The Puritan Origins of the American Wilderness Movement
J. Baird Callicott, University of North Texas
Priscilla Solis Ybarra, Rice University
©National Humanities Center
(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?
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 Electand 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 waselements of Platonism, Hinduism, Romanticism, Deism blended togetherbut
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),
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.
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 doctrinethat the things of this world reflect higher, transcendent truths (hence the philosophy's name).
As Emerson famously enthused almost eighty years later:
|Ralph Waldo Emerson
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
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.
|Earl, Looking East from Denny Hill|
1800 [Leicester, Massachusetts]
|Worcester Art Museum|
|"nature in America went from demonized|
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