John Muir Was a Pagan

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 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 He is a teacher, writer, and social worker in the San Francisco Bay Area.

9/15/2009 4:00:00 AM