American Religion and Violent Weather
Peter J. Thuesen (Oxford University Press, 2020)
Review by Anna Holdorf
During a violent storm in the spring of 1991, goes a story from my family lore, my grandfather stood at the window watching as a funnel cloud barreled toward his Kansas farm. A cradle Methodist, he turned naturally to prayer, with a plea that it would leave his home intact. As if on cue, the twister changed course, cutting a track through the fields and away from the house—a favorable answer to prayer, it seemed. But was this an example of divine intervention or of nature’s unpredictability? After all, the same tornado went on to become a destructive F4, killing at least one person and leaving millions of dollars’ worth of damage in its path. If he did see the tornado’s turn as an act of God, my grandfather might have wondered why he was spared while others were not.
This same tension lies at the center of Peter J. Thuesen’s Tornado God: American Religion and Violent Weather, a sweeping history of how religious belief has shaped Americans’ interpretations of adverse weather events. Tornadoes, Thuesen notes, are “peculiarly American” phenomena, striking the United States with disproportionate frequency because of its unique geography and weather patterns (2). Likewise, as scholars of American religious history have long observed, the United States also possesses a peculiarly spiritual character—one that Thuesen describes as akin to “tornadic energy” in its tendency to spawn sudden, unpredictable revivals as witnessed from the Great Awakening to modern Pentecostalism (9). These two facets of the American experience have combined to create a close yet contentious relationship between religion and weather. From the Puritans’ era to the present day, Americans have viewed the weather much as they have the divine—at once awed by its sublime nature and frustrated by their inability to fully understand it. And the “transcendent quality” of tornadoes in particular, Thuesen argues, has often led those who experience the storms to imbue them with spiritual meaning (7).
Thuesen traces the entangled history of religion and tornadoes in five chronological chapters, beginning with an account of how violent weather events were understood in biblical tradition and early Christianity. Old Testament scholars who parsed Job’s encounter with God in the midst of a whirlwind, for example, argued that the storm demonstrated how “God’s power cannot be domesticated, controlled, or understood” (18). Other biblical storms, such as those depicted in the prophetic books and in Revelation, heralded apocalypse. Yet such interpretations of storms as inscrutable and divinely ordained did not stop many early Christians from seeking some degree of control over their own fate in the face of meteorological peril. In the Middle Ages, rituals, devotions, and the cult of the saints offered laypersons the hope of protection from storms, often seen as the result of either God’s wrath or the devil’s work. Protestant reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin later rejected the idea that humans could shield themselves from harm through such attempts at intercession, with Luther content to accept as a mystery the manifestation of God’s sovereignty in weather and Calvin confident that God himself directed all earthly events, including destructive storms.
Calvin’s providentialism “greatly exacerbated the problem of theodicy,” Thuesen argues, creating an enduring struggle for his theological heirs tasked with explaining why an all-powerful God allows harm to come to his creation (29). In the United States, this problem has persisted since the colonial period, thanks in large part to the influence of the Puritans. Colonial-era theologies of weather reflected contemporary controversies over doctrines of providence and natural law. Cotton Mather’s theory of providence, like Calvin’s, suggested that God could overturn natural laws in his omnipotence. Jonathan Edwards frequently attributed instances of weather-induced destruction to God’s punishments for sin. Even laypeople, such as 18th-century evangelical Sarah Osborn, saw portents of divine judgment in New England storms. Still, other early Americans troubled by implications that God was involved in acts of evil sought more nuanced explanations. The idea of “secondary causation” left room for laws of nature to produce evil outcomes apart from God’s intervention, but distinctions between the natural and the divine remained ambiguous, as evidenced by the common use of the term “acts of God” to refer to natural disasters (45, 67).
Americans’ encounters with weather in new contexts during the 19th century continued to pose challenges to a providential worldview. Westward expansion and its accompanying growth of transportation and communication networks increased Americans’ confrontations with violent storms. News of 1840’s Great Natchez Tornado in Mississippi, for example—the deadliest tornado of the century—spread across the country, where it was received with a similar apocalyptic gravity by diverse groups including Latter-day Saints, then newcomers to the American religious landscape.
Thuesen shows how early Mormons, like many Puritan-descended Protestants of their time, presumed “a world in which God spoke not primarily through the orderliness of nature but through its disorder” (72). Increasingly, however, these believers came into conflict with others who alleged a more orderly universe. Even before Charles Darwin cast doubt on traditional ways of understanding the world, argues Thuesen, the rise of meteorology as a profession sparked new tensions between faith and science. Scientists and religious liberals rejected strict providentialism in favor of the ideas of chance and divine benevolence, which pitted them against “traditionalists” who continued to stress God’s role in directing severe weather (96).
In addition to more positive interpretations regarding the nature of God, the 19th century’s scientific optimism brought some to believe in the possibility of controlling the weather. Like Benjamin Franklin with his lightning rod, later scientists proposed using dynamite or physical barriers to protect populous cities from tornadoes. But narratives of progress and promises of scientific solutions were subdued by the recurrent tragedies that marked the first half of the 20th century. Between the devastation of two world wars, the United States witnessed a rash of deadly tornado outbreaks in the 1920s and 1930s. Later, the politically tense Cold War years brought more brushes with death and destruction, including a 1965 outbreak on Palm Sunday that stretched across six states. As Americans repeatedly grappled with the anxieties produced by the random violence of tornadoes, some influential theologians responded by embracing the idea that nature was not only unpredictable but perhaps even unaffected by prayer—“a striking reversal from the colonial era,” Thuesen notes (124). Thuesen focuses in particular on Reinhold Niebuhr, whose theology emphasized the “ambiguities” of both history and nature as well as God’s impartiality (126). The development of quantum mechanics, which introduced uncertainty as “the underlying order of the universe,” reinforced this faith in an unpredictable natural world as opposed to an angry God (130).
By the turn of the 21st century, Thuesen suggests, the ambiguities inherent in Americans’ understanding of both God and nature helped to generate what sociologist Robert Wuthnow has described as an “inscrutability script” (139). The language often employed in discussions of natural disasters, that is, revealed a simultaneous belief in God’s complete control over the world and in humans’ incapacity to grasp how he exercises that control. This belief—a form of providentialism that embraces uncertainty with regard to God’s intentions—remains especially prominent within evangelicalism, whose cultural center in the Bible Belt also happens to coincide geographically with Tornado Alley. The prevalence of this view also influences Americans’ response to climate change, which, despite advances in forecasting and technology, has increased weather’s unpredictability as well as incidences of violent storms. Confidence in God’s sovereignty over creation has led many evangelicals in pews, pulpits, and politics alike to reject the idea that humans have the ability to alter the climate. Of course, not all Christians or even all evangelicals deny the reality of climate change. Thuesen makes passing reference to a handful of religious efforts in the early 2000s to prompt climate action, but such movements have been more widespread than one might gather from his analysis, as scholars like Katharine K. Wilkinson have noted (Between God & Green, 2012).
Thuesen’s book makes an important contribution to the historiography of religion and the natural environment. As he observes, the relationship between religion and weather “has never been the subject of an American-focused study in its own right” (6). In the scant literature bridging religious history and environmental history, most works deal with the relationship between religion and environmentalism—particularly the ways that various faith traditions have led their adherents to seek the divine in the beauty of the natural world. (See Mark Stoll’s 2015 Inherit the Holy Mountain for a recent example.) But Thuesen’s take is significant in that it sheds light on how religious believers have grappled specifically with unpleasant experiences of nature. It seems easy to locate the numinous in the majesty of a mountain and much harder to do so in the roar of a whirlwind. Yet, as Thuesen demonstrates, the notion of a “Tornado God” has remained persistent in American culture.
Readers hoping for an all-encompassing treatment of “American religion and violent weather” may be disappointed by a focus that is narrower than the book’s subtitle promises. Thuesen’s narrative moves little beyond Christianity, especially white Protestantism. Native American religions are notably absent except for a few brief references, despite their rich tradition of drawing spiritual inspiration from nature, as Catherine Albanese has explored in detail (Nature Religion in America, 1990). African American traditions and Judaism garner a few pages, and Catholicism features more prominently, but Thuesen’s emphasis on the influence of Calvinist providentialism obscures other prevailing theologies of weather in American society. Likewise, there is scarce analysis of other violent weather events beyond tornadoes. In Thuesen’s telling, hurricanes—from the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900 to the more recent storms of the early 21st century—have been received in much the same way as tornadoes. Televangelist Pat Robertson’s characterization of Hurricane Katrina as God’s punishment for legalized abortion, for instance, seemed a Puritan providentialism redux (147). Hurricanes and other natural disasters, though, have become easier to predict, while tornadoes remain more arbitrary and inclined to provoke problems of theodicy and questions of “Why me?” (108)—hence Thuesen’s decision to focus on them.
Given the increasing unpredictability and violence of weather due to climate change, from droughts and fires to hurricanes and floods, scholars in the not-so-far future will do well to pursue Thuesen’s lead in examining the roots of modern weather theologies that will shape Americans’ responses to other types of natural disasters. Future scholarship will also benefit from more attention to the ways that religion has influenced tangible—not just intellectual—responses to violent weather, such as religious groups’ widely recognized involvement in relief and disaster response. Thuesen, though, sets a high bar for those seeking to follow his scholarly trail. Despite its grounding in intellectual history, Tornado God offers an impressive balance of top-down and bottom-up perspectives drawn from sources ranging from sermons and scientific treatises to newspaper accounts. While the subject matter itself makes for a gripping narrative, Thuesen excels at weaving deeper meaning into riveting stories and using them to speak to larger questions of American religious identity. The personal vignettes from his own experiences visiting sites of tornado damage are a highlight. Tornado God will appeal to scholars interested in both religion and the history and philosophy of science. It will also resonate with a more general readership wondering how religious belief might be brought to bear on our current moment with regard to the challenges of climate change.
Anna Holdorf is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Notre Dame.
This review appears in the spring 2021 issue of the American Catholic Studies Newsletter.