A Pre-History of Christian Environmentalism

Elesha Coffman

The Director of the Landscaping & Grounds Department at my university is also the mayor of Dubuque, and he recently represented river-basin mayors at the climate conference in Paris. Sitting next to him at a campus sustainability task force meeting this week, I was reminded that environmental awareness isn't limited to the usual suspects (professors at R-1 universities, activists) performing the usual roles. Nor was environmental awareness summoned ex nihilo by Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.

Kevin M. Lowe unearthed (sorry, couldn't help it) aspects of this longer, broader history in his new book Baptized with the Soil: Christian Agrarians and the Crusade for Rural America (Oxford, 2015). He focused on the Protestants who would later be called "mainline" and their efforts from roughly 1900 to 1970 to preserve farmland and farming communities. Their motivations were both practical and spiritual. Misuse of the land meant that rural churches would not survive, and it also indicated a serious failure to cultivate the Kingdom of God. Lowe wrote, "Though they have been overlooked, Protestant agrarians were some of the nation's loudest champions of agricultural conservation. Even after the government's interest waned, soil conservation's religious resources enabled the movement to persist for decades. Protestant agrarians constructed a stewardship ethic that helped contribute to the contemporary language of creation care. In doing so, they helped bring countless Americans into the environmental movement" (141).

Of course, the environmental awareness of Lowe's 20th-century Protestants was often quite different from that upheld in Paris this month. For example, Lowe's book pointed me to a quirky little primary source, Christ of the Countryside (Cokesbury, 1937), by Malcolm Dana, director of rural work for the Congregational Church. "Country people have a special ownership of Holy Writ," Dana began the book. "The Bible is essentially a rural book; and within the Gospels themselves can be found what might be termed a rural gospel" (5). Dana proceeded, in the mode of other devotional literature and lives of Jesus (especially Giovanni Papini, Life of Christ), to breeze through the gospels with an eye to their rural context. Chapter titles included "In a Stable," "A Village Lad," "Soil and the Seed," and "Good Neighborship."

In the spirit of the season, I'll close with excerpts from Dana's telling of the Christmas story. Can you see any connections between this kind of environmental awareness and current forms? Or is today's celebration of "nature" categorically different from--and necessarily opposed to--Dana's celebration of the farmed world?

"The story of Jesus' birth has a wonderful rural background.

"In the charming little country village of Nazareth, which Jerome calls 'the flower of Galilee,' there lived a young kinswoman of John the Baptist's mother. Her name was Mary and she was betrothed to Joseph, a village carpenter. Like other women of her race, Mary dreams of some day becoming the mother of a man child who may even be the Messias [sic] which is to come. Her dreaming is not done within the confines of a somewhat squalid Oriental home, but out amongst the palm, fig, and pomegranate groves. There it is that Gabriel tells Mary that her fondest hopes are to be realized. 'The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. ... Behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus.' (Luke 1:31, 35.) ... [n.b. A Congregationalist in the 1930s might be expected to quote the Revised Version, but Dana explained that, with a few exceptions, he used the King James instead, because it was more "picturesque" and more likely to be familiar to rural folk.]

"The circumstances of Jesus' birth give to the countryside a peculiar ownership of him; and a certain glory must forever attach to the rudest shelter in which weary beasts find rest and an abiding place. The hardest ordeal of her woman's life presses hard upon Mary as, seated upon a lowly beast of burden with the ever-faithful Joseph plodding patiently beside, she makes a long, tiresome journey along the country road leading up to Bethlehem. There Joseph must enroll himself, 'because he was of the house and lineage of David.' (Luke 2:4) But Bethlehem and its innkeeper knew not the day of their visitation! Weary, footsore, and hard beset, with Mary in an agony of body and soul, Joseph can find no place where the mother of the Lord can lay her tired head. It remains for a Bethlehem stable to offer its best! And there Mary 'brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.' (Luke 2:7) The first indrawn breath of the Christ child is redolent of hay; and the earliest sounds heard by his tiny ears are the uneasy movements and drowsy lowing of cattle lying near. ... Once more the country is come into its own!"


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