What Religion Tells Us About the Place of Wilderness in American Environmentalism


Muir woods.

Muir woods. Credit: CreativeCommons / Aftab Uzzaman.

Wilderness has long been regarded as a cause near the heart of American environmentalism. Typical histories trace rising appreciation for wild nature that runs through Henry David Thoreau and John Muir on up to present passionate defenders of wilderness. This is such solidly received wisdom that hardly anyone, from environmental activist to academic historian, really questions it.
I discovered a rather different story during research for my book, Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism. I investigated the religious backgrounds of major figures in the history of environmentalism. Intriguingly, for over a century they overwhelmingly were raised in just two denominations, even though adult beliefs varied considerably.
That is, except when it came to wilderness. To my surprise, this perspective showed that wilderness had little to do with mainstream environmentalism. It was a latecomer, a fellow traveler on a parallel path.
My enlightenment began when I dug into the mid-1800s movements for parks, conservation, and forests. Nobody was paying the slightest attention to Thoreau. They barely acknowledged even his great mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson. But almost all of them had one thing in common. Nearly every one of the movements’ advocates was within one generation of a Congregational church in New England’s Connecticut River valley.
Take Frederick Law Olmsted of Hartford, Connecticut, for example. The world’s first landscape architect, he started off the parks movement in 1857 with his design for New York’s Central Park. Soon America’s leading designer of parks and suburbs, Olmsted was also involved with the creation of the first two state parks, Yosemite and Niagara Falls. Fellow New Englanders Ferdinand Hayden, Henry Washburn, and N.P. Langford were the prime instigators of the first national park, Yellowstone, in 1872.
Near the same time, Vermont Congregationalist George Perkins Marsh inspired the conservation and forestry movements with his landmark Man and Nature of 1864. Marsh defended forests not only as sources of timber for future generations but as vital for conservation of soil and water. Early leading forestry advocates were also New Englanders. Five of the first six heads of the Forestry Division (later the Forest Service) had New England origins. One was a Congregational minister. Another, Theodore Roosevelt’s Chief Forester Gifford Pinchot, created the National Forest system.
We think of parks as a sensible response to urbanization and industrialization and of conservation as a logical solution to destruction of resources. Yet why were Congregationalists so interested in these issues? How did their religious values shape these movements?
Congregationalists saw parks and conservation as profoundly moral issues. They believed that their Puritan ancestors’ vision of a moral, orderly communal life should be the model for the new American republic. They revered the white-steepled Congregational church rising above the green of a peaceful, prosperous, moral, democratic town.
Congregationalists thought that selfish greed hurt the common good. They knew that if communities were to survive, they had to conserve their resources for future generations. Puritan towns had regulated private property and resources for the good of all. Ministers preached good stewardship as a moral duty, so that God’s gifts served good purposes and not avarice.
New England town greens, the nation’s first urban parks, evolved from the commons that Puritans had reserved for communal purposes. Olmsted and early parks advocates highlighted parks’ social purpose, providing recreation and green space for all classes, both rich and poor. Because Congregationalists (like Puritans and other Calvinists) believed nature was where God drew closest and communicated himself, they believed parks also exerted a moral influence.
Marsh’s ideas of conservation and forestry also drew heavily from Congregational ideals of stewardship and the common good. The National Forests and Forest Service came to embody
those principles.

In all this, no one was talking about wilderness.
As I followed conservation into the late 1880s, I noticed a strange transition.

Congregationalists faded into the background. People raised Presbyterian led conservation in its glory days between 1889 and 1921 and its successor, environmentalism, after 1945. An unprecedented string of Presbyterian Presidents Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland, and Theodore Roosevelt, along with Presbyterian Secretaries of Interior, John Noble, Franklin Lane, and Harold Ickes, achieved dramatic and lasting successes. They expanded national parks from one to dozens. Presbyterians created and significantly expanded forest reserves (later National Forests), often in the face of bitter Congressional opposition. They organized the Forest Service and Park Service. They founded scores of game and bird refuges. The made the word “conservation” the watchword of their era.
Children of Presbyterianism made huge contributions outside of politics. Beloved nature writer John Muir, for example, advocated for national parks and served as the first president of the Sierra Club, founded in 1892. Presbyterians’ writings and leadership shaped the nascent environmental movement. In 1962, biologist Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, the book usually credited for inspiring environmentalism. Sierra Club director David Brower was the most active, influential, and charismatic environmentalist of the postwar decades. Many familiar names illustrate the huge Presbyterian presence of this era: Edward Abbey, bane of developers of Western landscape; Ian McHarg, great landscape architect; Holmes Ralston, father of environmental ethics; Alice Hamilton, mother of industrial medicine; William O. Douglas, “nature’s justice”; Jane Jacobs, urban critic and nemesis of freeway developers; John Denver, nature’s pop hit-maker; and many more.
Presbyterians were Congregationalists’ Calvinist cousins, but their contribution to environmentalism was of a different order. Presbyterianism’s homeland was Scotland, not New England. Its goal was not the moral town but a righteous nation. Presbyterians’ obsession with doctrinal purity made them censorious and moralistic. Fiery preachers, with “thus saith the Lord” assurance, called churches, communities, and nation to repentance. Presbyterianism fostered an intensely political culture.
Even more than Congregationalists, Presbyterians saw nature as the place to seek the spirit of God. Nature consequently must be protected from the ravages of sinful mankind, especially those driven by selfish greed.
The Presbyterian imprint on the American environmental movement showed in its moralistic opposition to rapacious destruction, for private gain, of nature and resources. An evangelical style of leadership roused voters and inspired people. Conservation and environmentalism enjoyed their golden years of political power. Then Presbyterians, too, faded away after the 1970s.
When I looked into the wilderness movement, I found another surprise. Not a Congregationalist or Presbyterian was to be seen. Wilderness advocates did not come out of the Muir tradition of advocacy of parks but rather usually out of the Forest Service. The founders of the Wilderness Society in 1934 all came from other traditions: Bob Marshall and Bernard Frank were Jewish, Aldo Leopold, secular German Lutheran, Robert Sterling Yard and Harvey Broome, Methodist, Ernest Oberholtzer, Unitarian; and Harold C. Anderson, Episcopalian. The society’s two best-known presidents were Howard Zahniser, Methodist, and Sigurd F. Olson, Swedish Baptist.
What did this hodgepodge of people have in common? What did they find to appealing in wilderness? Their reasons for saving wilderness were not primarily religious. They did not, like Congregationalists, invest wilderness with an overriding social purpose. Nor like Presbyterians did they did not cast wilderness in moral terms or preach to mass movements. As historian Paul Sutter has described, they came together in the 1920s and 1930s to oppose automobiles. Cars made remote areas easily accessible. New roads reached into pristine landscapes, encouraged development, attracted crowds, and destroyed beauty and solitude. Many wilderness advocates hoped to preserve some of the undeveloped natural abundance they knew as children in the late 19th century. Others yearned to experience what early explorers and pioneers had done.
The same diversity of background held in the radical wilderness movement of the 1980s and ’90s. The most important founders of Earth First! in 1980 were Dave Foreman, raised Churches of Christ; Howie Wolke, Jewish; and Mike Roselle, Catholic. When a second, more political generation took over Earth First! around 1990, their most important and charismatic leader was Judi Bari, of Jewish and Italian Catholic heritage. Sixties radicalism and the counterculture heavily influenced them. Their anti-establishment attitudes bordered on libertarianism. They adopted nonviolent civil disobedience tactics from the Civil Rights and antiwar movements. Bari, for example, explicitly modeled her Redwood Summer protests of 1990 on the Freedom Summer for black rights of 1964.
I concluded that the wilderness movement was a very different animal from environmentalism. Thoreau and Muir were not really its forerunners. Thoreau was never a true spokesman for wilderness. Walden speaks to other concerns. Muir defended the wild as the creation of God, to be defended against sinful man’s destructive greed.
Leaders of the modern wilderness movement have all been “outsiders” to mainstream environmentalism in many senses, not only religiously, but also politically and ideologically. Some mainstream figures have been supportive of wilderness — Brower and Abbey most prominently, and rather moralistically — but wilderness is not what environmentalism is all about. The American wilderness movement centers on preserving nature of the past against society of the present. In contrast, over a century and a half, mainstream environmentalism has sought a moral society that benefits all and conserves resources for future generations, and pursues these goals with evangelical zeal, political activism, and not a few spiritual overtones.

Mark Stoll is author of Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism (Oxford University Press, 2015). He teaches American environmental history at Texas Tech University.

2 thoughts on “What Religion Tells Us About the Place of Wilderness in American Environmentalism

  1. Although denominational identities no doubt carry some distinctive religious and theological orientations they do not begin to adequately characterize or reflect the full depth and sweep of biblical, Jewish and Christian understandings of nature and their impact on the various strands and leaders of the American environmental movement. I suggest that Susan Bratton’s “Christianity, Wilderness, and Wildlife” or George Huntston Williams’ “Wilderness and Paradise in Christian Thought” are much better guides, and much more theologically profound, than this account.

    • This is a historical argument rather than a theological one. I know the theology very well (see my book for much more on that, with extensive bibliography). The point is that historical actors were motivated by much more than theology, which was rarely the highest priority. Theological “understandings of nature” alone do not explain the rise of conservation among Connecticut Valley Congregationalists (but not Transcendentalists!), or the huge preponderance of Presbyterians in environmentalism from the 1880s to the 1970s, or still less the absence of both from the wilderness movement.
      Theological concerns, or even religious or moral concerns broadly speaking, were never driving factors in the founding of either the Wilderness Society or Earth First!. This sets it the wilderness movement apart from mainstream environmentalism, where religious and moral motives were salient from the beginning. That fact has implications for both.

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