Signs, Wonders, and the Making of Religious History

Signs, Wonders, and the Making of Religious History August 1, 2022

If you work on any historical era before quite modern times, you soon get used to the idea of cosmic events and natural disasters being intimately tied to human affairs. From a modern perspective, it takes a real effort of imagination to understand the supernatural justifications that are so often adduced to explain strictly this-worldly actions. Early chroniclers and historians often cite natural disasters such as earthquakes, volcanoes, or periods of extreme cold or heat, and calamities such as famine, drought, and plague. Modern historians appreciate having such accounts as data points for scientific or medical history, but at the time they were presented in a totally different context, as potent factors driving policy-making. That points to one of the greatest conceptual differences that divide modern world-views from those of virtually all earlier eras, and that transition constitutes one of the greatest changes in the history of religion. We ignore those seemingly irrelevant scientific notations at the peril of failing to understand the religious and political history of earlier ages – not, in most cases, that there was any difference between religious and political.

Just at random, from many possible examples in countless societies (and by no means only Western and Christian), I read the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

733 This year Ethelbald conquered Somerton; and the sun was eclipsed, and the whole disc of the sun was like a black shield. And Acca was driven from his bishopric.

734 This year the moon was as if it had been sprinkled with blood; and archbishop Tatwine and Bede died, and Egbert was consecrated bishop. ….

744 This year Daniel gave up the see of Winchester, and Hunferth succeeded to the bishopric: and stars were seen to shoot rapidly: and Wilfrid the younger, who was bishop of York, died on the third before the Kalends of May. …

773 [774?] This year a fiery crucifix appeared in the heavens after sunset: and the same year the Mercians and the Kentish-men fought at Otford; and wondrous adders were seen in the land of the South-Saxons.

It’s wonderful having those references to eclipses, comets, and meteor showers, but at the time, they are clearly intended as heavenly proclamations or auguries of great events. Note how intimately they events in the skies are connected with battles and deaths. By the way, that fiery cross in the sky in 774 is still really intriguing. Most likely, it was a solar particle storm on an epic scale, many times stronger than the much-studied Carrington Event of 1859. Briefly, a colossal solar flare produced an equally impressive geomagnetic storm. Whatever THE THING was, it left traces in the carbon 14 levels in trees as far afield as Japan. By the by, if something like the 774 event happened today, it would shut down communication systems across much of the planet. Blessedly for them, the Anglo-Saxons had no Internet.

These attitudes to natural wonders were very widespread, and perhaps universal. Chinese sources are scrupulous in recording such cosmic events, and seeking to understand what they might portend for the fate of the empire. And here is a key point. Not only do such signs and wonders warn of future events, but they demand action, and shape policy. In 718, the (Byzantine) Chronicle of Theophanes reports a formidable earthquake in Syria, which preceded major policy decisions within the Caliphate. Or to be more precise, says Theophanes, because there had been such a quake, therefore the Caliph, Umar II, undertook a moral and religious reformation, banning wine from his cities and urging Christians to convert to Islam.

This is all very much in my mind right now as I am working on the history of Iconoclasm, the campaign by Roman/Byzantine emperors to remove images or icons from churches and public buildings, because they could be regarded as idolatrous. So why did it happen? When the patriarch Nikephoros wrote his account of the origins of the struggle, his explanation appears startlingly simple. In 726, he says, there was a terrifying volcanic eruption in the islands of Thera and Therasia. The emperor Leo III understood this to be a sign of divine wrath, and concluded that God was angry with the idolatry associated with religious images. Therefore, he began his great religious campaign. Modern readers find such an explanation superficial at best, and will rather look for more complex explanations, but in that may well be unnecessary. In the context of the time, such a linkage to natural calamities would have seemed thoroughly plausible, and inescapable.

Christians of this era, and for many centuries thereafter, believed unquestioningly that God directly controlled the world, so that natural disasters and plagues reflected his displeasure, which had to be appeased in some form if worse catastrophes were to be averted. In that interpretation, those believers were faithfully following the scriptures, which were the indispensable basis of worship and liturgy. When faced with such a heavenly sign, empires and rulers had to respond urgently by hewing more closely to God’s law. Depending on circumstances, this might mean persecuting or removing some dissident minority, or by strictly enforcing divine commandments. Such a providential approach underlies so many of the acts and decisions made by Christian rulers over images and icons.

Well, we might say, what else do you expect from the Dark Ages? But that concern with heavenly signs persisted for comfortably a millennium after the events I am describing. In the Early Modern period, European Christians debated at length whether it was proper to escape from cities afflicted by plague, as such events were so clearly judgments inflicted by God in punishment for worldly sins. And that is over and above the pervasive belief in astrology that dominated European thought at least through the end of the seventeenth century: it maintained a  vernacular afterlife long after that date.

Not until the Enlightenment did these attitudes even begin to be challenged. The comet of 1680 generated a panic across Europe, driving apocalyptic fears and sparking new religious movements. Pierre Bayle used the episode as a reason to publish his “Various Thoughts,” Pensées Diverses, in 1682, a sweeping diatribe against superstition and indeed, against a good deal of Catholic orthodoxy. Among other things, he placed the comet firmly in the realm of natural science, and showed why God would never use a cosmic sign to instruct his earthly subjects. The Pensées became a potent influence on Enlightenment thought, and religious skepticism, marking a transformational moment in European thought.

Of course, the new approaches did not immediately achieve universal acceptance. The issue of divine signs and wonders was a critical part of the Deist controversy in the British world of the early eighteenth century. For the first time too, traditional-minded believers not only cited heavenly events as tokens of God’s anger (as they had always done), but they used those episodes to score a point against their skeptical rivals. In 1704, journalist Daniel Defoe reported the monster storm that afflicted England the previous year in his book The Storm, a text that is sometimes described as the pioneering work of modern journalism. He duly addressed the religious consequences of what he termed “the greatest, the longest in duration, the widest in extent, of all the tempests and storms that history gives any account of since the beginning of time.” As he noted:

I cannot believe any man so rooted in atheistical opinions, as not to find some cause to doubt whether he was not in the wrong, and a little to apprehend the possibility of a Supreme Being, when he felt the terrible blasts of this tempest. I cannot doubt but the atheist’s hardened soul trembled a little as well as his house, and he felt some nature asking him some little questions; as these—Am not I mistaken? Certainly there is some such thing as a God—What can all this be? What is the matter in the world?

Later believers regularly mocked skeptics for their stubborn refusal to read the evident signs of the times, and to prepare accordingly. Here is Charles Wesley’s reaction to the catastrophic Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which killed at least thirty thousand, and which he contextualized together with the Book of Revelation. How could ignorant mortals be so foolish as to fail to appreciate the event in terms of God’s anger with human sins?

Woe! To the men, on earth who dwell,

Nor dread th’ Almighty frown,

When God doth all his wrath reveal,

And shower his judgments down!

Sinners, expect those heaviest showers,

To meet your God prepare,

When lo! The seventh angel pours

His vial in the air!

Lo! From their roots the mountains leap,

The mountains are not found,

Transported far into the deep,

And in the ocean drown’d!

Jesus descends in dread array

To judge the Scarlet Whore:

And every isle is fled away,

And Britain is no more!

She sinks beneath her ambient flood,

And never more shall rise:

The earth is gone, on which we stood,

The old creation dies!

The Scarlet Whore is of course the Papacy. By the way, Mark Molesky’s excellent book on the topic is entitled This Gulf of Fire: The Destruction of Lisbon, or Apocalypse in the Age of Science and Reason (2015).

Never underestimate the contribution of such natural disasters to the maintenance and cultivation of apocalyptic belief, and not just in Christianity.

Well into the nineteenth century, and beyond, we still find that sense of heaven and earth being so closely intertwined in multiple societies around the world. Almost at random, I note what happened in China in 1976, when a horrific earthquake killed 300,000. The event also undermined the radical regime of Chairman Mao, and led directly to the overthrow of that regime, and a massive opening to the wider world. Whatever language ordinary people used to frame the event, it is hard to escape the idea that the regime had lost the Mandate of Heaven.

So when you do read early sources – ancient, medieval, or Early Modern – always pay attention to those references to signs and wonders. They really did matter, and above all for any kind of religious history.



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