Steam Locomotives in the Bible.

Original title page

This is the substance of a lecture delivered by Mr Gregg in Sheffield in 1863. He had once lived in that city, but his lecture was the occasion of his first return there for twenty-five years. In his opening paragraph he said, with unintended irony, “I was once part and parcel of your ecclesiasticism…a joint, or screw, or crank in your social system.” He also recounted an amusing anecdote:

“It were as but yesterday, when I was stoned in Water-lane, and encountered the discipline of the poker at the hands of one of my zealous and enthusiastic countrywomen; had my hat broken and very nearly my head, and delivered the weapon of my zealously affected opponent into the hands of the large and portly peace officer – Raynor by name – who was all serene amid the storm: – and when all parties retired from the scene well pleased with the part they played. I, that had testified for the truth: the simple-minded Irishwoman that she had nearly brained an ‘heretical swaddler’ – and the worthy police officer that he had separated two of those ‘unintelligible and ridiculous Patlanders,’ who would be getting to fisty-cuffs for nothing in the world. Where are all the parties now? God knows.”

Just what was at issue here is not clear, but it seems likely that it represented yet another disagreement between Protestant and Catholic – Mr Gregg styled himself “the leader of the Protestants of Dublin and of Ireland” and had great plans to “overthrow Popery.” (He also had plans to “convert the Jews”, but that is another matter.)

However, let’s get down to the real substance of the lecture: the steam locomotive as revealed in the Bible. Mr Gregg’s idea was that since the Bible was the word of the living God, therefore it contained everything:

“The mariner’s compass is in the Bible; gas is in the Bible; photography is in the Bible; telegraphy is in the Bible; but, above all, steam locomotion is in the Bible. Nay, and an actual and accurate description of the steam locomotive itself. Of course all in riddle, in dark and obscure riddle; rendered a thousand times more dark by our suffering our right eyes to be thrust out, and all our senses to be obfuscated, so that we could not see with our eyes, hear with our ears, nor understand with our heart. Therefore the darkness of the world was not the fault of the Bible, but of Man himself. If Man had faith in the Bible, and read it incessantly, and prayed over it no less, God would have opened it to mankind, and we should have had the millennium one thousand years ago. Holy Scripture abounds in statements of locomotion attended by fire.”

Let us take a look at some of these references. Daniel 7.9 refers to a “throne” which was like “fiery flame”, and had “wheels as burning fire.” Then there is Nahum 2.3-4, which Mr Gregg renders thus:

“The shield of his mighty men is made red, the valiant men are in scarlet: the choice iron of his chariotry shall be in the fire in the day when he arms him, and their fir timber shall be terribly shaken. The chariots shall rage in the passages: they shall run smoothly in the broad ways: they shall appear, like torches: they shall run like lightning.”

Mr Gregg comments:

“You cannot fail to see how beautifully descriptive this passage is of the steam-locomotive – our fire-horse.”

If, like me, you remain a little dubious of these and similar passages which Mr Gregg supplies, then you will be eager to see the centrepiece of his case – Ezekiel, chapter 1. Here we find, in Mr Gregg’s literal rendering of the Hebrew, a “great cloud of smoke”, with fire “whirling itself around” (verse 4); four “living creatures” (verse 5) with wheels (verses 15-16), moving on straight paths (verse 7) with the rapidity of lightning (verse 14) and with “sparks streaming as from brass burnt in a furnace” (verse 7). All this, of course, is readily identifiable with a steam-train.

Mr Gregg gives a literal translation of the whole of Ezekiel 1.4-25, and concludes that:

“…the prophet saw without understanding the matter beyond what a spectator of his age would, four steam locomotives, with a passenger carriage attached to each, in vision; and the roof as it were stripped off of these passenger carriages, so that he could see the passengers seated within, as in vision. And that their eyes were brightly developed; while the rest of their countenances and persons did not draw his attention. That he saw them simultaneously in movement, and perhaps (as where many lines branch off) in different directions.”

The passengers, incidentally, are the “eyes” in verse 18.

Now, even in Mr Gregg’s literal translation some of this seems a bit forced, to say the least, and when we read in the Authorised Version, for example, a steam train is even less in evidence. To Mr Gregg, though, it is all very clear, and he interprets this section of Ezekiel in much greater detail than we can go into here (for example, he sees men stoking the boilers in verse 8, and the letting-off of steam as the engine comes to a halt in verse 24.) “I unhesitatingly submit to the learned world,” he says with confidence, “that the Cherubim of the first chapter of Ezekiel are the steam locomotives of these latter days.”

But Mr Gregg didn’t stop here. He next turned his attention to Ezekiel chapter 10, where a very similar vision is described, only this time the cherubim “mount up from the earth” (verses 16 & 19). This section of Ezekiel, he concludes, “compels us to contemplate a time when the progress of improvement shall make us to have, not merely terrestrial locomotives….but aerial ones also.” In this, of course, Mr Gregg turned out to be right, even if it was for the wrong reasons. One imagines, though, that in an audience of 1863, the prospect of a flying locomotive aroused some degree of laughter and ridicule!

There is a curious postscript to all this, for in 1974 an author by the name of J.F.Blumrich published a study based on these same passages of Ezekiel and came to the conclusion that they described not terrestrial and aerial locomotives, but extraterrestrial spaceships! They were, he said, manoeuvrable shuttle-craft from a mother ship located high above the earth! (Blumrich’s study can be found in his book The Spaceships of Ezekiel.)

A century separates Messrs Gregg and Blumrich, of course, which raises the fascinating question: what will Ezekiel’s vision be taken to mean in another hundred years?

Finally, I can almost hear my readers murmuring amongst themselves, “but what about chapter 41 of the Book of Job?” What indeed! Fortunately, having identified the steam-locomotive in Ezekiel, by 1864 Mr Gregg was identifying battleships in Job. In his booklet Leviathan: the Iron-clads of the Sea Revealed in the Bible, he wrote:

“When then it appears that we have an elaborate description of fiery land-carriage under the image of Cherubim (the divine carriers of the celestial world) in the Prophet Ezekiel, the fitness and symmetry of the divine revelation which God has been pleased to confer upon mankind would make it proper that we should have an equally elaborate description of the fiery water-carriage elsewhere, and can anything more tend to glorify the fore-knowledge and omniscience of God that the place where it is discovered is, perhaps, the most ancient book in the Bible, if not in the whole world?”

Actually, there is not a great deal of interest for the general reader in this booklet, and its title-page (reproduced here) is about its funniest part. But it is to be noted that the infamous Biblical Leviathan is not a whale, nor a sea-serpent, nor a crocodile, but a steam-powered battleship, and:

“Little did ‘the Great Eastern Steamship Company (Limited)’ imagine, when they decided on calling their monster vessel Leviathan, how near they approximated to a glorification of the holy oracles.”

It is true that if you squint a bit, Psalm 104.26 can be taken to imply that Leviathan is a ship. But then one immediately recalls, does one not, Isaiah 27.1, which says that Leviathan is a serpent! I leave readers to make up their own minds.

Title page of Leviathan, by Tresham Dames Gregg