Mark Stoll says historians have overlooked the important religious roots of the environmental movement (interview)

Historians in the News




In Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism, Mark Stoll explores the religious roots of the American environmental movement. We sat down with him to find out a bit more about his process researching the book, issues in the field, and some tips for aspiring authors.

What led you to this particular field of study?

Originally, I was curious about John Muir’s religious and intellectual journey from his religiously strict childhood and youth to his adult career as founder of the Sierra Club and prominent voice for national parks. Also, my own religious upbringing and my environmentalist convictions and love of the outdoors got me interested in the ways religious background shapes ideas and attitudes towards nature. The more I explored the link between religious background to adult ideas about nature and environment, the more it impressed me as fundamental to so much of the history of environmentalism.

Was there anything that you found surprising when researching for this book? If so, what?

There were three things that surprised me.

First, I was surprised to find that nearly all the leading figures in the 19th-century conservation, forestry, and parks movements were no further that one generation removed from a Congregational Church in a New England town. This led me to discover the vital role the values and landscape of the New England town played in inspiring those movements.

Second, contrary to what the literature on the origins of environmentalism would lead you to expect, hardly any of these figures acknowledged any significant influence from those great environmental heroes Emerson and Thoreau. Their influence came later, and for Thoreau, much later. 19th-century love of nature owed more to Calvinism than Transcendentalism!

Last, I was quite surprised that the great leaders in the Progressive conservation movement were nearly all raised Presbyterian: John Muir of the Sierra Club, President Theodore Roosevelt, Chief Forester Gifford Pinchot, and Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes, as well as the lesser known but quite important President Grover Cleveland and Secretaries of Interior John W. Noble and Franklin Lane. The “Presbyterianness” of the Progressive movement is very striking. They were all very moralistic, and sometimes censorious and preachy.

Do you think there are many misconceptions regarding the topic of your book? If so, what?

The most common misconception is that religion has nothing to do with environmentalism, or is hostile to it. Inherit the Holy Mountain shows how tightly the two have been bound together. So many important environmental figures had a minister as a close relative, or even once considered becoming a minister or missionary him- or herself.

What was the most challenging part of your research?

It was a challenge to understand what it means to grow up in various religious traditions, both in the past and today. What does it mean, for example, to have grown up Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Baptist, Jewish, Methodist, Catholic, or black Baptist? A strong religious upbringing leaves distinctive traces in everything people do as adults, no matter what religious beliefs (or none at all) they adopt later.

It was also challenging to dig up the childhood religion of many important and interesting figures. Often biographers and memoirists have not thought it an important thing to record. ...





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