The Environment Was a Moral Issue Long Before Pope Francis

In the last week, after Pope Francis's recent encyclical on the environment Laudato Si', the media reacted as if Christians had never seen environmental problems as a religious issue. It is true that the Catholic Church has only spoken out about the environment for about 25 years.
07/03/2015 07:54 am ET Updated Jul 02, 2016

In the last week, after Pope Francis's recent encyclical on the environment Laudato Si', the media reacted as if Christians had never seen environmental problems as a religious issue. It is true that the Catholic Church has only spoken out about the environment for about 25 years. On the other hand, the Reformed Protestant (a.k.a. Calvinist) branch of the Christian tradition has been treating the environment as a religious concern for nearly five centuries. We think of environmental problems like global warming as secular issues. Francis tells us that they're moral issues. History, as I describe in my new book Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religions and the Rise of Environmentalism, reminds us that they've always been moral issues.

As early as the sixteenth century, Reformed theologians like John Calvin highlighted nature and conservation. Calvin regarded nature as the theater of God's glory. He wrote that "the most perfect way of seeking God" is "for us to contemplate him in his works whereby he rendered himself near and familiar to us, and in some manner communicates himself."

Calvin was the first theologian to formulate the modern concept of stewardship as religious duty. "Let him who possesses a field," Calvin wrote, "endeavor to hand it down to posterity as he received it, or even better cultivated." He added, "Let every one regard himself as the steward of God in all things which he possesses."

Huguenots (French Calvinists) developed Calvin's ideas into a conservation agenda. Huguenots believed that France's poverty held back the material and moral progress of its people and poor treatment of its forests and fields lay at the root of its distress. Influential Huguenot Bernard Palissy (1510-1590) proposed using science to study soil fertility, founding schools to teach farmers the best methods, and giving prizes to encourage agricultural inventions. Calling deforestation "a curse and a misfortune to all France," he argued for the value of forests for wood, water, and soil. Palissy also designed a garden as a sort of nature park where one would walk among the works of God, not man, and contemplate their creator.

English Calvinists, the Puritans, put Huguenots' notions into practice when they founded the colonies of New England. There, stewardship sounded from every pulpit. Every town passed ordinances to preserve wood and soil for future generations. Connecticut minister Jared Eliot published America's first agricultural handbook and included plans for the recently invented seed drill. Towns reserved land for common use, which after 1800 evolved into the park-like town greens.

The Puritans' descendants, called Congregationalists, created the parks and conservation movement in the nineteenth century, and ministers were again at the forefront. Reverend Horace Bushnell pushed for the first park in the nation to be bought and built from public funds, Bushnell Park in Hartford, Connecticut. Hartford Congregationalist Frederick Law Olmsted designed New York's Central Park and other parks from coast to coast. Soon, city, state, and national parks sprang up as places for all classes of society to have access to nature's health and moral benefits. Bushnell and his fellow ministers popularized nature vacations as wholesome, moral recreation. At the same time, the first nature camps for youth were founded in New England, often by churches and religious organizations.

The American conservation and forest movements were sparked in 1864 by publication of Man and Nature by Vermont Congregationalist George Perkins Marsh. Marsh hoped to make New England's conservation practices a model for the nation. Five of the first six heads of the newly founded Forest Division, later the Forest Service, had Congregational origins. One of them was a Congregational minister.

Other Reformed Protestants, the Presbyterians, rose to prominence in the conservation and environmental movements in the twentieth century. Many Presbyterian ministers in the early 20th century were avid outdoorsmen. (Think of Norman Maclean's father, a fly-fishing minister, in A River Runs Through It.) Two of them wrote the popular hymns to God's presence in his works "This Is My Father's World" and "Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee."

Many other environmental leaders and authors had Presbyterian ministers or preachers as close relatives. The father of John Muir, for example, was a lay preacher. Profoundly inspired by God's presence in the beauty of his works, Muir became the leading advocate for national parks and in 1892 cofounded the Sierra Club. A granddaughter and niece of ministers, Rachel Carson sparked modern environmentalism in 1962 with her blockbuster Silent Spring.

Most Reformed churches abandoned strict Calvinism over a century ago. Like other Protestant churches with sophisticated theology, since the 1960s they have been losing members to churches with instant-tranformational ideas about the Christian life. These Christians look for God in their born-again hearts and not in his works. Their attraction to laissez-faire economics and disdain for social justice have encouraged hostility to environmentalism.

No wonder then, that people have forgotten Christianity's long intimate involvement with environmentalism. Pope Francis has restarted the conversation between Christianity and environmentalism. Perhaps this conversation will reignite interest in the way churches gave birth to the American environmental movement in the first place.