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 ...1
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