Whither Mormon Environmental Theology?

By Jason M. Brown

Theologian Thomas Berry has suggested that we are entering an “ecozoic” age. A new epic of ecological consciousness that will transcend the shorted-sightedness of the modern age which has precipitated the greatest environmental crisis humanity has ever faced; a crisis which recently presided over the largest oil spill in U.S. history. Many of the problems associated with the crisis—pollution, species extinction, climate change—have been framed in technical terms, to be resolved with minor adjustments in consumption habits, policy, or innovations in financial markets (such as carbon trading). However, the problems we face are but symptoms of a much deeper failure on the part of our civilization to relate to the earth and its creatures in moral terms.

In 1998 John Grim and Mary Evelyn Tucker, Yale scholars, activists and personal mentors, organized the first in a series of ten forums on “Religious Traditions of the World and Ecology.” These forums rigorously and openly explored both the promise and problematic aspects of the world’s major religious traditions with respect to the emerging environmental crisis. Through Forums such as these, scholars and activists in many of the world’s religious traditions are reexamining and in many cases redefining the human-earth relationship, which has been eclipsed—especially in Christianity—by the primacy of the human-God and human-human relationships as the domains of religious moral concern. This reflective process has included three methods of inquiry: retrieval of neglected teachings, allegories and ideas; reevaluation of our current interpretations of doctrines, archetypes and texts and the reconstruction of rituals and practices as they relate to the environmental problems we face.

In many respects, Mormonism has broadly followed Christianity in its ambivalence toward environmental issues. While early Mormon leaders incorporated the earth into the moral domain of Christian responsibility, contemporary Mormonism has tended to define environmental problems as technical problems and hence outside the sphere of religious concern and better left to “experts” or policy-makers. However, as a student of Mormon environmental theology, I have been pleased to note a steadily growing amount of environmentally-focused Mormon scholarship, blogs, listservs and symposia. It would seem that Mormons, along with much of the rest of Western civilization, are beginning to engage in this reflective process. In my observation however, Mormon scholars and activists are mostly carrying out acts of retrieval, meaning they are actively cataloguing early Mormon teachings and doctrines related to the earth. For example, in George Handley’s wonderful article ‘The Environmental Ethics of Mormon Belief,’ he expounds on many neglected doctrines and suggests with eloquence why these doctrines should compel Mormons to take a more active interest in environmental issues. In the book Kindness to Animals and Caring for the Earth, the author compiles an exhaustive collection of quotes and teachings from Mormon leaders related to the earth and the environment.

While I praise and have learned much from the efforts to collect, understand and demonstrate the progressive earth-teachings of Mormonism, I hope to show in this article that in addition to this vital task, we must also engage in actively reevaluating the archetypes—metaphorical models that serve to illustrate humanity’s relation to the earth—that underlie Mormon earth-teachings and contemporary attitudes. To do this, I want to begin by suggesting that there are two traditions of teachings about our relationship to the earth within Mormon theology: the Stewardship Tradition, whose teachings frame the earth in terms of God-given earthly materials to be used for mortal purposes. Within this tradition of teachings, there are two sometimes harmonious, sometimes competing possible archetypes. The first is the earth as supermarket, a material sphere created to satisfy human needs and desires. The second archetype is the earth as scenic backdrop, as in a play; wherein the earth’s primary value is aesthetic.

The second tradition of earth-teachings within Mormonism could be called the Vitalistic Tradition. While this tradition recognizes the earth’s utility and beauty, it also opens the possibility for deeper, inter-subjective relationships to the earth and her creatures that are largely denied in the Stewardship Tradition. Within this tradition of teachings is a third and final archetype: the web of life. Here, human beings are subjects among subjects within an animate and vital world—not a world made ex nihilo, but of intelligences that are co-eternal with God themselves. These two traditions with their accompanying archetypes serve to support my thesis: only by combining the methods of retrieval with a rigorous and radical reevaluation and reconstruction of the archetypes that inform our relationship to the earth will Mormonism be able to incorporate the earth into our moral domain and join the movement toward a truly ecological age.

The Stewardship Tradition

The Stewardship Tradition, taken largely from the Bible, principally from Genesis, teaches that the earth is a divine gift to its mortal dwellers. While the earth was pronounced good, we are quickly reminded who is in charge when God states that man has been given dominion over all the creatures of the earth. The earth is for us; our responsibility is to subdue it, cultivate it and to multiply and replenish the earth. While dominion is the operable word, stewardship has been adopted as a more appropriate description of humanity’s call to care for and inhabit the earth. Section 104 of the Doctrine and Covenants supports a contemporary reading of stewardship, “For it is expedient that I, the Lord, should make every man accountable, as a steward over earthly blessings, which I have made and prepared for my creatures.” Stewardship then, far from licensing rampant exploitation, is a minimal accountability to God for our use or abuse of the earth as a material resource.

Within the Stewardship Tradition, there are two possible archetypes that illustrate our relationship to the earth and frame the ethical parameters within which abuses to the earth are discussed. In the first, the earth can be seen as an exquisitely stocked supermarket full of everything we could ever need. “For the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare…” As such, the primary value of the earth is as a resource, a commodity, a material means to human ends. In this earthly emporium, we are primarily concerned with relationships between human subjects and earthly objects that fulfill our wants and needs. Whether we are talking about Brigham Young’s garden-cities or fossil fuels, the earth-human relationship is primarily about means and ends, a quantitative balancing act between the needs of the present and those of future generations. Importantly, the ethical discourse which this archetype inevitably frames is limited to a tension between exploitation on the one hand and conservation of natural resources on the other. For those who subscribe to this archetype, it would be absurd to talk about the intrinsic worth of items on a supermarket shelf or even to appreciate them for their aesthetic qualities. They are here to serve human needs and desires and while their use should be tempered by our obligation to equity toward others and future generations, there is no moral obligation toward the objects that make up the created earth.

In the second archetype or metaphor relevant to the Stewardship Tradition, the earth is viewed as a beautiful but temporary backdrop, as in a play. As the human drama unfolds, we can stop and marvel at the stunning beauty that surrounds us and give thanks to a loving God. As a result, within this archetype the earth’s primary value is aesthetic and our dominant interaction with it is as scenery. Here, the ethical discourse is framed in the language of preservation; nature narrowly defined as the world before or without human beings must be preserved intact and undisturbed as a space that is primarily interacted with as a painting on a wall or a diorama in a museum.

While these two archetypes hold when thinking about the Stewardship Tradition through a contemporary lens, I would like to briefly subvert them before moving on to show their relevance to contemporary Mormon environmental theology. In a revelation received by Joseph Smith and recorded in D & C 59:18-20 we read:

18 Yea, all things which come of the earth, in the season thereof, are made for the benefit and the use of man, both to please the eye and to gladden the heart; 19 Yea, for food and for raiment, for taste and for smell, to strengthen the body and to enliven the soul. 20 And it pleaseth God that he hath given all these things unto man; for unto this end were they made to be used, with judgment, not to excess, neither by extortion.

Interestingly, as this scripture shows, during the early period of Mormon history there was no major tension between utility and aesthetics, no distinction between sacred and secular. Here, the supermarket and scenic backdrop were conflated into a millennialist agrarian vision that has both utilitarian and aesthetic values, albeit distinct from contemporary aesthetics of nature. As a result, early church leaders included our treatment of the earth within the moral sphere. Mormon leaders such as Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and Orson Hyde continually admonished the Saints to take care of land and routinely decried, overgrazing, overfishing, pollution and those seeking profit at the expense of the land or the community. In addition, far from contemporary ecological discourse, much of the moral duty preached by early church leaders was primarily concerned with the transformation of the earth, the reclaiming of the wilderness to make the desert blossom as a rose. In cooperation with God, it was a religious duty to create a beautiful and functional agrarian landscape of orchards, pasture and gardens that would abide the presence of angels.

Despite the conflation of utilitarian and aesthetic values of the earth, and a vocal leadership that promoted earth-care in the moral language of the Stewardship Tradition, much of contemporary mainstream environmental discourse and policy has seen an increasing tension between utility and aesthetic values or, the earth as supermarket vs. scenic backdrop. Within contemporary Mormonism however, rather than reproduce this contentious ethical discourse, it would seem that care for the environment has been relinquished to the technical expertise of managers and policy makers, while questions of personal conduct and ritual have become the measuring stick of moral rectitude. As a result, because of the predominance of the Stewardship Tradition coming out of Genesis, the increasing polarization of environmental issues has seen many conservative Mormons siding with the utilitarian interpretations of extractive industries and the free market rather than the largely aesthetic, ecosystemic and biocentric values promoted by environmentalists.

Because of these unique historical and cultural factors which have excluded the earth from contemporary Mormon morality, acts of retrieval by themselves, which seek to restore early Mormon earth-teachings to relevance to moral concern, will be ineffective. This is because acts of retrieval ignore the historic conflation of utilitarian and aesthetic values of nature that early church leaders espoused, which has become oppositionally dichotomized within the contemporary American Mormon mind. This results in an exegesis which will correspond with the archetypes which espouse valuing the earth in terms of either utility or aesthetics depending on the politico-cultural orientation of the contemporary reader and thus perpetuating the jobs vs. owls debates which rage in the policy sphere.

The Vitalistic Tradition

In the second tradition of Mormon earth-teachings, the Vitalistic Tradition, the earth is composed of matter that is bursting with a vital, spiritual and self-organizing force or intelligence.
The Pearl of Great Price is the primary keeper of the Vitalistic Tradition, along with obscure yet powerful teachings by early church leaders. In the Book of Moses, the dominion creation narrative of Genesis is altered in important ways. To Moses the Lord declares: “And out of the ground made I, the Lord God, to grow every tree, naturally, that is pleasant to the sight of man; and man could behold it. And it became also a living soul.” Here the reader is attuned to a spiritual creation of the earth; a spiritual creation that was carried out as an organization of preexisting matter, rather than a single ex nihilo event.

In D & C 131 Joseph Smith articulates a doctrine unique to the Christian world of his day; namely that there is no such thing as the immaterial. Spirit is matter, and all matter contains intelligence. The Mormon philosopher and Apostle Orson Pratt taught a similar doctrine of creation:

All the organizations of worlds, of minerals, of vegetables, of animals, of men, of angels, of spirits, and of the spiritual personages of the Father, of the Son, and the Holy Ghost, must, if organized at all, have been the result of the self combinations and unions of the preexistent, intelligent, powerful, and eternal particles of substance. These eternal Forces and Powers are the Great First Causes of all things and events that have had a beginning.

Orson Pratt held a view of matter that is typically categorized as hylozoism, a vitalistic notion meaning that matter itself is endowed with life. This view can be contrasted with animism, which holds that in addition to humans, animals and plants possess immaterial spirits. Brigham Young, while he certainly taught from the Stewardship Tradition in his reproach of pollution and his millennial drive for lush cooperative garden-cities, also taught a vitalistic hylozoism when he stated:

There is not one particle of element, which is not filled with life…there is life in all matter, throughout the vast extent of all the eternities; it is in the rock, the sand, the dust, in water, and gasses, and in short, in every description and organization of matter whether it be solid, liquid, or gaseous, particle operating within particle.

Within the Vitalistic Tradition of earth-teachings, the operable archetype or metaphor for illustrating our relationship to the earth is the web of life. Similar to the worldviews of many indigenous traditions, Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism, this archetype views humanity as embedded in a complex and interrelated matrix of living systems in a constantly unfolding universe. Unlike the previous archetypes which frame the earth’s primary value in utilitarian and aesthetics terms; as a web of life the primary value of the earth is relational. In contrast to the strict subject/object dualism of western civilization, within the Vitalistic Tradition, humanity is not the earth’s sole subjects acting upon yielding and inert objects; but subjects among subjects who change and are changed by the beings and places around us. Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme in their articulation of environmental theology state that “the universe is a communion of subjects not a collection of objects.” While this notion flies in the face of enlightenment science and capitalism, it should not startle the well read Latter-day Saint. In fact, God themselves are relational beings whose work and glory are intimately tied to our salvation and happiness. Most importantly for my purposes, within the Vitalistic Tradition, the ethical discourse becomes not of balancing and equitably distributing means and ends, or preserving some swaths of land while exploiting others, but whether or not we are participating appropriately within the web of life.

Participation and relationship include both utilitarian and aesthetic concerns, but no longer view the world through a subject/object dualism that moralizes human-human and human-God relations while technisizing human-earth relations. Rather than acting out our wills on an external and passive “nature,” humanity takes a more humble position in the cosmos. While traditional Christianity has resisted this notion, Mormon doctrines provide an unprecedented theological foundation for this shift in earth-teachings and archetypes. Rather than interrogating scriptures to see where Mormonism falls on the false dichotomy created by contemporary environmental discourse between utility and aesthetics, the Vitalistic Tradition shows that humanity, the earth, plants, animals and even God themselves are composed of the same sacred substances, life-matter, or intelligences. This admission should dramatically shift the moral conversation away from western dualisms of subjects and objects, means and ends, and technical solutions to environmental problems toward a discourse of inter-subjectivity and moral accountability.

As stated above, it will take more than mere retrieval of these sacred doctrines to bring them within the moral domain of contemporary Mormonism. For example, one powerful scripture within the Vitalistic Tradition that is often cited by environmentally conscious Mormons is in the Book of Moses. Here Enoch hears the voice of the earth crying in agony: “Wo, wo is me, the mother of men; I am pained, I am weary, because of the wickedness of my children. When shall I rest, and be cleansed from the filthiness which is gone forth out of me?” This scripture suggests an animate and conscious earth that resembles indigenous views and adds a spiritual component to climatologist James Lovelock’s increasingly popular Gaia Theory. However, this powerful scene seems to have very little impact on the day to day morality of contemporary Mormons. In an exegesis which reflects the absence of the earth from contemporary Mormon morality, this scripture is often interpreted to mean that the earth is pained solely because of the personal transgressions of human beings. However, the scripture can readily be interpreted to mean that the earth mourns, and continues to mourn for the continual desecration of her body by greedy, extractive and polluting industries and the lifestyles that support them.

For most Mormons, killing another human being is unquestionably immoral, but because the earth, viewed through a strictly objective archetype has been excluded from Mormon moral discourse, to talk of killing the earth is absurd. Until this changes no amount of retrieval will be adequate in shifting Mormon moral practices to include the earth. These relatively well known scriptures and teachings of the Vitalistic Tradition are treated by much of Mormon culture as what I would call “fun-fact” theology; known doctrines that have little impact on the ethical life of the LDS believer. Indeed it is the lack of moral import ascribed to the our treatment of the earth on the part of Mormons and other Christians alike which prompted Lynn White to write:

To a Christian a tree can be no more than a physical fact. The whole concept of the sacred grove is alien to Christianity and to the ethos of the West. For nearly two millennia Christian missionaries have been chopping down sacred groves which are idolatrous because they assume spirit in Nature.

Not only would we as Mormons strongly disagree with Professor White’s assessment of our perception of the tree as merely material, but we also hold one grove in upstate New York in particular to be very sacred indeed!

As a concluding example of reevaluation it is significant to me that Joseph Smith’s vision took place in a forest. Many Mormons are familiar with the apostasy narrative which traces the need for the restoration carried out by Smith; but perhaps environmental theologians of Mormonism should also speak of the ecological apostasy which saw a drastic falling away from ecological truths that have resulted in the kinds of sin for which the earth mourned. What an inspiring refutation of Lynne White’s Christian ‘anti-nature’ to begin the last dispensation in a grove; a stark rebuke to the supposed Christian and colonial ambivalence to the dark woods which were filled with light on that morning in 1820. Soon thereafter nature in the West would be re-enchanted by the wilderness and environmental movements of Henry David Thoreau and John Muir. Were the seeds of this radical shift in collective consciousness which occurred shortly after the founding of Mormonism sown by the same spirit that Mormons attribute to so many other changes in 19th century America?


Because environmental issues have become deeply polarized between utilitarian and aesthetic valuation of the earth, contemporary Mormon morality has tended to avoid the environment as a core moral obligation. While the Stewardship Tradition provides many progressive and earth-friendly teachings, the two possible archetypes presented in this paper, the earth as supermarket and the earth as scenic backdrop, perpetuate the subject/object dualisms that have created the looming ecological crisis. They are also inadequate in fostering an ethical discourse that places humanity within the natural world.

The Vitalistic Tradition’s assertion that the earth and all her creatures are subjects transcends contemporary polarization of environmentalism by reinvigorating the moral discourse outside of the poles of utility and aesthetics. By envisioning ourselves as embedded in the web of life, we enable our ethical discourse to include non-human entities, while not rendering human beings alien or problematic within the biosphere and foster an ethical discourse based on appropriate participation in the life systems that sustain us.

By emphasizing the Vitalistic Tradition, and combining the methods of retrieval and reevaluation in our reading of Mormon scripture and history, the vital reconstruction of moral practice is made possible. As Western civilization emerges from the ecological apostasy, my challenge to Mormon scholars and activists is to participate in the ecological restoration by going against 2,000 years of Christian and Western apostasy and (re)learning to live in relation to a vital and spiritual planet in our moral and daily lives. It is my hope that as our ecological consciousness grows Mormonism will embrace its sacred doctrines of the earth and help lead the way to the new ecological age.