As I write this, our house has been without electricity for more than two days, and we have been warned that it could take upwards of a week to restore power fully throughout our state. Hurricane Irene blew through here after working its way up the Eastern Seaboard into New England. With torrential rains and wind gusts of 60 miles per hour, the remnant of the storm threatened for a time to bring towering trees crashing down on our house. As it was, the only tree in our yard to suffer severe damage was a small maple down near the road. My son and I were out the next morning picking up fallen tree limbs and raking leaves; otherwise, apart from a refrigerator full of spoiled food, we were unscathed.
The Old Testament prophets, never shy about calling down God’s wrath on wayward Israelites, sometimes expressed themselves in meteorological terms. Nahum, who characterized the Lord as avenging and wrathful, warned that “his way is in whirlwind and storm.” Those inclined to read God’s mood into the forces of nature might conclude that the Almighty is especially prone to temper tantrums during hurricane season. The evangelist Pat Robertson famously declared that Hurricane Katrina was God’s judgment on legalized abortion. Robertson later issued a jeremiad in which he blamed the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti on a “pact with the devil” made by the Haitian people when they threw off French rule imore than 200 years ago.
Martin Luther had reason to believe the forces of nature were marshaled against him personally, having been knocked to the ground in a near-fatal lightning strike when he was an impressionable young law student. Terrified that he would be dispatched straight to hell, Luther vowed to become a monk if his life were spared. It was, and he kept his promise, although the Church would later have cause to wish the thunderbolt had been better aimed.
The 18th-century American evangelist Jonathan Edwards had once shared Luther’s dread of thunderstorms and the terrors of hell. However, his sense of the “majestic and awful voice of God’s thunder” was forever transformed as the result of a conversion experience as a young man. He recalled walking alone in his father’s pasture when he was overcome by a profound awareness of God’s majesty and meekness joined together at the core:
The appearance of every thing was altered; there seemed to be, as it were, a calm, sweet cast, or appearance of divine glory, in almost every thing. God’s excellency, his wisdom, his purity and love, seemed to appear in every thing; in the sun, and moon, and stars; in the clouds and blue sky; in the grass, flowers, trees; in the water, and all nature; which used greatly to fix my mind. I often used to sit and view the moon for a long time; and in the day, spent much time in viewing the clouds and sky, to behold the sweet glory of God in these things; in the mean time, singing forth, with a low voice, my contemplations of the Creator and Redeemer.
Edwards now rejoiced at the approach of thunderstorms, which he said were often “exceedingly entertaining, leading me to sweet contemplations of my great and glorious God.” He added, “While thus engaged, it always seemed natural to me to sing or chant forth my meditations; or, to speak my thoughts in soliloquies with a singing voice.”
A similar impulse inspired Carl Boberg, a small-town pastor in Sweden, to write a poem that was later set to on old Swedish folk tune and translated into English as “How Great Thou Art.” Long a staple of Billy Graham crusades, the hymn was written after Boberg and some companions were caught in a thunderstorm on their way home from a church service. A dark cloud suddenly appeared on the horizon, followed by flashes of lightning and a strong wind that swept across fields of billowing grain. Then the rains came, and afterwards a rainbow. Boberg was moved to write:
O Lord my God! When I in awesome wonder
Consider all the works Thy hands have made.
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.
There is an old saying that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, but it is only the beginning. In time we may discover the very things that inspire terror on first encounter later become a cause for rejoicing. For Edwards and Boberg, the instinctive response to God’s power and majesty was to sing. Music is a distinctly human form of expression and may have emerged around the same time as language. Music probably arose in imitation of sounds heard in nature, but it also provided a response to the spirits or forces that were believed to animate nature. Music has almost certainly been used in religious rituals from the beginning, whether to express fear or exultation. Children too young to talk can still dance, and dementia patients suffering from severe cognitive deficits may still be capable of making music. Perhaps that’s because music originates not in the mind but in the spirit.
Jonathan Edwards, Personal Narrative