Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise American Environmentalism
by Mark Stoll
Oxford University Press, 416 pages, $39.95
With today’s environmentalist standard-bearers hailing from Hollywood and the political left, it is tempting to see the environmental movement as a Trojan Horse for liberalism, pantheism, and all manner of threats to orthodoxy. Those concerns are not without foundation, but we should also remember what Jonathan Edwards wrote: “God’s excellency, his wisdom, his purity and love, seemed to appear in everything; in the sun, moon and stars; in the clouds, and blue sky; in the grass, flowers, trees; in the water, and all nature.” With Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism, Mark Stoll chronicles how conservationism and its green progeny arose from Calvinism. “When Emerson advised the solitary individual to seek mystical union with the Divine in the woods,” writes Stoll, “he simply restated long-standing Calvinist advice.”
Stoll’s account diverges from the standard history of environmentalism exemplified by books such as Benjamin Kline’s First Along the River. That popular college text sees Calvinism as the pump-primer for industrialized pillaging, and it lauds the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau as the freethinking architects of environmental ethics. This conventional wisdom echoes Lynn White’s famous 1967 Science essay, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” which forcefully laid out the green case against Christianity. White concluded that “we shall continue to have a worsening ecologic crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man.” Among those who took issue with White’s axiom were Francis Schaeffer and Wendell Berry, but despite such protests the charge largely stuck.
Stoll, too, originally accepted this party line, but upon investigation he was surprised to find that those who actually devoted their careers to such matters were not the products of transcendentalism. Instead, conservation and environmental leaders overwhelmingly had childhoods heavy on religion, usually of a Calvinist variety. For most of America’s environmental history, the Bible has been a bigger influence than Walden.
Congregationalists, including Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted and landscape painter Thomas Cole, were inspired by an Edenic ideal and were the first to champion parks, forestry, and agricultural stewardship. Their Calvinist cousins, the Presbyterians, would dominate the conservationist era of the early twentieth century. Included in the lot were men like Gifford Pinchot, the founder of the Forest Service, his boss Teddy Roosevelt, and Stephen Mather, the first to head the National Park Service. Stoll, who himself was raised Presbyterian, provides an extensive list of other Calvinists—from park rangers to presidents—who led the way in a manner disproportionate to their numbers, and usually while maintaining fidelity to their creed. The environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s would later have at its helm “lapsed Presbyterians” such as Silent Spring author Rachel Carson, whose love of nature flourished because of, not in spite of, her religious upbringing, though she drifted away from the faith in mid-life.
Those standing in the Presbyterian pulpits before luminaries such as Carson, former Sierra Club head David Brower, and The Monkey-Wrench Gang author Edward Abbey were probably aware of Abraham Kuyper’s exhortation that Jesus Christ cries “mine” over every “square inch” of creation. The church was slow to respond when the seeds it had planted grew vigorously. Without those seeds, though, there might be no environmental movement today. Calvinist piety places a strong emphasis on experiencing God in creation, a sentiment seen in the Presbyterian hymn “This is My Father’s World”: “In the rustling grass, I hear Him pass / He speaks to me everywhere.” Its skepticism of a depraved humanity and criticisms of avarice would contribute to the bedrock of green thought. Eschatology also played a role. Premillenialists like the Southern Baptists, who have produced few environmental stalwarts, envisioned a supernatural escape from a planet destined for destruction, while Calvinist amillennialism featured a vision of earthly restoration.
Stoll’s iconoclastic scholarship may begin to restore the reputation of Calvinists in environmental circles. It does less, however, to explain the origins of the standard narrative that it dislodges. For more on that story, we can turn to Jeffrey Bilbro’s Loving God’s Wildness: The Christian Roots of Ecological Ethics in American Literature. Bilbro, an English professor at Spring Arbor University and an unlapsed Christian, brings a sharper religious eye to the topic than does Stoll. He explains how Puritans saw the American wilderness as both “a temple of God” where divine glory could be experienced and as “the Devil’s territories,” which called for the civilizing hand of man. These two views of nature developed in parallel and could find simultaneous expression in figures such as Cotton Mather, from whose pen both phrases come. Bilbro argues that the Puritans perpetuated “a damaging dualism” by viewing salvation as a solitary matter unconnected to economic life and its environmental costs. He quotes a lamenting Mather: “Religion brought forth Prosperity, and the Daughter destroy’d the Mother.” Nevertheless, a residual sense of reverence remained, and as Bilbro summarizes, the Puritans “marveled at the beauty of parts of God’s creation while making fortunes from the destruction of other parts.”
Bilbro also makes a compelling argument that the presumed pioneers of environmental thought were not as revolutionary as their modern irreligious readers might assume. Thoreau scoured the journals of the early Puritans and found in them a way, as he put it, to “trace back his own tracks in the snow.” Bilbro also situates John Muir’s “gospel of glaciers” within the Disciples of Christ theology in which America’s most important preservationist was raised. Asserting the ability of the individual to interpret the word of God for himself, the Disciples of Christ sought to restore Christianity to its pure primitive state. “Muir,” writes Bilbro, “turned to a more egalitarian and more primitive revelation—the Book of Nature—in the hope that his wild baptism could unify where the Disciples’ water baptism had failed.” (It did not, at least not completely, but it did shape our national parks.) Bilbro asserts that Thoreau and Muir—along with Willa Cather and Wendell Berry, whom he also profiles—all raise a core question: “What is the currency of the world? Is it money or God’s glory?”
Stoll believes that the lack of religious faith in today’s environmental movement has left it weak and divided: “Presbyterianism wilts and environmentalism droops.” The writers that Bilbro discusses, however, can be seen as evidence that, despite its past, the future of environmentalism may not be so directly correlated with Calvinism. None of Bilbro’s influential authors are firmly in the Calvinist camp, though all are rooted in Christianity more broadly. “Perhaps,” says a more hopeful Bilbro, “the protagonist of this story is the rich Christian tradition that contained within itself the resources to heal the scars that it helped cause.”
John Murdock teaches environmental law at the Handong International Law School in South Korea.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.