Jedediah S. Rogers and Matthew C. Godfrey, eds., The Earth Will Appear as the Garden of Eden: Essays on Mormon Environmental History (Salt Lake City, University of Utah Press, 2019).
Reviewed by Jon England, Ph.D. Candidate at Arizona State University
In April of 2013, Elder Marcus B. Nash of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Quorum of the Seventy gave a lecture at the University of Utah’s Wallace Stegner Center Symposium. In his lecture, titled “Righteous Dominion and Compassion for the Earth,” Nash explained that the Mormon environmental ethic revolves around the concept of “stewardship” and the need to care for God’s creations. Coincidentally, just a few months later, historians Jedediah Rogers and Matthew Godfrey began exploring the possibility of a book on Mormon environmental history. The result is The Earth Will Appear as the Garden of Eden, a collection of essays from both established scholars and young historians of Mormon environmental history.
In the first essay, Rogers takes us through the historiography of Mormon environmental history and identifies some of the gaps. He references Lynn White Jr.’s 1967 assertion that Christianity is to blame for environmental degradation. This has become a central debate in environmental history, and each author approaches it through the context of their various subjects. Sara Dant gets at the roots of Mormon environmental ethics by questioning the legitimacy of a Brigham Young quote: “There shall be no private ownership of the streams that come out of the canyons, nor the timber that grows on the hills. These belong to the people: all the people.” I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say that she reminds historians to double check their sources. She also identifies the tension within the Mormon environmental ethic between communal stewardship and a market economy. Thomas Alexander’s “Lost Memory and Environmentalism” works to confirm Dant’s conclusion. Mormon settlers began with an environmental ethic (a bit of a misguided ethic, but an ethic nonetheless), which they forgot as they secularized their sense of entrepreneurship. As a result, the Wasatch Front environment suffered with overgrazing, air pollution, and a decline of native species.
Most environmental histories of the Latter-day Saints deal with their time in Utah and settling the West. Matthew Godfrey, however, shows that over a decade before Brigham Young attempted to make the “desert blossom as a rose” in northern Utah, Joseph Smith was teaching the Saints to do the same thing in Missouri. And Brett Dowdle provides an insightful look at how American Mormon missionaries in England and British converts in the U.S. perceived new environments.
Richard Francaviglia takes us back to the Great Basin and posits that Mormons used and created maps that show how they viewed the land they were settling. These maps obviously proved essential in building cities, but also expressed the vision Mormons had for their settlements. Betsy Gaines Quammen delves into land policy with an examination of the history and founding of Zion National Park. She convincingly asserts that Thoreauvian ideals of wholesome nature converged harmoniously (for the most part) in Zion with Mormon perceptions of practical wilderness use. Jeff Nichol’s essay, however, argues that the Mormon sense of stewardship had its limits. Echoing Dant and Alexander, Nichol exposes the tensions within Mormon environmental thought of communitarian ideals and market successes within the context of the livestock industry. Communal projects, such as shared ranges, helped establish Mormon communities, but overgrazing became more prolific as Utah moved toward a market economy. Overgrazing livestock changed the local environment in disastrous ways.
Another way Mormons changed their environment was through irrigation. Brian Frehner complicates the history of reclamation projects with the story of St. Thomas, Nevada. Mormons founded St. Thomas in 1865, and for decades struggled to keep it afloat only to watch it literally sink under the waters of Lake Mead in 1938. In 2002 however, remnants of the town reappeared due to the diminished flow of the Colorado River. The story of St. Thomas is one of both success and failure and shows that reclamation projects never fully accomplished their purpose to control nature in the Southwest.
The last few essays focus on the diminishing agrarian culture of the Church through the twentieth century. Brian Cannon shows that this change came despite Mormon leaders’ efforts to keep the Church’s agrarian identity. Nathan Waite illustrates how Church president Spencer W. Kimball looked to preserve the connection between the land and the Church by encouraging members to maintain gardens. Rebecca Anderson offers a fascinating look at the history of place and memory by comparing Ensign Peak to the gravel pits that line Beck Street just to the north. While Ensign Peak represents the early Mormon vision of what Zion could become, the gravel pits show the reality of development.
George Handley provides a fitting conclusion to this collection with a summation of what Mormonism has to offer environmentalism. He also identifies what’s at stake. Mormonism has yet to embrace its own environmental ethic in an effective way. Fortunately, this collection represents a possible turning point as it reflects the growing concern among Mormons, particularly among the younger generation, for the environment.
The authors touch on issues specific to Utah
such as over-development and smog, and global issues like climate change, but
not in-depth, leaving room for more discussion and analysis. Just as Elder
Nash’s lecture (which is included in the appendix) opened the door for more
conversation around the Mormon environmental ethic, Eden lays the
groundwork for more substantial work in the environmental history of Mormonism.
 Sara Dant, “The ‘Lion of the Lord’ and the Land: Brigham Young’s Environmental Ethic,” The Earth Will Appear as the Garden of Eden, 29