By Terrence O’Casey
Two men, both of Scottish descent, profoundly shaped America. Both their families came from a Presbyterian background. Their fathers were both preachers in the same emerging Restoration Movement. Both attended university but did not graduate, and yet were highly educated, writing extensively.
One was a preacher of Christ, the other a preacher of creation. One is largely remembered within the Christian church and forgotten beyond. The other is remembered by millions outside the church, but rarely recognized within the church. Both knew their Bible nearly by heart.
The first, Alexander Campbell, helped establish the Christian churches in America and beyond. The second Scotsman, John Muir, helped establish Yosemite National Park, and all or parts of Kings Canyon, Sequoia, and Mount Rainier National Parks.
Under his father’s stern teaching, John Muir, by the time he was 11, had memorized the entire New Testament and nearly all of the Old Testament. Upon entering the university at 18, he preached on the virtues of personal holiness and the need to be saved. He was even elected president of the YMCA when the “C” meant something.
Today, Muir’s name has been hijacked. Through historical revisionism, his strong faith has been deleted. Viewing Muir through present-day lenses is like looking at Jesus through The Jesus Seminar spectacles—distorted and dishonoring.
John Muir was driven by a deep devotion to God and the Lord Jesus. His goal was to be an exegete, “leading out” the meaning of God’s glory found in creation. His passion through writing was to be a “preacher of creation.”
Campbell dove into Hebrew and Greek and early church history to find the purest message to reform the church. Muir walked into the heart of God’s Rembrandt—the wilderness—to find the glory of God’s work in its purest, most primitive form, which he called “wild truth.”
For Campbell, the roles of baptism and conversion were studied. For Muir, the goal in setting aside preserves in nature was to create sacred places of repentance and restoration for fallen man. Muir said, “Send a good man to prison—he will be corrupted. Send a bad man into nature, and he will be converted.”
Muir’s conservation movement was directly linked to the influences of his father’s Christian church faith! Wilderness for Muir is what the Bible was for Campbell. For Muir it was not either/or, the Bible or creation. Both of God’s “books” needed to be read. Each glacially sculpted canyon Muir climbed, and every towering Sequoia he ran his fingers over would be recorded in a field commentary on creation leading to the praise of God.
In a letter to a friend, Muir saw himself as a grizzled wilderness John the Baptist. He believed his preaching about the glories of creation aided in understanding the rest of Scripture. He wanted to “immerse” people in “mountainanity” so they could encounter the love of God in Christ.
Muir was neither a pluralist, New Age thinker, nor a transcendentalist. Even the letters he wrote just a year before he died showed his deep love for Jesus.
Muir’s philosophy of science was not based on Darwin’s violent Survival of the Fittest. Rather, Muir formed his views based on the renowned botanist Alexander von Humboldt who saw harmony instead of random selection as the rule in creation.
Muir was troubled by arrogant “clergy” of science who dismissed the commonsense observations of people. Muir, a commonsense, ordinary student of creation, countered the United States Geological Services’ lead scientist, Josiah Whitney. Whitney said Yosemite and the Sierras were formed primarily by earthquakes. Muir insisted they were formed by glaciers. Muir was correct.
Campbell too stressed that commonsense people can understand Scripture. The preachers’ sons were both influenced by the same sources and came to the same conclusions about God’s work.
John Muir’s Lessons for Us Today
• Memorize Scripture, revel in it, experience it as you would an awe-inspiring hike in a National Park.
When Muir was an older man hiking in Alaska, he met a Presbyterian missionary who was stunned at Muir’s passionate grasp of Scripture. Muir still knew most of the Bible by heart.
Instead of reading so many books on church management, we should invest more time to memorize God’s Word, not just a verse at a time.
Congregations, give your ministers time to do this! Let this be a pattern for all God’s family, not so we can shoot Bible bullets, but so we can share snapshots of God’s great transforming Word wherever we go.
• Let your words, letters, and e-mails have wonderful echoes of your encounter with God. Muir’s writings and the writings of other early American Christians are laced with Scripture and praise. Muir wrote that he wanted to spend the winter in Yosemite because he could “listen to the winter songs and sermons preached and sung only there.” He wrote to his brother saying, “Here (Yosemite) in this place of surpassing glory the Lord has written in capitals.” Inviting a friend out to Yosemite, Muir’s words echo Psalm 23, “I would be your guide and servant . . . and lead you by the quiet waters of crystal lakes and along the songful rivers of snowy cataracts.”
• Spend time reading God’s “other book.” Buy binoculars and use “commentaries” like Roger Tory Peterson’s field guides. Buy a telescope and an astronomy (not astrology) book and read Psalm 8!
• Bring creation into weekend worship. The “stained glass” of our generation can be the great images we project on our video screens in the worship auditorium. –T.O.
Terrence O’Casey ministers with Seaside Christian Church in Warrenton, Oregon.