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 are want to do, they imported their religious intolerance and chronic need to dominate and subjugate nature with them. As life inside the colonies became increasingly structured and illusionary of safety, the Wild outside became correspondingly malevolent as it impinged upon their cozy order and stasis. Religion continued unimpeded as the cornerstone of the colonists’ beliefs and actions, and its message was successfully used to amplify and solidify their unhealthy fear of nature. Powerful religious figures like Jonathan Edwards used the image of a wilderness analogous to Hell to strengthen worldly renunciation and recognition of the need for man to conquer his surroundings. With time the concept of nature and man’s relationship to it would continue to evolve, but it was not until the visionary philosophy of John Muir in the mid 1900s that the place of nature in religion would be completely turned on its head. By comparing the differences in doctrine set forth by Edwards and Muir, it can be seen how philosophical views of nature came full-circle in early America.
In the 1800s, Christianity was a dominating influence over daily life in the New World. The majority of the population lived each day mindful of how their actions in this life would affect their placement in the next. 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.