Saving God’s creation
Book Review by Philip Terrie
In 1967, Science published an article destined to be one of the most controversial and most frequently cited ever to appear in that distinguished journal: “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis.” The author, Lynn White Jr., was a medieval historian, a professor at UCLA. He argued that the devastating and unsustainable exploitation of nature that began with the Industrial Revolution had its intellectual roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition, especially in the creation story in the book of Genesis.
White saw the patriarchal, exploitative, frequently abusive treatment of the natural world that underlay Western civilization to flow logically from God’s instruction to Adam and Eve: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” Because of this divine admonition, White argued, “especially in its Western form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen.”
Instantly controversial, the article was seen by some as a biased, superficial, and facile attack on Christianity, while others read it as a useful and insightful contribution to the growing field of environmental history. Whatever its merits, it generated scores of articles and books. A long list of scholars saw its utility but also understood that it overlooked much of the complex nexus winding through Christianity, a genuine appreciation of nature, and the possibility of stewarding, rather than wasting, its resources. The latest installment in this ongoing scholarly enterprise is Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism by Mark Stoll, a professor of history at Texas Tech University.
Stoll’s approach is to look at the religious background of many of the important figures in American environmentalism from the mid-nineteenth century to the recent past. He finds that, in fact, a disproportionate number of these people (mostly men) had deep religious roots, particularly in the Calvinist traditions of Presbyterianism and Congregationalism. While the history of American Calvinism does not instantly suggest explicit links to environmentalism, Stoll finds critical ingredients in the Protestant tradition that led such diverse characters as John Muir and George Perkins Marsh to take up path-breaking roles in the story of Americans and how they responded to nature.
Ordinarily, when we think of John Calvin (if we think of him at all), we recall the dour fanatic of Geneva—a cold, authoritarian, often cruel figure. But Stoll digs deeper, finding that Calvin also wrote, frequently and passionately, of nature’s beauty as a reflection of God’s glory. According to Stoll, more than any other contemporary theologian, Calvin appreciated the natural world. This appreciation shows up in the voluminous writings of American Puritans like Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards. These figures, too, we often pigeonhole as forbidding and coldly intellectual. Stoll rightly moves beyond this stereotype and emphasizes the Puritan conviction that all of the natural world was a daily reminder of the majesty of its creator.
The Puritans also believed that God’s earth should be cared for and not wasted. In this, as in so much else, Stoll reminds us, the Puritans were the fountain of much of American culture. And while the darker side of Puritanism steadily receded in the nineteenth century, the love of nature and the inclination to steward it, often divorced from their theological roots, persisted and became major sources of American environmentalism.
Stoll traces these threads in the work of a huge pantheon of familiar American artists and writers. Both the canvases of Hudson River artists like Thomas Cole and the literary output of writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson reflected these features of our Puritan origins. Further, and perhaps more important, Stoll teases out the Puritan element in the intellectual heritage of George Perkins Marsh, author of Man and Nature (1864), perhaps the most important environmental work of the nineteenth century. This is where Stoll’s narrative begins to have significant Adirondack implications.
Marsh’s warnings about the abuse of mountain forests were fundamental to the origins of the Adirondack Forest Preserve and the Adirondack Park. Not only did they inspire Charles Sprague Sargent, who first used the words “forever kept as wild forest lands” in connection with Adirondack forests (in an 1885 report to the New York legislature that recommended the creation of the New York State Forest Preserve), they also impressed New Yorker Franklin B. Hough, who went on to a stellar career in forestry and enthusiastically advanced the cause of the Forest Preserve.
There are a number of other important figures in Adirondack cultural history with direct ties to the Calvinist tradition. Author Joel T. Headley, whose book The Adirondack, or Life in the Woods (1849) helped publicize the appeal of the great northern Wilderness, was trained as a Protestant minister. So was William H. H. Murray (briefly discussed by Stoll), who after the Civil War probably did more to send throngs of tourists to the Adirondacks than anybody else in the entire nineteenth century. The popular enthusiasm for wilderness recreation in the Adirondacks, so articulately promoted by writers like Headley and Murray, was vitally important when the state began to consider protecting its remaining forests in the 1880s and 1890s.
Stoll’s book is a long one, and it’s encyclopedic in its exhaustive catalog of important figures in American environmental history. John Muir is there, and so are Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, Andrew Jackson Downing, Frederick Law Olmsted, John Burroughs, and Gifford Pinchot, along with dozens and dozens of less familiar names. After a while the book begins to remind me of a similar thesis-driven book: John Reiger’s American Sportsmen and the Origins of Conservation (1975), where Reiger sets out to demonstrate that hunters and anglers were the driving force behind every major conservation accomplishment before the turn of the twentieth century.
Many of the same people discussed by Stoll appear in Reiger’s catalog. It’s quite clear that a host of important environmental figures, at some point in their lives, liked hunting and fishing. What Reiger doesn’t prove is whether or not this background in field sports inevitably led to environmentalism. In the same way, Stoll unarguably shows a churchgoing past (or present) in the lives of his protagonists. Were they inclined to environmentalism because of their religious upbringing? Or were they simply typical white, Anglo-Saxon Americans of their day—in other words members of the class of people who made nearly all the important decisions about natural-resource policy? Indeed, it would be hard to come up with a list of nineteenth-century movers and shakers who didn’t go to church. Nearly everyone did. It’s the classic conundrum: how do we distinguish cause from association?
Nonetheless, Stoll provides a thorough, richly detailed, well researched and written narrative of American environmentalism through the middle of the twentieth century. It is relentless in its dogged pursuit of its thesis, but the major figures and the major causes are all fully represented. Anyone who reads this book will finish with a solid comprehension of the emergence and eventual respectability of environmental values in American culture. ■