As Mark Stoll pursued research on the history of American environmentalism, he discovered that “A huge proportion of the leaders of environmentalism during its mid-twentieth-century heyday were raised Presbyterian.” As late as the Progressive Era conservationism of 1900-1920, “Progressive conservationists were nearly all raised Presbyterian. The almost complete unanimity astonished me. Presbyterians dominated Federal conservation for several decades and then vanished as completely as Congregationalists, only to resurface in the environmental movement after World War II.” The leaders were not practicing Presbyterians, and eventually the Presbyterian dominance broke up, but for a long time “Presbyterians had given the movement a moral and political center that no one has replaced.”
In his forthcoming Inherit the Holy Mountain, Stoll argues that the Presbyterian background is not accidental. Reformed theology, he suggests, developed its own moralistic aesthetic of the natural world that fed into American landscape painting, American conceptions of the wilderness as a place where God’s grandeur is displayed, and a moral drive to care for the land. Stoll makes the striking claim that Calvinist aesthetics was more at home with natural beauty than cultural beauty, since the latter was considered so thoroughly tainted by human sin. Place this Calvinist aesthetic in an American context, and you have the makings of a uniquely American appreciation of rugged natural vistas.