Beattie and Stenhouse point out that the combination of interrelated ‘dominion theology’, ‘settler capitalism’, and the social momentum of the ideas of ‘development, progress, and improvement’ was a powerful brew that would ensure an uncompromising and ruthless exploitation of New Zealand’s natural resources. Perhaps this was fulfilled in the early 20th century when New Zealand became, effectively, a vast overseas British farm. But was New Zealand influenced by religious thinking or was it simply ‘building an acquisitive, materialistic society in which ‘the promise of profit provided sufficient moral warrant in an atmosphere where human self-interest determined morality and the natural physical order was not seen as deserving respect’?
Beattie and Stenhouse note that the Christian relationship to the natural world was ambiguous. Domination theology was no doubt a mainspring of settler environmental attitudes, many of which in retrospect appear ill-founded, but Christianity also encompassed a respect for God’s Creation which included a duty of care.
Science and religion, even after Darwin, were not played out as opposing forces. Natural theology, the idea that science was revealing the wonder of God’s design in creation was probably, in general terms, the prevailing belief, natures discovered laws being God’s laws of creation. Delight in nature, its beauty and its spiritual richness were often expressed in appreciative Christian terms, by being interpreted as God’s bountiful gift to humanity. It was often clergy who were the naturalists, plant collectors, and nature lovers. Science and religion were quite comfortable together in the nation’s schools, churches, parliament, scientific institutions and local government.
For these reasons Christian ethics were often mobilised in criticism of insensitive development that seemed to be damaging the environment, and summoned in support of conservationist programs and environmental stewardship – even the restoration of nature to its original God-given state of perfection, perhaps a form of religious Utopianism attempting to recreate the peace, harmony and abundance that existed in the Garden of Eden before the Fall. Some settlers even compared their new home as the Promised Land, flowing with milk and honey.
John Ruskin (1819-1900) was an influential writer of the mid 19th century who could count as a ‘romantic theist’ (though wavering in belief) extoling the connection between nature, art, and literature while encouraging the nature-based Pre-Raphaelites and the virtues of pristine nature, while castigating the depradations of industrial society.
Churches enjoyed harvest festivals, a relic of pagan festivals incorporated in the Christian calendar. Nature was enjoyed and respected by walkers, botanists and other naturalists. In the 1860s there was a fern craze, Pteridomania, following one in England; sermons praised nature and the wonders of the natural world as divine revelation as did the schools, who promoted the emulation of God’s care and compassion and treated environmental abuse as sinful, because it ignored God’s sacred trust. Arbour days (started in Nebraska in 1872) were used to instil a conservation ethic and an appreciation of the outdoors. Caring for animals in God’s creation was a strong theme in animal welfare which was battling cruelty, vivisection, and the trade in coloured feathers.
Beattie and Stenhouse regard W. Travers (1819-1903) as a typical New Zealand example of the mix of values and beliefs that existed in New Zealand’s 19th century. Travers was a practising lawyer and one-time member of the House of Representatives who was interested in exploration and acclimatisation. He collected plants which he sent to Joseph Hooker at Kew – he was ‘an enlightened Protestant … [who] … believed in science and religion, progress and piety, colonisation and conservation’. He deplored the displacing of indigenous species by new exotic introductions while admiring the way that the farmland of the ’vigorous races of Europe’ was replacing the ‘rough clearing and hut of the savage’.
Scotsman Herbert (W.H.) Guthrie-Smith (1862-1940), one of New Zealand’s greatest environmental writers was a farmer who spent decades developing his sheep run Tutira at Hawke’s Bay on the North Island and renowned for the many times reprinted Tutira: the story of a New Zealand sheep station first published in 1921. He was a reformed Calvinist who believed in God’s ultimate power, but his Presbyterian faith also allowed belief in Darwin’s theory of evolution; he regarded humans as part of the natural world (not standing above it with God’s permission to do whatever he liked) and in later life he questioned whether what he had done in his youth was for the better, and praised the ideal of an earthly paradise.