Rice University | Winter 2016

Page 48

arts & lett er s

Author Q&A “Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism” by Mark R. Stoll ’77 (Oxford University Press, 2015)



Stoll, an associate professor of history and director of environmental studies at Texas Tech University, traces the Calvinist roots of America’s environmental pioneers, finding that religious beliefs provided “a moral and political center” to the early conservation movements. He shows that specific religious denominations corresponded with ideas about nature and art. At Rice, Stoll lived at Lovett College when Sid ’57 and Mary Burrus were masters. He started out as a physics major before being “seduced to the academ side” and was a KTRU DJ when it was located in the RMC basement. His son, Alex, graduated in 2008.

What did you learn in your book research that surprised you?

Where do we most clearly see Presbyterian beliefs in the work of 20th-century environmentalists like biologist Rachel Carson and Sierra Club Director David Brower?

So much of what I found was completely unanticipated. I expected New England advocates of parks, forestry and conservation to rely on those two heroes of modern environmentalism, Emerson and Thoreau. To my surprise, hardly anyone paid the Transcendentalists any attention at all. Instead, everybody kept referring to the New England town. No Transcendentalists: They were almost all Congregationalists. Still staunch Calvinists in the early 1800s, Congregationalists descended from Puritans. Conservation, parks and forestry emerged from Puritan ideas of a godly society.

How was the New England town a model for future parks? Congregationalists regarded the New England town as a model for rising states in the west. Town commons evolved into the first public parks and inspired city, state and national parks. The Congregationalists opposed rapid destruction of land and forests and foresaw that an exhausted landscape would impoverish future generations.

What was your inspiration for bringing art and aesthetics into the book? In art, you can see how different religious denominations tend to view nature. The art of Hudson River School painters like Thomas Cole depicts characteristically Calvinist landscapes. They emphasize the works of God in nature and minimize the presence of fallen man. The ethereally beautiful unpeopled landscapes of artists like Georgia O’Keeffe or Ansel Adams similarly represent the aesthetic values of Calvinism. In other Christian art traditions, the landscape tends more to be a stage for the people.

How would you characterize the relationship between environmentalism and organized religion today? Mutual suspicion has divided the two since the 1970s. Since environmentalism always has its moral aspects, one can imagine areas where the two might work together.


R i c e M a g a z i n e | W IN T E R 2 0 1 6

Mark R. Stoll ’77 Read more about “Inherit the Holy Mountain” at markstoll.net.

I was amazed how many environmentalists were raised Presbyterian — Congregationalism’s Calvinist cousin — beginning with John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot and lasting until Carson, Brower, Edward Abbey and even John Denver. Many had a minister as a close relative or had once considered the ministry. Again, few were orthodox churchgoers as adults, but Presbyterianism trained them to be effective environmental leaders. They saw natural landscape as in some sense holy, because Presbyterians and Congregationalists believed that in God’s creation we are closest to the divine.

Does Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change help build a modern dialogue between religion and environmentalism? How influential is this? Pope Francis really changed the debate. His encyclical came out a few weeks after my book was released, which did have the gratifying effect of attracting a lot of attention to it. It put globalwarming-deniers (most of whom are American conservatives) on the defensive. Hopefully the encyclical will also cool down the unfortunate mutual hostility between environmentalists and religious conservatives.

The wilderness movement seems to have a fragmented relationship to religious framing. Why? None of the founders or leaders of wilderness groups like the Wilderness Society or Earth First! was raised Congregationalist or Presbyterian. They came from a hodgepodge of other denominations, with Methodists, Jews and sometimes Lutherans most numerous. This indicates that wilderness is not a moral movement in the way that environmentalism (think Sierra Club) is, with its Calvinist roots. Anti-modernism mixed with nostalgia for the frontier or the rural past seems to be the main motivation.

— L.G.

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