Welcome back to the “Church of Christ Celebrities” blog for our final post before the summer break. Yes, loyal readers, I will be taking a couple of months off from the blog, but fear not: both blog and I will return in August.
Today’s entry is a bit different in subject, if not necessarily in style, from our normal approach. It was inspired by a conversation I had with my uncle in which we noted the relative lack of leading intellectuals, in modern Churches of Christ, from certain academic disciplines. We struggled to think of a single well-known scientist, for instance, and the closest I could manage off of the top of my head was famed preservationist and environmental author John Muir (1838-1914). As we will see shortly, Muir was not a member of Churches of Christ, but he did have a strong connection in his early years to another of the Stone-Campbell traditions.
The Scottish-born Muir is best known today for his advocacy for the preservation of wilderness areas such as Yosemite. In fact, Muir’s writings were instrumental in prodding Congress to turn that area into a National Park around the turn of the twentieth century. Muir also established the Sierra Club as a vehicle for preservationism, a view which held that nature ought to be preserved for its own sake, often for aesthetic reasons; conservationists like Gifford Pinchot, by contrast, sought to extract value from nature but to do so in what they saw as responsible ways.
According to an article on the Sierra Club’s website, the environmentalist’s father, Daniel, was “inspired by the Campbellite desire to recreate the primitive Church,” and he sought to instill a stern, austere faith in his family through hard work: “While his children, often including the girls, labored to clear the forest and raise the crops, Daniel retired to his study to read the Bible. The Disciples of Christ had no regular clergy but relied on ‘preaching elders,’ usually self-taught, like Daniel.” (1)
Given the above division of labor, it is perhaps no great surprise that Muir did not retain any formal connection to the Disciples in his later years. Yet even though he parted ways with the group in adulthood, he still remained in contact with Disciples, including those in his own family:
Muir encountered Disciples in his travels in Wisconsin and Canada… Also, occasional letters between Muir and his family indicate that his family sent him copies of important Restoration periodicals, certainly Alexander Campbell’s Millennial Harbinger… and possibly Barton Stone’s Christian Messenger…, which he presumably read. In addition, a letter to David Gilrye Muir concerning the debate over infant baptism that raged within Disciples discourse…, and others in which John reflects on his father’s ministry… suggest that the Restoration Movement was not something that John Muir could ever entirely escape. (2)
Disciples theology also shaped Muir’s spiritual worldview, even as he abandoned many of its tenets and practices. One author notes a similarity between the Disciples’ desire to restore first-century Christianity with the “Romantic elevation of primitive nature as a pure origin for culture.” He adds that Muir “searched tirelessly for a pure source of religion in primitive nature” and that such a location “would be a place of redeeming love, where all could come together as equals in communion with their Creator.” (3)
So while John Muir may not have been a member of Churches of Christ, and while he may not have stayed with the Disciples during his adult years, restorationism certainly played a role in shaping his worldview and environmental activism.
Thanks again for reading–the blog will return in August, so stay tuned!
(1) Mark R. Stoll, “God and John Muir: A Psychological Interpretation of John Muir’s Life and Religion,” Sierra Club, 1993, accessed March 8, 2018, https://vault.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/life/god_john_muir_mark_stoll.aspx.
(2) John Pierce, “‘Christianity and Mountainanity’: The Restoration Movement’s Influence on John Muir,” Religion and the Arts 17 (2013), 115-116.
(3) Jeffrey Bilbro, Loving God’s Wildness: The Christian Roots of Ecological Ethics in American Literature (Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press, 2015), 65-66.