Brigham Young: Prophet, Pioneer . . . Radical Environmentalist?

Andrewenvironment, Mormon, mormon, Mormons 20 Comments

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 wasteBe 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 [1868] 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.

Comments 20

  1. Andrew,

    Fantastic summary of this essay you pointed me to almost a year ago.

    I see many aspects of Libertarian Socialism in Brigham Young from his emphasis on cooperatives, social responsibility, Environmental responsibility, and freedom.

    Thank you for sharing this.

  2. Andrew, as always, I bow in humble recognition of authorial greatness.

    Seriously, I’m dashing out in a couple of minutes, but I had to stop and tell you that this is wonderful.

  3. Nibley was the first person I ever encountered who made me step back and seriously consider our stewardship towards the earth. And I guess, not Nibley, but Brother Brigham, first challenged me.

  4. Before I joined the church I didn’t think I would like Brigham Young. I don’t know where I got that idea from. I knew he was called the Lion of his people, and I’m guessing I must have seen some movie or something in which he was depicted in a unpleasant light. But ever since we had the teachings of the presidents book about him, he’s been one of my favorite prophets.

    First of all, I love his love of learning, and how he emphasized that we should learn everything possible about every subject. Also, that everything true is part of our religion. I love that!

    Secondly, he was in favor of women doing all sorts of work. Though I’ve since read that he wasn’t so much a feminist as very practical and shorthanded. He wanted the women to be store clerks and accountants, lawyers, doctors, etc. so that the men would be free to work the fields and do construction and other heavy labor. Still, for his understanding that women were capable of doing all that, and for his active encouragement of them to do so, I love him.

    Now this environmentalism is a whole different area that I would never have thought. Once again Brother Brigham comes through for us. What an awesome guy he was!

  5. Sigh… why do people assume that antagonism towards Environmentalism is based on a lack of reverence for Mother Earth? I love Mother Earth, but environmentalists are a bunch of liars. Even when I agree with the results they obtain I can not agree with their blatant falsehoods and deceptions. They think saving the environment is so important, that they are free to lie, commit perjury, and ignore the needs of the poor.

    So many times I hear an environmentalist say that such an such a regulation will have a “minor impact” on energy cost (or whatever the cost may be). And yet when I dig in, I discover that they are “minor costs” of an extra $50 a month for the average family. Maybe that’s a “minor cost” to the rich upper middle class environmentalist, but costs a heck of a lot to the poor working man- and then they suggest that the government steal money from other people and give it to the working poor in compensation, thus making the working man their servant instead of free as he ought to be.

    Those two things are what drive me away from environmentalism- the lying, and the dismissal of the needs of the poor.

  6. why do people assume that antagonism towards Environmentalism is based on a lack of reverence for Mother Earth?

    I missed that claim, Cicero. Who said it?

  7. Those feelings and respect towards the environment looks like it has faded since Brigham Young has spoken up for the environment.

    We don’t even have a clue it appears to receive any type of revelation or inspiration but have to “leave the discussion of these complicated issues to leaders of government and industry.”

    As in helping hands and humanitarian aid shouldn’t the government be looking to us!

    We have been hearing a lot about fuel and energy—about their high cost and limited supply, our unsafe and unpredictable dependence on their suppliers, and the need for new and sustainable sources of energy. I leave the discussion of these complicated issues to leaders of government and industry. The fuel I want to discuss is spiritual fuel. Elder L. Tom Perry

  8. Cicero:

    Those are some pretty sweeping claims about the environmental lobby. Liars. Swindlers. Sounds like it would make a good Hallmark classic.

    In all seriousness, I am quite skeptical that *environmentalism* is so rotten to the core that we can’t take it seriously in spite of a few obvious scumbags (and if you don’t want to associate with an organization that has scumbags, I would recommend holing yourself up on an island somewhere). So maybe we can agree that the environmentalists are a bunch of dirty crooks (I don’t believe this, but for the sake of discussion)…shouldn’t the true doctrine of stewardship lead us to want to do as the environmentalists do, only without the baggage of corruption? We should actually be *better* environmentalists than the environmentalists.

    And I can understand Elder Perry’s “parry” of the question. The Church is not what it once was…we live in a political minefield where the slightest misstep could cost us millions in taxes. We aren’t isolated in Utah like Brigham where we can mouth off about ‘deletrious substances.’ I mean, can we convincingly persuade people that discussions about this political issue constitutes a moral one? Good luck!

  9. We may live in a political minefield, but it’s a little disheartening to hear that the reason our prophets mouths are shut is because they don’t want to pay money to the government?

    Also… the Church convincingly persuaded people that Prop. 8 (a strictly political issue to most non-Evangelicals) was a moral issue. I don’t see how this would be different. To me, taking care of the Earth is and has always been a moral issue, as the more we pollute, the more we damage/hurt/affect others, including children and innocent people.

  10. Radical environmentalist? Not quite. And, contrary to popular belief, neither was Nibley. They were Godly environmentalists, as we should be. There’s a big difference.

    The radical environmentalists today will preach to you that everything mankind does upon the face of the Earth today is antithetic to the well-being of the Earth. They want man to crawl back into the hole we came out of. They would have us believe that homo sapiens are no more than mere animals, roaming upon the landscape, and whose population is grown out of control, that we have upset the balance of the ecosystem with our numbers, which is now destroying the planet. Most perniciously, they would put the concerns of the Earth over concerns for human life, which is only one step away from power in exchange for life and property (which is most of the real concern behind the political arm of environmentalism anyway), something Nibley warned of vehemently. Well, I don’t believe what is being taught, these philosophies so keenly intertwined with gospel principle so as to trick the susceptible.

    Nowhere have I seen this radical view more vivid than in the movie WALL-E (and I know you all loved my rant on that one). WALL-E depicts what the radical environmentalists want us to believe – that humans are quickly destroying our planet, that the Earth is becoming a trash heap, and that if we don’t do something quick (“the sky is falling” mentality), we will have to abandon our planet and go live elsewhere, if our “species” doesn’t go extinct first. Notice that this is contrary to the statements of Brigham Young, and many other prophets, as you pointed out in his first theological belief. This Earth is our home – we’re not going anywhere.

    At a time when “global warming” is becoming increasingly more difficult to prove, I will believe the prophetic warnings of our modern-day prophets over the faux apocalyptic prophesies of the Al Gores among us. Godly environmentalists worship God, the creator of the Earth, and keep their Earth stewardship in balance with the divine purposes of its creation – human progression to divinity. Radical environmentalists worship the Earth, Gaia, and will use any means available to appease her, even at the expense of the children of God this Earth was created for.

  11. Tatiana – “Secondly, he was in favor of women doing all sorts of work. Though I’ve since read that he wasn’t so much a feminist as very practical and shorthanded.” If you like his racist statements, you’ll LOVE his sexist ones. Yes, he was clearly a product of his time in many ways. I’m glad you admire him. I suspect he has had to change many of his views since he passed to the next realm.

    The church’s environmental approach seems to be very much focused on individual responsibility, not on legislation, and there are many abuses in the environmental lobby. Of course, when BY WAS the law, he could do whatever he felt best. It is a different day politically indeed.

  12. but environmentalists are a bunch of liars.

    excuse me? i am not a liar. I am not trying to decieve you. I am dedicating my life and my work to saving our species.

  13. They would have us believe that homo sapiens are no more than mere animals, roaming upon the landscape, and whose population is grown out of control, that we have upset the balance of the ecosystem with our numbers, which is now destroying the planet.

    we are animals. clever animals, with really great brains and tools. and our numbers, well, they speak for themselves.

    bryce, we humans have upset the ecosystems and no matter how great we thing (wo)man is, we still rely on the bugs to pollinate the plants that grow our food . we rely on the snow pack and glaciers in the mountains to fill the rivers and streams and replenish the aquifers that irrigate the crops that nourish us.

    it’s true. we environmentalists don’t always come to the world with happy upbeat messages. i’m sorry, i really am. i wish the news coming out of the sciences was better. believe me, i wish the outlook was better.

    but the reality is, we are abusing the earth the lord gave us to take care at and extraordinary rate. we’ve taken her resources and squandered them for monetary gain and we’ve hurt many people in the developing world in the process.

    the earth and it’s resources are finite. i do not concern myself with the polar bear cos they are cute and fuzzy. my concern is that if their natural habitat is decreasing due to rapid melting, it’s a signal that something really big is going on globally. if the caps are melting and the glaciers are melting, it wont’ be long before the rivers run dry and then what?

    it’s a big picture thing. sometimes, we have to zero in a a particular issue to get some attention.

  14. Arthur:

    We have often seen a certain assimilationist edge in the Church, especially within the ancient church where they winked at slavery. The Church was willing to give up polygamy when threatened with destruction–more than other Protestant groups such as the Anabaptists were willing to do when faced with the powers of the state (they were happy to just die a martyr’s death). We also are willing to fight in wars, even though the scriptures and most recently Pres. Hinckley condemned war.

    As far as the environment being a moral issue, I personally agree. But I tend to think that Prop. 8 was not seen as a moral issue but as a moral where the Church actually believed it could win. In Massachussetts, the Church filed a “friend of the court” brief…that’s it. They occasionally released short statements supporting a constitutional amendment, but California has been the only state where they have mobilized. Civil unions are being proposed in Hawaii, for example…and the Church isn’t uttering a word. Outside of California and outside of marriage policy, I just don’t think people could ever embrace the Mormons and the Church leadership recognizes that.

    The environment is an area over which the Church has little control re: policy unless we want to become a political pressure group (and, in some ways, that would be fine by me…depending, of course, on what we pressed). And for what it’s worth, there have been occasional articles in the Ensign on the environment.

    All of that said, it is not to our collective credit that we give such short shrift to the environment when we really do such a fantastic job at humanitarian emergency preparation.

  15. now i remember why i don’t comment at other blogs- i can’t edit my comments!!!

    the statement above is just not true. it’s totally um, to be polite? bogus. bull pucky. hogwash. nonsense. rubbish.

  16. Robert Redford used to give talks drawn on this material, and you’ve caught some of Hugh Nibley on the same topic.

    One of the problems in this area is that many of the outliers who are proponents act a lot like people with borderline personality disorder. But that doesn’t fairly describe the heart of the movement — because it is true of any movement.

  17. Radical enviromentalists the facts are that the UNIBOMBER was abig time eco-freak who subcribed to LIVE WILD OR DIE and read AL GORES eco-malarkey book EARTH IN THE BALANCE

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