Agriculture and Human Values

, Volume 35, Issue 4, pp 791–807 | Cite as

Towards a dialogue of sustainable agriculture and end-times theology in the United States: insights from the historical ecology of nineteenth century millennial communes

  • Chelsea FisherEmail author


Almost one-third of all U.S. Americans believe that Jesus Christ will return to Earth in the next 40 years, thereby signaling the end of the world. The prevalence of this end-times theology has meant that sustainability initiatives are often met with indifference, resistance, or even hostility from a significant portion of the American population. One of the ways that the scientific community can respond to this is by making scientific discourse, particularly as related to sustainability, more palatable to end-times believers. In this paper, I apply a historical–ecological framework, which emphasizes the interdisciplinary study of landscapes to understand long-term human–environment interactions, to three millennial religious groups that formed communes in nineteenth century America. The Shakers, Inspirationalists, and Mormons all blended deep beliefs in end-times theology with agricultural practices that were arguably more sustainable than those in use in the mainstream, and their ability to reconcile eschatology with sustainability provides us with potential lessons. By examining the history, doctrines, and agroecology of these nineteenth century communes, I propose communication strategies based in autonomy, institutional support, multigenerational narratives, and anthropocentricism as potential pathways for a more productive dialogue between advocates of sustainability initiatives and end-times believers in the modern United States.


Sustainable agriculture Science communication Historical ecology Religion Landscape approaches 



This manuscript was prepared while I was supported by a Rackham Merit Fellowship from the University of Michigan. I am grateful to the University of Michigan Department of Anthropology and Museum of Anthropological Archaeology for their continuing support. I thank the Amana Heritage Society and the Communal Societies Collection of Hamilton College for allowing me to use images from their archives. The final version of this paper was improved by the helpful comments of the editor and two anonymous reviewers. All errors that may remain are, of course, my own.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Anthropology, Museum of Anthropological ArchaeologyUniversity of MichiganAnn ArborUSA

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