian navy. Pope Benedict XIV himself was an enthusiastic supporter of the use of lightning rods.

    1. Theology in Christendom". Andrew Dickson White was with John William Draper's father alleged conflict between science and religion. These American intellectuals of the nineteenth century were the disseminators of false myths like the flat earth, the religious opposition to anesthesia during labor and smallpox vaccine ... De facto, the above fragments of the supposed papal exorcism of Gregory XIII repeat the same examples unverified to White.

    2. I am not sure that the Catholic Church every gave up believing in the effectiveness of bell ringing to ward off storms and lightning. I have been researching history books online and discovered the following (I didn't find any of this in White or Draper's works):

      Lightning could best be dispelled, it was said, by the ringing of church bells, preferably those engraved with Latin admonitions and "baptized" with water from the River Jordan. A literature of special prayers and exorcisms was developed, including language for the "baptizing" of bells that would scare thunder away. "Whenever this bell shall sound," promised one prayer of consecration, "it shall drive away the malign influences of the assailing spirits, the horror of their apparitions, the rush of whirlwinds, the stroke of lightning, the harm of thunder, the disasters of storms, and all the spirits of the tempests."

      Allied with such views was the idea that concussive energy from ringing large church bells naturally deterred lightning bursts. This was reflected in medieval bell-engravings such as "Fulgura Frango" ("I break up the lightning flashes") or "Ego sum qui disipo tonitrua" ("It is I who dissipate the thunders"). In the late seventeenth century Father Augustine de Angelis, rector of the Clementine College at Rome, wrote, "The surest remedy is the ringing of bells, because the sound. by agitation disperses the hot exaltations and dispels the thunder. But the moral effect is the more certain, because by the sound the faithful are stirred to pour forth prayers, by which they win from God the turning away of the thunderbolt."

      Pope Benedict XIV (a pope during the Enlightenment period) recommended the use of lightning rods shortly after they were proven effective, but the old practice of consecrating church bells and ringing them during thunderstorms continued. Franklin alluded to it:

      "Though for a thousand years past bells have been consecrated by priests of the Romish church, in expectation that the sound of such blessed bells would drive away those storms, and secure our buildings from the stroke of lightning; and during so long a period it has not been found by experience that places within the reach of such blessed sound are safer than other where it is never heard; but that on the contrary, the lightning seems to strike steeples of choice, and that at the very time the bells are ringing; yet still they continue to bless the new bells and jangle the old ones whenever it thunders."

      The custom was so ingrained that as late as 1824 four new bells baptized against lightning were raised into place at the Cathedral of Versailles, with government officials on hand to honor the event.

      Also, a broadsheet was put out under Pope Benedict XIV explained that "the figure of the adorable sign of the cross stamped on [Angus Dei] discs stops evil spirits and puts them to flight, clears clouds away, quiets whirlwinds, lightning, and tempests. Through their divine blessing, the disks protect against... pestilential or unhealthy air; they protect against storms at sea, floods, and fires."

    3. The baptism of bells is not the administering of the sacrament of baptism to an inanimate object, it's just blessing it.The person who told you this -- whether he knew it or not -- was quoting the infamous book "Roman Catholicism" by Lorraine Boettner. This book is still heavily quoted by fundamentalists(I know many translations in spanish and portuguese) , although Boettner himself is long dead. It's a pathetic pack of lies masquerading as history, giving the dates certain events allegedly occurred in Catholic history.

      You can read about the book in these two Catholic Answers articles:

    4. Fray Benito Jeronimo Feijoo in his "universal critical Theater", and in particular its fifth volume (1733), contained criticism of the bells in at least two of his speeches. He tried more radically theme cloudy. The power of the bells was discussed by the Benedictine from a set of French examples: You lightning strikes in Britain steeples, no less than on a Good Friday. Feijoo already appear in two points constantly repeated: the use of physical and especially the distinction of religion on two levels, the elite and the people. "The common people, whose religion is superstition extremely slippery," said the friar, explained these rays in the towers as punishment for having desecrated the own silence on Good Friday, instead of recognizing that "the sound of bells acted as cause physics in the fall of lightning. " It was a letter of 1781 fiscal Monsieur de Tréveray they realized what happened in Longeville on the feast of Pentecost, where despite the refusal of the clergy, the chimes had continued until lightning struck the steeple, killing at least 5 killed and 60 wounded. The story was again the contrast between the stubbornness of the peasants, led by "stubborn much", which insisted on ringing bells despite the refusal of the priest and his vicar who were, however, "sane men."

  3. Obviously you have not heard of the Archbishop and Catholic saint Agobard of Lyon; 1,200 years ago the Catholic bishop banished these superstitions among his parishioners. It is true that the ninth-century European peasants still blamed on wizards, witches and "tempestarios" the capacity to ruin the crops. Obviously this was a relic of superstition European paganism. The peasants were convinced that these wizards sent against storms fields, then collect and transport the fruits damaged ships sailing in the sky to a city in the clouds. In this magical place San Agobard Lyon (779-840) as Magonia referred in his book Against insulsam Vulgi opinionem of grandine et tonitruis (Against the foolish opinions of the masses about hail and thunder). San Agobard based on their biblical faith, nor believe in witches tempestarios and much less in the existence of Magonia. The bishop considered such men themselves mired in a "great stupidity" in a "deep madness" beliefs, and faced them openly until the end to save the lives of four suspected witches. You've never heard of the monk and priest Prokop Divis, who invented the lightning rod at the same time and independently of Franklin. Indeed, it was thanks to her Catholic faith in the Bible that Agobard banished superstition about thunder and storms. In fact long before Agobard, the Council of Braga held in the year 561, in Braga and convened by Pope John III and the great apostle among the Galicians who was Dumio San Martino, says "If anyone thinks the devil Indeed some creatures in the world and on his own authority continues to produce thunder, lightning, storms and droughts, as Prisciliano said, let him be accursed. "(Quoted by Pier Carlo Landucci HUNDRED ISSUES oN MATTERS OF FAITH)

    1. Agobard, bishop of Lyon, in his writing, Against the Foolish View of the People about Hail and Thunder,1 does not explain storms via physical or natural explanations, but cites texts of Scripture showing that God alone, (not human beings) can raise and lay the storms.

      Agobard told of encountering a crowd in his diocese (ca. 815-816) who were on the verge of stoning to death four persons for attempting to steal the grain knocked down by a recent hail storm. These persons had been apprehended after supposedly falling from an airship that had brought them from the realm of Magonia, and they were said to be responsible for the destructive storm as well. Agobard stepped in to confront the crowd and claimed to have brought the leaders to confusion by questioning the belief that the four unfortunates had paid tempestarii (storm-makers) to bring the disaster upon the crops. The bishop then expanded upon the topic of human control of the weather for readers of his tract. Even though the belief in tempestarii, who would bring about storms by incantations, was practically universal in the area of Lyon, Agobard made it clear that he held no such belief and that the weather came from God, not humans, reciting from many places in the bible the divine acts or commands that produced meteorological events of all sorts, especially violent storms. The claims that storms could be created by humans were absurd and impious.

      Agobard did not try to give a naturalistic explanation of the hail storm that had destroyed the field of grain but instead tried to get people to accept that nature was controlled completely by a single divine power, the all-powerful god of Christians. Agobard felt outraged at the claims of charlatans that they shared with God the control of the weather. Neither Agobard nor the Carolingian clergy in general treated concerns about severe weather dismissively as we see in the provision of a special mass for driving away thunderstorms in the Gregorian Sacramentary.2 Further evidence of clerical attention to such fears and tactics to treat them within a Christian framework appears in the pseudo-Alcuinian book on the divine of office, which prescribed for the Sunday after Easter the distribution of small, molded wax lambs (both the material and the symbol being precious), blessed by the priest, that could be placed in fields and vineyards as protection against thunder and lightning.3
      1 PL 104, coll. 147A-158D; Agobard of Lyon, Opera omnia, pp. 1-15, based on the sole ms. of s. IX-X. An excellent account and interpretation of the event and the text appear in the study of Dutton, "Thunder and Hail over the Carolingian Countryside;" revised version in idem, Charlemagne's Mustache, ch. 7; partial translation in Carolingian Civilization, pp. 189-91. A brief summary appears in Russell, Witchcraft in the Middle Ages, pp. 82-3.
      2 Dutton, Charlemagne's Mustache, p. 182.
      3 Pseudo-Alcuin, De divinis of ciis, PL 101, col. 1224D (c. xxi).

    2. One cannot follow Agobard so comfortably in his rancorous tracts against the Jews... He gives currency to the common slanders against the Jews, and then at great length cites passages from the Church Fathers, to show in what detestation they held that people. Then he sets forth the abominable opinions of the hated race, and ransacks Scripture to prove that the Jews are therein authoritatively and incontestably condemned. Liber de imaginibus sanctorum (Migne, vol. 104).
      The Mediaeval Mind Henry Osborn Taylor

    3. Agobard was not antisemite, he only condemned the Jewish slave trade.

  4. Is it true that the clergy thought the storms, lightning and hail were supernatural, magical or demonic origin?
    Totally false. White lying when he says that the clergy believed that meteorological and astronomical phenomena were due to supernatural forces. St. Isidore of Seville and explained 1,400 years ago atmospheric phenomena with naturalistic arguments .As we saw the holy and wise archbishop of Lyon thought the same in full Middle Ages. Oresme, bishop and scientific genius of the fourteenth century, expressly denied that the angels moviesen planets, explaining that the Bible does not say and we had to find rational explanations for physical phenomena.
    The interest of the clergy for the scientific study of climatic phenomena not limited to the Middle Ages, but continued during the XVI-XIX centuries. Luigi Lafrate, professor of the Master in Environmental Sciences at the European University of Rome, specializes in the history of Meteorology and has spent years studying the influence of Jesuits, Carmelites, Benedictines, Piarists, Dominicans, Capuchins and lows in the origins of modern meteorology . Countless priests and monks with significant contributions to the science of meteorology. Ignacio Danti, Dominican mathematician, perfected the anemoscope of Leonardo da Vinci. The monk Benedetto Castelli introduced the use of the gauge. In 1654, Fernando II de Medici created with assistance of the clergy the first weather service in the world, which included the construction of a series of "small thermometers Florence" while the court chaplain, the Jesuit Luis Antinori, distributed thermometers Italian and foreign observatories, along with the clergy and the most prominent scientific personalities. Thanks to the Catholic clergy, was born in Italy the first nucleus of the meteorological services of the State. In the monasteries of the pioneering Italian meteorological stations they were established in Europe. The abbot Felice Fontana built a more accurate barometer. Canon Angelo Bellani built a highly advanced thermometer, rain gauge was invented by Barnabite priest Francesco Denza and astrophysicist and Jesuit Angelo Secchi invented Meteorograph, which was awarded at the Paris Exhibition of 1867. Regarding the atmospheric electricity it is impossible not refer to escolapio Giambattista Beccaria. Demonstrating on the absurd charge that the Catholic clergy believed that thunderstorms were caused by demons. Catholic scientists, many of whom belonged to the clergy, contributed greatly to the design and construction of instruments to measure the atmosphere and their movements. So the abbot Felice Fontana built a more accurate barometer. Canon Angelo built a very advanced Bellani thermometer, rain gauge was invented by the priest Francesco Barnabite Denza and astrophysicist and Jesuit Angelo Secchi Meteorograph invented. The construction of "Meteorograph" was awarded at the Paris Exhibition of 1867.Regarding atmospheric electricity in particular is impossible not to refer to escolapio Giambattista Beccaria, professor of experimental physics in the eighteenth century, which helped spread the discoveries of Franklin and deepen them.
    All this shows the absurdity of the accusation that the Catholic clergy believed that thunderstorms were caused by demons. Catholic scientists, many of whom belonged to the clergy, contributed greatly to the creation of Meteorology and the design and construction of instruments to measure the atmosphere and weather.

    1. Did Prokop Diviš co-invent the lightning rod with Benjamin Franklin? Divis' device was more ornamental than functional, consisting of crosses within crosses in Byzantine fashion. Here is what it looked like as seen from above:

      Despite scientific reviews of Diviš's errors (among others, German physicist Meidinger, who compared evidence about early lightning rods in 1888; and Czech scientific historians Smolka and Haubelt in 2004/05), there are still popular claims that Prokop Diviš invented the lightning rod. The "weather-machine" failed, however, the common purpose of lightning rods: to actually protect a building; while the grounding chains were not remotely secure.