Although Brigham Young is one of the most well-known Presidents of the LDS Church, perhaps second only to Joseph Smith, it seems most Mormons are completely unaware of his passionate beliefs about caring for the Environment.
We owe Hugh Nibley an enormous debt of gratitude for collecting Brigham’s teachings about the Environment and publishing them in his 1972 essay, “Brigham Young on the Environment”. When a home teacher shared the essay with me several years ago, I was shocked to read statement after statement by Brigham Young that one would expect to hear from a radical environmentalist, and I quickly discovered my need to repent and abandon my laisseiz-faire attitude toward the Environment.
What follows is my humble and feeble attempt to briefly summarize Nibley’s lengthy essay for those who haven’t come across it before:
It is staggering to consider the vastness of Brigham Young’s environmental stewardship. He had the task of settling hundreds of thousands of square miles of virtually untouched wilderness. And in the process of founding hundreds of communities in that pristine environment, he had to confront serious and delicate questions about how to care for the Earth while making it a more livable environment for mankind.
Fortunately, Brigham Young’s concept of environmental stewardship was the polar opposite of his contemporaries like Buffalo Bill, whose glorying in man’s domination and mastery over the Environment left a wake of rotting buffalo carcasses hundreds of miles long. By contrast, a New York Herald writer who observed a Pioneer Day celebration held in a canyon outside Salt Lake City in 1860 noted that after the last wagons had left the campground, one man stayed behind “to see that all the fires were extinguished”. That man was Brigham Young.
Contrary to the beliefs held by some Christian circles, Brigham dismissed the notion that man’s degradation and pollution of the Earth was something that would be swept away as if by the wave of a magic wand upon Christ’s return: “Not many generations will pass away before the days of man will again return,” said Brigham. “But it will take generations to entirely eradicate the influences of deleterious substances. This must be done before we can attain our paradisaical state.” Thus, Brigham placed squarely on man’s shoulders the responsibility for protecting and restoring the Earth’s natural purity, and intimated that would be a principal labor for God’s people to accomplish during the Millennium.
Brigham’s deep reverence for the Environment was rooted in four of his theological beliefs:
First, that the Earth is mankind’s eternal home, and not just a place we occupy temporarily before we’re transported to some other eternal heavenly realm: “Our business is not merely to prepare to go to another planet,” he explained. “This is our home.” “We are for the kingdom of God, and are not going to the moon, nor to any other planet pertaining to this solar system. . . . This earth is the home he has prepared for us, and we are to prepare ourselves and our habitations for the celestial glory in store for the faithful.”
Second, Brigham’s respect for the Environment sprang from his observation that the Earth is not only a source of food, shelter, and fuel, but also a source of joy and spiritual knowledge:
It is one of the most happifying subjects that can be named, for a person, or people, to have the privilege of gaining wisdom enough while in their mortal tabernacle . . . and understand the design of the Great Maker of this beautiful creation.
Fields and mountains, trees and flowers, and all that fly, swim or move upon the ground are lessons for study in the great school of our heavenly Father . . . .
Third, Brigham’s concern for the environment was driven by his belief that the spiritual and temporal are not separate, but are inextricably intertwined. Accordingly, he saw spiritual and physical pollution as one and the same:
You are here commencing anew . . . . The soil, the air, the water are all pure and healthy. Do not suffer them to become polluted with wickedness. Strive to preserve the elements from being contaminated by the filthy, wicked conduct and sayings of those who pervert the intelligence God has bestowed upon the human family.
Keep your valley pure, keep your towns as pure as you possibly can, keep your hearts pure, and labour what you can consistently, but not so as to injure yourselves. Be faithful in your religion. Be full of love and kindness towards each other.
Fourth, Brigham’s views on the Environment were shaped by his belief that the Earth belongs to God, not to man, and that mankind has only a temporary stewardship over God’s creation to determine who will merit an eternal earthly inheritance in the next life: “Not one particle of all that comprises this vast creation of God is our own,” he explained. “Everything we have has been bestowed upon us for our action, to see what we would do with it—whether we would use it for eternal life and exaltation or for eternal death and degradation.”
Brigham’s deep reverence for the Environment gave him a special understanding about what it truly means to “improve” or “develop” land. While the terms “improvement” and “development” usually mean the realization of financial profit from a parcel of land, for Brigham, beautification was the principal goal of land improvement:
[Our work is] to beautify the whole face of the earth, until it shall become like the garden of Eden.
There is a great work for the Saints to do. Progress, and improve upon, and make beautiful everything around you. Cultivate the earth and cultivate your minds. Build cities, adorn your habitations, make gardens, orchards, and vineyards, and render the earth so pleasant that when you look upon your labours you may do so with pleasure, and that angels may delight to come and visit your beautiful locations.
Brigham believed the beautification of the Earth could best be accomplished, not merely by multiplying mankind’s numbers, but by planting, growing, and multiplying the vast variety of flora and fauna found upon it: “The very object of our existence here is to handle the temporal elements of this world and subdue the earth, multiplying those organisms of plants and animals God has designed shall dwell upon it.”
When it came to the question of how much land to develop, Brigham’s response was to use as little as necessary to satisfy our needs, and he had a strict definition of human need. Speaking to a congregation, he once explained:
[O]ur real wants are very limited. What do we absolutely need? I possess everything on the face of the earth that I need, as I appear before you on this stand. . . . I have everything that a man needs or can enjoy if he owned the whole world. If I were the king of the earth I could enjoy no more.
When you have what you wish to eat and sufficient clothing to make you comfortable you have all that you need, I have all that I need.
I do not desire to keep a particle of my property, except enough to protect me from a state of nudity.
In response to the idea that environmental degradation was a necessary sacrifice for the modern conveniences afforded by industrialization, Brigham offered a retort that bordered on contempt for the creations of man as compared to the Creator’s handiwork:
The civilized nations know how to make machinery, put up telegraph wires, &c., &c.; and in nearly all branches they are trying to cheat each other. . . . They have been cheating themselves for the golden god—the Mammon of this world.[They think it wonderful to] dwell amid the whirl of mental and physical energies, constantly taxed to their utmost tension in the selfish, unsatisfying and frenzied quest of worldly emolument, fame, power, and maddening draughts from the syren cup of pleasure. [Having] obtained the promise that he should be father of lives, in comparison with this, what did Abraham care about machinery, railroads, and other great mechanical productions?
Central to Brigham’s views on the Environment was his ardent belief that to waste is to sin. He urged the Saints to be strictly conservationist in their daily living:
It is not our privilege to waste the Lord’s substance.
Never let anything go to waste. Be prudent, save everything.
Everything, also, which will fertilize our gardens and our fields should be sedulously saved and wisely husbanded, that nothing may be lost which contains the elements of food and raiment for man and sustenance for beast.
One of the more striking aspects of Brigham’s views was his unconditional reverence for the life of all God’s creations, including even those creatures whose survival comes at mankind’s expense. While today a monument stands in Temple square expressing gratitude for the flocks of seagulls that devoured the hordes of grasshoppers that ate the Mormon settlers’ crops, Brigham had a different attitude toward those creatures that most would consider “pests”:
Last season when the grasshoppers came on my crops, I said, ‘Nibble away, I may as well feed you as to have my neighbors do it; I have sown plenty, and you have not raised any yourselves.’ And when harvest came you would not have known that there had been a grasshopper there. Pay attention to what the Lord requires of you and let the balance go.
According to present appearances, next year  we may expect grasshoppers to eat up nearly all our crops. But if we have provisions enough to last us another year, we can say to the grasshoppers—these creatures of God—you are welcome. I have never yet had a feeling to drive them from one plant in my garden; but I look upon them as the armies of the Lord.
More than anything, Brigham’s love of nature grew out of his love for God, for he saw the Earth as God’s loving creation:
We should love the earth. We should love the works which God has made.
Let me love the world as He loves it, to make it beautiful, and glorify the name of my Father in heaven. It does not matter whether I or anybody else owns it, if we only work to beautify it and make it glorious, it is all right.
All quotes above were taken from Hugh Nibley’s essay “Brigham Young on the Environment.” See here to read the essay in full.