Pentecostals, Earth Day, and the Legacy of Secretary James Watt

Did you know that Earth Day was started by a Pentecostal? That’s right! Earth day is a day established to recognize humanity’s obligation to care for the earth for future generations. Although concern for the environment is often thought of as a progressive issue, its origins actually came from a man with a rich Pentecostal heritage and faith.

In the Heritage Magazine, Darrin Rodgers of the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center tells the story of John McConnell, Jr., the son of a Pentecostal minister who originally founded Earth Day. Rodgers notes,

“John McConnell, Jr. coined the name “Earth Day” — now internationally recognized — in 1968. John’s vision for Earth Day arose from his passion to promote peace. He wanted to find a tangible symbol around which people from various backgrounds could come together in peace and unity, and the earth fit the bill as universally important.”

The fact that a Pentecostal founded Earth Day is often shocking to people. On the one hand, some Pentecostals believe Earth Day is nothing more than a liberal social issue that many conservatives reject. On the other hand, some Pentecostals have been cavalier about creation because of the the apocalyptic nature of end times scenarios in popular literature. If Jesus is coming soon and burn it all anyway, why worry about conservation?

These attitudes have engendered for Christians and non-Christians alike the reputation that Pentecostals have a reckless view of creation and are not interested in its care. But one of the things I discovered in my dissertation is that this is not the case. Most of the commentators in the AG believed that the second coming of Christ was part of God’s plan to RENEW the earth, not DESTROY it. Take for example, the theology of S. A. Jamieson, an early AG leaders, who argued:

“The planet on which we live is by no means to be annihilated. . . . As sinful man has been delivered by the redemption of Jesus Christ, so this sin-cursed earth is also to share in that redemption. It is to be transformed, renewed, glorified and made a fit place for the habitation of God’s redeemed people.” S. A. Jamieson, “A New Heavens and A New Earth,” Pentecostal Evangel, September 30, 1922, p. 5.

There are others that I could share as well. Many in fact. Yet, the stereotype has endured that Pentecostals don’t care about the environment. In scholarly critiques of Pentecostal eschatology, some point to the controversy surrounding former Secretary of the Interior, James G. Watt, as an example of how Pentecostals are careless with the environment. But there is more to the story than most have heard.

The Case of Secretary James Watt

Secretary James Watt was a conservative Republican from Wyoming who served in various capacities in the federal government particularly in the area of public lands. In 1981, he was appointed by Ronald Reagan to serve as Secretary of Interior. During his years of public service, Secretary Watt came to Christ and was filled with the Spirit at a Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship meeting. Being filled with the Spirit changed everything in his life. He joined an Assemblies of God Church and was proud of his Pentecostal faith.

When Mr. Watt was nominated by President Reagan to serve as the chief official over America’s natural resources, his Pentecostal views on eschatology made him a target of the Senator’s suspicion. At the time, Evangelicalism did not have a reputation of being environmentally conscious. Knowing that Mr. Watt was a Pentecostal, the House committee famously asked the Secretary how his eschatology would affect his attitude toward the preservation of natural resources.

Secretary Watt’s reported response in the media was, “I don’t know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns.”[1] Not surprisingly, this quote drew criticism from the various groups [2] and even some Christian scholars.[3]

Secretary Watt’s response made headlines when the the press published a partial quote that distorted what he said and was used to make him sound careless toward the environment because of his eschatology.[4]

The actual comment made by Secretary Watt during the hearing was as follows:

Mr. Weaver: I wonder if you agree, also, in the general statement that we should leave some of our resources—I am now talking about scenic areas or preservation, but scenic resources for our children? Not just gobble them up all at once?

Secretary Watt: Absolutely. That is the delicate balance the Secretary of the Interior must have, to be steward for the natural resources for this generation as well as future generations. I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns, whatever it is we have to manage with skill to leave the resources needed for future generations.”[5]

The legend of Watt’s supposed anti-environmental attitudes became even more exaggerated when PBS personality Bill Moyers falsely revised the statement. Moyers claimed Secretary Watt said, “After the last tree is fell, Christ will come back.”[6] Of course, he never said that.

Secretary Watt responded to Moyers’ false claim,

“I never said it. Never believed it. Never even thought it. I know no Christian who believes or preaches such error. The Bible commands conservation—that we as Christians be careful stewards of the land and resources entrusted to us by the Creator.”[7]

Secretary Watt was unashamed of his Christian eschatological beliefs, but that same faith also led him to feel a responsibility to carefully steward creation. Watt further commented,

“We don’t know when He is coming, so we have a stewardship responsibility to see that people are provided for until He does come and a new order is put in place. So we cannot waste or despoil that which we’ve been given in the Earth because we don’t know our tenure here.”[8]

Again, Secretary Watt said,

“We Americans are blessed with the human and natural resources to build a great nation. This blessing carries with it a responsibility for good stewardship. This earth that sustains mankind must provide for untold generations to come. This generation must leave the world in better condition than we found it … We must see that natural resources are not wasted and are not squandered.”[9]

These statements are a far cry from the way he was portrayed. Watt demonstrated time and again that his eschatology did not lead him neglect the environment, yet only a few in the media were willing set the record straight concerning his position. One was Duane Larson, who said,

“In fact, as the full record states, Mr. Watt insisted and insists that Christians are obligated to care for God’s creation, no matter whether Christ’s return is indeed soon or a long time yet away. I apologize for my having not checked out the source (Mr. Watt) directly, and for thereby abetting a most regretful caricature about Mr. Watt’s Christian faith.”[10]

Eventually Watt was forced to step down because of the controversy. Watt had other controversial moments for sure. I certainly don’t intend to defend all of his policies or his actions or the Reagan Administration. He had conservative policies toward the environment, but the characterization that Watt was reckless because of his Pentecostal faith was certainly untrue. It is clear he believed in conservation for future generations. Nevertheless, the false assumption continues to fuel the perception that AG eschatology is anti-environment, even among Pentecostal scholars.

Clarifying these facts are important to me for a couple reasons. First, I care about this legacy because I certainly didn’t see reckless attitudes toward the environment in my study of AG eschatology. Many AG writers believed that the present earth would be our eternal home and that environmental exploitation was part of man’s sinful legacy. This fact, coupled with the revelation of John McConnell as the father of Earth Day, has led me to believe that being Pentecostal includes caring for the environment. Care for the environment is not a “liberal agenda”, it is our Pentecostal legacy.

But I also care about this subject because Secretary Watt is my friend. Long before I knew he was a significant public figure, I knew him as Jim Watt, a kind and devoted man with a wonderful family who loves God and cherishes the Spirit-filled life. Certainly, there can be debates about his policy legacy. He can stand on his own in that respect. But, I hope this story helps provides new light this controversy and shows that Pentecostalism and care for the environment are not mutually exclusive concepts.

To celebrate the Pentecostal legacy of stewardship of creation, it has been a tradition that my family has observed to plant a tree. We have done this since I learned of its origins when my boys were little. This year, we will plant another tree in honor of the Pentecostal origins of this important day. I hope you will join me. After all, as Secretary Watt said, “The Bible commands conservation”

[1] There were multiple sources carrying this quote according to Susan P. Bratton, “The Ecotheology of James Watt,” Environmental Ethics 5 (1983): 225–35.

[2] “The Legacy of James Watt,” Time Magazine, 24 October 1983, 25.

[3] George Marsden, “Lord of the Interior,” The Reformed Journal 31, no. 6 (Jun 1981): 2–3, criticized Watt’s understanding of eschatology that he felt he was using for political convenience to pass certain economic policies. Miroslav Volf, “On Loving with Hope: Eschatology and Social Responsibility,” Transformation 7, no. 3 (1990): 28–3.

[4] Bratton, “The Ecotheology of James Watt,” 227. Bratton concludes that his “political and economic policy” were the primary sources of his interior policy rather than his eschatology and “charismatic” theology.

[5] The statement was part of the House Confirmation Hearings for Watt’s appointment to Secretary of the interior. United States and James G. Watt. Briefing by the Secretary of the Interior: Oversight Hearing Before the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, House of Representatives; Ninety-Seventh Congress, First Session; on Briefing by the Secretary of the Interior; Hearing Held in Washington, D.C.; February 5, 1981 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1981).

[6] Joe Strupp, “Bill Moyers Apologizes to James Watt for Apocryphal Quote,” 13 August 2017).

[7] James G. Watt, “The Religious Left’s Lies,” Washington Post, 21 May 2005, (Accessed 15 August 2007).

[8] Les Line, “Etcetera,” Audubon 83, no. 3 (May 1981): 5, quoted in Bratton, “The Ecotheology of James Watt,” 227.

[9] James Watt, “Ours is the Earth,” The Saturday Evening Post, January-February 1982, 74–75, 104.

[10] Duane Larson, “An Ecumenical ‘Council’ Revisited”, Dialogue 44, no. 4 (Winter 2005): 389–400.

[11] Robbie Waddell, “Apocalyptic Sustainability: The Future of Pentecostal Ecology,” in Althouse and Waddell, eds., Perspectives in Pentecostal Eschatology, 103, claims that Watt’s eschatology led to the “reckless consumption of the USA’s natural resources.”

2 thoughts on “Pentecostals, Earth Day, and the Legacy of Secretary James Watt

  1. Pingback: Earth Day: God So Loves the Environment | Your Purpose in God's World

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