Does God control the weather, and does he decide where lethal tornadoes touch down? If you say yes, you’re left with the problem of tornadoes killing blameless people seemingly at random. Surely a loving and merciful God wouldn’t do that. If you say no, you’re left with the problem of denying that God is all knowing and all powerful. Peter J. Thuesen, professor of religious studies at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, can’t bring himself to answer either yes or no. In his fascinating new book, Tornado God: American Religion and Violent Weather, he explores how American Christians have historically thought about those puzzling questions.
Thuesen begins with the colonial-era Puritans, who appealed to passages like Isaiah 66:15: “See, the Lord is coming with fire, and his chariots are like a whirlwind; he will bring down his anger with fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire.” Cotton Mather, the famous Puritan preacher, explained violent storms as “special providences,” divine responses to particular sinful acts. But, he cautioned, they might also be tests of faith, akin to those God inflicted on Job. During one of Mather’s sermons, a breathless messenger rushed inside with news that lightning had damaged the preacher’s house. Scarcely pausing, Mather reassured his congregation that this was God’s reminder not to become too attached to worldly things.
As the Puritans saw it, history appeared to supplement Scripture in confirming God’s direct control of the weather. Colonial-era Americans, who still thought of themselves as English, recalled two dramatic events when the “Protestant wind” blew to save England from Catholic oppression. The first was in 1588, when it helped Queen Elizabeth I’s navy defeat the Spanish Armada. The second was during the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when it brought King William III from Holland to replace a fleeing Catholic tyrant, James II.
Was the Protestant wind still blowing in the mid-1700s? American soldiers in British service captured the French fortress of Louisbourg, Nova Scotia, in 1745. The next year they learned that a mighty French fleet was crossing the Atlantic to recapture it. Thomas Prince, a Boston minister with the colonial soldiers, prayed: “Deliver us from our enemy! Send thy tempest, Lord, upon the waters to the eastward! . . . Sink their proud frigates beneath the power of thy winds!” Imagine the soldiers’ relief, and the boost to their faith, when a huge storm shattered the French expedition.
By then, however, many observant New Englanders understood that there were regular patterns in the weather, which cast doubt on the idea of storms as special providences. Some preachers suggested that God, like a divine watchmaker, had established the laws of nature and set them in motion, leaving them to take care of themselves. Others stuck to the older idea that every storm was an expression of God’s will. When Benjamin Franklin invented lightning conductors and urged ministers to install them on vulnerable church steeples, some refused to do so, lest they appear to be challenging something divinely ordained.
Colonial writers also noticed that the weather appeared more turbulent in America than in England. Were Americans more sinful, or was God merely testing their faith more forcefully? By the mid-1800s, the line of westward settlement had reached the prairie and plains, where violent weather was common. Much of Thuesen’s book concerns the history of great storms in Tornado Alley, their primal power to fascinate and terrify, and the Christian interpretation of their destructiveness.
Responses often mirrored the mood of the times, and sometimes they were surprisingly upbeat. When a great tornado destroyed Grinnell College in 1882, the college’s optimistic president held commencement ceremonies amid the rubble just nine days later and preached from Psalm 148:8: “Fire, and hail; snow, and vapours; stormy wind fulfilling his word” (KJV). A successful fundraising campaign followed, and soon the college was back in operation. Josiah Grinnell, after whom it had been named, joked, “That cyclone was a real windfall.”
By the mid-19th century, the science of meteorology was taking shape. Pioneers of weather forecasting like Army Lt. John Park Finley, who wrote Tornadoes: What They Are and How to Observe Them (1887), the first popular book on the topic, reminded readers to build sturdy shelters, believing God helps those who help themselves. In 1885, General William Babcock Hazen, who ran the Army’s meteorological service, decreed that the word “tornado” should not be used in weather reports; he feared it would spread alarm and discourage settlement in the Great Plains. His rule was followed until 1938, but the tornadoes kept coming. In 1896, one tore through St. Louis, killing more than 250 people and wrecking most of the churches. Even worse was the hurricane that destroyed Galveston, Texas, in 1900, killing 6,000 people. By then, journalists as well as ministers were trying to make sense of violent weather. Many of them blamed human negligence and lack of adequate preparation rather than divine wrath.
Indeed, one long trend in American religious history has been the decline of the idea that God is angry and vengeful. During the late 19th century and into the 20th, American Christians often claimed that tornadoes were caused by the Devil; rebuilding after each disaster was a way of ensuring he wouldn’t have the last word. It also became politically unwise to treat lethal storms as acts of divine fury. Religious broadcaster Pat Robertson told his TV audience in 2005 that Hurricane Katrina had devastated New Orleans because of God’s anger over America’s legalization of abortion. A chorus of indignant denials from other evangelical preachers prompted a retreat from that claim.
Katrina also accelerated fears that human-induced climate change might be increasing the frequency and severity of extreme weather events. One by one, mainline denominations issued statements of concern in the 1990s, and they were joined in 2006 by an initiative titled “Climate Change: An Evangelical Call to Action” from the Evangelical Climate Initiative, signed by the presidents of 39 Christian colleges (as well as several Christianity Todayeditors and advisers). Conservative evangelicals responded with the Cornwall Alliance’s “Evangelical Declaration on Global Warming,” which stressed God’s intelligent design and the “robust, resilient, self-regulating, and self-correcting” character of the world’s climate. This view received support from James Inhofe, Oklahoma’s senior US senator, who once brandished a snowball on the Senate floor to remind his colleagues that it can still get very cold. Inhofe’s book about climate change, The Greatest Hoax, included the declaration: “God is still up there and he promised to maintain the seasons, and that cold and heat would never cease as long as the earth remains.”
Too Many Unknowns
While researching this book, Thuesen visited the National Weather Center in Norman, Oklahoma, where the nation’s leading experts on hurricanes and tornadoes work at the heart of Tornado Alley. Familiarity with the mathematics of chaos theory has led most of them to conclude that the exact path of each tornado will never be predictable; there are too many unknowns. These men and women, whatever their religion, are also left with a sense of mystery and a humbling awareness of human vulnerability—Thuesen describes it as “the intoxicating elixir that keeps storm chasers coming back to Tornado Alley.” Nearly all admit to a love-hate relationship with the storms; morale is always highest during tornado season, and many risk their lives getting as close as possible to the great funnel clouds with their cameras and sensors.
Thuesen also visited many places devastated by tornadoes and talked with the survivors. It’s clear from every page that he regards tornadoes with as much fascination as dismay, seeing in their sheer power a glimpse of the supernatural. One visit took Thuesen to the small town of Xenia, Ohio, the target of a 1974 whirlwind that killed 34 inhabitants and smashed more than a thousand homes. At least some local people viewed these events as a portent of God’s judgment. Girls from the neighboring town of Fairborn were discouraged from dating boys from Xenia because, as with Sodom and Gomorrah, God supposedly had marked it for destruction.
Thuesen finds, however, that a much commoner response was survivors banding together to rebuild the community, working across lines of denomination, class, and race. After asking why some lived and some died, many people said they reached a state of resignation, accepting their inability to understand. A Baptist preacher whose wife and son had been killed by a tornado turned to the Book of Job. As he told journalist Mark Levine, in an account quoted by Thuesen, “I had to learn to depend on the Lord. I couldn’t try to make sense of it on my own. I would have lost my mind. I studied Job, and I saw what he had endured.”
Theodicy is the branch of theology that asks why God allows bad things to happen. The answers given in different times and places usually owe something to variations in culture. As Thuesen observes, “[I]n the tornado Americans experience something that is at once culturally peculiar (the indigenous storm of the national imagination) and religiously primal (the sense of awe before an unpredictable and mysterious power). The tornado is therefore both American and transcendent, reflecting national identity even while exposing Americans to mysteries above and beyond themselves.”
Tornado God offers no easy answers. Nor does it prescribe an “appropriate” way to think about violent weather. But Thuesen should be commended for illuminating a challenging area of American history in an unusually striking way.
Patrick Allitt is Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University. He is the author of A Climate of Crisis: America in the Age of Environmentalism (Penguin).
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