The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When climate catastrophes spark religious turmoil

(Photo by Valery HACHE / AFP) via Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

In Vardo, on the coast of northern Norway, there is a monument to 91 individuals who were accused of witchcraft and burned to death between 1598 and 1692. Church and government officials in Europe scapegoated imagined malefactors for any number of reasons. When crops failed, plague devastated communities, livestock died or unusually bad weather struck, presumed malignant individuals were blamed. In Vardo in 1617 a terrible storm sank a fleet of ships and killed 40 men. Authorities tortured accused witches and extracted confessions. Kirsti Sorensdatter, a Dane married to a wealthy merchant, was burned to death in late April 1621. This represents just one of the many ways that extreme shifts in climate and ferocious weather have produced religious violence and social turmoil.

In his insightful and gripping new book, “Climate, Catastrophe, and Faith: How Changes in Climate Drive Religious Upheaval,” Philip Jenkins looks at how humans have understood climate convulsions and weather cataclysms in religious terms. On a basic level, floods, droughts, famine and extreme cold have done much to shape faith and religious practice for centuries. The world’s ancient sacred texts are packed with tales of such disasters and the stories of those who suffered. For instance, flood myths appear in the Book of Genesis, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Koran and many others. Similar readings of destructive weather as a sign of divine retribution have held sway up to the modern age.

Jenkins is perhaps the ideal historian to undertake a project like this, which runs from roughly the 11th century to the present. A professor of history at Baylor University, he is nothing if not prolific. He has written at least 26 books on varied topics including America in the 1970s, cults and new religions, designer drugs, moral panics in Britain, Native American spirituality, global Christianity, World War I, and the history of Wales. To this latest effort he brings his typical narrative flair, sweeping coverage and acute analysis.

In recent decades there has been an outpouring of work on climate and history, spanning the ancient period to the present. Yet, notes Jenkins, “one area in particular stands out as a very significant gap, and that is religion, broadly defined.” He helps address that in “Climate, Catastrophe, and Faith” by exploring the language of apocalypse, judgment, persecution and violent religious struggle. He zeros in on pivotal eras, including the years around 1320, 1570, 1680 and 1740, which were defined by climate disasters, disruptive weather and religious turmoil. It is little wonder that in a time of extreme cold and famine in 1740 Voltaire observed: “Three things exercise a constant influence over the minds of men: climate, government and religion. . . . That is the only way of explaining the enigma of this world.” Jenkins mostly covers the western part of that world, but he also focuses some attention on the Middle East and the Far East.

The extended period of cooling that researchers call the Little Ice Age, lasting from roughly the 13th century to the mid-19th century, led to superstorms, floods and famines. Volcanic eruptions caused massive climactic changes and had an effect on populations around the globe.

In the period around 1320, the era of the Great Famine, paranoia and fear gripped Christian and Muslim communities. Death, violence and apocalypticism surged with the Black Death of the 1340s. “Large sections of the population imagined a series of insidious dangers,” Jenkins notes, “and projected them onto various minorities, real and imaginary.” Christians focused their hatred and anger on presumed threats to good order, including Jews, heretics, lepers and a frightening new terror, witches.

Jenkins’s sections on witch hunts and satanic panics are some of the most intriguing parts of the book. Others have asked about the causes of these bloody crusades. They have variously pointed to generational conflict, gender and patriarchy, economic issues, tainted crops, and political persecution. Jenkins looks at the height of the witch craze that lasted from 1562 to 1632. Many Europeans were convinced that evil forces had caused plagues, droughts, famines or, in the case of Vardo, devastating storms. Intolerance extended to “unpopular groups and individuals, and religious minorities were a natural choice.”

Jenkins convincingly links the seditions, conspiracies, wars, anti-Catholicism and regicide of 17th-century France and England to climate disasters. Unprecedented weather especially marked the years between 1675 and 1710. Many believers, says Jenkins, “imagined the fast-approaching end of the existing world.” A severe drought in the Spanish dominion of New Mexico in the 1670s led to a revival of traditional native spirituality. By 1680 tensions between the Indians and Spanish colonizers culminated in the Pueblo Revolt. Jenkins links similar climate chaos and the resulting social pressures of late-17th-century Europe to waves of migration to the American colonies. French Huguenots, English Quakers, German Pietists and Scottish Presbyterians fled to the New World. Jenkins goes on to tie the American colonial religious revival of 1739 to 1742 to the intense cold and scarcity of the age. Similar climate and religious crises in the coming centuries were partially alleviated by food security and political stability.

Some might quibble with what seems like a kind of climate determinism, or the fact that Jenkins does not do much to define what he means by “religion” or “religious,” or how these categories changed over the centuries. Because religious expressions differed so greatly between Western Europe and East Asia, comparisons can be fraught. William T. Cavanaugh argues quite convincingly that religion has no transhistorical or transcultural essence. Put another way, state churches, bound to the political establishments of 17th-century Europe, look quite different from the free-for-all denominations of the 19th-century United States. That matters because it can be especially difficult to determine what counted as a particularly religious — as opposed to a political or cultural — response to climate change before the modern era.

Jenkins concludes his study by speculating on what religious conflict might look like in the coming decades, when the impact of climate change is predicted to be even more catastrophic. Muslim-Christian strife in Nigeria could be especially deadly. Nations with diverse religious populations in the Southern Hemisphere, Jenkins points out, will probably experience significant conflict. Religious extremism and religious terrorism may be the bitter fruits of climate disasters. The great irony is that countries that have contributed the least to the climate crisis are likely to suffer the most.

While the distant past is no certain guide, Jenkins admits, religion could play a vital role “as political structures fall and people confront what seems like the uncontrollable fury of nature.” Jenkins’s deeply researched and captivating narrative offers readers a glimpse of what may lie ahead.

Climate, Catastrophe, and Faith

How Changes in Climate Drive Religious Upheaval

By Philip Jenkins

257 pp. $29.95