Is Christian environmentalism just a copy-cat response to popular environmentalism, emerging from the first Earth Day in 1970? Historian Kevin Lowe asks this question, and answers with a “no,” in a recent Christian Century article (more on that later). Popular environmentalism sprang from ecology and books such as Silent Spring. In addition, news of American rivers catching fire, or of industrial toxins ruining residential neighborhoods, such as Love Canal, added to the sense of urgency.
Christian earth stewardship indeed owes a debt to the popular environmental movement—perhaps it even revived earth stewardship from dormancy. But Christian environmental stewardship existed before Earth Day in 1970. And the churches’ earth stewardship is certainly not popular environmentalism merely gilded with a coating of religion.
Earth stewardship has a long heritage that is much older than modern environmentalism. Pope Francis’s recent encyclical, Laudato Si, cites a centuries-long tradition of respect for nature in Western Christianity (consider Francis of Assisi). But let us focus on our Protestant Christian tradition in the U.S.
All Christians share scripture that starts by proclaiming that God is the creator of a good natural order. Particular biblical texts elaborate further. God had Noah save every species of animal during the biblical Flood. A wilderness journey is the turning point in the history of Israel, as a wilderness sojourn is for Jesus’s ministry. The Hebrew Year of Jubilee declares that the land itself deserves the benefits of a Sabbath rest. Psalms employ natural and agricultural images. Jesus states that God’s providence cares even for the birds. Such texts are many. So, if we are true to scripture, respect for nature would be built into our worldview.
Our hymnal contains many hymns using rural and agricultural images, many written much earlier than the first Earth Day in 1970: “This is my Father’s World” dates to 1901; “We Plow the Fields and Scatter,” to 1782; “Let All Things Now Living” to 1939; “Fairest Lord Jesus,” to 1677; “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” 1848.
Of course, our Book of Worship also contains hymns (and liturgies) written after 1970, which are more likely to speak of responsibility for nature, and for harm done to nature, than the older hymns. But the older hymns speak of God, humanity and nature being inter-related in many ways; and this relatedness is a good foundation for an ethic of responsibility. An old Christian theme affirms the kinship of man and nature, for both are creatures of God, and both are meant to praise God. Haydn’s famous oratorio, The Creation (1797-98), celebrates the majesty of God’s natural order; then it affirms the kinship of humans and nature as Adam and Eve invite nature to join them in praising their mutual creator. The Moravian musicians of Salem, NC, presented Haydn’s work not many years after its composing.
A similar theme appears in Comenius’s work, The Labyrinth of the World. After rejecting the greed and exploitation of worldly life, a pilgrim turns to Christ. And his eyes are opened to perceive that nature itself glorifies God. We may infer that if man and nature are kin in glorifying God, then humans have a duty of kinship to care for nature.
This reason for earth stewardship is theological, not merely pragmatic or scientific. Nature deserves care because it is our partner in praising the Creator. If God’s providence cares for even the birds of the air, should we care less?
We return to the historian Kevin Lowe. Lowe also refutes the idea that American Protestants only awoke to environmental stewardship after Earth Day in 1970. He shows that American Protestants acted for land conservation decades before Earth Day (see “Soil and Soul” in the Christian Century magazine of Sept. 16, 2015, pp. 20-25). Soil conservation was a major component of environmentalism in the early twentieth century (think of the Dust Bowl). The historic (mainline) Protestant denominations had many congregations serving rural America at that time. Consequently, “mainline Protestants were more concerned than anyone with rural communities.” And they reacted when bad agricultural practices hurt the soil, and consequently rural families.
When the Dust Bowl created a federal response for soil conservation, the Protestant denominations were ready partners. As early as 1955, the National Council of Churches affirmed the “historic” belief that “proper conservation of natural and human resources [is] basic to the fulfillment of Christian stewardship” (quoted by Lowe).
How could all this church involvement in conservation have become so invisible? Lowe concludes that as industrial farming depleted the ranks of small family farms (and rural congregations) the churches’ efforts just silently vanished along with the farmers. But forgetting history does not make it untrue: earth stewardship is a heritage from earlier Christians, not an imitation of the popular environmental movement.
—Donald Frey, for HMC Earth Stewards