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An Old American Tradition: The 'Wrath of God' Scenario : Religion: Since the Puritans, Americans regarded natural disasters as signs from God. But they looked within themselves for the reason.

August 08, 1993|Martin E. Marty | Martin E. Marty, a professor of religion at the University of Chicago, is senior editor of the Christian Century. He is co-editor of "Fundamentalism Observed" (University of Chicago Press)

CHICAGO — That nearly one of five Americans believes the devastating floods in the Midwest represent "God's judgment on the people of the United States for their sinful ways" comes as no surprise. The Gallup poll found 18% of those interviewed thought God was doing the devastating. A cynic would argue that one of five Americans believes in anything. A positive thinker could note that at least some believe enough to try to connect human misfortunes and divine reckonings.

That certain movement leaders assert that the flooding--after the wrong high- and low-pressure systems got juxtaposed--is a devastation by God of a specific public for specific sins does and should astonish. A cynic would argue that some leaders will do anything to gain headlines. A positive thinker could ask them to restrain their impulses within the figurative levees of their minds.

Reporters in the hard-hit cities heard ministers and moralists giving their flocks inside knowledge of what God was intending. This always came down to attacks on specific sins by other Americans. They quoted one above all others: Randall Terry, founder of the anti-abortion Operation Rescue movement, said he believed, "without a shadow of a doubt, that these floods are the judgment of God upon our nation because of the sins of our people." Along the Arkansas River in Wichita, Kan., scene of past Operation Rescue encounters, he said "there's a direct connection between pagan government, child killing and the flood."

Less strident anti-abortion leaders scrambled to a higher ground, fearing such verbal excesses would hurt the cause. The media picked up their more reasonable and more biblical reminders that the "rain falls on the just and on the unjust" alike.

Terry represented a classic American tradition, though he failed it at a crucial point. Speak of a "classic tradition" in America and you begin with texts from New England. Most have no Mayflower ancestry and share neither race, religion or caste with the Puritans. But they were so clear about their ways, and God's, and so successful at getting their texts to be privileged in church, school and folklore that these take on mythic status.

For starters, a mild earthquake shook parts of New England on Sunday night, Oct. 29, 1727. But the quaking shook many of the pious and sinners alike: What was God telling them? Connecticut historian Benjamin Trumbull remembered that the tremblors filled the houses of God. Reactions were of a sort that inspired the great Jonathan Edwards to pronounce his Northampton, Mass., neighbors "very sensible of the things of religion." Some historians date America's "First Great Awakening" of religion from these responses to the earthquake.

By 1727, the tradition was long established. Catholic and Protestant founders alike imported it. Medieval Europe had been very much a site for seeing "direct connections" between nature and history, God-creating-disaster and humans-needing-repentance. Puritans connected these so well that they helped program many non-Puritans ever after.

Literary historian F.O. Matthiesen observed that these 17th-Century colonists saw "remarkable providences" even in the smallest phenomena, tokens of divine displeasure in every capsized dory or runaway cow. Historians Oscar and Mary Handlin explained this attitude: "Nothing that occurred in the world was simply a random event. Everything was the product of the intent of some mover."

When the Pequot Indians attacked Boston, preachers called a synod to ask: "What are the evils which have called the judgment of God upon us? What is to be done to reform these evils?" They did not go looking for sinners their movement would denounce. Rather, they asked what they themselves had done to test God.

It is not easy to get out of the "direct connections" business by writing off New Englanders as "dead, white, male, Euroamerican" others. New England women were as adept as men at discerning divine judgment when a "monster" baby was born. No doubt the Pequots were as able as other Native Americans to connect their rituals with the Spirit controlling weather in seedtime and at harvest. Many African-Americans have left testimony since slave days, interpretings relished by later Africanists for the closeness to nature there revealed. They linked heavenly signs and wonders with earthly deeds and misdeeds.

In 1816, a Methodist itinerant in upstate New York observed a "cold summer." He saw "snow falling as in midwinter" and was struck "that God was visiting the Earth with judgments." So he examined his own heart and also asked others to repent. Another recalled earthquakes in 1811-12; "strange convulsions and violent shakings of the Earth have been considered, in all ages of the Christian world, as the precursors of the wrath of a justly incensed God."

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