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Climate, Catastrophe, and Faith: How changes in climate drive religious upheaval by Philip Jenkins

22 October 2021

John Pridmore finds a work of history timely and magisterial

HERE is a hugely ambitious work, such as only a historian of Philip Jenkins’s great learning would dare undertake. Climate, Catastrophe and Faith attempts to trace the relationship between climate and religious history. That there is such a relationship is clear. It takes a long spell of warm weather, such as Europe enjoyed in the 13th century, to build a cathedral, and a fine day to ensure the success of the parish fête.

But just how weather affects human behaviour — not least, religious behaviour — is a formidably complex question, and Professor Jenkins is careful not to make unwarranted connections. His judgement is that “throughout history, climate and climate change have been key drivers of religious development,” a conclusion that stops short of claiming that climate ever determines religious development.

Jenkins has to be selective. He chooses to focus on specific periods in our Common Era in which climate conditions and weather events can be shown to have influenced religious history. We begin in the High Middle Ages. Chartres Cathedral was built between 1194 and 1220, and many other cathedrals and monastic houses, rivalling its magnificence, belong to this period. It was the age of Aquinas and the establishment of the great medieval universities, a time, too, when novel ideas — clerical celibacy, transubstantiation, and papal primacy among them — were pronounced eternal verities. It is surely no coincidence, Jenkins argues, that this was an era that enjoyed better weather than had been known for centuries. Jenkins drily observes that Catholicism can be seen as a product of a warm sun and warm seas.

Moving on to the 14th century, we must wrap up well. From 1315 to 1322, much of Europe experienced horrendous cold. These were the years of the worst famine of the Middle Ages. In the mid-1340s, the Black Death took hold. The religious response to these afflictions was an intensification of atavistic fears, of stigmatisation and scapegoating, and of wild conspiracy theories. Perennial persecution of Jews became yet worse. Lepers, too, were perceived as enemies of faith. Religious paranoia found multitudes of fresh victims in supposed witches, once harassed here and there, now found under every bed.

A common recourse in this grim history is to resort to the lurid imagery of apocalyptic. A quartet of terrifying figures ride through our story, “the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, famine, pestilence, death, and war. Arguably, all are driven by climatic forces — though the last of these four would seem to have been less weather-related than the others. The history of the Wars of Religion suggests that it takes more than a drop of rain to stop Christians slaughtering one another.

The extent to which religious movements are shaped by climate is demonstrated in American religious history of the 18th century, a period that Jenkins evokes graphically. The winter of 1740-41 brought extreme low temperatures to North America. It also prompted many a sermon interpreting this bitter weather as God’s vengeance on a sinful people. This was the age of George Whitfield and of the religious revival — the “Awakening”— associated with his name. Jenkins argues that the persuasiveness of Whitfield’s preaching must be seen in the context of the crippling cold that made his desperate hearers hang on his words.

Finally, we come to our time. Now there must be a change of perspective. The steady focus throughout this magisterial study, at once probing and panoramic, has been on how climate has shaped us. Now that is reversed. Now the focus must be on how we have shaped the climate. The seas rise and the ice-caps melt, and we know who is to blame. We ignore the science and a Swedish teenager at our planet’s peril.

The timeliness of this volume hardly needs emphasising. Delegates to the United Nations Climate Change Conference about to open in Glasgow are, no doubt, already burdened with much preparatory paperwork. One is tempted to suggest that they dispose of this material in an environmentally friendly fashion — shredded paper enriches compost — and pore over this remarkable book instead.


The Revd Dr John Pridmore is a former Rector of Hackney in east London.

Climate, Catastrophe, and Faith: How changes in climate drive religious upheaval
Philip Jenkins
OUP £22.99
Church Times Bookshop £20.70

Read an extract from the book here

CHANGING the Climate: Applying the Bible in a climate emergency 
is a wide-ranging guide by Debbie, David, and Jamie Hawker and aimed at families and churches (BRF, £9.99 (£9); 978-1-80039-022-5). The three sections — The problem; Why we should act; and What we can do — bring together the scientific explanations and spiritual and practical aspects in a way that is intended to be access­ible and useful on different levels and at different ages. The book includes Bible studies, questions, with space to insert the answers, tips, and factual appendices, and assertions are backed up by a full apparatus of notes.

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