Climate, Catastrophe, and Faith

tags: climate change, religious history, Great Awakening

Philip Jenkins teaches at Baylor University. He is the author of Climate, Catastrophe, and Faith: How Changes in Climate Drive Religious Upheaval (Oxford University Press, 2021).




In July 1741, Congregational minister Jonathan Edwards delivered one of the most influential sermons in American history. He warned his alarmed listeners of their utterly sinful state, of how that sin had thoroughly earned God’s severe and eternal punishment. They were “sinners in the hands of an angry God.” The sermon had a transformative effect on the congregation, whose “shrieks and cries were piercing and amazing.”

Scholars of many disciplines have studied that sermon, but virtually never have they stressed one fact that surely should be treated prominently, namely that Edwards and his audience had in just the previous two years lived through a horrific period of extreme weather and glacial cold. Across Europe and North America, nations recorded some of the most alarming death rates seen in half a millennium, while New England itself suffered the worst weather recorded since the time of European settlement. Perhaps the world’s end really was nigh, as the language of apocalypse became alarmingly plausible. People felt utterly powerless and futile in the face of Nature, and of the God who ruled it. Of course they were willing to listen very attentively to the Reverend Mr. Edwards.

Of course, the climate-driven crisis of itself did not spark or create the Awakening, but it is impossible to comprehend the movement’s explosive growth at that very time without acknowledging that component. Observers at the time dated the movement’s full flowering exactly to the years 1740-41. Similarly, throughout history, when other climate-related disasters have occurred, they have commonly had wide-ranging religious consequences. How could they not? As climate conditions have changed over time, so they have affected human affairs, and shaped attitudes.

Time and again, climate convulsions have been understood in religious terms, through the language of apocalypse, millennium, and Judgment. Almost invariably, such visitations have involved famine and outbreaks of epidemic disease, giving a role to each of the notorious Four Horsemen. Often too, such eras have been marked by far-reaching changes in the nature of religion and spirituality. Depending on the circumstances, the response to climatic visitations might include explosions in religious passion and commitment; the stirring of mystical and apocalyptic expectations; waves of religious scapegoating and persecution; or the spawning of new religious movements and revivals.

By stirring conflicts and provoking persecutions that defined themselves in religious terms, such eras have driven successive waves of exile and diaspora. In the process, they have redrawn the world’s religious maps, and created the global concentrations of believers as we know them today. When we write the history of witchcraft persecutions, we repeatedly find spikes of activism and theorizing focused on years of climate crisis, around 1320, the 1430s, the 1560s, and so on.

In many cases, such responses have had lasting impacts, to the point of fundamentally reshaping particular faith traditions. From those eras have emerged passionate sects – some political and theocratic, some revivalistic and enthusiastic, others millenarian and subversive. The movements and ideas emerging from such conditions might last for many decades, and even become a familiar part of the religious landscape, although with their origins in particular moments of crisis increasingly consigned to remote memory.

Throughout history, climate, and climate change, have been key drivers of religious development – not, of course, every innovation or movement, but many of them, and in remarkable diversity. Within Christianity, the warmth and prosperity of the High Middle Ages shaped the forms of Catholic faith and doctrine that emerged in that era, and which served as a foundation for later times. Very different, and much harsher climate conditions created the turbulence and polarization from which Tridentine Catholicism emerged in the 1560s. Several eras of climate stress played a role in the emergence and evolution of Protestantism, especially in its evangelical forms. Successive crises were essential to the rise and growth of the Calvinism that was such a vital force in the Early Modern Era, as well as of Anglo-American Puritanism. Other later, transformative periods shaped evangelical and revivalist Protestantism, and gave rise to many lesser-known sects, great and small.

To take just one example, a dreadful climate spasm in the decade after 1675 created a massive interest in apocalyptic and End-Times belief. This was the era when the radical Pietist movement spread rapidly, with its novel idea of “born again” religion. Radical sects fled the British Isles and Germany to take up new homes in Pennsylvania, with its bold new theories of religious liberty. In Scotland, these years marked the religious struggles and persecutions known as the ”killing time,” driving extremist Presbyterians into far flung exile. They took with them the practice of preaching in open fields, which swiftly emerged into the thoroughly American institution of the camp meeting. The political effects of the climate crisis inspired religious rebellions and wars in Central Europe, provoking the great Ottoman invasions, and the epochal defeat of the Islamic cause at Vienna in 1683.

Climate factors likewise had their impact on important movements within other traditions, including Buddhism and Islam. Any historical account that ignores or underplays that climate dimension must be lacking.

That tumultuous history must come to mind when we contemplate the global climatic pressures that are predicted for the coming decades, and which will have their most acute effect in certain highly populated parts of the world. Based on extensive past experience, we can imagine many ways in which the response to those circumstances would take religious forms. We could foresee the rise of new apocalyptic movements, as well as the spread of bitter religious-based conflict and animosity. Looking at contemporary developments in both Islam and Christianity, and interfaith conflicts across Africa and Asia, it is difficult to imagine that catastrophic climatic changes might not inspire religious responses. Even witchcraft panics and witch-hunts might yet return in full force.

When we trace the historic impact of climate-related change, particularly in the religious context, we see auguries of our likely futures.


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