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Early LDS prophets had some environmental consciousness

SACRAMENTO, Calif.—Though they can't be accurately labeled "environmentalists," two early LDS Church leaders shared theological concepts about nature that set them apart from most religious leaders of the time.Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints founder Joseph Smith, and to a greater extent, his successor, Brigham Young, taught that God created earth, plants and animals not simply for the use of man but as entities with souls.Brian Wallis of the University of Utah told participants at the annual Mormon History Association conference this weekend in Sacramento that Young, in particular, was concerned not just for buffalo that emigrating Latter-day Saints shot for sport on the Great Plains, but also for "the crickets that consumed his people's food" once they reached the Salt Lake Valley.Reprimanding men who shot game for sport, he said the animals were "ensouled creations of God," adding, "If we do slay what we do not need, we will need when we cannot slay."After crickets ate the pioneers' first crops, he told the pioneers they could expect the same the following year, but if they had a bountiful harvest there would be enough for the insects and the Saints.Young's respect for "lower forms of life was an atypical stance in 19th-century America. His thinking would have placed him on the forward edge" of discussion on the worth of all living things, Wallis said.Even as scholars have accused the Judeo-Christian worldview of moving the world toward environmental destruction, LDS Church members are "coming to re-evaluate the stewardship of the earth within their communities."Some have begun to explore the possibility of a "uniquely Mormon environmental ethic," Wallis said. Joseph Smith taught that all living beings, including animals and plants, "possess individual spirits, able to exist without the body."Brigham Young said "Christ saved not only all humans, but animals," Wallis said. While all creatures were placed on earth in part for humans, Young said they also were created by God "for their own purposes and entitled to experience their own being and sense of joy."From his perspective, there is no "particle of element not filled with life in the rock, the sand, the dust, the water and in gases," and other elements, Wallis said. President Young perceived an "infinite complexity in life and in all things," and said "all space is filled with element. Life in various proportions fills all matter."LDS scripture references such concepts, including the idea that the Earth is a living being tortured by the pollutions of man, both moral and spiritual."This view of nature is currently being revived as a contemporary environmental ethic," Wallis said.Young's sense of stewardship became a guiding principle for Mormons to properly care for the land gifted to them by God, he said. "It was a test of how one treated earthly blessings."He spoke of nature's obedience to God and the human tendency to "disobey and pollute the land both physically and spiritually," Wallis said.Such teachings were canonized early by Latter-day Saints, said Thomas Alexander, a professor at Brigham Young University. Because LDS leadership has not spoken strongly on environmental issues as a whole, "each member is left to speak as strongly as he or she believes appropriate," about those topics, he said.