Life wasn’t going too well for John Hull. The 17th century Boston merchant had a cargo of furs going to Europe and the entire load was lost at sea. Then news came he had lost a second shipment too. Dutch pirates had seized the ship and taken Hull’s furs.
It was a big loss, but Hull was a pious man—a Boston Puritan. He comforted himself with the thought his personal economic disaster was part of a larger plan. These were “acts of God.”
Today, the phrase “acts of God” turns up every time the weather turns violent. When there’s a hurricane, an earthquake, or a particularly bad snow storm, people say it’s “an act of God.” If a flood washes away a neighborhood, lightning sets a house on fire or a hurricane ruptures an oil well, a legal fight could emerge over whether it’s “an act of God.”
It’s also a contested phrase, one that often comes up in legal disputes.
The idea comes from Roman law, but it received a special religious twist when it was translated into English. English jurists started using English terms including “act of God” instead of Latin phrases like “vim maiorem” in the late 16th century. Since then, the history of “an act of God” is the history of people fighting over the idea, starting with Puritans and mercantile capitalists. Some people have attributed unforeseen and unforeseeable accidents to God while others have disagreed.
As John Calvin explained in the “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” “if a sudden gust of wind at sea causes a shipwreck” or “one is struck down by the fall of a house or a tree,” that’s not just bad luck. Christians “will look further for the cause,” Calvin said, “and hold that all events whatsoever are governed by the secret counsel of God.”
The capitalist mode of dealing with the events you couldn’t plan for was a little bit different. Capitalists didn’t try to make sense of it; They tried to make profit off it.
In his economic history “Freaks of Fortune,” Jonathan Levy writes that transatlantic merchants and the people who financed them figured out ways to measure and calculate risk. They then turned that risk into a commodity. It could be bought and sold and turn a profit.
These experimenting capitalists knew things didn’t always go well. Things didn’t always go according to plan, but the unknown future could be managed and exploited. One way to do this was to insure cargo against “acts of God.”
For many people, the capitalist mode of dealing with the unknown did not sit so easily with the Puritan approach.
In 1845, for example, a London minister was very upset to receive a circular offering a new financial product: life insurance. He opposed it as a scheme to protect against “acts of God.” He wrote the insurance company, saying that it is insane hubris to try to insure oneself against “the ways and dealings of providence.”
Other people insisted there was no need to be so theological about such events. In 1886, a British lord noted that, “I have myself never had any doubt but that the phrase does not mean act of God in the ecclesiastical and biblical sense … but that in a mercantile sense.”
But how people understood an “act of God” were never separated into categories, since financial thinking could shape theological thinking. Religious ideas were sometimes repurposed and refashioned into commercial ideas. And sometimes, the assurance of souls and insurance of goods were tied together.
When John Hull, the Boston Puritan, got the news his cargo was lost, he said to himself that this was the Lord’s “own secret blessing, though I know not which why.”
Since he was a businessman as well as a Puritan, Hull also had marine insurance to cover the losses. He could trust God and make money, too.
Sometimes contemporary Calvinists such as Minnesota pastor John Piper take up the task of explaining the doctrine of providence in terms of tsunamis. But those with big commercial interests are especially likely to invoke the language of an “act of God.” God is frequently connected to natural disasters in court.
In 1985, for example, an aluminum manufacturer in Pennsylvania claimed heavy rain was an act of God. According to environmental lawyer Joel Eagle, the company had dumped “a large amount of oily wastes containing hazardous substances” down the air shafts of abandoned coal mines near the Susquehanna River. That year, Hurricane Gloria sent serious storms across the East Coast, and the rain flushed the waste out of the ground and into the river. It cost the Environmental Protection Agency about $1.3 million to clean up the 100,000 gallons of aluminum waste and they charged the company.
The case went to court and the company lost. The judge wasn’t sympathetic to the “act of God” defense, writing that the “chemical soup” was “not dumped into that borehole by an act of God.”
The “act of God” phrase came up again in what is considered one of the most devastating environmental disaster caused by humans, the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. Exxon originally claimed that the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska was an “act of God” because icebergs had forced the captain to change routes. It was the icebergs that put the supertanker on the course that eventually run aground, spilling 11 million gallons of crude into the ocean.
The public outcry led Congress to pass the Oil Pollution Act, toughening the legal definition of “act of God.” It couldn’t just be an unforeseen event, such as an unanticipated natural disaster. Legally, corporations could only pass responsibility for such disasters to God if the natural phenomenon was “of an exception, inevitable, and irresistible character” that couldn’t possibly have been avoided.
The high bar has not stopped companies from using “act of God” in legal defenses, however. Just this week, Taylor Energy President William Pecue used the phrase to explain why his company wasn’t responsible for a decade-old, ongoing oil leak off the coast of Louisiana.
There is still a trace of underlying theology in these corporate invocations. The phrase implies that there are some things that are beyond human control, that plans don’t always work out. Sometimes the weather is extreme. People will always disagree over whether this accident or that storm is an “act of God,” but humans just have to live through unexpected events and many will try to profit from them if they can.
If Calvin wouldn’t quite recognize the logic, John Hull probably would.
Daniel Silliman is an instructor of American religion and culture for the Heidelberg Center for American Studies at Heidelberg University. He is an associate editor of “Religion and the Marketplace in the United States” and you can follow him on Twitter @danielsilliman.