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How Changes in Climate Have Driven Religious Revolutions

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What is the relationship between climate, climate change and religion?

That is the subject of my current book project, which has a tentative title of “Climate, Catastrophe and Faith: How Changes in Climate Drive Religious Revolutions” (under contract to Oxford).

The Christian history sequence has occupied my attention for the past two decades, and my current work builds firmly on that foundation.

Even so, it has taken me into some really unexpected areas. I am almost embarrassed to find how they rewrite so much of what I thought I always knew.

My latest book project actually grew out of some specific case studies I did, in which I took some key years of intense and calamitous climate events, such as 1320 or 1680, and described their far-reaching effects on society and politics.

These usually entailed a lengthy series of revolts, civil wars, invasions, witch persecutions and general scapegoating. Epidemics and plagues also followed as inevitably as the night does the day.

Do recall that pre-modern societies were deeply committed to providentialist beliefs, whereby human conduct or sinfulness directly provoked divine intervention through famines or natural disasters.

Inevitably, the ongoing catastrophes inspired apocalyptic or end times movements and sects.

But they also drove persecutions that reshaped the world’s religious maps, for instance by driving minorities to seek refuge in new regions or other continents.

In each case too, I found the era in question marked a sudden, radical and far-reaching transformation in the history not just of Christianity but of multiple faiths. Closely parallel religious currents arose in radically different societies in the very same years, suggesting the global impact of shared climatic events.

I am here just offering a quick and dirty summary of a much larger argument, which I am illustrating in full in the proposed book.

As my book title indicates, my initial emphasis was on the impact of successive catastrophes, but there were also eras when benevolent and warmer climates offered great prosperity, and that in turn was reflected in other kinds of movement and religious change.

In summary, I make two arguments. One is that over the past couple of thousand years, there have been repeated transformations in climate, both short and long term. And that these changes have repeatedly driven key movements and developments in the history of Christianity and of other faiths.

Before anyone asks, the fact I am writing about sweeping climate changes in previous eras does not mean I am challenging the idea that contemporary developments are fundamentally different from those predecessors, and indeed unique.

The historical developments I am describing arise from specific and contingent factors, chiefly solar activity, volcanism and the workings of the El Niño system. (I have learned so much in the past few years about the El Niño Southern Oscillation, ENSO).

Each of those changes was of its period and ameliorated or reversed over time. That is utterly different from the one-way process of the current situation with carbon byproducts and other emissions. Our particular problems today will not just go away of their own accord.

Once you understand those historical climate dimensions, they provide an essential and unavoidable context for very well-known events in the development of religion.

So 1741 marked a critical moment in the Great Awakening, the time of Jonathan Edwards’s sermon on “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

Does it not help enormously to know that the previous year or so had seen the worst winter in several centuries?

The revival preachers were addressing a frightened, disturbed and deeply troubled audience desperate for some explanation of their plight and willing to seek radical solutions.

I think of the critical Reformation years around 1540. Europe in that year suffered a mega-drought, a once-in-a-millennium event, which was cataclysmic for crops and herds. That could not have failed to have its impact on popular attitudes and fears and how people interpreted divine displeasure.

I won’t go into it here, but just look at all the action in the Reformation story in 1540-41, not least Calvin’s implementation of the Reformation in Geneva or the official papal approval of the Society of Jesus.

If you write the religious history of, say, the pivotal years around 1540 or 1680 or 1740 without taking account of those climate factors, you are missing a vital part of the story.

To see how that climate perspective might be applied, look at a book like “The Frigid Golden Age” by Dagomar Degroot (2018).

Through most of the 17th century, the Netherlands was at the heart of the Protestant cause, politically and intellectually. If the Netherlands had gone under militarily, Protestantism itself may or may not have survived.

What Degroot does in that book is to show how Dutch history in that era absolutely, at every stage, has to be understood in the context of climate and climate change.

The book covers “Climate Change, the Little Ice Age and the Dutch Republic, 1560-1720.”

Some years, some eras, were uniquely dreadful, but time and again, we can link really significant movements or transitions in religious history to smaller or middling climate events.

I am nervous. You know the saying if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail?

Heaven forbid I use a one-climate-fits-all approach to religious history. But at the moment, this is heady stuff.

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared on The Anxious Bench blog. It is used with permission.

Philip Jenkins

Philip Jenkins is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and serves as co-director for the program on historical studies of religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion. He is the author of numerous books, including “The Great and Holy War: How WWI Became a Religious Crusade.”