Thanks to Joe Feldkamp who recently completed our Sunday morning study of the book of Romans.
In our final two classes, Joe led us in a discussion of how easily our well-intentioned opinions can become non-negotiables. A while back I had mentioned to Joe that I had an article in my archives which featured the opinions of some early religionists regarding whether steamboats were of God or of the devil. Back in the 1800’s it was every bit as controversial among some as today’s discussion about stem cell research etc.
Anyway….I finally located the piece, written by John Gipson. John formerly was a minister for the 6th and Izzard church of Christ in Little Rock, AR. I think you will be both amused, amazed and alarmed at how we as humans can let our opinions become so polarized…even when having to do with steamboats.
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According to Victor Hugo, “the first success won by the steamboat was to be christened the Devil boat. To these good fisher folk, formerly Catholics, now Calvinists, always bigots, it seemed to be hell afloat.”
A local preacher treated this question: “Have we the right to make fire and water work together, when God has separated them?” Besides, did not this beast of fire and iron resemble Leviathan? Was not this reconstituting chaos?
In Europe the religious point of view was as follows: fire and water are a divorce. This divorce is ordained by God. One should not put asunder what God has joined together; one must not unite what he has put asunder.
In America, according to Hugo, the argument was different. “In 1807, when Fulton’s first steamboat, commanded by Livingston, provided with Watt’s engine sent from England, and managed besides the ordinary crew, by only two Frenchmen, Andre Michaux and another, when this first steamboat made its first trip from New York to Albany, it chanced to be the seventeenth of August. Thereupon, Methodism took up the word, and in all the chapels the preachers cursed the machine, declaring that seventeen was the total of the ten horns and the seven heads of the beast of the Apocalypse.”
Hugo comments, “In America, the beast of the Apocalypse was invoked against the steamship; and in Europe, the beast of Genesis. Therein lay the whole difference.”
Hugo wasn’t just taking a shot at religion. He pointed out that the wise men had rejected the steamboat as impossible: the preachers, in their turn, rejected it as impious. Science condemned; religion anathematized; and the peasants were frightened.
But the point comes home to me that if we are not careful we may misuse the Bible. Perhaps it would be well for all of us to heed Paul’s words to Timothy, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15)