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The Puritan Origins of the American Wilderness Movement
J. Baird Callicott, University of North Texas
Priscilla Solis Ybarra, Rice University
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(part 2 of 4)

If the history Nash constructs were the whole story, wilderness could become the object not of fear, loathing, and conquest, but of veneration and preservation only when the grip of Puritan thought on the American mind was relaxed. Who better than Thoreau, the man who marched to the beat of a different drummer, represents the intellectual counter current to Puritanism in American thought?
Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau
full text of
"Walking, or the Wild"

In an 1851 public lecture, he would declare that "in Wildness is the preservation of the World." He opened that lecture, "Walking, or the Wild" with this preamble:
I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil . . . . I wish to make an extreme statement, if so I may make an emphatic one, for there are enough champions of civilization: the minister and the school committee, and every one of you will take care of that.

We don't know the identity of the "minister" present on this occasion, but doubtless he was a Presbyterian or Congregationalist preacher of a Calvinist persuasion. Neither do we know who composed the school committee, but we can be sure that they were among the Elect—and heaven bound. The rest of Thoreau's audience consisted mostly of descendants of the Puritan pilgrims who first settled Concord, Massachusetts, in the seventeenth century. Thoreau here opposes Nature to civilization, wildness to culture, and himself to his pious audience. Thoreau, a close associate of Ralph Waldo Emerson is, like Emerson, labelled a Transcendentalist. It's not entirely clear what Transcendentalism was—elements of Platonism, Hinduism, Romanticism, Deism blended together—but it seems pretty clear that it was a far cry from Puritanism. Thoreau, however, was certainly a Puritan in his habits, if not in his philosophy. He was celibate, vegetarian, a teetotaller, otherwise abstemious, frugal . . . and judgmental.

Henry Nash: Evolution of "wilderness" concept

In contrast, Perry Miller, the great historian of Puritan America and author of Errand into the Wilderness (1956/1984),

"The Beauty of the World," 1758 full text
argues that Transcendentalism was not an exotic alternative to Calvinism but evolved from it. The transitional figure is Jonathan Edwards, who lived a century after the Puritan colonization of the New World.

Jonathan Edwards, 1703-1758
Jonathan Edwards
He found the "images or shadows of divine things" in "the beauty of the world," explaining that

spiritual beauties are infinitely the greatest, and bodies being but the shadows of being, they must be so much the more charming as they shadow forth spiritual beauties. This beauty is peculiar to natural things, it surpassing the art of man.

Here Edwards states the core Transcendentalist doctrine—that the things of this

full text
world reflect higher, transcendent truths (hence the philosophy's name).

Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1803-1882
Ralph Waldo Emerson
As Emerson famously enthused almost eighty years later:

Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed in the blithe air, and uplifting into empty space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.

Combine this spiritualizing of nature, begun in the second century of American Puritan theology and fully formed in the third in crypto-Puritan Transcendentalism, with the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity and original sin, and you have the Puritan origins of the American wilderness movement.

Perry Miller: Evolution of "wilderness" concept

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
Earl, Looking East from Denny Hill, 1800
Earl, Looking East from Denny Hill
1800 [Leicester, Massachusetts]

Worcester Art Museum
"nature in America went from demonized
to divinized"

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.

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"Wilderness and American Identity" Essays
The Puritan Origins of the American Wilderness Movement | The Challenge of the Arid West |
Rachel Carson and the Awakening of Environmental Consciousness
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Wilderness and American Identity
The Use of the LandNative Americans and the Land
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