Exploring the gospel principles of earth stewardship

Spencer W. Kimball’s Talk on Ecology

Tucked away in the Edward P. Kimball collection at BYU’s Special Collections[1] is a text President Spencer W. Kimball prepared for a speech he gave exactly 42 years ago, on July 24,  1974. The occasion was the World’s Fair in Spokane, Washington, and the theme of the exposition was ecology.

 

President Kimball started out with an admission:

Now I did not know much about ecology, but I suppose in common terms the ecologists groan and nearly weep when they see a forest or a hillside become black with fire and smoke. I think I feel them groan when they see old cars piled in washes and on side hills. And I suppose they feel bad to see a pretty little brook all filled with paper and cans and bottles and waste which reduces the usefulness of the water, contaminating and polluting it. . . . We think many who do not even call themselves ecologists wince at such waste and degradation and pollution and filth.

He recalled recent experiences in nature and spiritual rejuvenation they brought.

Last week I spent some hours near the top of the Wasatch Mountains in Utah. I was impressed with the height of the high peaks above us and mused that they were much like they were long, long ago. I saw the valleys between the peaks, heavily timbered and not much changed from their natural state. The beautiful mountain stream jumped over the rocks and gurgled its way down, down, down the mountain creek from the slowly melting snow high in the protected places down to the great valley to furnish pure drinking water for the inhabitants of the cities below. And I thought how grateful for the efforts of officials who protected all this handiwork of God for people to enjoy with total safety and pleasure.

As he did in other talks,[2] President Kimball compared environmental pollution with spiritual pollution, and he decried both. “I am not opposing the proper efforts of the ecologists,” he wrote. “I am hoping that while we improve garbage disposal and clean flowing rivers and take from our breathing air the soot and dust and chemicals, that we cleanse our moral and spiritual environment and make it also clean and endurable.” For the prophet, the spiritual side was the weightier matter, but the two went hand in hand. He may not have been a ecologist but in this case, as he explored the interconnections between the physical world and the spiritual life, he was thinking like one.

In the end, President Kimball put aside these remarks and wrote another version more focused on pioneers, since it was the 24th of July.[2] That text is also found at BYU, and it too contains some memorable lines. Speaking of the final day of Creation, he said,

[God] breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul, and then he gave to us dominion over the world, so that everything is in our possession, under our care. You will recall that after he had created the man, Adam, then he said, “Now, go forward and dress this garden and keep it,” and that, I think, is the tenor of this Expo ’74, to take that which has been given to us, keep it, dress it and keep it in good shape and in good condition, . . . to take the blessings that have been given us and hold them safe from destruction and demolition or from pollution or contamination.

Like his earlier draft, the address President Kimball ended up giving concludes by connecting the physical and spiritual worlds:

Let us remember, my kind friends, brothers and sisters, let us remember that while we are protecting the forests against being burned, while we are protecting the rivers from being clogged with debris, while we are watching our homes and keeping the weeds down and keeping our homes painted and cleaned [another of Kimball’s big emphases during his time as church president], while we are doing all of these things which are a part of the teaching of this exposition, let us clean our lives.

President Kimball’s use of “contamination” and some of the specific examples he gives of spiritual pollution may have felt out of place when I read them. Like all of us, he came from a particular time and background and culture, and that’s where he spoke from. But the idea that caring for our bodies, caring for our spirits, and caring for the earth are all bound up together tastes sweet to me. Mistreating our bodies and mistreating God’s creation are very often linked. And we cannot neglect the earth without experiencing an adverse effect on our souls.

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[1] It’s in UA 617, box 4, folder 2, if you want to go read the whole thing.

[2] See, for example, “On My Honor,” a BYU devotional address from September 1978.

[3] This according to Edward Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride, manuscript with add. footnotes, ch. 10, p. 9, note 44, in the Spencer W. Kimball CD Library.