Latter-day Saint History

Essays on Latter-day Saint Environmental History

Does religion look any different when viewed through the lens of environmental history?

Does religion look any different when viewed through the lens of environmental history? Learn more with Jedediah Rogers, co-editor of Utah Historical Quarterly and  The Earth Will Appear as the Garden of Eden: Essays on Mormon Environmental History.

Who is Jedediah Rogers?

My intellectual pursuits have roots in my childhood experiences in the varied rural landscapes of the West.

I recall backpacking in the High Uintas in my home state of Utah, camping in a grove of Redwoods in northern California, and a memorable road trip with my dad to Montana’s Flathead Lake and on to the Idaho panhandle and Canada.

Some of my fondest memories involve backcountry drives on rough desert roads in Utah’s red-rock country that I could not as a child even begin to place on a map. Travel in my young eye always contained an element of history and landscape, a marriage only reinforced in my adult mind. I’ve since experienced more of the West, having also lived in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, and now Salt Lake City.

I think it was from these experiences, among them the influences of my historian grandparents and mother and the values of my late father, that drew me to history generally and environmental history more particularly.

I’ve come to truly love Salt Lake City, especially the remarkable mountains that bound its borders. I live here with my partner Holly and two growing boys. And in terms of hobbies, well, I’m an avid mountain runner. 

What are your duties as co-editor of Utah Historical Quarterly?

It’s now been five years since I became co-editor of the UHQ, and I feel lucky to work with a great team and to do stimulating work.

The primary duty is overseeing production of the journal—entertaining manuscript submissions, sending them on for peer review, making publication decisions, corresponding with authors, content and copy editing, and serving as a liaison with our press, the University of Illinois Press.

That’s the day-to-day, nuts-and-bolts operations of the journal.

To make it happen requires some creative strategic thinking and collaborative partnerships. We work with authors around the state and beyond; we continually find ways to position Utah within a broader regional context; we plan special thematic issues and organize events and symposia that address history through both an academic and public history lens.

My work is best served when I’m connected to my field, recent in the literature, attending conferences, and engaged in writing projects.

My latest project, with Jeff Nichols, is a brief environmental history of the Great Salt Lake.

Would your work on the Council of Fifty be different now that the minutes are publicly available?

An essay I wrote for a compendium edited by Matt Grow and Eric Smith (The Council of Fifty: What the Records Reveal about Mormon History, 2017) best sums up my interest with the COF Nauvoo minutes.

As a historian of the American West, I found them a fascinating window into the perceptions, aspirations, and designs of midwestern early Mormons approaching the West.

Reading the council deliberations shocked and amazed me, perhaps most particularly lingering questions: Where did the Saints intend to go? and Why did they intend to go there?

I would have appreciated and benefited access to these minutes, but my volume is still complementary in the sense that it brings together ancillary records that provided added context and character to the minutes themselves.

Introduce The Earth Will Appear as the Garden of Eden: Essays on Mormon Environmental History.

Matt Godfrey and I early on framed the proposed volume as an edited collection of essays on Mormon environmental history that employs the perspective and interdisciplinary tools of environmental history to Mormonism and the study of its past.

I think this is still a good way to understand The Earth Will Appear.

We wrestled with whether this volume would be primarily Mormon history that either drew on the methods of environmental history or addressed environmental themes, or if it was firstly a work of environmental history that used as a case study the history of an American religion.

This difference would dictate the kind of scholars and topics we planned to tap for the volume and inform the most central question of all: just what is Mormon environmental history?

Any number of Mormon histories tease out environmental topics—but this is quite different than histories utilizing the tools and methods of environmental history, an established subfield of the discipline. Furthermore, given that environmental history is place-based, it may be tempting to identify the core essence of Mormon environmental history as the Mormon cultural region—the intermountain West—and yet we didn’t want to limit our history as only a western American one.

We ultimately settled on a hybrid approach, bringing on board scholars trained in environmental history but primarily featuring the perspectives of scholars working in the field of Mormon studies.

I hope it frames and introduces the possibilities of the field, bringing together some of the best work now being done and spurring others to consider Mormon history through an environmental lens.

What was the genesis for The Earth Will Appear As the Garden of Eden?

Following a session that Matt had organized at the Mormon History Association’s 2013 annual conference, John Alley approached the two of us about an anthology of essays on Mormon environmental history. I really like Matt, he apparently likes me (we worked together for a time at the consulting firm Historical Research Associates), and we gave it a go.

Allow me to give a longer, slightly indulgent back story.

In 1998 Gibbs Smith, who recently passed away, published an anthology that some hoped would change the paradigm of how many Mormons interact with the environment. The title was New Genesis: A Mormon Reader on Land and Community—and you can see in the subtitle the attempt to link land, the environment, and nature with one of the great emphases of Mormonism: community.

This would be an accessible volume for Mormons, rural and urban alike, to begin thinking profoundly about the theological, the spiritual, the mundane connections we all have with earth and sky.

Most books don’t have the impact we might hope they do. To the chagrin of my grandfather, Bill Smart, who was one of the editors of the volume, this one did not.

And it’s easy to become cynical about why that is: on a church level, on a societal level, most of us—myself included—go about our days having pushed out of our consciousness most of the intimate connections to nature that only a few generations back would have been ever-present, obvious. We act as though we are isolated and independent, separate from and above the natural processes that govern other species.

I know it was disappointing to my grandfather not to have made much headway changing the hearts and minds of Mormons through something like this anthology, or to influence church leadership to issue a Proclamation on the Health of the Earth, as he and Chase Peterson and Jake Garn and Gov. Huntsman and several others attempted to do in 2006. When Elder Marcus Nash delivered the keynote address at the Wallace Stegner Symposium in 2013, we had reason to cheer—and yet so much more is needed if we hope to make a sea change in how people value, perceive, and live in nature.

On the day of my doctoral graduation my grandfather gave me a copy of his book with the inscription, “The torch is now in your hands,” which was really his way of saying, “you have a family responsibility to carry the legacy of environmental stewardship.”

A book with the title page personally inscribed by Jedediah Rogers's grandfather.
Bill Smart wrote a message to his grandson, Jedediah Smith, in a copy of “New Genesis.” It reads, “To Jeb— The torch is now in your hands. Congratulations. Grampa.” Credit: Jedediah Rogers.

And so I come to this project with that torch: this is more than academic for me, as much of my work as a public and environmental historian is.

What is environmental history and who are some Latter-day Saints working in the field?

Fundamentally, history is about people and relationships between individuals, groups, and societies. If we look at broad categories, we might say historians think about culture—its institutions, developments, and manifestations.

The earliest practitioners of environmental history fashioned a methodology that animated a second broad category—nature—and its association with the traditional study of people and their institutions.

The first generation to overtly think about environmental history as a distinct field of study, with its own set of methodologies, plied their trade in the 1970s, and peers of my generation were typically trained by the first or second generation who introduced the subfield into college curriculum and public history projects.

That’s been fifty years; the field is growing and now well entrenched at nearly every academic history department or associated field.

The roots of the field go back further still: as antecedents and inspirations we might point to the Annales School, with its focus on the long durée, or the cultural geography that gave rise under Carl Sauer.

Apart from a couple of scholars, Mormon environmental history as a distinct, conscious field of study is quite new, thus the need for our compilation of essays.

My historiographical essay in the volume was meant to consider those historians and their works that addressed environmental themes or consciously used the environmental history lens in their work, and we might point to a number of scholars from a variety of disciplines as pioneers of that work.

Before historians, writers like Wallace Stegner or geographers like Donald Meinig and Richard Jackson did important early work in teasing out themes and ideas.

Prior to, say, the turn of the twenty-first century, among those trained in history, I can point only to a handful of historians who did environmental history, Tom Alexander—a mentor of mine—among them.

Explain the unique approach Matt Godfrey takes in his analysis of Jackson County. How is that area different today than what Joseph Smith envisioned?

Matt’s essay, approaching the settlement of Jackson County and the establishment of the city of Zion from an environmental history perspective, is both unique and insightful, particularly in showing a deep connection between religious convictions and the land.

In one sense he’s interested in how early Saints perceived and transformed the place they called Zion and the challenges they faced on the Missouri frontier.

What he finds is that they strongly believed that possessing a physical parcel of land (their inheritance) was a way to tie themselves to God. This is an important insight when considering the intersection of religious belief and behavior and environmental change.

Jackson County today is highly urbanized, something Joseph Smith probably would not have expected. Like most of his contemporaries, Smith believed that agricultural production was the highest use of the land, so he envisioned the area as a settlement of residences, farms, orchards, and gardens, all radiating out from a central square consisting mainly of temples and administrative buildings.

What is “secular entrepreneurship” as defined by Thomas Alexander?

Thomas Alexander frames his wide-ranging essay—a reprise of his Western Historical Quarterly article published in 1994—with the classic debate on the relationship between religion and the environment.

The debate’s instigator seems to have been a 1967 article by Lynn White Jr. that pinned the world’s ecological problems on religion and more specifically Christianity for establishing a dualism and hierarchy between “man” and nature.

On the other side are those who point to a salutary environmental ethic that derives from corners of the Christian tradition.

If positions are to be staked, Alexander clearly sits in the latter camp, but he adds to the discussion by raising attention to “secular entrepreneurship,” what he says encompasses a range of economic activity embraced by a people who flourished during the Industrial Revolution.

In Mormonism, Alexander argues, a strong tie between economic activity and theology brought together entrepreneurship and stewardship. They attempted to blend the notions of progress and improvement; lands being made productive, for example, would be “inherited,” while those that wallowed might be relinquished.

While church leader rhetoric assigned resources to common good, the practice did not always mirror the ideal.

What does Richard Francaviglia say makes cartography so distinctive among early Latter-day Saints?

Francaviglia, a historical geographer and scholar at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, calls maps “idiosyncratic,” created by “intuition” by individuals with no formal training in cartography.

He argues that maps in the Mormon tradition reflected the communal, religious impulse of a people and depicted on paper (or in some cases other materials) what they had created in actuality—communities in the Great Basin and beyond.

Like other groups, Mormons used maps as tools of settlement, as they generated information that better enabled communities to survive.

Most interesting to me, Francaviglia finds that Mormon maps are products of a deep bond with a new homeland in the West. Place names—the association of a landscape or landmark with its textual referent—became important to signal the biblical connection of the Great Basin.

What are two or three ways Latter-day Saints today view the environment similar to and different from early Utah Latter-day Saints?

On a practical level, our relationship with nature is simply different than it once was.

Few of us work the land directly for a living; what connection and association we have with the natural world is seen in terms of recreation or perhaps spiritual rejuvenation—concepts that would have largely been foreign to our nineteenth-century ancestors. Even what we consider nature has changed: whereas Smith emphasized the blending of the temporal and the spiritual, our modern culture tends to divide and categorize between the human-made places and “natural” and wild ones.

Theologically, as demonstrated in Alexander and others’ essays, LDS teachings on the environment and the human responsibility to it have varied quite a lot. Smith, Brigham Young, Orson Hyde, and other nineteenth-century leaders spoke of an approach that would seem foreign to us now, although some of these ideas at times were reintroduced into the dialogue.

Whereas early Mormons flourished as an agrarian people, we see today nary a comment on the whittling away of the agricultural landscapes and practices that as late as mid-twentieth century defined our people.

For what it’s worth, I read Spencer W. Kimball’s emphasis on gardening and the beautification of our lots and cities as less a revival and more a continuation of the agrarian tradition that by his presidency was in decay.

If you could go back in time and observe all the Council of Fifty meetings with one research question in mind, what would be your focus? 

This is an interesting question. I think I’d be most interested in how group dynamics—in interactions, in adherence to protocol, in authority to hierarchal strictures, and so on—influenced the judgments and decisions of the body.

Council deliberations could be all over the map, and members seemed mostly free to say what they pleased. But my sense is that a kind of groupthink was at work in steering discussions and decisions.

I’d like to put on a sociological hat and observe that dynamic at work.

I live close to the Salt Lake City Cemetery and often see COF members’ names on gravestones. I suppose someone like John Milton Bernhisel or William Marks would be interesting to sit next to.

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By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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