Select Page

Is God Responsible?

March 6, 1898 — The People’s Church, Kalamazoo MI


A week ago last night our city suffered a great calamity. The fire has been extinguished, the dead have been buried, the eulogies have been pronounced. The people, having given generously of sympathy and help to the afflicted, turn to their accustomed occupations. But the shock and sadness and the loss still remain upon us all. And new duties and responsibilities are found to rest upon our city; and old, old problems, yet forever new, rise out of this catastrophe to question us afresh. We understand that ten are dead, and others wounded; we understand how hearts must suffer for these. But why are they dead? And why has such sorrow fallen upon these households and such loss upon this town?

We have received two answers. One is the answer that the people read in the evidence given before the court of inquiry. The other is the answer given by certain ones who have sought to interpret this calamity in the terms of theology. The one answer is, that the explosion with its terrible fatality was the result of the operation of natural law. The other answer is, that it was willed and brought to pass by God.

Let us see by what processes these varying conclusions were reached. At the time of the explosion the cause was hidden in mystery. It was not thought that there was anything explosive in the building. But, such was the instinctive faith of the people that this phenomenon must have had an adequate natural cause, that they proceeded with an investigation. The evidence is all to the effect that the explosion, with its terrible fatality, was due to the generation by heat of gases which, combining with other gases, formed an inflammable and explosive compound; and that by this agency the building was wrecked and the lives of the firemen lost. The by-standers, being in dangerous proximity, were involved in the catastrophe. The final verdict of the jury is scarcely necessary to make these facts evident to one who has followed the testimony.

What benefit is hoped of this official inquiry? That we may ascertain how such calamities may be in future averted. But what does this signify? It signifies the taking it for granted on the part of the people that, given again similar conditions, similar results would inevitably follow; but that, with proper care to ascertain and avoid these conditions, such results will not and cannot follow.

But what is the basis for this confidence? It is the always observed fact that, given certain causes, certain effects are produced, not “sometimes,” not “usually,” not “with rare exceptions”; but always, so far as human experience and observation can testify: and that, moreover, no effect transpires without its exact cause. This is the common sense and the common faith of intelligent mankind. This belief in the uniformity and the invariability of nature’s operations is the basis of all our operations in life. We learn what to do and what not to do by learning what nature does in response to our initiative. But if we could not trust her always, under the same conditions, to give the same response, security would shift to chance and order to chaos. And thus it was that, when no cause was apparent, we yet sought with confidence for a cause; and thus it is that, finding the cause, we believe ourselves to have found the means to avert such catastrophes in future.

But now let us attend to the other answer that has been given not, as in the first case, by a hastily summoned jury of citizens, none of whom claim to be experts, but by those who profess that the causes of this disaster lie within their own special province, and must be explained, so far as they are explicable, by reference to theology. Here we may naturally look for expert testimony.

The consensus of theological opinion as expressed in this town is, that God caused the explosion; that God intended it and brought it to pass for some good and sufficient reason; and that if that reason is beyond finite comprehension it is, nevertheless, ours to bow in unquestioning resignation to this awful dispensation of the divine will. Most of those who have given utterance to these convictions have disavowed understanding of the painful mystery, devoutly expressing the faith that it was God’s act, and God may do what He will with His creatures; that the finite cannot hope to comprehend the Infinite, but we know that “He doeth all things well:’ and we must adore His awful power and submit to His inscrutable purposes.

But one gentleman, at least, does not find God’s providence wholly inscrutable. We are told by him that “god has spoken to Kalamazoo,” and that this calamity has been visited upon us because of our sins, — the sins of the city, of the churches, of society. It would seem to be more particularly because people at parties sometimes dance and play cards, that God set fire to a chemical factory (the hand of Providence would have been more evident had it been the playing card factory) and blew it up with the breath of His wrath, and hurled innocent by-standers and brave men in the discharge of their duty into eternity. Had they played cards? Here was left no chance to repent. But through the catastrophe which overwhelmed them, we are warned to flee from the wrath that hovers especially over whist tables and waxed floors. By what special revelation this astounding fact was graciously made known to one of our local clergymen, is still a mystery which perhaps needs investigation.

But to return to the general consensus of theological opinion freely expressed, that God willed and executed this calamity, and that while we may not comprehend His purpose, we should bow in unquestioning submission and unwavering faith: This is a very old idea which rises yet once again to confuse thought and hobble reason and intimidate our natural instincts and make monstrous our conception of God and His providence. It is an idea which is practically outgrown and left behind by every human institution except the church. It is an idea which is outgrown by the vast majority of the more intelligent members of the church, though they are perhaps unconscious of the fact. Let us see if this is not so. Do you believe that any man of average intelligence, let him be a member of whatever church, takes his pastor’s preaching so to heart that, being summoned to act upon that jury of the disaster, he would find himself disqualified for service by the conviction that the explosion was due to a special act of God, and, as such, was out of the category of things to be rationally investigated and guarded against in future? It is idle to say that God uses natural means to bring about His will; for, if it were God’s will to do this thing, imagine a court of inquiry instituted to find out how we can circumvent God next time? And yet what minister will say that it is not our duty to in future circumvent the conditions which caused the explosion? Where, then, is submission to the supposed will of God?

The idea in question is clearly an unfit survival from long past ages before science was born. Then, to attribute every unusual or mysterious event to the special intervention of God, was not unnatural. Men knew very little of natural law, and few indeed had dreamed of its universal sway. They did not think that the growing grass and the falling rain were due to special divine intervention, or fraught with special messages, because these things were common, but a prolonged drought or an earthquake or an eclipse of the sun or the breaking out of a strange disease or a stroke of lightning or of blindness or of apoplexy — these were out of the range of common experience, the laws governing them were not understood, and they were therefore accounted as special acts of God designed for purposes of punishment or of warning. The Bible has many instances of this primitive mode of thought. We find in the earliest examples not only the belief in calamities as special acts of God, but the belief, also, that these calamities are invariably visited upon men or nations in punishment of sin. Take, for example, the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Jehovah has heard of the great wickedness of these cities, and purposes to destroy them; but first he thinks it wise to come down and see if all he has heard is really true. He stops on the way to visit Abraham and to dine with him. After dinner they walk and discourse together concerning the doomed cities, Jehovah having confided to Abraham his purpose to destroy them. But Abraham has a nephew with his family living in Sodom, and being especially anxious to avert the destruction of the city, he takes the liberty of reminding Jehovah that if there are any good people there, it would be wrong to destroy the city. To this Jehovah agrees, but, as you remember, the story does not allow the existence of any good people (except Lot and his family who are warned to come away), and so the cities are utterly destroyed.

Yes, there was a time in Hebrew history when it was stoutly held that all calamity was a visitation of God’s wrath for sin. If the question were asked how it was that innocent persons sometimes suffered misfortunes, the simple answer was made that it was not true. All suffering was held to come as the result of individual or family or national sin against the commandments of Jehovah. 

But a certain event in Hebrew history — the defeat by the Egyptians of King Josiah. the most righteous, most (God-fearing king, who devoted his life to the service of Jehovah; who had purified the Temple of all heathen practices; who had bound Jehovah’s law upon the necks of all the people so that they served him as never before; Josiah. who undertook this battle with the mighty Egyptians expressly in honor and defense of Jehovah’s insulted divinity and majesty, with unquestioning faith that Jehovah’s mighty arm would uphold him and smite his enemies dead — Josiah, had been killed and his forces had been ignobly routed, and the people reduced shortly afterwards to dependence upon a heathen king who despised Jehovah and worshipped bulls.

What could be said to this? There are pathetic evidences in more than one book of the Bible, how deeply was the faith of the race wounded, what dark and terrible problems were opened up to the minds and souls of this afflicted people. The book of Job had its origin probably out of the mental state of the people at this critical and terrible period, or out of the yet more trying Captivity soon following. Job, a pre-eminently righteous man, is visited by every conceivable species of calamity. His friends come to comfort him, but all they can do is to urge him, at first gently, but later with bitter insistence, to confess the secret fault or crime for which alone God would so punish him. This, you see, was the orthodox view of the time, — that Job must have been a hypocrite through all these years of his good reputation, and that now, at last, God was visiting his deserved punishment upon him. But Job humble yet emphatically protests his innocence. His conscience is at rest. His suffering cannot be a punishment for sin. And then he sets his mind upon the problem. But he, or the writer of the book, tho’ he is great enough to see that the old answer is false, yet fails of the true one — fails to find an answer which even satisfies himself. For a time he tries to be satisfied with the idea that, as God is the creator of all things and has omnipotent power over all — therefore it is just for Him to do what He will with His creatures, — in other words, that “might makes right.” But He cannot rest there — perhaps perceives that might makes, rather obligation to do right — and so in the ending scene of the drama he, or the writer rather, practically gives the problem up, by causing Jehovah to restore to Job twice as many cattle and sheep and twice as much money as he had before, together with other children to the number of those he had lost. A noble book, a noble landmark upon the highway of human reasoning into the inner counsels of God. Yet it does give up the problem of the relation of physical evil to conduct; the old idea still held sway, and theology sternly repressed any new and unconventional solution. 

We can easily trace this doctrine and its effects through the centuries up to our own time. Throughout the middle ages, and almost into our own day, epidemics of deadly disease were held to be special visitations of God. To arrest the plague, long processions went chanting Te Deums through the filthy streets. So long as it was believed that the plague was a visitation of God’s wrath, what more natural than that the people should all unite in supplications to God for its cure? Everywhere, pestilences resulting from neglect of most obvious precautions were called “inscrutable providences.” Less than one hundred years ago, when epidemic disease made fearful havoc in Austria, the means of cure chiefly employed was praying before the image of St. Sebastian.

Scotland, whose cities even into our present century were given over to incredible filth, suffered thirty terrible epidemics between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries. These epidemics were regarded as visitations of divine wrath against human sin, and the work of the authorities was to announce the particular sin and to thunder against it. But, strange to say, they seemed never to have hit upon sanitary sin as the cause of the plagues. In 1700 came the great fire of Edinburgh which cleared and cleaned the city and purged it of disease germs that had accumulated undisturbed for centuries. The town council of Edinburgh, however, declared this fire to be “a fearful rebuke of God.

Let us glance a moment at the history of vaccination for prevention of small-pox, a disease ranking next to plague in its fearful mortality. Early in the last century, Lady Montagu and Dr. Maitland sought to introduce inoculation, a crude form of vaccination into England. The clergy, with few exceptions, began at once to preach denunciatory sermons against “the dangerous and sinful practice of inoculation,” and Lady Montagu’s carriage was stoned in the streets. It was freely declared that diseases were sent by Providence for the punishment of sin, and that the proposed attempt to prevent them is “a diabolical operation.” A large body of ministers joined in denouncing the new practice, as “flying in the face of Providence,” and “endeavoring to baffle a Divine judgment.” Among the texts most quoted was one which I think we have heard rather frequently of late: “He hath torn up and He will heal us; He hath smitten, and He will bind us up.” Some of the ultra-conservative medical men joined in the denunciation, while among the clergy were some too wise and too liberal for this, as for example, Cotton Mather, of New England; but he and all who took this stand had hurled against them by their brother clergymen the charge of being “unfaithful to the revealed Word of God.” How easy it is to hurl that charge to-day! But how surely time reveals who are the faithful as well as the wise! The battle waged fierce for thirty years — but at last the cause of right and humanity won. In all London, formerly so scourged, that, Macaulay tells us, it was rare to meet a man whose face was not marked, there was but one death from small-pox in the year 1890. The disease had been practically wiped out of existence. And one of London’s most honored physicians has declared that Jenner, the discoverer of vaccination, “has saved, is now saving, and will continue to save in all coming ages, more lives in each generation than were destroyed by all the wars of Napoleon.” One more glorious victory for science and humanity and one more ignoble defeat for the ancient superstition which yet lives on to speak from our platforms to-day!

We will take but one more example out of countless ones afforded by history; namely, the struggle of the lightning-rod against the superstition that storms of all kinds were either of the direct agency of God, or were the works of evil demons; and that, in either case, the only protection was prayers, processions, penances and the ringing of consecrated bells, (Luther believed that throwing a stone into a certain pond would create a great storm, because of the disturbance of the evil spirits imprisoned there). And when Benjamin Franklin proposed to render harmless the most destructive element of storms by simply placing an iron rod alongside a building, this was thought to be impious beyond words. In America, the earthquake of 1755 was generally ascribed to Franklin’s rod. The Rev. Thomas Prince, pastor of the Old South Church, Boston, Dr. White tells us, 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 erected more than anywhere else in New England, and Boston seems to be more dreadfully shaken!” He closes by exclaiming: “Oh! there is no getting out of the mighty hand of God.”

Especially was there the greatest prejudice against protecting churches from lightning stroke, though their style of architecture made them especially subject to disaster. Get us take the tower of St. Mark’s at Venice as an example. In spite of the sacred character of the building, the figure of the angel poised above it, the consecrated bells, and the sacred relics within the shrine below, the tower had been struck nine times, often badly shattered, and once all but totally destroyed, so that it had to be practically rebuilt. It was allowed to be struck twice after the invention of Franklin, and it was not for fourteen years after that invention that common sense prevailed to erect a rod, in 1776 — and it has never been struck in the 132 years since. And yet, if to-day, an unprotected church were struck by lightning, it would be preached upon as “an inscrutable providence,” unless it were a certain church I might mention, when there would not be those lacking to read in it a signal manifestation of God’s vengeance against minister and people for daring to entertain the blasphemous sentiment that God is not engaged in the occupation of blowing up buildings and maiming and killing brave men in the discharge of their duty for any purpose, scrutable or inscrutable, whatever.

How is it that persons still holding these archaic ideas, after all the accumulating rebukes of the centuries upon the folly and the irreparable human injury they have wrought, can calmly assume that all the sanctities are on their side; after being compelled by the growing intelligence of the race to relinquish, one after another, a thousand outposts of theology, and beat a steady retreat for a thousand years before the advancing tide of truth — how yet hold this last with all the assurance of one proved forever right instead of forever wrong! How is it that those who through all the ages have laid upon God the sum of all crimes and cruelties still assume to be His special prophets and messengers to mankind; and how is it that that men and women who do not and cannot believe these monstrous things yet give them their assent, and help to decry the man who dares to preach the truer thing. Yea,

“Thoughts that great hearts once broke for, we
Breathe cheaply in the common air,”

and yet how few, how very few, are moved to wish to be upon the side of the larger truth to-day!

But let us return once more to our examination of the theory that God wills all disasters similar to that from which this city has just suffered, and see what this theory logically involves. It involves the terrible “Maine” disaster. Whether that were what we call an accident, or whether it were the deed of some miscreant, the ancient theory applied to our disaster here would apply equally there, also. If God had not willed it to be, it could not be; and if He willed it, it makes no essential difference by what means He brought it to pass. Upon this theory, also, it is God who is primarily responsible for the slaughter of the Cubans. No doubt ministers conducting the funeral services of Cuban soldiers and “Maine” victims have spoken of God’s inscrutable providences which have caused these deaths. And when that murdered negro Post-master Baker of North Carolina, was buried with his little child murdered in its mother’s arms, did some one speak above the coffin, of this strange manifestation of a mysterious Providence which takes this way of teaching us some needed lesson — we know not what?

If we believe that God willed and brought to pass our calamity of a week ago, we must believe that He wills and brings to pass all calamities; and this destroys all motive to avoid and prevent disasters by natural means. We have seen how this belief has worked out its legitimate result when it was really believed. When it was actually believed that all sickness was a visitation of God, it was held impious to seek medical aid. Let the sick call the priest, and let the priest, if the case be serious, bring some holy relic a bone or a tooth of some saint — and lay upon the afflicted part, and let the priest, if the case be desperate, bring the Holy Bambino, the sacred image of the Christ Child himself; and let the priest, if the case prove hopeless, shift his cure from body to soul, and administer the last sacrament! To call a physician was considered as a confession of impiety, and how the doctor and his profession were regarded is indicated by the popular mediaeval proverb: “Where there are three physicians there are two atheists.” Possibly some kinds of atheism might he considered superior to some kinds of theism. You have perhaps heard the story of the conversation between Dr. Robert Collyer, I think it was, and a zealous minister of another persuasion who was earnestly discoursing to him of God — describing His power, His majesty, His judgment, His mercy to His elect and His everlasting condemnation of heathen and unbelievers. Dr. Collyer listened, and, from time to time, nodded and said “Yes, — yes, — yes,” until the preacher had finished. And then he said cheerfully: “Why, I find we agree almost exactly, brother, — with just this one difference, — your God is my Devil.

I would not be irreverent, but nothing seems to me in fact so irreverent as these monstrous ideas of God that are set forth by good and sincere men who do not perceive the monstrousness because they veil it with words about “holy will” and “inscrutable wisdom,” and the like. These are words, but what man or woman touched by real life believes their content? If men and women believed them, most of the work of the world would be done upon one’s knees, imploring God to do as little injury as possible. But we are given, not knees alone, but brains and hands to work with — yea, and hearts to throb with diviner thoughts of God”; and conscience and judgment to see wherein we and others have committed mistakes and sins that have brought calamities. For example: We, with other nations, have believed in war. We have created a great naval ship and sent her into a hostile harbor. The wrong is not all ours; it is a part of the world’s barbarism that still persists. And, whether the destruction of that ship were due to accident or to design, it is the spirit that creates engines of destruction to human life which made that horror possible and actual.

Again: Here we had in this town a danger that we knew not of, and yet perhaps we should have known. We will know from now forever after. If there is a lesson, it is not inscrutable, it is plain enough. Do not permit the carrying on of a dangerous occupation in the midst of the city. Do not allow bystanders near in case of fire. Be cautious how you treat with elements which, like fire, will overwhelm you if you yield the mastery.

And yet the qualities by which they overwhelm are the same qualities by virtue of which they serve us. Mix chloroform, ether and alcohol with good judgment and we have a merciful anesthetic. Mix them with fire, and we have an explosion. Why lay claim to the first result ourselves, and attribute the last to God?

And, terrible as the result of a mistake may be, I venture to believe that, for nature’s laws not to act because of our mistakes, would be yet more terrible. Humanity learns its lessons by its mistakes; but more: If this be indeed a universe, if it be governed by universal law, the suspension for one instant of one law might throw the universe out of gear, and reduce law to anarchy and order to chaos. Think of it thus: If, for example, an inflammable gas refused to ignite in the presence of fire, here would be an area within which natural elements had changed their nature with no natural cause; an area, in other words, within which the law of cause and effect ceased to be operative. But, wherever we set the limits of that area, there must be a place where it joins on to the general law and order of the universe. But it cannot join on any more than unlike units in arithmetic can be added to each other. Not apples plus grapes, and not law and no law. It cannot join on; the majestic circle of universal order is broken, and the loose ends of the law fly wild, whipping the world to chaos.

The safety of God’s universe is in the realm of universal law. The safety of men is to know and to regard these laws. I suppose we might have been made a mere part of the vast machinery — automata like the stars in their orbits which can do no violence, make no mistakes. But I agree to the sentiment that “a freely-acting sinner is better than an automatic saint,” and that all our character and all our goodness depend upon our freedom to do right or wrong as we will; and that all our wisdom comes from making choices, wise or unwise, and learning by the experience; and that all our greatness and our humanhood, and the promise of that “which doth not yet appear” comes from our learning God’s will through the operation of his laws in the outward world and the inward soul, and our choosing of our own volition to obey that will and help make that will be done on earth as in heaven. Helping, with the conviction that God expects us to help ourselves and Him.

We read of the little girl who was much distressed to find some bird-traps in the meadow. “I knelt right down,” she said, “and prayed that God would not let the birds get into the traps. And then, I prayed that God would not let the traps catch the birds. And then,” she added, “I got up and kicked the traps all to pieces.”

Let us pray, if we will, that we may be spared calamities of all kinds; but let us, whenever we see a trap that may waylay even a little bird with calamity, consider it our part, also, to destroy the danger. I am sure our recent sorrow has taught this city some consideration, that will never again he overlooked. And the fearful lesson will reach far beyond the disaster to a hundred other cities warned through us.

And now, am I expected to defend the religiousness of the view I have set forth? I will not do it. I will let it stand, bare and unadorned and little touched with sentiment as it is — I will let it stand beside that conception of God that possessed the mind of those ancient men who wrote the legend of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the legend of the destruction of mankind by the flood, and the legend of the destruction of the hope of humanity by the eating of an apple in the garden of Eden. No, I do not contemn this conception of God in its right time and place. These men were of the infancy of the race, and they could not know, as science proves that they did not know, all that the slow ages of humanity have revealed to generation after generation. But just as I repudiate the claim of Divine authority for that ancient Bible command, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” and that other bidding a father and mother to lay hold on a stubborn and rebellious son and bring him out to the city gates to be stoned to death, so I feel no call to let the larger, nobler thought of God that has come up through the centuries be strangled by the cords of an ancient superstition. I will put this larger thought of God side by side with that which through all the centuries has paralyzed progress, shrouded Europe in mental darkness, mired it in filth, and laid the hideous burden of man’s wilful ignorance and blindness and doting superstition upon the patient back of God. Do not misunderstand me. I know, as well as any of you, the sweetness and the light of the gospel of Jesus and of the older Jewish prophets that has shone across the ages — and ever lights us towards a better day. This was and is religion. But these other monstrous views of God are not religion — were not, are not, can never be religion. And the religion of Jesus makes pure and devout the soul of many a man who yet preaches the false theology. Not Jehovah’s wrath but Jesus’ tenderness is the dominating influence in his life. But why should the church, the special institution of religion, lag behind the natural heart of man in rejecting cruel superstitions for the nobler, diviner thought of God? Why must the church be forever driven to accept, one by one, the findings of the world? Why should men of thought sit and listen decorously on one day of the week to what has no place in their lives the other six has no place in their lives, because it has no place in life — belongs to the dead past. Let the dead past bury its dead, and then all that is vital, because true, will live on to do its perfect work.

O, Power more near my life than life itself

If sometimes I must hear good men debate
Of other witness of Thyself than Thou,

My soul shall not be taken in their snare
To change her inward surety for her doubt.
Muffled from sight in formal robes of proof
While she can only feel herself through Thee
I fear not Thy withdrawal; more of fear
Seeing, to know Thee not, hoodwinked by dream.
Of signs and wonders, while, unnoticed. Thou
Walking Thy garden still, common’st with men
Missed in the common-place of miracle.



Source: “Is God Responsible? A Sermon,” by Caroline Bartlett Crane, Minister of the People’s Church, Kalamazoo Michigan, (Michigan: The Young Men’s Union), 1898, pp. 5-27.