TeacherServe Essays

The Puritan Origins of the American Wilderness Movement

Author: Callicut, J. Baird

By the second century of their existence in the New World, the sober, frugal, hard-working Puritans had transformed the American wilderness into fruitful farms and shining cities on hills. The “howling” wilderness encountered by the first generation of Puritans in America was demonized. It was the vast domain of Satan, his minions the “Salvages,” and diabolical flesh-eating wild animals. By Edwards’s day, the numbers of dangerous animals had been reduced and the Indian populations had precipitously declined. The remnants of uncultivated, unurbanized nature became instead a benign Edenic domain. Sin was to be found in the towns, not in the woods, and the Devil in the souls of sinners. In short, nature in America went from demonized to divinized and the American population of European descent went from God’s errand runners into the hideous and howling wilderness to sinful and depraved despoilers of God’s beautiful creation. By the middle of the nineteenth century, undespoiled nature was becoming so scarce in the heartland of Puritan America, that Thoreau felt compelled to call for its deliberate preservation.

Read More

Subjects: History; Environment and Nature; Education Studies; American History; Environmentalism; Environmental Conservation; Puritans; Wilderness