‘What Hath God Wrought’: The Biblical Phrase That Made Scientific History

In a way, this story starts with a talking donkey and ends with Mountain Dew hot dogs.
An illustration of Samuel Morse and company sending the first telegraph message from 'The Story of the Nineteenth Century of the Christian Era,' 1900.
An illustration of Samuel Morse and company sending the first telegraph message from 'The Story of the Nineteenth Century of the Christian Era,' 1900. / (Illustration) Internet Archive Book Images, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain; (Background) Justin Dodd/Mental Floss

Just before the start of the 21st century, the United Nations’ International Marine Organization officially terminated Morse code’s role in maritime communications and replaced it with the Global Marine Distress and Safety System.

“Instead of typing out the dots and dashes of the famous SOS signal, communications officers on modern ships can simply push a button indicating a specific problem: sinking, capsizing, dead in the water,” Reuters reported in July 1999.

KFS in Half Moon Bay, California, was the last American ship-to-shore station to switch to the new system. When it finally retired Morse code on July 12, station manager Tim Gorman turned his final message into the ultimate bookend moment: It was “What hath God wrought,” the very same quote that Samuel Morse had used for the world’s first long-distance telegraph transmission back in 1844. 

Here’s the story of how Morse chose it—and how that choice transformed a biblical expression of reverence into a modern-day punchline.

My, Granny, What Hath God Wrought!

The Bible’s Book of Numbers sees the Israelites at the border of Moab—in what’s now Jordan—poised to cross the Jordan River to the Promised Land beyond it. Moab’s king, Balak, is less than enthused about their presence, to put it mildly, so he enlists a prophet named Balaam to curse them. 

God, with the help of a sword-bearing angel and a talking donkey, convinces Balaam that trying to take down the Israelites would be pure folly; Balaam actually ends up bestowing blessings on them, instead. It’s during this change of heart that Balaam utters the phrase what hath God wrought.

Rembrandt's painting of Balaam on his donkey with the sword-wielding angel and other onlookers in the background
'Balaam and the Ass' by Rembrandt. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

“Surely there is no enchantment against Jacob, neither is there any divination against Israel: according to this time it shall be said of Jacob and of Israel, What hath God wrought!” he exclaims. It’s an acknowledgement that no curse could possibly prevent the Israelites from gaining their fated glory and a prediction that everyone else will wonder at what God’s power was able to do for his people.

Here, what hath God wrought isn’t a question, but rather an exclamatory statement in the manner of Little Red Riding Hood’s “My, granny, what big ears you have!” and Oklahoma’s “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’”. That sense of the phrase—i.e. “Look what God has done!”—was pretty well preserved as people quoted it through the ages.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, it often cropped up in Christian sermons related to the splendor of salvation and also in updates on Christian missionary work. “When we take a survey of our Missions in Europe, Asia, [Africa], and America, and consider the success with which they have been favoured, we are led to exclaim, ‘What hath God wrought!’” one English Methodist association announced in 1831.

Morse’s use of the expression didn’t rewrite the meaning—but it did help broaden its scope.

Morse Majeure

On the evening of March 3, 1843, Samuel Morse sat in the Senate gallery feeling more and more demoralized with each passing moment. 

For over a decade, he’d devoted his life to inventing an electromagnetic telegraph machine and trying to secure funding for a 40-mile line running from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore, Maryland. The House of Representatives had finally passed a bill granting him $30,000 for the project—by a margin of just six votes—but the Senate would adjourn at midnight, and it was starting to seem unlikely that they’d even get to vote on the bill, let alone pass it, before the session ended. This could very well spell doom for Morse’s entire endeavor.

“[I]f, by any means, the bill should fail in the Senate, I shall return to New York, with the fraction of a dollar in my pocket,” Morse had recently written to his associate Alfred Vail. Eventually, one of his senator pals told him it was basically impossible that they’d get to his bill, and the dejected inventor withdrew to his hotel for the night.

So you can imagine his astonishment when, upon entering the breakfast room the next day, he was called to the parlor, where a smiling Annie Ellsworth congratulated him on his triumph. Annie was the teenage daughter of Henry L. Ellsworth, the commissioner of the U.S. Patent Office who had helped Morse secure a patent for his telegraph in 1837. After Morse had thrown in the towel the night before, Henry had stayed and watched the Senate pass his friend’s pivotal bill with minutes to spare. The president signed it shortly thereafter.

“The news was so unexpected that for some moments I could not speak,” Morse recalled. After recovering himself, he rewarded Annie for being the first to tell him with a promise: “the first dispatch on the completed line from Washington to Baltimore shall be yours.”

Samuel Morse descending a staircase as Annie Ellsworth speaks to him excitedly from the hall beside the banister
A 19th-century illustration of Annie Ellsworth telling Samuel Morse that Congress will fund his telegraph line. / Culture Club/GettyImages

Annie chose the quote “What hath God wrought” on her mother Nancy’s recommendation; it seemed a fitting reflection of Morse’s devout belief that God was working through him to give humankind a crucial new tool. 

“When I consider that he who rules supreme over the ways and destinies of man often makes use of the feeblest instruments to accomplish his benevolent purposes to man … I cheerfully take my place on the lowest seat at his footstool,” Morse later said.

On May 24, 1844, the day of the first public telegraph test on the 40-mile line, it was Morse who wrote the four words on a slip of paper and transmitted them in Morse code from Capitol Hill to Alfred Vail in Baltimore. That paper is preserved in the Library of Congress’s archives, with Morse’s penciled message traced over in ink by Annie herself.

the words 'what hath god wrought' in script below a description of where and when it was sent
Morse's outgoing message, traced over by Annie Ellsworth, below a description of the time and location of its transmission. / Samuel Finley Breese Morse Papers, Library of Congress Manuscript Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

God Hath Wrought a Little Better Today

In the decades after Morse’s inaugural long-distance transmission, what hath God wrought gained popularity as a way to marvel at new technology—especially when it related to communications.

When Calvin Coolidge became the first president to deliver a State of the Union address via radio broadcast in December 1923, for example, The Daily Pantagraph of Bloomington, Illinois, declared that every listener “must have been profoundly impressed with the importance of the occasion and the wonder of the wireless. … Aye, it must be repeated: ‘What Hath God Wrought?’”

But the expression was also used to reflect on success more generally. In July 1929, Vermont’s Bennington Evening Banner deployed it in a piece praising the U.S.’s rapid evolution into “the mightiest, wealthiest and most powerful nation on the face of the earth. … [A]s we look back over the years that are gone, we can truly say: ‘What hath God wrought.’” Knowing that the Great Depression would devastate the nation in mere months renders the statement ironic.

It’s not just hindsight that can make what hath God wrought seem ominous. In the mid-20th century, as feelings toward technological advancement broadened beyond awestruck gratitude and into more complex territory—confusion, trepidation, suspicion, even outright horror—so too did the meaning of the expression. No longer was it always “Look what God has done!”; sometimes, it was “What has God done?”

A Harrisburg Telegraph piece published after the bombing of Hiroshima interrogated whether nuclear weapons, a “physical and chemical demon” and a “death-dealing engine of war,” could really engender peace. “The Atomic Age has arrived. Is its advent, in fact, ‘the greatest scientific gamble in history?’ Or is it the exemplification that ‘God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform?’ Verily, ‘What hath God wrought?’” the Pennsylvania paper asked.

It’s tempting to assume that the shift from exclamation point to question mark happened during this shift in meaning. But in fact, people had been punctuating it with a question mark for decades; even Morse did in his original telegraph message. It’s possible that they did so simply because it looked like a question.

Whatever the case, the question mark stuck around through the late 20th century as what hath God wrought became a cheeky response to the exasperating and relentless nature of life in the Information Age. What hath God wrought in subjecting us to junk calls, wrong-number calls, guides for playing songs on push-button telephones, and malfunctioning transmission towers that cause household appliances to broadcast the radio aloud?

In 1972, columnist John Crosby imagined William Blake’s reaction to learning that “some jerk has gone and invented the tape recorder” like so: “What hath God wrought this time, for God’s sake?” And in 1979, after a “frustrating” practice session on a new teletypewriter, one Jack Laugen typed out “My God, what hath God wrought.” (“God hath wrought a little better today,” Laugen sent after the following session.)

It’s a mark of Morse’s cultural influence that what hath God wrought is still so often mentioned in reference to new inventions today—even if the invention is now typically something like Mountain Dew–flavored hot dogs or chocolate jelly bean–flavored sparkling water. Then again, who’s to say those haven’t inspired reverent wonder at what God has done for his people?

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