Silent Spring, Creation Care, and Modern Environmentalism
The Christian Roots of Environmentalism Part 2 | Guest post by David F. Garner
Christianity strongly influenced the rise of the 19th century Conservation Movement. Does it have any sway on modern environmentalism? Part one of this series discussed some of the earliest Conservation Movement leaders, their Christian roots, and how those roots inspired their desire to protect nature. This second and final part expounds on the Christian influences behind the modern Environmental Movement.
Cover of Silent Spring | The Folio Society
The Conservation Movement
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson is perhaps the most well-known book of the 20th century, and perhaps of all time, advocating conservation. To this day, it is viewed with suspicion by some conservative Christians. This is in part due to the time of publication. It was published near the start of the 1960s hippie movement, which made environmentalism one of its tenets. Silent Spring became one of its gospels. Much about the hippie movement ran contrary to Christian sensibilities and teachings, so Rachel Carson, her book, and environmental conservation became guilty by association.
Carson grew up with a devout Presbyterian mother and was the great-granddaughter of a minister. Throughout her adult life, she admired, corresponded with, and read several prominent Christian thinkers and theologians. Carson was open to working alongside Christian environmental groups during her career. In this spirit, The Rachel Carson Counsel started the Faith, Science, and Action program to foster discussion and growth of faith-based organizations concerned about protecting the environment.
Sam Campbell was an author, filmmaker, and advocate of creation stewardship. His Living Forest book series graces many Christian bookstore and home shelves. Many young children enjoy his soporific style on lazy afternoons. During his lifetime, he frequented Christian colleges and gatherings where he shared his films and lectures. His belief in God propelled him to build a remote cabin from which his work flowed to point many to God's creative prowess. He was a friend of famed conservationist Sigurd Olson, and he worked alongside him to protect wilderness areas.
Hazel Johnson resided in low-income housing on the south side of Chicago in the 1970s. After she became aware that her community had the highest rate of cancer in the city, she went on a mission to discover the causes. She learned her community was built over an old dump for highly toxic waste. She found that low-income communities are disproportionately built closer to sources of toxins. In 1979 she started People for Community Recovery to address tenants' rights and raise awareness about environmental pollution. She is known today as the mother of the environmental justice movement after decades of work campaigning about these issues. Ms. Johnson was motivated to action by her ardent Catholic faith.
Other Christian leaders in the environmental movement include J. Sterling Morton, co-founder of Arbor Day; Howard Zahniser, author of the U.S. Wilderness Act of 1964; and U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson, who created Earth Day. Even many staunchly secular environmentalists before the 1970s, such as Edward Abbey and Aldo Leopold, had Christian influences in their childhood.
When we look beyond the leaders themselves to the Conservation Movement as a whole, there are significant Christian connections. Between the World Wars, it became fashionable for conservation groups including the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, and Appalachian Mountain Club to host Christian church services outdoors. Ones scheduled on Christian holidays like Easter were widespread. Christian pastors led the services, which included hymn singing and Bible readings. These were not obscure gatherings but some of the most well-attended meetings organized by these clubs. Attendance could soar into the thousands. Guests sometimes included the most influential politicians, business, and religious leaders. Today we might be shocked to hear of such clubs organizing church services. But in the early days, it was expected. Conservation was seen to be intrinsic to the Bible and Christian faith, not antithetical.
It is important to note that the Conservation Movement was not born exclusively out of a Christian or religious milieu. The rise of scientific research around humanity’s negative impact as well as Romanticism, Transcendentalism, and simple practicality, also played major roles. Yet, Christians, especially in the Progressive era, embraced a back-to-nature movement that coincided with and heavily influenced conservationism. Christians in this era were some of the most enthusiastic supporters of any scheme to reconnect people with nature. Programs were contrived, sermons preached, devotionals published, and Christian school curriculums designed to maximize the discovery of God's attributes in nature. Conservation efforts furthered that end.
Christianity's Own Environmental Movement
Beginning around the 1870s, Christians of many denominations lamented the plight of children in the cities, the loss of forests, and the decline of sprawling nature due to increasing urbanization. They believed reconnecting city-dwellers, and especially children, with nature was the solution to the corruption and debauchery of city life. And so, they invented summer camps for the two-fold purpose of reclaiming and preserving tracts of nature and reconnecting urbanites with God's natural revelation.
The intent of summer camp has always been to bring youth and adults back into close contact with untamed nature, where one can most easily encounter God. The development of summer camps was a uniquely Christian effort to preserve large sections of the environment and to instill in future generations a desire to do the same. Early on, most Christian camp leaders encouraged their campers to involve themselves in civic environmental conservation efforts. Summer camps continue to be a destination that inspires new generations to appreciate and protect the environment. They continue to protect thousands of acres from development. The establishment of summer camp retreats is possibly the most extensive effort to preserve land from development by non-profit organizations in the world.
Charles H. Spurgeon was a powerhouse evangelist and writer in the 19th century. He frequently used nature imagery and metaphors in his teaching with the astuteness of an accomplished artist. This language resonated with his urban audiences who were enthralled with the outdoors during the back-to-nature movement which was at its height in his day. He encouraged his hearers to see God's lessons in nature just as Jesus did.
Many Americans at that time, under the influence of manifest destiny, saw nature as something to be entirely conquered by man. The 19th-century view that nature was a machine led people to regard it solely for human use. For Spurgeon, nature was not there solely for the use of man. "Nature is not at work to amuse and please us merely — its mission is instruction. Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter, are God's four Evangelists, bringing each one a different version of the self-same Gospel of Divine Love." Spurgeon helped to spur interest in creation among his listeners beyond that of facility and gain. His sermons helped pave the way for widespread public interest in protecting natural spaces in the latter half of the 19th century. He still retains a wide readership inspiring adoration for creation.
George Washington Carver was a scientist who nearly single-handedly established the practice of regenerative agriculture. His work on sustainable farming practices laid the foundation for modern organic farming. He saw nature as a window into which humans could view and commune with God. Thus, he sought to protect it. Carver understood his work to be one of conservation. His work garnered him international fame and has likely saved the planet from widespread famine.
In the 20th century, Americans experienced a paradigm shift of nature from foe to friend, from object of conquest to protection. C.S. Lewis aided in this shift. In World War 1 he witnessed technology enable man to destroy entire forests and farms in a day. His memories of beleaguered nature led him to give it a central role in his children’s epic, The Chronicles of Narnia. As biographer Alister McGrath observed: "Lewis' portrayal of animal characters in Narnia is partly a protest against shallow assertions of humanity's right to do what it pleases with nature." This gave the next generation of children a heroic view of nature. These children came of age in the 1960s, precisely when environmentalism became mainstream. This connection was no coincidence.
Other great Christian influencers of environmentalism include author J.R.R. Tolkien whose fantasy novels also cast nature as a hero; Pastor Francis Schaffer whose books and documentaries helped fuel the 1970s environmental movement; and President Richard Nixon who passed more sweeping environmental protection legislation than any other U.S. president.
Even in modern times, there are leaders in the mainstream environmental movement who are openly Christian or strongly influenced by a morality rooted in a Christian worldview from childhood. These names include former Vice President Albert "Al" Gore Jr., Rev. Richard Cizik, Jane Goodall, E.O. Wilson. Even Greta Thunberg draws her keen sense of justice from a biblically based morality as her grandmother was a deacon and her great grandfather was an official in the Church of Sweden.
The one thread in these stories is a strong correlation between respect for nature and an obvious Christian background. These case studies illustrate that environmental conservation is not a purely secular, humanist, anti-Christian movement. Instead, many of the movement's most significant leaders gained their appreciation of nature from a close association with a biblical worldview. For many, religious upbringing fostered a reverent wonderment for nature they never lost.
Creation Care Today?
Some historians have blamed a Christian worldview for modern environmental perils. There is little doubt that historically Christian societies in the West have wrought widespread destruction through greed over the past two hundred years. Many of the perpetrators may have only been Christian in name rather than heart. However, history has shown that Christians are often found on both sides of an idea. Modern examples include eugenics, slavery and abortion. Some group members may hold prevailing views that are nevertheless erroneous. This does not necessarily invalidate their entire belief system nor is it grounds to blame entire problems on that group. Christian societies are not the only ones to wreak havoc on the planet. India, which is predominantly Hindu along with China and Russia, which are primarily atheistic, are some of the highest contributors to pollution and climate change currently. Christian cultures share some blame for current environmental problems, but they also continue to help produce the solutions.
Most all Christians now hold some view of environmental responsibility. In the last 50 years, nearly all major denominations have issued official statements supporting animal rights and stewardship of the earth's resources formally dissociating from Aquinianism.
Nature is the domain of all people from every persuasion; therefore, so is nature conservation. People from all faiths and nationalities participate in public and private conservation efforts. Christians need to be in the midst of these efforts as we have been in the past.
David Garner is a freelance writer, author and speaker. He is regional director at F5 Challenge ministry. He resides in Tennessee with his family. For more on creation care and Christian conservation, read Christian History Magazine #119: The Wonder of Creation.