Friday, May 8, 2020

Christianity’s Early Environmental Movement

Are you living eco-friendly? In today’s world, if you’re not, you’re seen as behind the times. Where did the concept of conservation originate? Some (beginning with Lynn White Jr.) have erroneously argued that a Christian worldview is primarily to blame for the unprecedented levels of pollution, species extinction, and other environmental issues plaguing the world now.

Before environmentalism became mainstream in the 1960s and 70s, Christians were concerned about conserving nature. The back-to-nature and conservation movements of the later 19th century were attempts spearheaded by Christian leaders to save society from the evils of mass urbanization.Part of this effort included starting the summer camp movement 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 centuries.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.2

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.3,4 Christians were not the only group to do this but were the earliest and most enthusiastic. Like later environmentalists such as Leopold or Olson, Progressive-era Christian leaders 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 other Christians saw the benefit of summer camp for children. These early pioneers sought to instill survival skills, conservation, and natural knowledge in future generations. 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.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."6

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 DeMeriette explained he wanted to teach campers to, "enjoy nature, love the trees, shrubs, flowers, birds, and animals and to make a study of the same."7 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 cheek, 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 1903.8

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 1950s.9 Many of the early summer camp programs taught an appreciation for nature and low-impact camping practices as they were understood at the time.10

The summer camp movement paved the way for later environmentalists’ message. It helped many Americans personally know the value of preserving nature. It fostered an interest in nature among urban dwellers and helped to bolster the importance of nature in the minds of average Americans.11 The message of nature's importance preached by environmentalists in the second half of the 20th century built on the foundation laid by the nature-study and summer camp movements of the Progressive era.12,13 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. Americans living before WWII more often experienced primitive nature in the summer camp setting.14 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 intrinsic to their goal.4

Elisabeth Brown, a summer camp advocate, wrote in 1950, "[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."15

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.16 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, not just national. In an era when Nationalism was peaking and the ideas of eugenics dominated Western thought, some Christians were talking about nature's importance to all humankind. There are Christians who are anti-environmentalism. 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, consider the summer camp movement, primarily headed by Christian organizations in the first half of the 20th century, as an example of Christian-based conservation. Additionally, many of the conservation organizations founded in this era such as the Sierra Club, Appalachian Mountain Club, and American Alpine Club, worked closely with Christian denominations. It was popular in the decades prior to WWII for these clubs to host outdoor church services that attracted hundreds or even thousands of people to worship in America's beautiful wild cathedrals. Christians were heavily involved in these organizations in their early days. For example, Reverend Harry Pierce Nichols was one of the early presidents of American Alpine Club from 1923-1926. 

In a 1950 manual on running summer camp programs, the author lists the values provided by such a program to the children they serve. 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.15 This is ironic as Leopold viewed Western Christianity as anti-nature and anti-conservation. 

While Christian society in the West may be partly to blame for the modern destruction and overuse of natural resources, Western Christian society is also largely responsible for the Conservation Movement itself as argued by Mark Stoll in his book Inherit the Holy Mountain.18 Looking back from the 21st century, Nancy Unger and Tim Nielsen both see summer camps and their leaders as vital to modern conservation efforts. Nielsen says, “All camp directors are conservationists! We play a vital role in…the “growing” of the next generation of conservation leaders.”19, 20

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

"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."21

Today, Christian summer camps still preserve thousands of acres from over-development and urbanization. Most camps preserve the majority of their land in its natural, forested state. Conservative estimates show the average summer campgrounds are about 50 acres. The smallest overnight camps are often at least 10 acres. Many own over 200 and some as many as 5000 acres. With over 7000 overnight camps in the United States, that amounts to at least 350,000 acres of land spared from development.22 The actual number may be higher. 

Some camps go a step further and permanently protect their land from any future development. The Trust for Public Lands helps summer camps place an easement on their property to protect it from future development. This can open up the opportunity for grant money that provides much needed revenue to camp operations. It ensures the land will be accessible for generations and protects fragile ecosystems.23 Summer camps continue to play a formative role in creating new generations of environmentalists.

Written by David F. Garner


0. Stephen Corry, "Killing conservation – the lethal cult of the empty wild," Survival International blog, accessed November 26, 2021 from

1. Susan Rimby, Mira Lloyd Dock and the Progressive Era Conservation Movement, (Penn State University Press: 2013): 1749, ebook.

2. Museum of the White Mountains, Plymouth State University, Summer Camps:The White Mountains Roots of an Iconic American Experience, (Hannaford & Dumas: 2017):44, ebook,

3. 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.

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

5. The Pennsylvania Forestry Association, "Who was Joseph Trimble Rothrock," Pennsylvania Forestry Association, January 2015, slide-show presentation,

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

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

8. 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.

9. 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

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

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

12. Kevin C. Armitage, The Nature Study Movement: The Forgotten Popularizer of America's Conservation Ethic, (Lawrence, University of Kansas Press: 2009), Print.

13. David Wells, "Environmental Movement," Sonoma State University online, Nov. 9, 2014,, paragraph 7.

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

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

16. 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. Tim Nielsen, “Traditional Camp: My Epiphany That We Are All in the Conservation Movement,” CampLine online (May 2014),

21. 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.)

22. Asaf Darash, "Summer Camp Infographic: Amazing Facts on USA Camps," Regpack blog (2015), accessed November 28, 2021 from

23. The Trust for Public Land, "Saving Camp: Conservation Protects Youth Camps From Development," Trust for Public Land blog, accessed November 28, 2021 from