A short story by G. K. Chesterton originally published in The Story-Teller magazine in 1910, published in America’s The Saturday Evening Post in 1919 as “A Bolt from the Blue” and collected in The Innocence of Father Brown in 1911. This story is the fourth to feature as a detective the unassuming Roman Catholic priest Father Brown, who solves crimes through his knowledge of evil in everyday life.
The plot concerns two brothers, Colonel Bohun, a drunkard and playboy, and Reverend Bohun, curate of an Anglican church. The story commences with the Reverend Bohun meeting Colonel Bohun in the town square as the minister is on his way to church and the military man is making his way to continue an adulterous affair with the blacksmith’s wife. The reverend castigates the colonel for his blasphemous ways and continues on to the church to engage in prayer, only to be interrupted by the news that his brother has been struck dead in the square. The body is lying in the center of the square with its skull completely flattened, and a tiny hammer is found next to the body. Father Brown arrives on the scene just as the town’s suspicion focuses on the blacksmith, who turns out to have a firm alibi for the time of death. The blacksmith, a staunch Presbyterian, proffers a biblically accented theory that God smote the colonel down in punishment for his sins. Father Brown assures the townspeople that a man has committed the crime but that the joke that the blacksmith threw the hammer from the next town comes closest to the true explanation of it. The priest then escorts the minister to the top of the church steeple, where he confronts him with his knowledge that the minister himself murdered his brother by dropping the small hammer from that great height. He further tells the reverend that he will make no mention of the crime’s solution, offering the man a chance to redeem himself. The story ends with the curate confessing his guilt to the police.
Like Chesterton’s other Father Brown stories, The Hammer of God offers symbolic imagery and metaphysical ruminations along with a murderer who has been established as the least likely suspect. Echoing the biblical story of Cain and Abel, Chesterton portrays Reverend Bohun as confused by the great height of the church into believing he had the authority of God to choose who deserves life and who death. A description of the gothic architecture of the church edifice as offering a “topsy-turvy” view of the world melds with a larger statement about the dizzying heights offered by a religiosity cut off from human compassion. Father Brown offers the curate a paradox: “Humility is the mother of giants. One sees great things from the valley, only small things from the peak.” But ultimately, the curate comes across as a fundamentally good man, who repents for his crime by asserting his free will over his false conception of himself as godhead.
Chesterton, G. K. The Innocence of Father Brown. New York: Quiet Vision Press, 2001