Context and Subtext: Mormon Theology Edition
During this project, Steve and I would marvel at just how naive we were before conducting our first interviews. Innumerable times I would remark, "Steve, we don't know what we don't know." This was especially true when it came to the belief systems that undergird Native and Mormon spirituality and cosmology. It is impossible to understand the complex blend of cultures, the powerful connection to the land, and the political landscape that informs the Bears Ears debate without an awareness of the deeply held religious beliefs of Natives and Mormons.
Here we present an overview of Mormon theology and connection to the land. Based on our study of the literature and on our interviews with Mormon scholars, we have compiled what we hope is a helpful (though by no means comprehensive) overview of Mormon theology and philosophy as it relates to reverence for and stewardship of the natural environment.
Reverence for nature and a calling to take from the earth only what is needed is enshrined in Mormon theology, and, on a personal level, Anglo-Mormon residents of San Juan County express a deep spiritual attachment to the canyons, rivers, mesas, and wide-open spaces of their homeland. Nonetheless, the anti-environmentalist stance of Utah’s most outspoken politicians, many of whom are also members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) has led many not unfamiliar with LDS teachings to assume Mormons in rural Utah lack strong ties to the land or an ethos of environmental stewardship. Yet as is often the case with religion, the tension lies between doctrine and how its adherents choose to interpret it.
A passage from the Book of Mormon’s Doctrine and Covenants reads:
“Yea, all things which come of the earth, in the season thereof, are made for the benefit and use of man, both to please the eye and to gladden the heart;
Yea, for food and for raiment, for taste and for smell, to strengthen the body and to enliven the soul.
And it pleaseth God that hHe hath given all these things unto man; for unto this end were they made to be used, with judgment, not to excess, neither by extortion.”
[Doctrine and Covenants 59]
“For it is expedient that I, the Lord, should make every man accountable, as a steward over earthly blessings, which I have made and prepared for my creatures.”
[Doctrine and Covenants 104]
Joseph F. Smith, the sixth president of the LDS Church Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, was clear with respect to how his followers should treat the natural world.
“Nature helps us to see and understand God. To all His creations we owe an allegiance of service and a profound admiration. . . Love of nature is akin to the love of God; the two are inseparable.”
“Stewardship is a very strong principle in Mormon theology,” says George Handley, a professor of Interdisciplinary Humanities at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, and a member of the LDS Church. The teachings speak to “Preserving resources, keeping them healthy,” as well as the “idea of being mindful of future generations, not taking more than you need, make sure you are respectful of creation. It’s a beautiful, much-needed concept” —and one that was more applicable to daily life when most Mormons were making a living off the land.
“Early church congregants heard a lot from [church leadership] about conservation,” Handley says. “It seemed appropriate for church leaders to teach about that very directly.
“ For most people [today] who are no longer working on the land, it tends to be applied to the idea of financial stewardship. Stewardship in recent generations has lost more of its environmental implications. People have different ways of thinking about [their] relationship to the land.
“The term ‘stewardship’ is implied to mean development—a lot of Mormons can’t understand this need to preserve wilderness, ‘God gave us resources on this planet for a reason, they’re intended to be used’. The idea of preserving something in perpetuity doesn’t make sense, especially when the territory has something that we need.”
Brigham Young, the Church’s second Prophet and the leader of the Mormon exodus from Nauvoo, Illinois, to the Salt Lake Basin, instructed his followers to “Always keep in view that the animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms—the earth and its fullness—will all . . . abide their creation—the law by which they were made, and will receive their exaltation.”
At the same time, says Handley, Young promoted the idea “of redeem[ing] wilderness into a garden” through making the land productive and fruitful in a manner that would sustain generations of Latter-day Saints. “That was a very strong impulse in early Mormon settlements. There was a sense of this is what God wants, this is why he preserved this place.”
Stephen L. Peck writes in Stewardship and the Creation: LDS Perspectives on the Environment, “Many [Latter-day Saints] assume that the Lord’s statement, “For the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare” (Doctrine and Covenants, 104:17), is made without qualification. … . . . This claim of unlimited abundance is often interpreted by some members to mean that there are no limits set on using and procuring natural resources.”
Then there is the intertwining of religion, politics, and history that complicates the interpretation of scriptures and creates barriers between conservation-minded Mormons and non-Mormons and their anti-environmentalist LDS counterparts.
Peck relates his experiences growing up as an LDS youth whose only exposure to the word “environmentalist” was when “it was [used] to degrade or belittle someone. ‘Your mother is an environmentalist’ was a cutting remark that could only be settled with a fistfight.”
Such sentiments are held by a number of Utah’s political leaders. In June 2017, Utah state Rep. Mike Noel (R-Kanab), who is Mormon and represents citizens in rural southern Utah, laid the blame for the rapid spread of the 71,000-acre Brian Head wildfire in Utah’s Dixie National Forest on the “bird and bunny lovers and the tree huggers and the rock lickers.” His argument: that increasingly conservation-friendly federal land- management policies and environmental litigation had prevented large-scale logging in the region, leaving a wasteland of dead trees that provided perfect tinder for a massive blaze. (Environmental groups assailed Noel’s statements and pointed out that drought and wind played critical roles in the fire’s spread.)
But Peck also acknowledges that members of the LDS Church he knows “have a profound love for nature…which they speak about with love and passion,” as do the Mormons in San Juan County with whom we have spoken.
Time and again, members of the LDS church—including one couple who said of themselves, “We’re about as Mormon as you can get”—shared with us their feelings for the land, places in the landscape where they go to pray, and the formative wilderness experiences that have shaped who they are.
So what accounts for the disparity between this love for the land and the anti-“tree hugger” rhetoric?
Peck points to the “don’t fence me in” culture of the western United States in which LDS people are steeped. Handley draws parallels between Mormonism’s celebration of freedom and agency and the ethos of the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and 1980s.
“The idea of regulation and imposition from outside” does not sit well with many Mormons, Handley says, especially those living in rural Utah. “It does boil down to a kind of position of distrust toward the federal government.”
The discussion about environmental stewardship has been recently addressed by the Church’s top leaders. In an speech delivered at an April 2013 symposium speech entitled “Righteous Dominion and Compassion for the Earth,” Elder Marcus B. Nash used passages from Mormon scripture to illustrate Latter-day Saints’ calling and duty to protect, preserve, and steward the earth:
How we care for the earth, how we utilize and share in its bounty, and how we treat all life that has been provided for our benefit and use is part of our test in mortality. Thus, when God gave unto man “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth,” it was not without boundaries or limits. He intends man’s dominion to be a righteous dominion, meaning one that is guided, curbed, and enlightened by the doctrine of His gospel—a gospel defined by God’s love for us and our love for Him and his works. The unbridled, voracious consumer is not consistent with God’s plan of happiness, which calls for humility, gratitude, and mutual respect.
In other words, as stewards over the earth and all life thereon, we are to gratefully make use of that which the Lord has provided, [and] avoid wasting life and resources.
Yes, we have been provided this beautiful and bountiful world, teeming with life and resources to bless and strengthen and enliven mankind, and we are to use them joyfully—but we must do so as careful, grateful stewards over God’s handiwork. We are to use these resources with judgment, gratitude, prudence, and with an eye to bless our fellow man and woman and those of future generations, and in that way help Him to accomplish His purpose to help humankind progress, improve, and receive His blessings in time and eternity.
Handley harkens back to Mormon pioneer history to illuminate a more sustainable path forward. “We have a unique opportunity that the early settlers never had,” Handley writes in his essay, “The Desert Blossoms as a Rose: Toward a Western Conservation Aesthetic.” “We are in a position of comfort, so we no longer have to fight to transform the land; our human signatures on it no longer need to signify our triumph over it. The pioneers may have made their share of environmental mistakes, but they also showed the courage to make technological, moral, and aesthetic corrections by returning to the most basic principles of stewardship in the restored gospel. We would be fortunate to be so wise.”