John Muir Was a Pagan
In this same presentation on his long stroll through the American South he refers to the "Creator" who has made everything in the cosmos of the same material (not a typical Christian explication of the Genesis God). He ends his "heretical" train of thought with glee: "Glad to leave these ecclesiastical fires and blunders, I joyfully return to the immortal truth and immortal beauty of Nature" (ibid., p. 142).
Some have drawn conclusions about Muir's religious sentiments from passages such as his letter to Jeanne Carr in January of 1866, in which he speaks of the "page of Nature" harmonizing in some sense with the Bible. While he is writing to his obviously more "religious" friend and confidant, Muir also makes a clear confession: "that I take more intense delight from reading the power and goodness of God from ‘the things which are made' than from the Bible" (Gisel, Kindred & Related Spirits, pp. 34-35).
It is scarcely more than a summary of Muir's life to say that he heard sermons in stone, choirs in the waterfalls, read the bible of the mountains, and felt full of the sacred in the great temple of Nature. This line from Steep Trails only undergirds my point: "How wholly infused with God is this one big word of love that we call the world!" (p. 17). The most neglected of Christian scriptures echoes their chorus: "God is Love" (First Letter of John 4:16).
As for Muir's fundamental departure from the church of his youth, he wrote to his brother David on March 20, 1870, "I am sitting here in a little shanty made of sugar pine shingles this Sabbath evening. I have not been at church a single time since leaving home. Yet this glorious valley might well be called a church, for every lover of the great Creator who comes. . .fails not to worship as he never did before" (The Life and Letters of John Muir, pp. 112-113). Muir's wide-open sense of church leads me to conclude that his natural spirituality (a concept I further explore in my writings and on my website at www.naturetemple.net) grew beyond the parochial Christian God to a more Universal Creator or Creative Energy acknowledged by Wiccans, Pagans, and mystics of many of the major religious traditions of the planet.
It might not be far off the mark to rephrase his words from the close of My Boyhood and Youth and say that Muir left "the Christian Sanctuary for the Sanctuary of the Wilderness." I would go so far as to say that it is fairly clear from the corpus of his literary work that John Muir can never be fully claimed by the Christian community, except to say that he sauntered out the door and never returned (I did this myself, following a service in the Muir family kirk in his hometown of Dunbar, Scotland). This is most welcomed by those of us who seek to live and work as companions with Nature and Spirit in a diverse, pluralistic world in great need of open-hearted, open-minded voices.
Near the end of his life Muir wrote to a progressive political reformer, "The lesson of your life all should read, for in it there are some of the finest and divinest things humanity has to show" (Branch, John Muir's Last Journey, p. 221). The same is true, I think, with the adventurous life of the natural pagan from Scotland.
A freethinker and former minister, Chris Highland is the author of Meditations of John Muir: Nature's Temple and other natural spirituality books, as well as numerous essays and blogs (see www.naturetemple.net). He is a teacher, writer, and social worker in the San Francisco Bay Area.