Friday, May 8, 2020

Christianity’s Early Environmental Movement

Before environmentalism became mainstream in the 1960s and 70s, Christians were concerned about conserving nature. They started the summer camp movement in the latter part of the 19th century to instill in young people awe and appreciation for nature. Leading progressive Christian thought saw the benefit of preserving areas of undeveloped nature against the onslaught of urbanization in the late 19th and early 20th century. Before there was a National Park Service, Christian groups were aggregating areas of undeveloped land or reclaimed farmland and setting them aside as sanctuaries of unspoiled nature. 

Summer campgrounds were areas set aside for purposes very similar to National and State Parks. They protected land from major urban and suburban development and allowed nature to reclaim the land.5,5a Christians were not the only group to do this. But, like later environmentalists such as Leopold or Olson, they agonized over the increasing rarity of sprawling nature. Their assumptions about why nature was worth saving may have been primarily anthropocentric, but their impact was no less important. 

First Fredrick William Gunn, then Dr. Joseph T. Rothrock, then numerous others saw the benefit of summer camp for children. Rothrock is of particular interest because much of his career was dedicated to environmentalism and educating others on conservation. He is recognized as the Father of Forestry in Pennsylvania.1 He was also the first to start a private summer camp program. His camp was first held in 1876, “so that the pursuit of health could be combined with the practical knowledge outside usual academic lines."2

Rothrock and other summer camp pioneers saw encounters with rural and wild nature as having a positive effect on youth. Edwin DeMeriette established Camp Algonquin in 1886, one of the earliest and most successful camps of the late 19th century. At that time summer camps were very experimental and controversial. When asked why he decided to start a summer camp he said in order to teach campers to, "enjoy nature, love the trees, shrubs, flowers, birds and animals and to make a study of the same."3 Many youth workers saw nature encounters as especially beneficial for at-risk youth. They believed such experiences could turn them into productive, law-abiding citizens. "The street boy needs the open air, the warm breath of nature on his check, the calm patience of her slow processes, the subtle teaching of the changing seasons, the new companionships of wild and tamed animals, and by them, he grows into a well—rounded manhood," said a social worker in 1903.4

Before there were environmental science classes in schools and conservation books aimed at children, summer camps were teaching ecological ethics. "I learned how before there was an environmental movement how to discover a campsite and how to leave it better than you found it and how you make a fire from birch bark off a dead tree as opposed to off a live tree," observed Michael Eisner, former CEO of the Disney Corporation who was a summer camper in the 1950's.6 Many summer camp programs taught an appreciation for nature and low-impact camping practices as they were understood at the time.7 Scouting programs did so as well.8, 9

The summer camp movement paved the way for later environmentalist's message. It helped many Americans know personally the value of preserving nature. It fostered an interest in nature among urban dwellers. The summer camp movement helped to bolster the importance of nature in the minds of average Americans.10 The message of nature's importance preached by environmentalists in the second half of the 20th century was not wholly new. It built on the foundation laid by the nature-study and summer camp movements.11,12 Many Americans heard or read about the grand majesty of the National Parks and mountains out west from the likes of John Muir. But not until after WWII did many Americans get the chance to visit the Parks. More Americans in the years before WWII experienced primitive nature in the summer camp setting.13 The summer camp movement played a key role in helping the average American appreciate the message of environmentalists in the 20th century. 

It goes deeper. The nature-study movement during the Progressive Era sought to integrate the study of the environment into children's education. It included ideas of environmental preservation.11 "The nature-study movement, reaching its peak between 1890 and 1920, was the first major American educational reform movement to fully attempt general educational reform theory with the study of the environment."14 The nature-study movement was not shunned by Christian's as later attempts to integrate environmental education were. In fact, just the opposite took place. Christian's adopted nature-study into child education wholesale! Nature study was an aspect of nearly every summer camp program including Christian ones. It was central to scouting programs which were primarily run by churches. It was included in Christian classrooms across the country. It even became common in Sunday School lessons.6 The 1915 book Biblical Nature Study exemplifies this. Its nearly 250 pages are dedicated totally to creating an appreciation for nature from a Christian perspective. Nature study in Christian circles became so pervasive one author described it as a "pastoral Christianity."15

The summer camp was seen as the best place to awaken a proper appreciation for nature by many camp advocates and educators. Teaching conservation was part of their goal.5a 

"[Camping] is an opportunity to awaken within the camper a sense of wonder, a chance to make real to him the meaning of God’s laws at work in the natural world. Aware of God’s creative power in the physical universe, the camper is not only awakened to his responsibility for conserving natural resources for mankind, but may be inspired to work with God in his ever unfolding purposes for human beings."16

Christians were interested in conserving nature. A Library of Congress analysis of the early conservation movement (1850-1920) found that the summer camp movement was largely a result of conservationism philosophy.16a Christian leaders in this time period saw conservation efforts as an extension of their mission to help the poor and underprivileged in society. During the Great War (WWI) Christians were talking about stewarding the world's natural resources for the good of all mankind, including their enemies. 

"Those who would extend the Gospel of Jesus Christ should insist that this partial measure should be made a world measure; that economic imperialism—the final cause of world conflict—shall be removed once for all by a permanent co-operative administration of the world’s resources, and that there shall be no exclusion, not even of our enemies. ...That will mean recognizing brotherhood in a greater sense than the world has ever seen it before. It will recognize that the great natural resources are not the property of the strongest group or the strongest nation, but belong to all the children of men, put here by God for the development of all the people. It will mean that the great powers will stop exploiting the weaker peoples, that the world’s great resources will be co-operatively controlled for the good of all."17

Long before the messages of biocentrism or the Gaia hypothesis were widespread, Christians were talking about the benefit of conservation and wise resource management for global benefit. In an era when Nationalism was peaking and the ideas of eugenics dominated Western thought, Christians were talking about nature's importance to all human-kind. Yes, there were Christians on the side of Nationalism and eugenics. There were and still are Christians who are anti-environmental. But, as seen in the historical struggle over slavery in England and America, there were Christians on both sides of the debate. It is a mischaracterization to place all blame for modern environmental destruction squarely on the shoulders of the Christian worldview as some have tried to do. 

Again I point to the summer camp movement, primarily headed by Christian organizations in the first half of the 20th century, as an example of Christian-based conservation. In a manual on running summer camp programs, one author lists the values provided by such a program to the children they serve. She seeks to answer the question, why have a summer camp program? She states the most profound of these values is to teach people "what our responsibilities are to preserve our great [natural] heritage to those who come after us." She ends by encouraging summer camp leaders to read Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac. This is ironic as Leopold viewed Western Christianity as anti-nature and anti-conservation. While Christian society may be partly to blame for the overuse of natural resources and destruction, Christian society is also largely responsible for the Conservation Movement.18 Looking back from the 21st century, Nancy Unger sees summer camps as central to developing environmental awareness, especially among girls. "For generations, [scouting] organizations (as well as a multitude of private and civic summer camps) gave girls outdoor experiences and fostered environmental awareness."19

Christianity and especially Christian summer camps were pivotal in laying the foundation for modern environmental conservation. A Christian camping association participated in the Congressional briefings leading up to the passage of The 1964 Wilderness Act. 

"We, the Barton Flats Camping Association, are strongly in favor of the passing of a wilderness bill that will preserve and protect wilderness lands in their natural state for our generation and all of the future generations of our Nation. We feel that we have an obligation to the millions of children yet unborn to preserve for them a place where they can enjoy a true wilderness as God created it, a place for them to learn to love the simple things and feel at home with themselves and nature, and not watching out for cars as they whisk by on the roads or watching the ski lift pass over their heads."20

Written by David F. Garner


1. The Pennsylvania Forestry Association, "Who was JOSEPH TRIMBLE ROTHROCK," Pennsylvania Forestry Association, January 2015, slide-show presentation,

2. American Camps Association, "Timeline," American Camps Association online, accessed May 3, 2020 from 

3. Carlos Edgar Ward, Organized Camping and Progressive Educaiton, (Galax, C. E. Ward: 1935): 23, Print.

4. Mornay Williams, "The Street Boy: Who he is and What to do with him." The Christian Register, 80(51): 1485-1486, December 17, 1903, Print.

5. Abigail A. Van Slyck, A Manufactured Wilderness: Summer Camps and the Shaping of American Youth 1890-1960, (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press: 2006): 4, Print.

5a. Danielle C. Sheppard, (2010). "Summer Camps in the Belgrade Lakes Region: Historical perspectives." Retrieved April 29, 2020, from   

6. Michael Smith, (2006). 'The Ego Ideal of the Good Camper' and the Nature of Summer Camp. Environmental History, 11(1), 92-93. Retrieved April 29, 2020, from

7. Roberta Jordan, "Campland Conservation: Protecting the Hidden Valley Reservation," Exchange: Journal of the Land Trust Exchange (Summer 1992): 20, Print. 

8. Biennial Report of the Commissioners to Manage the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove, Sacramento State Office,  (A . J. Johnston , Supt. State Printing: 1894): 10.

9. Lord Robert Baden-Powell, Scouting For Boys, (London, Horace Cox: 1908): Camp Fire Yarn 12, Print.

10. Wikipedia, "Environmental education in the United States," Last modified February 19, 2020,

11. Kevin C. Armitage, The Nature Study Movement: The Forgotten Popularizer of America's Conservation Ethic, (Lawrence, University of Kansas Press: 2009), Print.
12. David Wells, "Environmental Movement," Sonoma State University online, Nov. 9, 2014,, paragraph 7.

13. Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, "Why Fear of Big Cities Led to the Creation of Summer Camps," History Channel online, Aug 7, 2017,


15. John Hannigan, Environmental Sociology Ed 2: Edition 2, (New York, Routledge: 2006): 41, Ebook.

16. Elizabeth Brown, Camps and Summer Conferences in Orientation in Religious Education ed. Philip Henry Lotz, (Nashville, Abingdon Press: 1950): 338-351, Print. 

16a. Library of Congress, "The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920 [An Overview]," Library of Congress online, accessed July 16, 2020 from 

17. "A Movement Toward Brotherhood," The Christian Century, 35(27): 6-7, July 18, 1918, Print.

18. Barbara Ellen Joy, Camp Craft: A Manual for Leaders Responsible for Organization of Camp Craft in the Summer Camp, (Minneapolis, Burgess Publishing Co: 1955): 4,

19. Nancy C. Unger, "Women and Gender: Useful Categories of Analysis in Environmental History," in The Oxford Handbook of Environmental History ed. Andrew C. Isenberg (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), Ebook.

20. United States. Congress. House. Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs. (1962). Wilderness preservation system: hearings before the Subcommittee on Public Lands of the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, House of Representatives, Eighty-seventh Congress, first[-second] session, on S. 174 [and other] bills to establish a national wilderness preservation system for the permanent good of the whole people, and for other purposes.... Vol 3: 774, (Washington: U.S. Gov.)


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