Title: Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism
Author: Mark R. Stoll
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Genre: Environmental History, Religious Studies, Art History
Year Published: 2015
Number of Pages: 416
Reviewed by Tod Robbins for the Association for Mormon Letters
Mark Stoll begins his sprawling tome with a beautiful history of the painting “The Oxbow” (1836), rendered by the revered landscape artist and Hudson River School member Thomas Cole (1801-1848). The story of the painting’s origin serves as a wonderful allegory and moral device for setting the scene of America’s environmental history. The painting depicts a grand view from Mount Holyoke, Massachusetts, “a sunlit, prosperous, productive landscape”. Stoll states that: “The peaceful pastoral scene called forth connections in the imagination to the work of Puritan colonists and their offspring in building a moral, orderly, prosperous society in harmony with God and nature”. (14) Cole’s interest in and dedication to the landscape of Mount Holyoke and its environs was manifest primarily in “The Oxbow,” though Cole’s worldview traverses what Stoll has documented extensively as a long line of Reformed Protestant theologies reaching back to Calvin, Milton, Ruskin, and others. These thinkers and their writings were embraced by many American artists in the New England milieu.
“The Oxbow” and other New England landscapes served as a proxy Eden for Reformed Protestantism in early colonial America and beyond. Stoll links the origins of conservation, preservation, forestry, and many other environmental concerns to the Calvinist doctrines of Nature unspoiled as testifier of God’s perfection and sovereignty. Specifically, Stoll demonstrates how artists like Cole and his friends among the Hudson River School of landscape painters laid a foundation of godly reverence for God’s creation, which later held the structures of policy, institution, and law in the decades that followed.
Stoll chronicles the emergence of the moral society through the establishment of homesteads, forest reserves, and parks of all varieties (public, state, and national). Readers will enjoy learning about the origin of New York City’s famous Central Park and its designer, Frederick Law Olmsted. Olmsted, one of America’s first landscape architects, was an ally to many like-minded conservationists on the east and west coasts. According to Stoll, the built environment (especially among expanding universities) and its designers played an important role in the propagation of an environmental ethic of keeping and making America beautiful.
A theme that continues throughout the book is the coherent genealogy of these environmental ideas. Nearly all of the most influential thinkers and practitioners of the American environmental movement in the nineteenth century could trace their lineage back to New England Protestants and the doctrinal and aesthetic germs that sprouted there.
Mormonism makes an appearance in the chapter on “Nature and New England’s Outsiders.” Stoll makes the point that although other New England religious communities abandoned Puritan communal ideals, Joseph Smith’s movement reveled in them and successfully transplanted the New England village to Nauvoo, then Utah, and finally the Mormon Corridor. Stoll states that the “Mormon town revised the Puritan model according to Mormon eschatology and interpretation of Biblical accounts of Jerusalem.” (230) Mormon and Puritan theology differed greatly but both communities were dedicated workers to God’s service. Nineteenth century Mormons dedicated themselves to restoring the “Edenic condition” of the land in preparation for the Millennial reign of Christ, with an eschatological view of a New Jerusalem in America’s Missouri.
Stoll discusses how the American land tenure system and the Homestead Act of 1862 effectively ended the Mormon town as an ideal. Outside speculators and ranching destroyed many attempts to bring some value out of the arid Great Basin region. In the midst of this, Mormons evolved and left their radical origins and grew closer to the Christian mainstream. Stoll rightly assesses today’s contemporary Mormon narrative when he states: “[Mormons] tend to emphasize that part of their heritage centered on development of the West, rather than communal conservation of natural resources or preservation of parks.” (231) Brigham Young’s frequent opposition to mining comes to mind.
Stoll notes that Mormonism has produced few notable environmental thinkers and activists since leaving some of its previous ideals. Some exceptions are Hugh Nibley, Stewart Udall, and Terry Tempest Williams, who have produced a large share of Mormon environmental thought. Thus, Mormon environmentalism is adolescent perhaps, but extant. Today, there remains a handful of groups following in the vein of these predecessors, including: LDS Earth Stewardship, Mormon Environmental Stewardship Alliance; also contemporary thinkers George Handley, Warner Woodworth, Steven Peck, and Elder Marcus B. Nash. Their histories remain to be written, although “Nibley’s, Udall’s, and Williams’s examples attest to the possibilities of Mormon environmentalism.” (232)
Stoll rounds the book out by chronicling modern environmental movements such as the Southern African American environmental justice activists, late-blooming Catholic concern, and Jewish social environmentalism. These movements were in parallel to modern Presbyterian thinkers like Rachel Carson. The religiously motivated conservation of the previous century expanded into an umbrella of environmentalism for society’s needs as a pluralistic global entity.
“Inherit the Holy Mountain” is a tremendous asset in the study of environmental history in America in both its breadth and its detail. The book is documented scrupulously, endnotes with trails to a thousand other histories. Stoll’s prose is accessible and precise, especially in its biographical details. Readers will likely want to jot down many names from the endless stream of persons involved in the evolution of American environmental thought for further study.
Stoll’s contribution to the field is an important one which should serve as a foundational text for American environmental studies in conversation with religious studies. His lucid arguments connecting Reformed Protestantism and its descendants to the modern postindustrial fight to save America’s beauty and to restore Eden shine a needed light on the simplistic dichotomy of religion as enemy of earth and secularism as savior.