Saturday, June 6, 2015

Mark Stoll's "Inherit the Holy Mountain"

Mark Stoll is Associate Professor of History and Director of Environmental Studies at Texas Tech University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism, and reported the following:
Environmentalists tend to venerate Emerson and Thoreau, so it did not surprise me to find that just about everyone involved with the early parks movement of the mid-nineteenth century was a New Englander. Why was it, then, that hardly any of them ever mentioned Emerson and no one mentioned Thoreau? Their common New England background pointed instead to different influences. All of them -- Emerson and Thoreau included -- had Calvinist and Puritan ancestors. So I dug into parks’ counterintuitive link to Calvinism and Puritanism. In fact, Calvin sent his followers to nature to get closest to God. Moreover, Puritans had an obsession with Eden and Edenic landscapes -- think of Puritan poet John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Lastly, New England Puritans lived in communities that reserved commons for the use of town residents. After 1800, New Englanders transformed those commons into the town greens and parks that inspired the movement for city, state, and national parks. On page 99, I discuss New Englanders and Calvinists in Yosemite, the first park established to preserve natural beauty. It begins with Frederick Law Olmsted of Connecticut, the world’s first “landscape architect” and designer of New York’s Central Park, which set off the nationwide city parks movement.
Through New Englanders like Olmsted, the Reformed Edenic landscape manifested itself in state and national parks, beginning with the first park, Yosemite in 1864. Yosemite park was the creation of New Englanders. Israel Ward Raymond, representative of the Central American Steamship Transit Company of New York born in New York to former Connecticut Congregationalists, wrote the letter to Senator John Conness in early 1864 that instigated creation of a park at Yosemite. The Yosemite commission headed by Olmsted included Raymond, Josiah Dwight Whitney, William Ashburner, and Galen Clark, as well as two local businessmen and an attorney. Whitney, a native of Northampton, relative of the Dwights, and former student of Silliman at Yale, headed the California Geological Survey. Stockbridge native Ashburner was a mining engineer on the California Geological Survey. Former New Hampshire Congregationalist Galen Clark owned a tourist station near the Mariposa Big Trees on the southern route into Yosemite and was appointed Guardian of the Yosemite Valley and the Big Tree Grove, his title for most of the rest of his long life.

New England Congregationalists, Universalists, and Unitarians publicized Yosemite. Congregational minister John Calvin Holbrook preached the first sermon in the valley in 1859. Unitarian minister Thomas Starr King brought Yosemite to the attention of New Englanders with a series of letters from the valley to a Boston newspaper in 1860 and 1861. George Fiske, son of a New Hampshire Congregational deacon, was the early Yosemite photographer whom Ansel Adams ranked first among his predecessors and whose photographs illustrated Clark’s The Yosemite Valley of 1910.

From the day white Americans discovered it in 1851, Yosemite had inspired Reformed Protestants to religious reactions. Yosemite represented the holiest “church” of nature, the very “Rome” of Reformed nature pilgrimage, a notion popularized in Bryant’s oft-quoted “Forest Hymn” of 1824, which proclaimed, “The groves were God’s first temples,” and Ruskin’s comparison of the Alps to cathedrals and temples in the fourth volume of Modern Painters of 1856. Jonathan Edwards’s great-granddaughter Sara Jane Clarke Lippincott, editor of the children’s magazine Little Pilgrims, wrote an account of the trip she and “fellow-pilgrims to the sacred Sierra” took in 1872 to Yosemite, “the temple of [Nature’s] ancient worship, with thunderous cataracts for organs, and silver cascades for choirs, and wreathing clouds of spray for perpetual incense, and rocks three thousand feet high for altars.” Josiah Letchworth, a Presbyterian from Buffalo, New York, in a letter described his entry into Yosemite in 1880 as “a pilgrimage to some vast cathedral shrine of Nature” where he was “baptized” in the spray of Bridal Veil Fall; the valley was “Nature’s own great cathedral, where her votaries come from all lands to wonder and admire -- whose cathedral spires point to Heaven, whose domes have withstood the storms and tempests of all the ages, seem set apart from all the world to show forth the mighty works of Omnipotent Power, and you feel as did the Apostle of old. What you have seen are ‘unspeakable things,’ which no pen or pencil can describe.... A dream, more of Heaven than of earth, has been revealed to you.”
Over the next century, New Englanders campaigned for the creation of many of the national parks, from the first, Yellowstone, in 1872, to Everglades in 1947. But in the 1880s, their Calvinist cousins, the Presbyterians, took the leadership of the parks movement. The second half of Inherit the Holy Mountain shows how people raised Presbyterian, among them John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, and Gifford Pinchot, multiplied parks, created the Park Service, established national forests, and founded the Forest Service. In addition, they made conservation a major national political idea.

Children of the Calvinist tradition continued to dominate conservation and early environmentalism until the 1960s. Inherit the Holy Mountain ends by describing how the vanishing of Congregationalists and Presbyterians from the environmental movement coincided with a broadening of its agenda but also with a decline of its national political power. As they declined, a certain passion for nature has cooled.
Learn more about Inherit the Holy Mountain at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue