A curious litigation has just been decided at the Spalding County Court. The Great Northern Railway was sued for damages by a farmer, who had sent a quantity of potatoes to London shortly before Christmas, which were not delivered for nearly ten days, and were then found to be spoiled by the frost. The Company's defence was that a dense fog prevailed during the Christmas week, and disorganised the traffic; that everything was done to facilitate the transit of goods; and that, as the fog was the act of God, there was no liability for damage by delay. After an hour's deliberation, the jury returned a verdict for the defendants, and judgment was given them with costs.
We sincerely pity that Lincolnshire farmer. It is very hard lines to receive only thirteen and fourpence for four tons of potatoes; and harder still to pay the whole of that sum, and a good deal more, for attempting to obtain compensation. The poor man is absolutely without a remedy. The person who delayed and rotted his potatoes is called God, but no one knows where he resides, and it is impossible to serve a summons upon him, even if a court of justice would grant one. God appears to be the chartered libertine of this planet. He destroys what he pleases, and no one is able to make him pay damages.
Christians may call this "blasphemous." But calling names is no argument. Certainly it will not pay for that farmer's potatoes. We fail to see where the blasphemy comes in. An English judge and jury have accepted the Great Northern Railway Company's plea that the fog was the act of God. We simply take our stand upon their verdict and judgment. And we tell the Christians that if God sent the fog—as the judge and jury allow—he has a great deal more to answer for than four tons of rotted potatoes. That terrible fog cost London a gas bill amounting to twenty or thirty thousand pounds. It is impossible to estimate the cost to the community of delayed traffic and suspended business. Hundreds of people were suffocated or otherwise slaughtered. Millions of people were made peevish or brutally ill-tempered, and there was a frightful increase of reckless profanity.
Many persons, doubtless, will say that God did not send the fog. They will assert that it came in the ordinary course of nature. But does nature act independently of God? Is he only responsible for some of the things that happen? And who is responsible for the rest?
Those who still believe in the Devil may conveniently introduce him, it is curious, however, that they never do, except in cases of moral evil. Criminal indictments charge prisoners with acting wickedly under the instigation of the Devil. But physical evil is ascribed to Jehovah. Bills of lading exonerate shipowners from liability if anything happens to the cargo through "the act of God or the Queen's enemies." Old Nick does not raise storms, stir up volcanoes, stimulate earthquakes, blight crops, or spread pestilence. All those destructive pastimes are affected by his rival. Even cases of sudden death, or death from lightning are brought in by jurors as "died by the visitation of God." Which seems to show that a visit from God is a certain calamity.
The time will come, of course, when all this nonsense about "the act of God" will disappear. But it will only disappear because real belief in God is dying. While men are sincere Theists they cannot help seeing God in the unexpected and the calamitous. That is how theology began, and that is how it must continue while it has a spark of vitality. But theology declines as knowledge increases. Our dread of the unknown diminishes as we gain command over the forces of nature; that is, our dread of the unknown diminishes as we turn it into the known.
"The act of God" is to be frustrated by Science. We cannot prevent storms, but we are growing more able to foresee them. We cannot prevent the angry waves from rising, but we can build ships to defy their fiercest wrath. We cannot prevent mist from ascending in certain conditions of sky and soil, but we can drain low-lying ground, and prevent the mist from being fatally charged with smoke. We cannot abolish the microbes with which our planet swarms, and if we could we should be surrounded with intolerable putrifaction; but we can observe the laws of public and private sanitation, maintain a high state of vitality, and make ourselves practically invulnerable.
Science is the instrument for achieving the triumph of man. Ultimately it will subdue the planet for us, and we shall be able to exclaim with Mr. Swinburne, "Glory to man in the highest, for man is the master of things." The paradise the theologians dream of will be realised on earth. We shall not abolish death, but we shall make life strong, rich, and glorious, and when death comes it will bring no terror, but rest and peace in the shadow of its wings.
Meanwhile "the act of God" will to some extent survive in the mental life of the multitude. All prayer is based upon this superstition. Those who pray for relief or exemption from storm, famine, or disease; those who pray to be preserved from "battle, murder, and sudden death"; those who pray to be saved from any evil, are, all praying against "the act of God." It is God who is sending the mischief, and therefore he is begged to take it away or pass it on to other persons. Hamburg would be grateful to God even if he transferred the cholera to Berlin. Thus do ignorance and selfishness go hand in hand; thus does superstition cloud the intellect and degrade the character.