Raymond Williams once noted that “nature” remains one of the most complex words in the English language. While “nature” may commonly refer to nonhuman places, or spaces largely outside of human control, it is also frequently a culturally defined and value-laden term. The meaning, status, and significance of “natural” space has been a highly contested and fluid topic throughout North American history, and religions have been deeply engaged in that process. Religious perceptions of natural space have shifted over time, and as these perceptions have shifted, so too have environmental practices, attitudes, and senses of American identity. The availability of seemingly unaltered, human-free, natural space distant from seats of political control in Europe drew many of the earliest European migrants to the continent in the 16th and 17th centuries. Similar motivations pushed early pioneers westward into the vast spaces beyond the Appalachian Mountains in later decades. For some early Protestant immigrants to the colonies, the taming of wilderness and transformation of natural space into human-managed space situated within political and cultural boundaries presented a clear religious mission. For the original inhabitants of the continent, however, such visions of the redemption of society through the subjugation of nature were largely unfamiliar. These indigenous peoples often viewed themselves as integrated into a relational network of places, other beings, spirits, and histories, managing their use of resources with respect for reciprocal obligations. Different attitudes toward and definitions of natural space contributed to many of the ongoing tensions between these original inhabitants and newer European colonists.
While pioneers of the early centuries of European colonialism in North America sought to conquer and subdue nature, their descendants, noting an increased scarcity of open and undeveloped land, began revering nature and the wild for its spiritual, aesthetic, and moral significance. Through the 19th and 20th centuries, influential figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir presented alternative religious visions of American natural space as morally purifying, worthy of protection, and even sacred. These attitudes influenced the growing popularity of outdoor adventure sports and environmental advocacy. Rather than a space defined as oppositional to civilized society in need of subjugation by human hands, by the early 20th-century natural space had taken new religious significance as a forge for American identity and a necessary cure for the spiritual and moral ills of society. By the early 21st century, however, this celebration of nature, and particularly wilderness, in the American experience was increasingly critiqued by scholars and members of marginalized communities that had been excluded from earlier studies of American history. The meaning and religious significance of natural space was undergoing another major revision. Natural space has remained an important but ambivalent fixture in U.S. history, reminding Americans of their hopes and potential, while also reflecting traumatic histories of violence and oppression. Through its shifting meanings and significance, natural space has played a central and ongoing role in shaping American religious identities.