The Author’s Corner with Mark Stoll

Mark Stoll is Associate Professor of History and Director of Environmental Studies at Texas Tech University.  This interview is based on his new book, Inherit the Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism (Oxford University Press, 2015)

JF: What led you to write Inherit the Holy Mountain?

MS: Back in 1987, I was thinking about John Muir, the popular nature writer and environmental activist. At the time, the famous Lynn White thesis had convinced many that Christianity was innately hostile to nature, and that, of the Christian traditions, Protestantism was the most hostile. This supposedly explained why Protestant nations had been the first to industrialize and to exploit and pollute the environment. Muir’s deeply religious upbringing made me wonder how he went from Protestant to environmental icon. My first book, Protestantism, Capitalism, and Nature in America (1997), examined the interesting paradox that environmental figures like Muir tended to be raised in the very same denominations as America’s early captains of industry, showing the environmental ambiguity of Christian theology. As I finished revising the manuscript, it occurred to me that individual denominations — Methodist, Catholic, Jewish, Presbyterian, Baptist, and so on — tended to produce people with certain characteristic attitudes towards nature and environment, regardless of adult beliefs. I intended to explore that insight in a followup book. In writing it, it became clear that the influence of denominations were not constant over time. Their contributions to conservation and environmental thought and activism rose and fell. These cycles of denominational influence explained a great deal about the evolution of conservation and environmentalism from the middle nineteenth century until today.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Inherit the Holy Mountain?

MS: A passion for nature born in Reformed Protestantism shaped dominant American attitudes towards nature and environment until at least the 1970s. In particular, the near-total Congregational domination of nineteenth-century conservation and heavy Presbyterian influence on environmentalism in most of the twentieth explains much about the histories of conservation and environmentalism.

JF: Why do we need to read Inherit the Holy Mountain?

MS: Inherit the Holy Mountain presents a completely new perspective on environmentalism and its sources. For example, I found it very interesting that conservation originated in the desire to preserve sustainable and equitable communities in New England towns. I think embedding environmental goals in an overall vision of a just, moral, and sustainable society is inspirational. There are also lessons to be learned from Presbyterianism’s influence. Presbyterians gave environmentalism a moral conscience, a drive to preach and proselytize, and a political will that led to victories from the Progressive Era to the Great Society. Environmentalism today suffers from the dying of the Presbyterian fire that formerly made it so politically formidable. Now, politically effective evangelism is the property of the right, which allies with great concentrations of wealth and power rather than standing against them. Finally, contemporary religious environmentalists advocate respect for creation as the foundation for environmental action. Inherit the Holy Mountain shows that campaigns to convert individuals to environmental consciousness are doomed to be relatively ineffective politically.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

MS: I love to write, and the history profession combined steady income and benefits (important when I was a new husband and father) with an outlet for my writing.

JF: What is your next project?

MS: I’ve been working on this book for many years, so at the moment I am glad to have completed a work that I think is original, significant, and powerful. But I have been invited to write a sequel of sorts.

JF: Thanks, Mark.