Preserving "God's wildness" for redemptive baptism.
Heaven knows that John Baptist was not more eager to get all his fellow sinners into the Jordan than I to baptize all of mine in the beauty of God's mountains.
--John of the Mountains 86
"[A]lthough the page of Nature is so replete with divine truth, it is silent concerning the fall of man and the wonders of Redeeming Love," wrote a twenty-seven-year-old John Muir in a letter to his good friend Jeanne Carr. "Might she not have been made to speak as clearly and eloquently of these things as she now does of the character and attributes of God?" (Kindred 34). Muir wrote this letter from Meaford, Canada, where he had traveled to botanize and where he was staying and working with members of the local Disciples church. As his letter indicates, Muir was enthusiastic about learning from nature and yet felt compelled to apologize for his apparent slight of the word of God: "It may be a bad symptom, but I will confess that I take more intense delight from reading the power and goodness of God from 'the things which are made' than from the Bible. The two books, however, harmonize beautifully, and contain enough of divine truth for the study of all eternity" (Kindred 34-35). (1) Muir had studied the Bible diligently as a child, albeit under the duress of his father's whip, and he claimed that by the age of eleven he had committed "about three fourths of the Old Testament and all of the New by heart and by sore flesh" (Writings 1: 27). Now, however, he wanted to turn his attention to the Book of Nature, but in order to justify this choice, he had to learn how to see God's love in his works. While in this letter he admits that he had not yet found "Redeeming Love" written in nature, the following years of study and travel convinced Muir that God's wild creation, like the Bible, communicates his redeeming love. The redemptive power he found in nature so excited Muir that he became an impassioned prophet, proclaiming the power of the "woody gospel" to the whole nation (Kindred 120).
While much Muir scholarship has downplayed the importance of his Christian upbringing on his mature environmental ethics, over the past twenty years more scholars have begun to recognize some of the Christian theology that undergirds Muir's writing. What remains little understood, however, is the way the distinctive theology of the Disciples of Christ prepared Muir to understand nature as an agent of egalitarian, unifying, and primitive redemption. Arriving in Yosemite with this perspective, Muir read in its glacier origins, origins that made it literally "born again" (Writings 4: 17), the redemptive love of its Creator. Glaciers formed this landscape by an egalitarian, unifying baptism that created a primitive, redeemed wilderness, and Muir found that by immersing himself in the Sierra he could partake in its divinely natural redemption. This wild baptism imparted a more effective redemption than even the baptism offered by the Disciples, so Muir preached "the gospel of glaciers" (JMP 34: 2131), seeking to bring as many people as possible to the wilds where they would be cleansed by divine love. Because Muir feared some people were too encrusted by civilization to participate in wild religion, he developed a passionate rhetoric to directly immerse his readers in "Godful beauty" (Writings 1: 228). The particular preservationist ethic, therefore, that led Muir to support the National Parks and to fight the damming of Hetch Hetchy flowed from his belief, forged in his early years in the Sierra, that God's love was most clearly revealed in wilderness and that humans could be redeemed by baptism in God's wilds.
This may seem like an overly Christian reading of "the central figure in the history of American conservation" (Fox 28), but it takes into account Muir's particular upbringing, the rhetoric he used throughout his career, and the ethical principles to which he devoted his life. In the early 1980s, two Muir biographers, Stephen Fox and Michael Cohen, presented a de-Christianized version of John Muir that fit the Eastern ethos of the growing environmental movement. (2) These portrayals of Muir as a pantheist or Eastern mystic were quickly questioned by scholars such as Ronald Limbaugh, who argued that "the bane of most of Muir's recent biographers" had been their "failure to differentiate between Christian apostasy and anti-denominationalism" (19). (3) Limbaugh claimed Muir was in fact a "Christian reformer," and after his essay, interpreters of Muir tend to follow his rather general definition of Muir's religious beliefs (20). Some, like Max Oelschlaeger, continue to portray Muir's theology as "evolutionary pantheism" (173), and some like Don Weiss and Bron Taylor, see his Christianity only as a rhetorical veneer (Weiss 120). (4) Others, however, have recognized that Christian theology deeply informs Muir's writing and so have attempted to position Muir within particular Christian traditions: Mark Stoll within the "theism of liberal Protestantism" (Protestantism 145), (5) Robert Dorman within "Christian naturalism" (13), and Dennis Williams within "mystical Christianity" and "the nineteenth-century Evangelical Protestant tradition" (Williams, "John Muir" 83; God's Wilds xi). While these critics gain valuable insight into Muir and his environmental ethics by viewing his writing through the lens of various Christian traditions, they each fail to pay careful attention to the particular denomination in which Muir was raised.
Without understanding the specific Christian community in which Muir grew up, readers risk misunderstanding the import of his frequent religious metaphors. So while Adam Sowards is partially correct when he argues, "to label Muir as within or outside a tradition obscures his complexity and perhaps distorts the real contribution he made with his unique spiritual environmentalism" (124), this ahistorical approach enables critics to remake Muir in their own image and so miss the original contributions he made to his religious tradition and to the history of environmental ethics. Muir certainly engaged multiple intellectual movements, including Romanticism and Transcendentalism, (6) and while he eventually rejected organized religion, his environmental ethics and literary imagination remained deeply indebted to Disciples of Christ theology.
Daniel Muir, John's father, was a prosperous businessman in Dunbar, Scotland when he heard Alexander Campbell preach and decided to immigrate to America to join the growing Restoration Movement, also known as the Stone-Campbell movement or the Disciples of Christ (Worster, Passion 37-38). Daniel moved his family to Wisconsin where he started a farm and preached in local congregations. He drove his children, especially John, to work hard on the farm, and his harsh parenting and later estrangement from John have led many critics to see his influence on his son in only negative terms. Yet as Dorman rightly notes, critics who refer to John's "clean" (Sowards 133) or "bitter break" (Fox 41) with his father overlook the formative influence Daniel's denomination had on John (112-13). In fact, as Donald Worster argues, John "follow[ed] in his father's footsteps with remarkable faithfulness" (Wealth 194). Mark Stoll makes a similar argument from a psychological standpoint: "Across all of Muir's life and works lay the shadow of one man, without whom both Muir's boundless drive and departure from the religious mainstream are nearly inconceivable: his father, Daniel" ("God and John Muir" 72). (7) While Stoll views this succession primarily in psychological terms and Worster views it in vocational terms--"John Muir became a kind of frontier evangelist himself" (Wealth 194)--John also followed his father theologically.
While John characterizes his father Daniel as a stern disciplinarian in his autobiography, The Story of My Boyhood and Youth, he also records instances of his father drawing attention to God's revelation of himself in creation. Daniel showed his family a wood duck he had shot, telling them, "Come, bairns, and admire the work of God displayed in this bonnie bird. Naebody but God could paint feathers like these" (Writings 1: 119). Later, during an exceptionally impressive aurora, Daniel again instructed his family to "Come! Come, mother! Come, bairns! and see the glory of God. All the sky is clad in a robe of red light.... Hush and wonder and adore, for surely this is the clothing of the Lord himself, and perhaps He will even now appear looking down from his high heaven" (Writings 1: 164). (8) While Daniel appreciated the beauty of creation, John's view of God's revelation in nature certainly went beyond his father's. After John left home and began his explorations in Yosemite, Daniel wrote him a letter making his disapproval of John's work quite clear: "All that you are attempting to show the Holy Spirit of God gives the believer to See at one glance Of the eye.... It is of no use to look through a glass darkly when we have the Gospel & its fulfillment" (Mar. 19, 1874). John's belief in the gospel of glaciers irked his father, who would have preferred that John devote his attention to the biblical revelation rather than the created one. Nevertheless, Daniel modeled for his son a reverent attitude toward the natural world and showed him that God could be seen in creation's beauty.
In addition to his father's teaching, John was widely exposed to Disciples' theology throughout his formative years: he read many religious books and Disciples' pamphlets while living at home (Writings 1: 192-93; Fox 34-35), and he worked at a rake factory in Canada owned by a fellow Disciples family, the Trouts (Turner 116-18). One of the Trout brothers Muir worked with, Peter, remembers the first time he met Dan, John's brother who was botanizing with him while evading the Civil War draft. While the Trouts were initially cautious about this stranger looking for work, "the situation ... was very much improved when we learned that [Dan], and his people, belonged to the same church we did, that is the Disciples, or the Cambelites [sic] as they used to be called, although they never acknowledge any such name" (306-07). (9) According to Peter, the Muir brothers attended church with the Trout family, which typically involved going to both a morning and evening service (307-08). John wrote home to his family about the success of some evangelistic meetings being held at the church (Oct. 23, 1865), and he also read the Disciples' publications The Christian Messenger (Writings 9: 137) and The Millennial Harbinger for years after he left home (Holmes 59). (10) He maintained a correspondence with various members of the Trout family until his death, and the eldest brother, William, continued to write to him about church matters. (11) During his adult years, Muir never explicitly rejected or affirmed a particular religious faith, and even after he stopped attending church and sought a more inclusive, non-sectarian Christianity in the wild Sierra, Disciples theology continued to undergird his rhetoric and ethics.
Despite Muir's upbringing among the Disciples of Christ, Muir scholars have largely overlooked or mischaracterized this group's distinct theology. Many critics, indeed, refer to Muir's father simply as a "Calvinist," (12) yet the Disciples rejected key elements of Calvinism, and as Muir's early biographer Linnie Marsh Wolfe points out, "Daniel disagreed violently with the Calvinistic doctrine of election" (21). Some scholars, like Steven Holmes and Donald Worster, portray the Disciples more accurately, but very few actually investigate the importance of their influence on Muir. (13) Patricia Roberts is the exception, and she argues compellingly that Muir's interpretation of Nature employs the hermeneutic rules Alexander Campbell develops for reading the Bible. The success of her approach suggests that a broader analysis of Muir's inheritance from the Disciples may deepen our understanding of how Muir's environmental imagination developed from this tradition. For even though Muir's mature writings do not articulate a fully developed theology--and if they did it would not be one that Campbell would approve--their language and underlying premises are shaped by this theology.
In 1809 Thomas Campbell published the Declaration and Address, which formed the theological foundation for the fledgling movement he and his son Alexander had started. (14) This text called the Protestant church to reform, and in it Campbell emphasized three qualities he hoped to restore to the church: "each man's right of private judgment in the interpretation of Scripture.... the peaceable unity among Christians that will come with the universal recognition of this right, and ... the exact conformity of the church to 'the express letter of the law' as laid down in the New Testament" (Garrison and DeGroot 149). The emphasis on egalitarian, individual biblical interpretation was the means by which Campbell intended to achieve "the union of all Christians in one undivided church by the restoration of the primitive faith and practice as exhibited in the New Testament" (Garrison and DeGroot 550). While these dual goals of unity and primitive purity would sometimes cause conflict, they continued to shape the Disciples church as it grew through the nineteenth century.
The Disciples' egalitarian beliefs led them to reject creeds or church hierarchies as authoritative and instead proclaim that individuals were responsible only to the Bible. Their reliance on biblical authority and an interpretation based on "Baconian" induction justified their belief that the Bible should "be interpreted freely in accordance with individual conscience and rational study" (Hughes and Allen 153; Straughn 274). Campbell dealt with the problem of the Bible's apparent ambiguity by formulating a method, which Patricia Roberts terms "Biblical empiricism" (32), that consisted of a set of seven rules by which each person could read the Bible and come to the same interpretation. He concludes these rules of inductive reading by stating that the reader "must come within the understanding distance" (Christian System 17); any reader who is close to God and employs Campbell's rational, inductive method of reading will be able to understand God's biblical revelation. This resulted in a decentralized structure that gave each Christian responsibility and authority. As historian Richard Harrison explains: "The Campbell-Stone movement ... defended a level of freedom of opinion and inquiry in the church that was rare in the nineteenth century" ("Nailed" 55). In fact, the Disciples allowed "all baptized Christians ... to administer the sacraments" indicating how seriously they took this egalitarian freedom and "the priesthood of all believers" (Harrison, "Early Disciples" 86).
The Disciples held this egalitarian stance on biblical interpretation because they believed that divisions in the Christian church were caused by man-made creeds, traditions, and doctrines. They hoped that by throwing out these schismatic false authorities, the church could be unified around the Bible as Christ intended. In the first decades of the nineteenth century, the Campbells and other early leaders did not want to form a new denomination but instead, as Thomas Campbell put it, "restore unity, peace, and purity, to the whole church of God" (5). Even after the Disciples of Christ formed as a separate organization, they continued ecumenical efforts to restore apostolic unity to the Christian church. While in practice the movement was plagued by the divisions that mark American Protestantism, their anti-sectarianism and desire for Christian unity contained the seeds of John Muir's radically open, inclusive faith.
The Disciples believed this unity could be achieved both through an inductive, individual interpretation of the Bible and through recovering the original practices of the New Testament church (Hughes and Allen 157). (15) In many ways, the Restoration Movement's emphasis on restoring the church to its primitive purity is quite similar to the motivations of many American protestants, including the Puritan colonists. What set the Disciples apart from most other denominations, however, was their anti-creedal stance and their belief that the church's purity could best be restored by practicing the ordinances commanded in the New Testament: baptism, the Lord's Supper, and the Lord's Day (Fife 579). Their reliance on primitive church ordinances to overcome doctrinal differences offered Muir a liturgical method for uniting people as he developed his natural religion.
Examples of all three Disciples ordinances can be found in Muir's writings, but baptism particularly formed his imagination. Alexander Campbell's explanation of baptism's significance justifies the reputation the Disciples developed for having "a sacramental view of religion" (Wrather 964):
There is no such thing as outward bodily acts in the Christian institution; and less than in all others, in the act of immersion. Then it is that the spirit, soul, and body of man become one with the Lord. Then it is that the power of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit comes upon us. Then it is that we are enrolled among the children of God, and enter the ark, which will, if we abide in it, transport us to the Mount of God. (Christian System 247)
Such a sacramental view of physical life, and of baptism particularly, was uncommon among nineteenth-century Protestants, but it is this high view of the apostolic ordinances that Campbell could lead to unity among the denominationally fragmented American church. (16)
The way Alexander Campbell and the Disciples understood baptism, however, caused increased conflict with other Protestant churches (Baird 176; Hughes and Allen 179). In Campbell's interpretation of the Bible, believers should be baptized by immersion and this act of baptism accomplished their salvation and imparted the gift of the Holy Spirit (Hicks 38-39; Harrison, "Early Disciples" 61). While other denominations located assurance of salvation in inward signs or a faithful Christian life, Campbell taught that anyone who had been baptized in faith in Jesus could be assured of their salvation (Foster, Blowers, and Williams 57). The controversies this view elicited led Campbell to write a whole book on baptism in which he ascribed to the act of baptism key, transformative powers: "In our baptism, we are born into the divine family, enrolled in heaven. We receive justification or pardon, we are separated or sanctified to God, and glorified by the inspiration of his own Spirit" (Christian Baptism 276). As Campbell goes on to explain at length, this participation in "burial and resurrection with Christ" transforms the believer (275). Much more than just an initiatory rite, Campbell believed baptism was "a foundation for the Christian life of love, hope, and joy" and he derived his understanding of Christian maturity and sanctification from this richly significant act (Williams, D. Newell 140). So although Campbell took pains to explain that people are not saved by baptism alone but also by faith and by Christ's death and resurrection, many of his contemporaries felt Campbell's emphasis on baptism for the remission of sin undermined the role faith plays in salvation (Foster, Blowers, and Williams 59-60).
While Campbell's sacramental perspective did not achieve the united Protestant church he hoped it would, his theology did have a profound influence on the young John Muir who grew up in this fervent community. Even Muir's "confess[ion]" to Carr that he preferred reading the Book of Nature to the Bible, finds a precedent in Campbell. Following Calvin's Institutes, which begins with God's general revelation in creation and then moves to his specific revelation in the Bible, Campbell opens The Christian System with a chapter titled "The Universe" and begins, "One God, one system of nature, one universe. That universe is composed of innumerable systems, which, in perfect concert, move forward in subordination to one supreme end" (13). (17) Only after describing this divine "system of systems" that are "heterogeneous, though homogeneous" distinct and yet all interrelated within the "heavenly hierarchies" does Campbell move on to the Bible and its revelation of God (13). (18) Although Campbell believed that throwing out human tradition and following his seven rules for interpreting the Bible would enable all careful readers to agree with his interpretation of God and the universe, continued controversy within the Disciples of Christ proved this hope to be overly optimistic. (19) When Muir left home, then, he took with him Campbell's disdain for manmade creeds, his desire for spiritual unity based on an egalitarian, primitive, sacramental liturgy, and his belief in a divinely ordered, coherently interconnected natural world. Muir's turn to a more original, primitive revelation of God, then, extends Campbell's logic by, as Patricia Roberts demonstrates, applying Campbell's inductive, individual hermeneutic to the book of Nature (35-36).
During his thousand-mile walk to the Gulf of Mexico, Muir began to articulate his theocentric understanding of nature and to experience the redemptive power of nature's "grand palimpsest" (Writings 1:377). This image connotes Muir's view of nature as a primitive, still-being-written manuscript; God is at work now, offering attentive observers the opportunity to read his fresh handwriting. It was not until he came to the Sierra, however, that he fully realized the potential nature had to function as God's palimpsest and so to accomplish Campbell's goal of making God's primitive revelation accessible to all. At one point, Muir directly compares glacial markings with God's famous writing on the wall in Daniel, marveling at the fresh revelations he finds in the rock walls of the Sierra: "Much notice has been taken of the writing on the wall of the Persian king's palace, but there is a writing on every wall, and though, like palimpsests, these pages are written line upon line and crossed again and again, none of these old palimpsests is ever wholly obliterated, and no other effacement or obscurement is made save by the writing of other scriptures over those that have gone before" (John of the Mountains 88). Muir found God's glacial revelation to be fresh and clearly intelligible; here is the primitive, pure text Campbell looked for in the Bible.
Most people would likely follow Perry Miller in seeing a sharp dichotomy between Thomas Campbell's "revivalistic piety" and the "naturism more or less spiritualized" that unified nineteenth-century Americans by appealing across sectarian divides (157), but Muir became such a potent figure in American conservation efforts because he was able to bridge this divide. Campbell held that if all believers interpreted the Bible directly for themselves and worshiped together by means of primitive ordinances or sacraments, the church could be restored to an original and pure unity. Muir hoped that if all believers interpreted nature directly for themselves and worshiped together by means of wild, even more primitive sacraments, then everyone could be restored to a more original and pure union with God and with all of God's creation. Muir united Campbell's search for a primitive Christianity with the Romantic search for a primitive nature and declared that nature's pure sacraments could bring about a restored church.
As Muir studied the glacial origins of the Sierras, he interpreted the landscape through his inherited Disciples' theology. Muir developed his geological acumen because, like Thoreau, he understood science as a method of reading and participating in God's creation, not as a way to explain and better manipulate the material world. Also like Thoreau, Muir's science remained focused on finding spiritual truths; in Muir's case, God's redemptive love. So even while Muir followed Campbell in claiming to discard all human tradition in order to "come within the understanding distance" and read inductively, he also followed Campbell in bringing his own biases to his interpretation; Muir's reading of the Sierra was inflected by the religious tradition in which he was raised. As Dennis Williams explains, "Muir interpreted Nature idealistically and deductively--despite his commitment to inductive methods in his nature studies. God created the Earth. The chief law of God revealed in the New Testament, the element of Christian scripture his Disciples of Christ heritage emphasized, was love. Therefore, Nature revealed God's law of love" (God's Wilds 116). (20) This inconsistency in his method of geological reading--an inconsistency Muir shared with Campbell--led Muir, as Williams points out, to see God's love in nature. More precisely, Muir understood the glacially formed Sierra as a resurrected, born-again landscape; for centuries these rocks had been buried under destructive ice, and yet this painful birthing process resulted in beauty and life. In addition, Muir discovered that when he immersed himself in this landscape, his baptism cleansed his civilized sins and redeemed him. Because he believed this mountain baptism could be more salvific than the baptism practiced in organized Christianity, Muir urged people to lose their corrupt, civilized lives in the wild mountains in order to be resurrected to a purified life.
When Muir entered the Sierra with his theocentric view of nature, his study of the mountains indicated to him that this range was not formed through some cataclysmic upheaval but rather through the slow process of glacial carving. Muir viewed glaciers, then, as divine instruments that revealed God immanently working out his predestined plan. Unlike Josiah Whitney, who denied that glaciers shaped Yosemite and the Sierras, "Muir believed that glacial landscape formation expressed the 'working of Divine harmonious law' better than Whitney's catastrophist argument" (Williams, God's Wilds 73). (21) Because of this belief, Muir referred to glaciers as divine agents: "Glaciers came down from heaven, and they are angels with folded wings" (Kindred 153). Muir echoes this language in many places, elsewhere calling them "hosts of icy ghosts" (IMP 2. 1068) or "Holy Ghosts of glaciers" (Kindred 179), linking to them the person of the Trinity who "brooded" over the original creation and who imparts divine grace through baptism (Milton 1.21; Campbell, Christian Baptism 276; Hicks 37). These divine agents labor "harmoniously" to bring forth the "predestined beauty" of the landscape (Writings 4: 20). In one particularly expressive passage, he describes glaciers as "outspread, spirit-like, brooding above predestined rocks unknown to light, unborn" ("Yosemite Glaciers" 579). (22) As Muir explains at length in his "Studies in the Sierra" the glaciers sculpt divinely predestined mountain ranges because their course is determined by the composition of the granite, laid down centuries earlier: "[Glaciers have] only developed the predestined forms of mountain beauty which were ready and waiting to receive the baptism of light" ("Studies in the Sierra: No. 1" 403). Because he saw the glaciers as God's tools by which he was still carving the Sierra peaks, Muir could proclaim that by climbing these mountains, "I will touch naked God" (Kindred 189). God, therefore, was not simply revealed in these glacially carved peaks, he was present in them.
Muir's descriptions of the "holy Ghosts of glaciers" demonstrate he conceived of them as egalitarian, unifying, restorative forces, thus establishing them as agents that could bring about the spiritual renewal sought by the Disciples of Christ. In the first chapter of The Mountains of California, Muir concludes with a typical imaginative flourish by imagining the voices of the snowflakes that formed the mighty glaciers: "'Come, we are feeble; let us help one another.... Marching in close, deep ranks, let us roll away the stones from these mountain sepulchers, and set the landscapes free" (Writings 4:21-22). Muir figures the glaciers here as egalitarian, unified groups of individual snowflakes, and he also describes the resurrecting work
they do as unifying. As he claims in one essay, "The key to this beautiful harmony is the ancient glaciers;' the common agent that formed apparently disparate features (4: 165). Near the end of My First Summer, Muir reflects on what he has learned from his glacial studies: "The best gains of this trip were the lessons of unity and interrelation of all the features of the landscape revealed in general views" (2: 240). Muir goes on to describe how the entire landscape, from the placement of lakes, forests, and meadows to the shape of the peaks, can be traced to glacial causes. Like the Disciples' belief that each believer could read the Bible individually and come to a unified interpretation, so Muir saw each creature on the Sierra as offering a corroborative reading of the glaciers' work: "Every rock, mountain, stream, plant, lake, lawn, forest, garden, bird, beast, insect seems to call and invite us to come and learn something of its history and relationship" (2: 240-41). Muir transfers to his glacial gospel the Disciples' egalitarian belief that each believer should interpret the Bible, and he tries, then, to listen to each interpreter of this icy revelation.
The result of the glaciers' unifying work is the creation of a restored, primitive landscape: "This is still the morning of Creation. It is but yesterday since the ice-sheet was lifted from the Californian landscapes" (JMP 34: 1989). In My First Summer, Muir describes the newness of the Sierra by rewriting a quotation from Job 38:7: "Creation just beginning, the morning stars 'still singing together and all the sons of God shouting for joy'" (2: 213). In Job, the verbs are in the past tense, but Muir's sense of creation as ongoing causes him to place the action in the present. To emphasize the primitive status of the glacial carved Sierra, Muir also likens it to Eden: "The last days of this glacial winter are not yet past, so young is our world. I used to envy the father of our race, dwelling as he did in contact with the new-made fields and plants of Eden; but I do so no more, because I have discovered that I also live in 'creation's dawn'" ("Explorations in the Great Tuolumne Canon" 143). In the Sierra cloudscapes, "a new heaven and a new earth" are formed every day (2: 213). This "wholly new" world with its restored, "young beauty" epitomizes the primitive, pure world to which the Disciples desired to return ("By-ways of Yosemite Travel" 272).
The Sierra glaciers, then, are fitting agents to bring about God's redemptive beauty, and the method by which they worked suggested to Muir the potent Disciple ordinance of baptism. In the passage quoted above from The Mountains of California, Muir compares the glaciers to the divine power that raised Christ from the dead, describing them as "roll[ing] away the stones from these mountain sepulchers," and elsewhere he refers to them as "ice-wombs" or "glacier wombs" through which the mountains are "born again" ("Studies in the Sierra: No. VII" 69; Writings 4: 54): "These mighty agents of erosion, halting never through unnumbered centuries, crushed and ground the flinty lavas and granites beneath their crystal folds, wasting and building until in the fullness of time the Sierra was born again, brought to light nearly as we behold it to-day" (4: 17). Muir uses the phrase "born again," repeatedly, and later in The Mountains of California, he describes the glaciers as having effected the "regeneration of the Sierra" (5: 61). Muir's links between resurrection, rebirth, and regeneration suggest the influence of Campbell, who writes in The Christian System that resurrection, "being born again," regeneration, and immersion baptism are all equivalent: "Regeneration is, therefore, the act of being born. Hence its connection always with water" (201-02). The glaciers, then, reveal God redeeming the mountains through a long, slow baptism; the rocks are buried under frozen water, lose their former shape and character, and are eventually raised in far greater beauty. Since Muir also figures these glaciers as "Holy Ghosts" (Kindred 179), the Sierra are indeed "born of water and of the Spirit" (Campbell, Christian Baptism 276; John 3.5).
Muir's view of the glaciers' redemptive work must be qualified, however, by his belief that nature remains unfallen. (23) This belief led Muir to concur with Thoreau's claim about the restorative power of wild creation; as Muir states in his Alaska journal while meditating on the living glaciers there, "In God's wildness lies the hope of the world--the great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness" (Thoreau, "Walking" 202; John of the Mountains 317). So while the mountains themselves were not in need of redemption, Muir continually delighted in the way glaciers and the rest of nature formed beauty through painful, destructive processes: "Reading these grand mountain manuscripts displayed through every vicissitude of heat and cold, calm and storm, upheaving volcanoes and down-grinding glaciers, we see that everything in Nature called destruction must be creation--a change from beauty to beauty" (Writings 2:229). So while Muir did not see the glaciers as redeeming a fallen wilderness, he did see them as a preeminent example of God's ongoing, continuous recreation into ever more glorious beauty.
The glaciers' indomitable recreative force suggested to Muir the Christian truth, grounded in Christ's resurrection and participated in through baptism, that death is only a forerunner to life. When Muir witnessed life and beauty springing from death and destruction, he interpreted it as an unfallen, naturally occurring testimony to the redemptive love that Christ preached:
The sermon of Jesus on the Mount is on every mount and every valley besides, unmistakable joy & confidence beams from mtn flrs redeeming the storms that fall upon them & the mtns on wh[ich] they grow from dominion of fear to love. They are great strong tremendously fateful John Baptists proclaiming the gospel of harmonious love in the cold realms of ice. Cassiope besides having a fair flower enjoying her own beautiful life is one of the most effective apostles of the gospel of glaciers. (JMP 34: 2131)
In the wilderness, Muir saw this love ruling without any evil hindering it; as he writes in his journal during the fall of 1872, "I never found the devil in the Survey nor any evil, but God in clearness and the religion of Jesus Christ" (JMP 23:425). So the redemptive process by which the glaciers wrought beauty out of destruction, while not actually redeeming an unfallen landscape, proved to Muir that all of nature, even its seemingly terrible parts, "are but forms of that one bible utterance, 'God is Love'" (JMP 2:1248).
As Muir spent time among these glacier-baptized mountains, he experienced similarly powerful and transformative baptisms. And like the glacial baptism, his baptism in the beauty of a loving wilderness was also egalitarian--it was for all humans and indeed all creatures--unifying--it brought all converts into sympathetic kinship--and primitive--it restored each creature to their original state of purity. His own experience of the Sierra's inclusive, original revelation convinced him that wild places offered a clearer and more powerful witness to God's redeeming love than the Bible and the organized church. This belief led him to urge all who would listen to come and experience God's wildness for themselves. Thus Muir's impassioned writings were motivated and shaped by his belief in the redemptive power of mountain baptisms and his desire for each person to experience this primitive revelation of God.
Muir records several baptismal, redemptive experiences in his letters and articles, and a brief look at one of them will demonstrate the way Muir sought to lose himself in nature in order to allow the divine presence that was baptizing the mountains to baptize him in a similar fashion. In early 1871, Muir wrote a letter to Carr while sitting beside Upper Yosemite Falls on a moonlit night. He tells her that he had climbed up to "pray a whole blessed night with the falls and the moon," but as he stood beside the falls, he was drawn closer to their "life and spirit":
I went out somehow on a little seam that extends along the wall behind the falls. I suppose I was in a trance, but I can positively say that I was in the body, for it is sorely battered and wetted. As I was gazing past the thin edge of the fall and away through beneath the column to the brow of the rock, some heavy splashes of water struck me, driven hard against the wall. Suddenly I was darkened; down came a section of the outside tissue composed of spent comets. I crouched low, holding my breath, and, anchored to some angular flakes of rock, took my baptism with moderately good faith. (Kindred 136)
lust before this passage, Muir claims that he had lost control of his body, for while he was going to stay by the side of the falls, "somehow" he walked behind them. This loss of self-consciousness guides him in a "trance" to his baptism, which is administered by a host of water drops and which unites him to the natural world: "How significant does every atom of our world become amid the influences of those beings unseen, spiritual, angelic mountaineers that so throng these pure mansions of crystal foam and purple granite!" (137). Muir tells Carr that he can't help from talking to the water droplets around him and the bush beside him as he writes this letter to her; his baptism makes him feel that the material world is imbued with divine life. By forgetting himself and being immersed in the wild world, Muir experiences a transcendent unity with the rest of nature. This unity results in spiritual redemption; as he wrote in his journal about this same experience, "[I had] some of the earthiness washed out of me and Yosemite virtue washed in" (John of the Mountains 62).
Muir does not describe all of his redemptive experiences in terms of baptism, but nearly all of them contain this baptismal trajectory; some, however, follow the other Disciples' ordinances. Earlier, Muir wrote an ecstatic letter to Carr in which he used the Lord's Supper to describe the intensity of his union with the Sequoia trees: "I'm in the woods, woods, woods, and they are in me-ee-ee. The King tree and I have sworn eternal love--sworn it without swearing, and I've taken the sacrament with Douglas squirrel, drank Sequoia wine, Sequoia blood, and with its rosy purple drops I am writing this woody gospel letter" (Kindred 120). Muir generally found baptism a more apt sacrament to describe his redemptive experiences in creation, but here he draws on the other sacrament central to the primitive worship of the Disciples. Taking the Sequoia sacrament unites him with the woods and the Douglas squirrel, and later in his letter he describes its qualities in terms of biblical redemption: "There is a balm in these leafy Gileads,--pungent burrs and living King-juice for all defrauded civilization; for sick grangers and politicians; no need of Salt rivers. Sick or successful, come suck Sequoia and be saved" (Kindred 120). As this letter indicates, the redemption Muir experienced when he immersed himself in the Sierra was so potent that it could only be described in sacramental language.
Muir's descriptions of Sabbath day celebrations with wild creatures are numerous. As with the rest of Disciples' doctrine, Muir greatly expanded their idea of the Lord's Day. As he wrote in his journal just before his first summer in the Sierra, "I used to imagine that our Sabbath days were recognized by Nature.... But out here in the free unplanted fields there is no rectilineal sectioning of times and seasons" (JMP 23: 162). This expansive view of the Sabbath freed Muir to see nearly all his time in the mountains as a long, exuberant celebration of the Lord's Day. In My First Summer in the Sierra Muir constantly uses liturgical terms to describe his experiences: the various "songs" of the creeks and trees (2: 67, 89, 106, 118, 146, 213), the "psalms" sung by the wind and the water (2: 221, 104), the "congregation" of the mountains and the water (2:14, 152, 154, 190), and the "choir of rills" (2: 251). The creatures around him often call him to worship: "Every morning, arising from the death of sleep, the happy plants and all our fellow animal creatures great and small, and even the rocks, seemed to be shouting, 'Awake, awake, rejoice, rejoice, come love us and join in our song. Come! Come!'" (2: 67). This passage is strongly reminiscent of Milton's morning prayer in Paradise Lost (Stoll, "Milton in Yosemite" 259-60), and Muir's language emphasizes the universal participation in this praise. (24) Of course, when he climbs Cathedral Peak, the name of this mountain leads him to depict himself as a churchgoer: "This I may say is the first time I have been at church in California.... In our best times everything turns into religion, all the world seems a church and the mountains altars" (2: 250). Muir exults that everything here actively participates in the service: "A marvelously impressive meeting in which everyone has something worth while to tell" (2: 251). Muir may claim that this was his first time in a California church, but judging from his language, he views every day in the Sierra as a Sabbath day.
These radical experiences of wild salvation led Muir to reject more explicitly organized religion and to call others to follow him into the Sierra. Here, free from human authorities and creeds, redeeming love would unify humans with each other and the rest of creation in an egalitarian, primitive "mountainanity" (JMP 34:2131). Like the Transcendentalists, Muir rejected organized religion because he felt it to be needlessly restrictive, but, also like Emerson and Thoreau, he continued to rely on biblical, sacramental language and theology to articulate his mystical experiences.
Many of Muir's writings from his early years in the Sierra show him working out the more universal revelation he found in these glacial carved mountains. In a letter to his friend Catharine Merrill, written in 1871, about her imminent departure from a Christian school, Muir described the school as "a den of ecclesiastical slave-drivers," and as he contemplated her enslavement, he thanked "God for this tranquil freedom, this glorious mountain Yosemite barbarism" (Writings 9: 288, 289). The form of religion Muir reacted against attempted to control and limit the revelation of God, and as Muir wrote to Merrill later, the God he found in the Sierra poured himself out freely to all:
I wish you could come here and rest a year in the simple unmingled Love fountains of God. You would then return to your scholars with fresh truth gathered and absorbed from pines and waters and deep singing winds, and you would find that they all sang of fountain Love just as did Jesus Christ and all of pure God manifest in whatever form.... God does not appear, and flow out, only from narrow chinks and round bored wells here and there in favored races and places, but He flows in grand undivided currents, shoreless and boundless over creeds and forms and all kinds of civilizations and peoples and beasts, saturating all and fountanizing all. (Writings 9: 932-33)
This is the egalitarian revelation and baptism that Muir found in the Sierra, and it confirmed his Campbellite tendency to reject creeds and dogmatic human traditions. But Muir clearly went beyond Disciples' doctrine when he claimed that "Christianity and mountainanity are streams from the same fountain" (9: 378), and instead of any humanly governed religion, Muir worshiped in the wild, where God was freely and equally present to everyone.
While in theory this would mean that Muir believed God could be worshiped anywhere, he also followed Campbell, and the broader Reformed tradition in America, in arguing that God's presence was clearer in primitive places untainted by human corruption (Stoll, "Milton" 238-40). As we have seen, Muir figured the Sierra as a freshly created Eden, and so he claimed that it provided the most original revelation of the Creator. He defends this scientifically when he explains that higher elevations contain clearer glacial writing: "Glacial history upon the summit of the Sierra page is clear; the farther we descend, the more its inscriptions are crossed and recrossed ... until only the laborious student can decipher even the most emphasized passages of the original manuscript" ("Studies in the Sierra: No. IV" 177-78). Using a similar metaphor, and beginning to shift from science to religion, Muir wrote in a Sierra journal, "God's glory is over all his works, written upon every field and sky, but here it is in larger letters--magnificent capitals" (John of the Mountains 47). Muir emphasizes his religious preference for the freshly created high country by claiming that the devil's "tracks are seldom seen above the timber-line" (Writings 2:150). So while God is present everywhere, even among the "lowland care and dust and din, where Nature is covered and her voiced smothered" (2: 186), he communicates his redeeming love most powerfully in the primitive, newly-created mountains.
Muir's egalitarian, primitive gospel unites all who choose to participate in the worship of the loving Creator. The Disciples' desire to unify all Christians around a restored, apostolic worship had bogged down in doctrinal controversy; his father wrote to John in 1878, "I believe in non-sectarianism" at the end of a letter in which he states his own theological creed quite forcefully (Apr. 9, 1878). Muir, then, turned to a more egalitarian and more primitive revelation--the Book of Nature--in the hope that his wild baptism could unify where the Disciples' water baptism had failed. Muir explains both the flee, open foundation for his worship and its unifying effects in an 1870 letter to his brother David. David apparently wrote to him about the disagreement in the Disciples church over whether communion should be closed--available only to those who have been properly baptized--or open. Muir responded vehemently, "I do not like the doctrine of close communion as held by hard-shells, because the whole clumsy structure of the thing rests upon a foundation of coarse-grained dogmatism. Imperious, bolt-upright exclusiveness upon any subject is hateful, but it becomes absolutely hideous and impious in matters of religion, where all men are equally interested" (Writings 9: 217). This antipathy for narrow dogma is typical of the Disciples, for even while Alexander Campbell preferred immersion baptism, he did not think that disputes over this should divide the church or keep people from the Lord's Supper. (25) In this letter Muir concurs with Campbell, telling his brother that he thinks infant baptism is "a beautiful and impressive ordinance" and that Christians who practice this method of baptism should not be excluded from the church. The conclusion of Muir's letter, however, goes beyond Campbell's openness as Muir turns to his wild baptism for its ability to unify across denominational lines:
I was baptized three times this morning. 1st (according to the old way of dividing the sermon), in balmy sunshine that penetrated to my very soul, warming all the faculties of spirit, as well as the joints and marrow of the body; 2d, in the mysterious rays of beauty that emanate from plant corollas; and 3d, in the spray of the lower Yosemite Falls. My 1st baptism was by immersion, the 2d by pouring, and the 3d by sprinkling. Consequently all Baptists are my brethering, and all will allow that I've "got religion." (Writings 9: 218)
The religion Muir gets through his wild baptism is open to all and, he believed, acceptable to all Christians. By immersing themselves in the clear revelation and powerful presence of God in the Sierra wilds, humans can overcome sectarian divisions and be united in the worship of their Creator.
Because Muir received his baptism in the Sierra, he repeatedly urged others to come and partake in this powerful sacrament. The more convinced he became of the good news of glaciers, the more passionate he became in proclaiming this gospel. As he wrote to one of his friends, "Come next year, all of you. Come to these purest of terrestrial fountains. Come and receive baptism and absolution from civilized sins. You were but sprinkled last year. Come and be immersed" (Writings 9: 367). Muir sounded a similar note in a letter to Emerson: "Come to your mountain fountains.... You cannot be content with last years baptism 'twas only a sprinkle, come be immersed.... You will lose no time, nothing but civilized sins, think of the soul lavings and bathings you will get" (JMP 2: 1068). And as he wrote to Carr about the need to let him know when she would visit, "I am in the habit of asking so many to come, come, come to the mountain baptisms that there is danger of having others on my hands when you come" (Kindred 168). Muir's prophetic call to baptism led him often to compare himself to the biblical baptizer: "like John the Baptist, I dwell in the wilderness and have a leathern girdle about my loins and I wear sackcloth when I camp out I have ashes on my head and on my whole body" (JMP 2: 820). Like John the Baptist, Muir believed he had good news, the "gospel of glaciers" to share with anyone who would listen (JMP 34: 2131).
In the letter quoted above, after he tells Carr that he is asking "so many to come, come, come," Muir requests Carr's opinion about an article he put together for publication, "Twenty Hill Hollow." Later that year, it appeared in the Overland Monthly, and while the article mainly discusses the history, composition, flora, fauna, and weather of this particular place, near the end Muir's tone shifts and he preaches mountain baptism to his readers. Tellingly, Muir couches his baptismal appeal in terms of its egalitarian, primitive, and unifying power, and he promises spiritual redemption for those who submit to this natural baptism. The shift in Muir's article from description to preaching is marked by a shift from third to second person. This abrupt turn brings his readers into his essay as he tells them that Twenty Hill Hollow has something for each of them:
If you wish to see how much of light, life, and joy can be got into a January, go to this blessed Hollow. If you wish to see a plant-resurrection--myriads of bright flowers crowding from the ground, like souls to a judgment--go to Twenty Hills in February. If you are traveling for health, play truant to doctors and friends, fill your pocket with biscuits, and hide in the hills of the Hollow, lave in its waters, tan in its golds, bask in its flower-shine, and your baptisms will make you a new creature indeed. Or, choked in the sediments of society, so tired of the world, here will your hard doubts disappear, your carnal incrustations melt off, and your soul breathe deep and flee in God's shoreless atmosphere of beauty and love. (85-86).
Muir's thrice repeated "If you" implicitly claims that no matter who you are, this hollow has the power to redeem you. And he further emphasizes the egalitarian nature of this baptism in the personal testimony he provides directly after this invitation to his readers: "Never shall I forget my baptism in this font. It happened in January: a resurrection-day for many a plant and for me" (86). Muir links his own resurrection with that of the plants, suggesting that not only is this baptism for all humans, but also for other living things. Earlier in his article, he even extends this redemption to inanimate matter: "The net-work of dry water-courses, spread over valleys and hollows, suddenly gush with bright waters, sparkling and pouring in inlets and pools, like dusty mummies resouled and set living and laughing with color and blood" (84). The water that resouls the dry creek beds and the water and light that resurrect the plants are the same water and light that redeem humans from "carnal incrustations" and make them new creatures indeed. This divine redemption applies equally to all created things.
Muir locates the redemptive power of this egalitarian baptism in the most primitive, original power imaginable, the spirit that created the world. In Muir's description of his baptism, he states, "Light, of unspeakable richness, was brooding the flowers" (86). The verb Muir chooses to depict the action of the light, which is the word he uses elsewhere to describe the glaciers' action, is the same verb Milton uses in Paradise Lost to depict the Holy Spirit's action at the moment of creation: "Thou O Spirit ... / Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss / And mad'st it pregnant" (1.17, 21-22). In the next paragraph, Muir reinforces this allusion to the Holy Spirit, the member of the Trinity who imparts the gift of grace through the sacraments, as he again switches to second person and tells his readers, "You bathe in these spirit-beams" (86). If readers submit to the baptism to which Muir calls them, he promises they will be made new by the very Spirit who made the earth originally and who oversees its continual recreation.
This universally available redemption unifies all creatures who participate in it. Muir reinforces this at the conclusion of his essay when, after recounting his own baptismal experience, he claims all "wild people" will have a similar response to this hollow. When he then switches to second person, he figures all his readers as "wild people" who are unified in the common baptism that Muir gives to them: "You can not feel yourself out-of-doors; plain, sky, and mountains ray beauty which you feel. You bathe in these spirit-beams, turning round and round, as if warming at a campfire. Presently you lose consciousness of your own separate existence: you blend with the landscape, and become part and parcel of Nature" (86). Muir here cites Emerson's famous passage in "Nature" where Emerson claims "my head bathed by the blithe air ... I am part or particle of God," and although ostensibly "all mean egotism vanishes" in this moment, Emerson's description is littered with first-person pronouns (10). (26) By shifting to the second person, Muir rhetorically transforms this private baptism into a communal redemption in which his readers participate vicariously along with him and the rest of the creatures in Twenty Hill Hollow.
Muir's use of baptism as the controlling metaphor demonstrates the spiritual redemption effected by this unifying experience, and he reinforces the spiritual dimension by claiming this baptism will remove "doubts" and "carnal incrustations." These "civilized sins" (JMP 2: 1203)--from the arrogance Muir decried in Thousand-Mile Walk to the "timid ignorance and unbelief" that afflict other people (Writings 2: 153)--separate humans from God's redeeming love, but Muir claims that immersing oneself in creation's cyclical renewals will make one a "new creature indeed" This last phrase echoes Paul's promise that "if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature" a promise Paul predicates on Christ's death and resurrection (II Cor. 5:17). In another published description of this experience, Muir uses similar Christian language to describe the redemption he and his companion experienced: "We emerged from this ether baptism new creatures, born again; and truly not until this time were we fairly conscious that we were born at all" (Rambles 18). Muir found that by immersing himself in Twenty Hill Hollow with its annual deaths and resurrections, he experienced the redemption Christians find in baptism where they participate in the death and resurrection of the Creator. And as he wrote in his journal about the natural baptism he received in a Twenty Hill Hollow rainstorm, this redemption is effective across all species and denominational divides:
This cloud waterfall, like those of Yosemite rocks, was neither spray, rain, or solid water. How glorious a baptism did our flowers receive, and how sweet their breath.
This flower baptism is the kind that should be administered to the exact measurers of all sects, for to any decent common conscience it would be at once immersion, pouring, or heavy sprinkling. (JMP 23: 186)
As in his letter to his brother, Muir describes his natural baptism as one that exceeds any sectarian standard; it redeems and unites everyone. This is the baptism Muir experienced and the one he proclaimed with passion.
About five years later, in a letter published in the San Francisco Evening Bulletin, Muir employs similar rhetoric in calling readers to come to Salt Lake, Nevada. In this piece, though, he first addresses readers directly and then provides background on the lake and his personal testimony to its effective baptism. By following this structure, Muir's letter vicariously baptizes readers in the very first sentence:
When the north wind blows, bathing in Salt Lake is a glorious baptism, for then it is all wildly awake with waves, blooming like a prairie in snowy crystal foam. Plunging confidently into the midst of the grand uproar you are hugged and welcomed, and swim without effort, rocking and heaving up and down, in delightful rhythm, while the winds sing in chorus and the cool, fragrant brine searches every fiber of your body; and at length you are tossed ashore with a glad Godspeed, braced and salted and clean as a saint. (Writings 8: 121)
After he has sainted his readers by plunging them into the water, Muir steps back and describes his experience in this unique place. He claims that, just as he immersed his readers without asking their permission, so he got his baptism in the lake without intending to. While he was there, the wind and waves were too high for him to swim safely, and yet somehow, "[w]ithout any definite determination I found myself undressed, as if some one else had taken me in hand; and while one of the largest waves was ringing out its message and spending itself on the beach, I ran out with open arms to the next ... and got myself into right lusty relationship with the brave old lake" (8: 123). Similarly to his baptism in Yosemite Falls, Muir's self-surrender leads him into a joyous dance with the wind-tossed waves, and when he was "heaved ashore among the sunny grasses and flowers, I found myself a new creature indeed" (8: 124). Again, Muir borrows and intensifies Paul's phrase to indicate that wild baptism is even more redemptive than typical Christian baptism. And he uses his own experience of transformation to urge others to come and be immersed in the beauty of Salt Lake.
Muir's use of the second person to confer these baptizing experiences directly onto his readers illustrates one of the problems he dealt with in formulating his natural religion. (27) Muir originally thought that if people would expose themselves to the wilderness, they would, like him, be redeemed by the "Godful influence" of its beauty (Writings 2: 41). Yet the summer he spent with the shepherd Billy called into question the universal efficacy of wild beauty. For while Muir "pressed Yosemite upon him like a missionary offering the gospel" Billy saw nothing spectacular or divine in its rocks. "Such souls" Muir concluded, "are asleep, or smothered and befogged beneath mean pleasures or cares" (2: 147). Muir continued to believe that anyone who had "eyes undimmed with care" could see God's redeeming love in the wild, but he also realized that some people were blinded by the greed and business of civilization--"blind with gold-dust" or "with wool over their eyes" (4: 161). So to reach those who did not yet have "eyes to see"--who, in Campbell's terms were outside the "understanding distance"--Muir often addressed them in the second person, as the previous two articles illustrate (5: 68). Muir employed this rhetorical strategy to immerse his readers in God's wildness and so enable them to vicariously experience the effects of mountain baptism, unity with all ones' "fellow mortals" and spiritual redemption. (28)
Muir can baptize his readers in essays like "Twenty Hill Hollow" and "Salt Lake" because he typically addresses them as elect, capable perceivers of wilderness. By figuring his readers as members of his own inner circle, Muir ensures that they will not be apathetic or blind to nature's beauty but will respond appropriately, and he also creates a community of unified readers who share his experience of nature. In "The Passes" chapter in Mountains of California, for instance, Muir contrasts the "skilled" and "free mountaineer" with the "timid traveler, fresh from the sedimentary levels of the low lands" (Writings 4: 90). The latter will see mountain passes as "cold, dead, gloomy gashes in the bones of the mountains" but good mountaineers will see the spiritual significance of these passes that are "telling examples of Nature's love" (4: 91). As Muir explains with a reference to Psalm 91, "[mountain passes] lead through regions that lie far above the ordinary haunts of the devil, and of the pestilence that walks in darkness" (4: 91). And as the Psalmist employs the second person to assure his readers that "A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it [the pestilence] shall not come nigh thee" (Ps. 91:7), so Muir slips into the second person to reassure his readers that they will be safe in these passes: "They will kill care, save you from deadly apathy, set you free, and call forth every faculty into vigorous, enthusiastic action. Even the sick should try these so-called dangerous passes, because for every unfortunate they kill, they cure a thousand" (4: 91). Muir figures these mountain passes as more universally redemptive even than the "secret place of the most High" described in Psalm 91, for while the reader in the psalm is saved alone while thousands die around him, Muir's reader is joined with the thousand others who are cured by the passes. In order to guarantee his readers that they will be among those cured, Muir addresses them not as "timid traveler[s]" but as "free mountaineer[s]" who, like Muir, see and experience nature properly.
To ensure each of his readers will have "eyes to see" and be redeemed, Muir at times becomes quite direct with his readers, attributing to them his own personal experiences of nature's redeeming love. In one essay in which Muir tells his readers to imagine themselves in a particular place and then takes them on a walking tour, he dictates to them not only physical and emotional sensations, but also spiritual ones. Like "Twenty Hill Hollow" and "Salt Lake,' readers of this essay find themselves forcibly unified with nature and so experience its love:
With inexpressible delight you wade out into the grassy sun-lake, feeling yourself contained in one of Nature's most sacred chambers.... secure from yourself, free in the universal beauty. And notwithstanding the scene is so impressively spiritual, and you seem dissolved in it, yet everything about you is beating with warm, terrestrial, human love and life delightfully substantial and familiar. (Writings 4: 146-47)
By imputing this spiritual response to his readers, Muir vicariously imparts an individual experience with nature to each of his readers. While this rhetorical strategy implicitly undercuts Muir's confidence in individuals' ability to interpret nature on their own, it also demonstrates his belief that every person must experience nature directly for themselves. If any individual could not do this either because of their physical location or because of their spiritual blindness, Muir's prose would provide them a surrogate immersion in nature. Muir was confident that if people could just see nature directly they would grasp God's love, so faced with apathetic tourists and the "asleep" and "befogged" Billy, Muir felt he must use his writings to give readers a personal experience of the wild beauty and so unify them with nature and with each other. Like Alexander Campbell, who had to instruct his followers how to read the Bible even while claiming everyone could read it on their own, Muir had to teach his readers the proper interpretation of nature even while claiming its text was clear to everyone. But he remained convinced that with a little guidance the redemptive love expressed in "God's wildness" could save people from their "civilized sins" and unite them in primitive, unfallen worship.
As the Gilded Age rapacious!y cut into Western wilderness, Muir realized his mountainanity had a second problem to overcome: human destruction of its temples. Muir had recognized earlier the damage that "the erratic genus Homo" could wreck in God's divinely ordered wilderness (Writings 1: 359). As he wrote while herding sheep in the Sierra, "as far as I have seen, man alone, and the animals he tames, destroy these gardens" (Writings 1: 95). Early in his career, Muir looked for divine intervention, either via a "transmundane furnace" or, in a reference to the Garden of Eden, "a wall of fire to fence such gardens" (Writings 1: 359; 2: 95). When God did not protect his wilderness beauty from human destruction, Muir began looking toward the government to preserve these places. And unlike his earlier call for a wall of fire, Muir's later writings in defense of Hetch Hetchy figured all of America as a place whose Edenic purity could be preserved if people would resist the temptation to violate the national parks. By comparing these parks to the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden, Muir portrayed these wild places as reminders for humans to submit to God's authority and, rather than order nature for their uses, seek to understand and participate in God's redemptive, wild order.
Muir's particular religious motivation for establishing National Parks expressed itself in the specific policies he advocated. These policies reflected the egalitarian, primitive basis of Muir's natural religion. For while Muir valued wilderness inherently as God's untainted creation, he did not think wild places should be set apart from humans. Rather, he saw the National Park system as a way to preserve wilderness places throughout the country so all people could easily access them and experience the wild redemption they offered. Muir indicates this human purpose for setting aside tracts of wilderness in the opening sentences of Our National Parks, "The tendency nowadays to wander in wildernesses is delightful to see. Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life" (Writings 6: 3). Muir wanted these fountains of life to be "accessible and available to tourists" (Writings 6:15), so he encouraged extending railroad lines to parks (Worster, Passion 376, 408). As he tells readers about one easily accessible forest reservation, Bitter Root, "Get off the track at Belton Station, and in a few minutes you will find yourself in the midst of what you are sure to say is the best care-killing scenery on the continent" (Writings 6: 21). Muir wanted the "care-killing" beauty of the Parks to be accessible to all people because of his egalitarian, inclusive religious beliefs. Keeping people out of the wilderness would be as wrong as keeping people from baptism or the Lord's Supper, so Muir sought a National Park system that would be open to all.
This openness might taint the Parks' status as wilderness, but Muir accepted this cost while fighting strenuously against any economic or political meddling that would dilute the purity of these temples. The most famous of these fights, of course, was over the damming of Hetch Hetchy Valley, and the rhetoric Muir used to combat this dam demonstrated his commitment to preserving the Parks' primitive, divinely-created beauty. Following Disciples theology, Muir saw their primitive purity as the source of the Parks' sacramental redemption. In his defense of Hetch Hetchy, Muir drew on the common trope of America as a new Eden to figure the threatened valley as parallel to Eden's forbidden Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil: "The smallest forest reserve, and the first I ever heard of, was in the Garden of Eden; and though its boundaries were drawn by the Lord, and embraced only one tree, yet even so moderate a reserve as this was attacked" ("The National Parks" 276). This image of Hetch Hetchy as a sanctified place within a Garden of Eden became a recurring image in Muir's other articles written to defend the valley from desecration ("Tuolumne" 488; Writings 5: 287).
By figuring this valley as the site of the forbidden tree, Muir imagines all of America as a Garden of Eden in which we live and work. Muir's Edenic America is not untainted by human activity, but it includes particular places that humans don't touch. These restricted areas, like the restriction on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in Eden, remind humans that the Creator is the ultimate source of right and wrong, and that our human economy, which tries "to make everything dollarable" isn't the final source of value ("Tuolumne" 488). Leaving these wild places inviolate would ensure that humans submit to God's order rather than following their own economic interests. For Muir, National Parks serve as primitive, pure reminders of God's external standard of value to which humans need to align themselves as they go about their business in the rest of Eden.
Muir builds on this analogy to lend his defense of Hetch Hetchy great religious weight. For instance, he links the arguments of the dam supporters to Satan's temptation of Eve: "Their arguments are curiously like those of the devil, devised for the destruction of the first garden--so much of the very best Eden fruit going to waste; so much of the best Tuolumne water and Tuolumne scenery going to waste" (Writings 5: 289-90). And while those in favor of the dam argued it would "enhance" the beauty of Hetch Hetchy "by forming a crystal-clear lake," Muir rejected this logic because it arrogantly assumed that humans could improve on God's primitive creation: "Landscape gardens, places of recreation and worship, are never made beautiful by destroying and burying them" (Writings 5: 290). Muir's insistence that sections of God's original creation should not be tampered with undergirds his famous exclamation: "Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people's cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man" (Writings 5: 291). This rhetoric surely influenced the Secretary of the Interior, whose rejection of an early application for the Hetch Hetchy dam Muir quotes: '"the Congress of the United States sought by law to preserve [Yosemite National Park] for all coming time as nearly as practicable in the condition fashioned by the hand of the Creator" (Writings 5: 287). National Parks need to preserve God's creation in its primitive state so humans could have access to wild, sacramental redemption.
Muir's passionate writing and preservation efforts, therefore, should be seen as the logical outcomes of his belief that direct, individual experience with wild nature could sacramentally redeem and unite humans with God and all of his creation. By connecting his appeals for forest preservation to "the universal battle between right and wrong," Muir gave his environmental ethics the utmost moral significance ("Tuolumne" 488). As Muir's contemporary, William James, points out, an ethic--such as anthropocentrism or biocentrism--based only on the demands of finite subjects cannot inspire the "moral energy" of an ethic founded on God (261). By sacramentally linking wild nature with a loving God, Muir took the battle for National Parks from "the compass of a couple of poor octaves" to "the infinite scale of values" (James 261). So while Muir lost the battle to save Hetch Hetchy, the religious importance he lent to the National Parks proved remarkably successful in preserving and expanding them over the next hundred years.
As Dorman notes, this success should prompt us to examine Muir's religious rhetoric in order to understand why it was so effective (220-21). Muir's mountainanity led to a dual motivation for preserving tracts of wilderness: first because God's ongoing creation was good and inherently glorified him, and second because the loving way that God continually brought forth life and beauty from death and destruction could redeem people who joined this wild order. For Muir, the cultural benefits of wilderness obtain only because of the divine, intrinsic worth of wilderness. So while Muir could fight for government preservation for pragmatic reasons--leaving wilderness alone benefited Americans economically, culturally, and religiously--the real reason he believed wilderness could benefit humans was because he also believed it was divinely ordered for its own good. These two strands cannot be separated in Muir's thought without distorting the religious system of value that inspired his imagination. Muir valued the wilderness because it embodies an economy of divine love where destruction was always transformed into creation and death was always redeemed into greater beauty. He hoped that by reading and experiencing this glacial gospel, humans could likewise be redeemed from their "carnal incrustations" and could learn to order their own economies on this same love.
Muir's critics can certainly question whether his high valuation of wild nature perpetuated an unhelpful distinction between Nature and Culture, Wilderness and Civilization. But as Buell argues, Muir's emphasis on divine wilderness can "complement" efforts to protect and value what ecocritics like Scott Hess call "everyday nature" (Buell 13; Hess 106). (29) And Muir did in fact believe that God was present everywhere, "flow[ing] in grand undivided currents, shoreless and boundless over creeds and forms and all kinds of civilizations and peoples and beasts, saturating all and fountainizing all" (Writings 9: 333). By elevating the sacred status of wild nature, then, Muir hoped that humans could go to wild places to learn God's wild system of value, to learn what God called good and evil and not to set themselves up as the arbiters of morality. Once they respect these places, humans could then go back to the rest of the American Eden and see and experience God's redeeming love everywhere, even in places where it was dimmed by "civilized sins." As Holmes points out, Muir spent much of his own life away from pure wilderness (246-48), but the wild baptisms he received enabled him to experience God's love wherever he was. (30) Eden wouldn't be Eden without the inviolable Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and so Muir fought to preserve the wild places that most clearly revealed God's character. As he boldly claimed, "In God's wildness lies the hope of the world" (John of the Mountains 317).
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(1) Muir quotes here from Rom. 1:20.
(2) Fox claims that "Muir made a permanent break from Christianity" (50), and Cohen argues that he rejected "the false and abstract doctrines of Christianity" (25).
(3) Mark Stoll also critiques Cohen's view of "Muir as a kind of Western Taoist" because this "interpretation ... removes Muir from his historical context" ("God and John Muir" 80 n. 8).
(4) Bron Taylor admits that there are "contending interpretations of Muir's spirituality" but concludes that "the preponderance of evidence suggests that Muir's tendencies were first and foremost animistic and pantheistic" (62). Robert Fuller portrays Muir as a pantheist (51), and Adam Sowards follows Weiss in reading Muir's Christianity as merely a vocabular inheritance.
(5) Elsewhere, Stoll also places Muir in the Reformed Protestant tradition because of his indebtedness to Milton ("Milton" 238, 259-63).
(6) See Michael Branch for an analysis of Muir's engagement with the Romantic tradition, and while several critics link Muir to Emerson, Robert Dorman examines the way that Muir borrowed and departed from the Transcendental tradition as a whole (112-17), and Catherine Albanese also positions Muir as a Transcendentalist (101-05). Sowards attempts to position Muir within both these traditions.
(7) While Stoll does not consider Daniel's particular theological inheritance closely, he does claim that the "strongest similarity between Muir and his father is that each rejected an orthodox religion and preached the Gospel according to his own lights--for Daniel the Campbellite Gospel, for Muir the Gospel of Nature" ("God and John Muir" 73).
(8) John Pierce also discusses how Daniel's hermeneutic influenced his son, pointing out that when Daniel wanted to become a vegetarian based on the natural design of human teeth, John used the Bible to convince him that God intended humans to eat meat (Writings 1: 194-95). This shows the way in which the Restoration Movement encouraged the use of nature as a guide, even while the Bible remained the highest authority.
(9) For a history of the Disciples congregation in Meaford, Canada, see Claude Cox's "The Division Between Disciples and Churches of Christ in the Disciples Church at Meaford, Ontario." For another account of Muir's years with the Trout family, see William Trout's Trout Family History (121-38).
(10) In an autobiographical fragment written in 1908, Muir claims that during his time in Meaford his "Sundays and long summer evenings were devoted to the plants and rocks" ("Autobiography" 3). Since he wrote home about the Disciples' services, it seems likely that he attended at least part of the time. Muir's church attendance had apparently already begun to lapse in his college years; his college roommate recollected that "While he was not a very regular attendant at church, he read his Bible and said his prayers morning and evening of every day and he led the kind of life that all this imports" (Vronman 561).
(11) Peter Trout describes an extensive correspondence between Muir and the various Trout siblings (314), although many of these letters seem to be lost. William writes to Muir about church matters in several later letters, see especially Apr. 14, 1887, Aug. 2, 1904, and Feb. 15, 1913.
(12) See, for example, Devall and Sessions (47), Limbaugh (16, 18), Oelschlaeger (177, 182), Sheats (43), and Tallmadge (62).
(13) Holmes also points out that the Campbellites rejected important parts of Calvinism (58-59), and Worster describes the Campbells' theology more accurately as the "amalgamation of two quite contrary tendencies: Enlightenment rationalism, which denounced all tyranny over the individual human mind, and evangelical piety, or what we would now call fundamentalism" (Wealth 192). He perceives the tension within the movement without focusing enough on the desire for Christian unity that led to these two tendencies.
(14) Conversations with both John Pierce and Tom Olbricht have clarified my understanding of Disciples theology.
(15) As Hughes and Allen claim, this impulse toward restoring primitive purity is not exclusive to the Disciples but is also more broadly American (xiii).
(16) John Hicks discusses the similarities and differences between Campbell's view of the sacraments and other Christian traditions (43-48).
(17) Calvin's chapter on "The Knowledge of God Conspicuous in the Creation and Continual Government of the World" develops similar themes as Campbell's chapter on "The Universe" and both Calvin and Campbell then turn to the Bible as the proper guide to understanding the created world (Calvin 50-67).
(18) Muir's discussion of nature as a harmonious palimpsest seems to borrow directly from this first chapter of Campbell's The Christian System: both portray a universe composed of discrete and yet harmonious parts, and both enjoin humility as the proper stance before such a divinely complex order (Muir, Writings 1: 356-57; Campbell 13-14).
(19) Garrison and DeGroot provide an overview of the main debates that threatened the Disciples' unity and the later split between the Disciples and the Churches of Christ (330-58; 404-07). George Marsden also discusses this later separation (178).
(20) For Muir's deductive reading of nature, see also Dennis Dean (190) and Patricia Roberts (36-40).
(21) For a more extended discussion of the disagreement between Muir and Whitney, see Worster or Wilkins (Passion 192-200; John Muir 72-75). See also Paul Sheats' fine essay on Muir's religious reading of the glaciers, "John Muir's Glacial Gospel."
(22) Sheats also notes Muir's allusion to Milton in this passage (48). Paul Willis argues that Muir saw glaciers as instruments of God's providence, enacting a "teleology of beauty" (3).
(23) For Muir's explicit claim that creation was not damaged by the human fall, see A Thousand-Mile Walk (Writings 1: 324, 354-59). Although at times he seems to question this--for instance when he considers savage ants, "When I contemplate this fierce creature so widely distributed and strongly intrenched, I see that much remains to be done ere the world is brought under the rule of universal peace and love" (Writings 2: 44)--Muir seems to largely maintain his view of non-human nature as unfallen.
(24) Christina Iluzada explains in further detail how Muir's descriptions of Creation's worship borrow from Milton's ideas and language.
(25) Joseph Belcastro traces the history of open membership, which is directly related to open communion, from Alexander Campbell through the controversies that arose after his death (22-38).
(26) Muir is probably quoting Emerson exactly, but it depends on which edition he was referencing as this section appeared in several different variants (Emerson 288).
(27) Muir's extensive use of the second person has been generally overlooked, although Christine Oravec demonstrates that Muir's rhetoric, partially through his direct addresses to readers, "unified the aesthetic, rational, and ethical response to nature" (258). While this is true, she overlooks the way Muir's rhetoric, perhaps drawing on and shifting the accusatory language of some sermon styles, also employs religious responses and imputes these vicariously to the reader.
(28) Muir employs the second person in several other essays also; for more examples see Writings 4: 51-52, 4: 130-31, 4: 142.
(29) John Gatta states his agreement with Buell's assessment (156-57).
(30) While Holmes points out that Muir's biography demonstrates the falsity of the Wilderness/Civilization binary, Holmes argues Muir's writing does enact this false dichotomy (246-47).
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|Publication:||Christianity and Literature|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2012|
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