Sunset from the Beech Mountain Trail
History | Places

The Calvinist roots of appreciating Acadia’s scenery

The commodification of scenery made Mount Desert Island in Maine a sacred place. Nineteenth-century artists, most notably Frederic E. Church and other landscape painters of the Hudson River School, made the scenic attractions of what would become Acadia National Park appealing to east-coast tourists. At the same time, tourist attention to the island’s magnificent scenery enriched the artists. Tourists and artists both found value on Maine’s coastal island beginning in the 1840s.

This interworking of artist renditions and subsequent tourist attentions to Mount Desert Island traded to some extent on Calvinist Protestant theological traditions that perceived transcendental meanings in nature. As I have noted before, two books demonstrate the debt that American environmental movements and outdoor recreationists owe to Calvinist views of the natural world: Mark R. Stoll’s book Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism (2015) and Devoted to Nature: The Religious Roots of American Environmentalism (2015) by Evan Berry. Stoll in particular highlights the role of artists in establishing an American nature aesthetic from Calvinist theological roots, with special attention to Frederic Church, including his reverent depictions of Mount Desert Island landscapes.

John Calvin himself initiated this aesthetic appreciation of nature, according to Mark Stoll, who concludes that Calvin honored Creation in far greater measure than any Christian theologian of his era.” In Calvin’s Institutes, Stoll notes, “he argued that nature was the most important source of knowledge of God outside the Bible, an ancient doctrine that Calvin gave pride of place as the starting point of all theology.” Calvin declared “that it can be said reverently, provided it proceeds from a reverent mind, that nature is God” (Stoll, page 21).

Calvin’s theology ignited a Protestant appreciation of nature that by the nineteenth century came to define a peculiarly American aesthetic, one that has not waned. If anything, the Calvinist perception of God’s handiwork in nature’s beauty has expanded beyond its Reformed Protestant origins. American aesthetic tastes for nature’s wonders may have their genesis in Christian traditions, but even the committed atheist who finds inspiration in the natural world is heir to Calvin in some way or another. Indeed, though God may fall out of the equation, a Calvinist reverence for natural beauty endures.

Shoreline, Acadia National Park (Photo by T.S. Bremer, 2018)

This reverent inclination toward nature’s splendor practically defines Acadia National Park. Tourists by the millions (some 3.5 million in 2017, according to the National Park Service) visit the park each year, and most take great pleasure in the fabulous scenery. Many do not realize, though, that their aesthetic delight in the park’s landscapes has a history that leads in part back to John Calvin via nineteenth-century artists. They may have little interest in Calvin or his Christian musings, but he has helped to fix the eyes of contemporary tourists on beautiful nature and to make it a marketable commodity for the managers of Acadia National Park.

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