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The Western World In The Eighteen And Ninteen Hundreds

1310 words - 6 pages

The Western World in the Eighteen and Ninteen Hundreds

Nature underwent an incredible alteration in the way in which it was viewed by man in the Western World in the eighteen and nineteen hundreds. Venturing onto the banks of their land of promise, the first immigrants to America’s northeast shores found a trackless expanse which, instead of filling them with hope and promise for their newly won future, brought about trepidation and fear of that most ominous of adversaries: the unknown. The untamed wilderness was a frightening proposition to early settlers who were forced to reconsider their hasty renunciation of the rules and structure of civilized society. So as human beings ...view middle of the document...

Anticipation of Heaven and fear of Hell were very real governing factors on peoples’ behavior, and religious leaders of the time played off of this elevated degree of suggestibility and exploited the ever prevalent fear of the unknown in their preaching. Stories depicting the woods as a rendezvous point for sinners and the Devil were customary, even among the more secular of writers. Jonathan Edwards was among the most influential and highly revered preachers in colonial America, and he held a great amount of pull over his adherents. In the mid 1800s he wrote one of his most powerful sermons entitled: Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Of the two basic types of Christian sermons, this was the archetype of those aimed at simultaneously scaring the “hell” both out of and into the audience.

Edwards invoked the image of a wrathful God, a mere moment away from sending sinners hurtling into the abyss of eternal damnation. However, in addition to this, Edwards also used the then stereotyped image of a wrathful wilderness in equal measure, and even elevated its hostility above that of God’s: “Were it not for the sovereign pleasure of God, the earth would not bear you one moment; for you are a burden to it...the air does not willingly serve you for breath to maintain the flame of life in your vitals.” (Edwards 26). Edwards depicted an inhospitable wilderness in high opposition to man, repelled by his indecorous character and unsupportive of sustaining him. Edwards was very convincing with his powerful imagery and oratorical delivery, and he succeeded in incorporating the natural world into an extension of Hell in the minds of many early Americans for whom it did not take much at all to make that leap.

A hundred years later John Muir would emerge to put forth a radically different philosophy regarding nature. In the period that followed John Edwards’ America, the American Wilderness was dominated and largely conquered by man, and therefore became less abhorrent to him. The Wild became less so, and people began to lose their fear and eventually to venture into it out of interest and appreciation for the wonders it held. Protestantism lessened its hold on the New World, and more tolerant forms of belief began to surface. On the transcendental front, spokesmen like Emerson and Thoreau gave voice to the need for recognition of nature’s superiority and the benefits of submersing oneself inside of it.

Largely influenced by the transcendentalist mentality and by Thoreau in particular, John Muir took nature aggrandizement a step further, and made it into his life’s crusade. Discontent with merely voicing and writing opinions on the advantages of the natural world, Muir chose instead to let his actions speak louder than his words. Spending his life celebrating nature from the inside, he only acquiesced to put his experience to paper when he was too old to acquire...

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