John Muir’s Second Baptism

OR Elowah Falls crI had the privilege this morning of baptizing one of the older children in our church.  It is always an incredible honor for me to do this and it always beckons me to remember my own baptism 48 years ago.  Baptism is an ancient ritual but when it comes to meaning it packs a powerful punch still yet today.  In my sermon that followed I referred to baptism as part of the “sign language of the church.”  Even without saying a word the rite of baptism conveys so many wonderful messages.  It speaks of cleansing, death and resurrection, forgiveness, consecration, rebirth and renewal.  For those with eyes to see there is much to be learned by studying and experiencing baptism.

For good reason most people likely associate baptism with water.  Others, however, have used the word in other ways.  The early conservationist and naturalist John Muir is an example of someone who did this.  In one of his articles he wrote: “This sudden plash into wilderness—baptism in Nature’s warm heart,–how utterly happy it made us!  Nature streaming into us, wooingly teaching, preaching her glorious living lessons, so unlike the dismal grammar ashes and cinders so long thrashed into us.  Here, without knowing it, we were at school; every lesson a love lesson, not whipped but charmed into us.”

CA Kings Canyon NP waterfallMuir was raised in a Christian home and knew the Scriptures well.  (He claimed to have memorized the biggest portion of it.)  I have no doubt he would have been familiar with the various meanings of Christian baptism noted above and that it was this understanding that led him to use this word in the context he did.  Nature or Creation was God’s second book for Muir.  It was where he most closely experienced God.  He felt that God had so very much to teach those baptized into nature.

In the passage quoted above he refers to his “baptism in Nature’s warm heart” and the joy that followed it.  He would go on to invite others to follow him and be immersed in the beauty and wonders of God’s Creation.  For this reason Muir was seen as an evangelist for nature and referred to as a different kind of John the Baptist.  His truly was “a voice crying out in the wilderness.” (Mark 1:3)

AK Denali NP Nugget Pond 2I’m convinced more than ever that we need such voices still today.  We’ve manufactured a world that isolates us from God’s Creation.  Our children no longer play in the woods as they once did.  Some parents even teach their kids to avoid the woods whereas John Muir would urge them instead to enter and learn what nature has to teach them.  He said nature itself was a school where “every lesson [was] a love lesson.”

Today it’s not just children but adults as well who need to enroll in this school.  For spiritual, physical, mental, and emotional reasons we, too, need to be baptized or immersed into nature.  We need to be exposed to the teachings of God’s other book and learn our lessons well.  Researchers are discovering more and more how time spent in nature promotes well-being and happiness.  Nature aids all kinds of healing and exposure to it can add quality to our lives and perhaps even quantity of years.

As a pastor I frequently urge people to turn to God and be baptized.  I now find myself calling for folks to turn to God and experience two baptisms—one in the church and the other in the wilderness.  I pray many will heed the call.


(I took the top image at Columbia River Gorge in Oregon, the second at Kings Canyon National Park in California, and the bottom one at Denali National Park in Alaska.)