Editor's note: The following is adapted from a chapter in the new book "The Earth Will Appear as the Garden of Eden: Essays on Mormon Environmental History," edited by Jedediah S. Rogers and Matthew C. Godfrey and published by the University of Utah Press.
It’s fair to say Mark Twain was no fan of the Latter-day Saints. Recounting a visit to Utah Territory in the 1860s in "Roughing It," he spoke insultingly of women involved in plural marriage and called the Book of Mormon “chloroform in print.” But he couldn’t help admiring the beauty and order of a “Mormon village.”
There were no drunkards or ne’er-do-wells loafing around Salt Lake City, he noted. And rather than the filthy muck Twain was used to seeing in gutters, here he saw “a limpid stream rippling and dancing through every street.” He found it downright pleasant to stroll along “block after block of trim dwellings, built of ‘frame’ and sunburned brick — a great thriving orchard and garden behind every one of them.”
What Twain was seeing in Salt Lake had been a part of the Latter-day Saint tradition since the beginning. If you’ve never looked at the plat for the city of Zion in the Joseph Smith Papers, you really should. Along with placing temples at the center of town, it calls for each house to be built on a large half-acre lot, with orchards and gardens all around.
Working the land was seen as the bedrock of American society and culture since at least Thomas Jefferson, who wrote in "Notes on the State of Virginia," that farming “is the focus in which (God) keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth.” One big story of the 20th century, however, was the decline of the family farm in the United States. From 1920 to the mid-1970s, the number of farms dropped from 6.5 million to 2.3 million.
President Spencer W. Kimball, the 12th president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, saw the trend, and although he lamented it, he recognized that the farms were not coming back. Still, he believed that working with the earth was a key to help modern-day urban and suburban Saints connect to each other and to God.
So he tapped into the Latter-day Saints’ long agricultural tradition, including his own growing-up years on a farm in Arizona, and he told the Saints it was time to clean up their yards, to stop wasting and throwing away so much, and most importantly, to start growing their own food again.
The first time he made those comments was in 1974, the year after he became church president. As prophet, President Kimball spoke in 17 general conferences, and he mentioned gardening and home food storage in all but two of them. He gave practical reasons and spiritual reasons for growing and preserving food. In my favorite quote, he spoke of the benefits gardening can have for families:
"I hope that we understand that, while having a garden, for instance, is often useful in reducing food costs and making available delicious fresh fruits and vegetables, it does much more than this. Who can gauge the value of that special chat between daughter and Dad as they weed or water the garden? How do we evaluate the good that comes from the obvious lessons of planting, cultivating and the eternal law of the harvest? And how do we measure the family togetherness and cooperating that must accompany successful canning? Yes, we are laying up resources in store, but perhaps the greater good is contained in the lessons of life we learn as we live providently and extend to our children their pioneer heritage" (see "Welfare Services: The Gospel in Action," October 1977, general conference).
And in the next general conference, he helped those of us without green thumbs feel a little better:
"Even if the tomato you eat is a $2.00 tomato, it will bring satisfaction anyway and remind us all of the law of the harvest, which is relentless in life. We do reap what we sow. Even if the plot of soil you cultivate, plant, and harvest is a small one, it brings human nature closer to nature" (see "Listen to the Prophets," April 1978, general conference.)
The church’s response was overwhelming. Letters poured in from around the world as members eagerly reported to the prophet on their new or renewed gardening efforts. President Kimball was especially pleased to hear from international church members. He encouraged the Saints to adapt his counsel to their particular circumstances — and for those who didn’t have land of their own, to grow a garden “in hanging baskets, in containers on stairways, on trellises, and in window boxes” (see "A Report and a Challenge," October 1976, general conference).4 comments on this story
We don’t hear about gardening from the pulpit much anymore, and for many Saints, the idea of a home garden and $2 tomatoes may be a luxury out of reach.
At heart, though, what President Kimball seemed to be saying was that, regardless of our circumstances, connecting to nature in one way or another will make us healthier, happier and better stewards of God’s creation. As the prophet who told us to plant a garden put it, “Staying close to the soil is good for the soul” (see "Follow the Fundamentals," April 1981, general conference).