Latter Day Saints and the Environment

LDS Belief and the Environment

By George B. Handley; Associate Professor of Humanities at Brigham Young University

One cannot find any official position of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormon) on contemporary environmentalism.  This apparent silence has led some to criticize the LDS Church for appearing to support the often noisy anti-environmentalism of many of Utah’s politicians and citizens and of business and development interests.  Such criticism of so-called Mormonism has come despite the fact that many environmental conflicts in Utah resemble similar struggles in other Western states and despite the Church’s commitment to remain politically neutral whenever possible.  It is certainly lamentable that so many environmental issues have become political, seemingly unnecessarily, but the reality is that environmental issues often divide communities, especially in the intermountain West.  Maybe we have become too accustomed to looking to institutions and political processes for answers when we should instead look to ourselves.  Perhaps a ground-level, faith-based practice of good stewardship will be helpful in reducing unnecessary polarization and, more importantly, in producing more fruitful and sustainable practices.

Although official positions are not identifiable, LDS scriptures and teachings provide a consistent picture of the role of human beings as stewards accountable before God for the use and care of His creations.  Scholarly examinations of LDS theology and history have repeatedly demonstrated that the religion offers a unique and important perspective on the notion of environmental stewardship and a foundation for a strong environmental ethic.[1]

This truth about Mormonism has not been lost on all of its believers.  What often goes unnoticed is how many Mormons are actively involved in environmental causes and how directly LDS belief has motivated their efforts.  In February of 2004,Brigham Young University sponsored a well attended symposium, entitled “Our Stewardship: Perspectives on Nature”  that explored the theological foundations for stewardship.  In addition to demonstrating that LDS belief is not incompatible with good stewardship of the earth, the symposium cleared up at least one more myth regarding environmentalism: its spelling notwithstanding, it is not an “ism” in the traditional sense.  It is an inadequate word to describe a whole host of often competing movements, organizations, philosophies, and values

not all of which are compatible with Christianity in general or Mormonism in particular.  But rather than using these occasional incompatibilities as an excuse to demonize the “movement” of environmentalism and disregard the legitimate concerns that it continues to raise, the symposium’s participants presented an LDS conception of stewardship that resonates well with the Christian environmental ethics articulated by ecotheologians of many stripes, including Wendell Berry, John Cobb, Wesley Michaelson-Grandberg, and others.  The papers challenged LDS believers to do more to meet their responsibilities towards God’s creations.  A book of selected proceedings published by BYU’s Religious Studies Center is forthcoming.

What, briefly, are the theological underpinnings of environmental stewardship in the LDS religion?  First, the LDS worldview stipulates that the world is holy and animated by spiritual matter.  We are told in what is believed to be a restored account of the creation in The Pearl of Great Price: “I, the Lord God, created all things… spiritually before they were naturally upon the earth” (Moses 3:5).  This record of the creation goes on to explain that this makes plants as well as animals “living souls” (see Moses 3:9,19).  The notion that physical matter and and all living things have some living spiritual character grants a sacred identity to the nonhuman realm, and this would seem to give us pause to consider the ethics of our use of such inspirited material.  This is made clear in a revelation to Joseph Smith: “the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and that which cometh of the earth, is ordained for the use of man for food and for raiment, and that he might have abundance.  But it is not given that one man should possess that which is above another, wherefore the world lieth in sin.  And woe be unto man that sheddeth blood or that wasteth flesh and hath no need” (D&C 49:18-21).  In another revelation, we learn that “it pleaseth God that he 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” (D&C 59:18-20).  This ethic exists mainly because, as LDS prophets have consistently taught, no earthly possession truly belongs to us but to the Lord and we should therefore exercise care to use only what we need.  The Lord requires the remainder to be consecrated and redistributed for the upliftment of the needy, and only in this way we can be assured that there is “enough and to spare” of nature’s resources (see D&C 104).

LDS scriptures clearly announce the centrality of human beings as God’s offspring and declare that all of creation was provided for human enjoyment and use.  Significantly, however, this human-centered view does not justify abuse of nature; enjoyment and appreciation come before use.  Before Adam learned that fruits of the tree could be used for food, he learned to appreciate a tree’s beauty: “And out of the ground made I, the Lord God, to grow every tree, naturally, that is pleasant to the sight of man; and man could behold it” (Moses 3:9).  The Lord repeats this priority of aesthetic over utilitarian value in a revelation to Joseph Smith: “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 gladden the heart” (D&C 59:18).  In the LDS view, God expects us to make use of nature, but the priority is on nature’s intrinsic beauty which bears witness of Christ’s love and for which we have an ethical responsibility to demonstrate due appreciation.  Such appreciation, unfortunately, is hard to inculcate in our era of aesthetic impoverishment.

Christian doctrines of the millennium and the eventual death of the earth have caused many believers to view concerns of some environmentalists as frantic and unwarranted worries.  While Mormonism believes in a literal end of the earth’s life, there is no LDS scripture that justifies inaction in the face of evil, even when such evil has been prophesied.  It must be admitted at least that it makes no logical sense to believe that if our bodies are destined to die, we ought to neglect our health.  Mormons are certainly well known for not smoking, drinking alcohol, coffee or tea, or using illicit drugs.  This practice is in accordance with part of what is known as the Word of Wisdom, a dietary code revealed to Joseph Smith in 1833 that also stipulates a moderate and balanced diet of vegetables, grains, fruits, and infrequent use of meat.  While every active Mormon understands the obligation to avoid the deleterious substances mentioned, these more proactive aspects of the diet are not always followed with the same strictness.  If every Mormon were to reduce meat consumption, especially red meat, in half, it would no doubt have a tremendously positive environmental effect.
[1]Foundational publications on the subject include Hugh Nibley’s classic essays “Subduing the Earth” in On the Timely and the Timeless (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, 1978) and “Brigham Young on the Environment” in To the Glory of God. Mormon Essays on Great Issues—Environment— Commitment—Love—Peace —Youth—Man.  (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1972); Thomas Alexander’s “Stewardship and Enterprise” in Western Historical Quarterly 25 (Autumn 1994): 340-64; Richard Jackson’s “Righteousness and Environmental Change: The Mormons and the Environment” in Essays on the American West 1973-1974, 5 (Brigham Young University Press: Provo, UT): 21-42; and Jeanne Kaye and Craig J. Brown. “Mormon Beliefs about Land and Natural Resources, 1847-1877.” Journal of Historical Geography 11(3): 253-267.

Recent publications include Aaron Kelson’s The Holy Place: Why Caring for the Earth and Being Kind to Animals Matters(Spotsylvania, VA: White Pine Publishing, 1999); New Genesis. A Mormon Reader on Land and Community, ed. Terry Tempest Williams, William B. Smart and Gibbs M. Smith (Layton, UT: Gibbs-Smith Publisher, 1998); George Handley’s “The Environmental Ethics of Mormon Belief” in BYU Studies 40:2 Summer 2001: 187-211); and Matthew Gowans and Philip Cafaro’s “A Latter-Day Saint Environmental Ethic” in Environmental Ethics 25 (2003): 375-94).  The most recent article in theEnsign, the official magazine of the LDS Church, to cover the topic was in March 2004 (“The Wonder of Creation” by Mark J. Nielsen, pp. 60-65).

George B. Handley is Associate Professor of Humanities at Brigham Young University.  A resident of Prove with his wife Amy and four children, he is currently serving as a BYU campus Bishop.  He is still striving to understand the full responsibilities of being a “practicing” Mormon and profoundly enjoys the challenge

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