Earth Day’s Forgotten Founder

The Christian roots of the original Earth Day: It wasn’t April 22, and it wasn’t a protest movement.
by John A. Murdock


Flourish, Spring 2012

Ninety-six-year-old John McConnell still proclaims the same message of “peace, justice, and the care of Earth” that he has for decades, in settings as varied as the United Nations in New York and the United States Embassy in Iran at the height of the 1979 hostage crisis. Along the way, he gathered an eclectic list of friends that includes Republican Senator Mark Hatfield from Oregon, noted anthropologist Margaret Mead, U.N. Secretary General U Thant, and folk singer Pete Seeger. He and his wife of 44 years, Anna, have walked an extraordinary journey through life, but today he has been largely been written out of the story surrounding his proudest achievement: the creation of Earth Day.

As Winston Churchill said, “History is written by the victors.” In the almost-forgotten battle for the establishment of Earth Day, Senator Gaylord Nelson and his April 22, 1970 event have emerged victorious in the American popular mind.

John McConnell has been largely been written out of the story surrounding his proudest achievement: the creation of Earth Day.

John McConnell is rarely given the credit he deserves, for it was he who first used the term “Earth Day” and who was successful in establishing the first governmentally-recognized observance on March 21, 1970. Senator Nelson’s event was originally billed as the “Environmental Teach-In.” According to Mr. McConnell, he declined a request to lend the title “Earth Day” to Nelson’s April event, but the organizers appropriated it anyway.

The late Senator Nelson always publicly denied that there was any borrowing of ideas from McConnell, but the circumstantial evidence (chronicled at length in Robert Weir’s biography of McConnell, Peace, Justice, Care of Earth) certainly raises questions about that assertion. After the 1970s saw dueling celebrations and proclamations, Nelson’s version of the day eventually came to dominate American culture, despite John McConnell’s continued protests that “April 22nd is not Earth Day.”

McConnell designed his Earth Day to foster unity and inspire appreciation for the planet we live on, whereas Nelson’s focused primarily on protesting pollution. Nevertheless, McConnell’s now-eclipsed March Earth Day, has had a long-lasting impact. Over 50 television stations participated in a groundbreaking, commercial-free, 12-hour broadcast on the equinox in 1972, hosted by American broadcaster Hugh Downs. In 1975, the U.S. House of Representatives and President Ford issued proclamations for celebrations on March 21st. Indeed, the day remains a national holiday in Lithuania and is listed on many U.S. calendars as “International Earth Day.” The United Nations continues to celebrate the event annually on the vernal equinox as McConnell envisioned, and there are still pockets of activity elsewhere around the globe.

McConnell also designed the first Earth  Flag, featuring an iconic image of the globe. The flag was first distributed in New York’s Central Park in 1969 as Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. Inspired by the first pictures of Earth from space―images that visibly demonstrated the planet’s ecological fragility and our dependence upon it―the flag touched a collective nerve in our nation. It continues to be a strong seller to this day. Yet, as with Earth Day, McConnell’s role in the birth of the Earth Flag is largely unknown. After a series of copyright disputes, he receives no royalties from the many unauthorized reproductions.

Today, though, a large Earth Flag flies outside the McConnells’ door, making it easy to find the small apartment the couple shares at a church-affiliated retirement village in a modest Denver neighborhood. When I arrived to meet the McConnells, I was greeted by Anna with a warm smile, a hug, and a delicious homemade cake. Their life of service did not produce grand material riches; Anna’s earnings as an inner-city educator enabled much of John’s largely unpaid activism. Nevertheless, as Anna noted cheerfully, they have always focused on the hope that their “fortune will be up in heaven,” and Anna fears that too many Christians nowadays are concerned with “getting” rather than “taking care of.” Certainly, as the McConnells illustrate, a small home is not an indicator of a small life.

McConnell traveled the world well into his 80s and did regular online and telephone work into his 90s. However, Mr. McConnell was finally slowed by a 2010 fall that he suffered while washing dishes. Anna, who turned 81 in February, does more of the talking now. The man who led such a visionary life is now physically blind. The decades of near-constant activism have been replaced by the trials of everyday life for an aging couple. Their time now centers more on the exploits of their nearby granddaughters than on the ambassadors, intellectuals, and celebrities that they knew during their many years in New York City.

John was the oldest of six born to Pentecostal evangelist, J.S. McConnell, Sr. and his wife, Hattie. J.S. McConnell was one of the original founders of the Assemblies of God, having been influenced by his father, T.W. McConnell, who participated in the famous Azusa Street Revival. John Jr. was born on March 22, 1915, right after the vernal equinox. An old picture of his family’s “Gospel Car” still hangs prominently on the living room wall. Mention it and John says in a happy chuckle, “We drove that all across the country.”

The life of an itinerant preacher’s family is built on faith and prayer. His father chose not to pass the plate at his services, and John, whose job it was to count the offerings deposited into a small donation box, can still recall how, in one especially trying circumstance, a huge offering was “to the penny” what was needed to make ends meet.

Many years later, in 1979, John would set out for Tehran with little more than a plane ticket and an audiotape of the Beatitudes in his pocket. Amazingly, after a prayer-filled plane ride, he found safe lodging within minutes of arriving and met a friendly stranger who had ties to the Iranian regime. Eventually, he even shared the Sermon on the Mount tape with an English-speaking Iranian revolutionary guarding the embattled U.S. Embassy. The young man liked it so much he asked to keep it—John cheerfully obliged him.

Such inspired endeavors were commonplace for John McConnell. Whenever a good idea struck, he saw no reason that it should not influence the entire world for the better. Even though society was not always interested in listening to his humble message, John persevered. His related visions of pacifism (learned from his father and consistent with the early Pentecostal tradition) and the just stewardship of God’s creation led to a number of campaigns, in addition to Earth Day, that succeeded in garnering national and international attention.

In the wake of Sputnik, he advocated a luminescent Star of Hope satellite to remind people below of the Christmas angels’ proclamation of “peace on earth, good will towards men.” Though its promise ultimately went unfulfilled, the effort garnered significant interest in government and media circles and John even appeared on the NBC Today show to discuss it. Other ventures included the Minute for Peace concept in the 1960s and environmental stewardship campaigns in the 1970s and 80s, with names like Earth Trustees, Sea Citizens, and the Earth Society Foundation.

McConnell admits his work would never have been possible without the faithful support of his wife, Anna. They met in 1965 after John moved to New York from California, several years after his first marriage ended in divorce. Anna had somewhat reluctantly given up her dreams of a career in classical music to answer a firmly-felt call to teach in an inner-city Lutheran school. An acquaintance, the Reverend Richard John Neuhaus–then a Lutheran pastor and later founder of the journal First Things– directed John to a charismatic Lutheran prayer meeting that Anna also attended. It was apparently a match made in heaven, and the two were married on Christmas Day in 1967. Through thick and sometimes very thin―Anna recalls washing and reusing tin foil to save money―the two have made a wonderful life together. Their shared affection for one another still remains obvious, as they playfully flirt when posing for pictures.

Indeed, it is easy to see John and Anna as just a typical set of Christian grandparents. Like many godly grandmothers, Anna’s home is prominently decorated with pictures of family and the stories roll easily off her tongue. The former educator laments about the loss of prayer in public schools and visibly shudders at the mention of abortion, which she calls “the crime of America.” John moves slowly and his memory now fails him at times, but not when called upon to sing the Earth Day song he wrote or hymns from his youth. The couple still lives on their own but cannot get out much anymore, so the McConnells look forward to regular visits from family and their pastor, who brings them communion. In all of this, there is much that is both lovely and ordinary.

Yet, this is a couple that has done some quite extraordinary things, as one remembers with a glance at the frame containing their beautiful Earth Day Proclamation, originally drafted in 1970. For decades, John carried this one-of-a-kind document with him, gathering 36 original signatures from figures as varied as astronaut Buzz Aldrin, singer John Denver, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, inventor Buckminster Fuller, and former Soviet leader Michael Gorbachev. Resembling a manuscript from an ancient monastery, with its ornate multi-color calligraphy, the document still resides with the McConnells. The couple once huddled in their bathroom with this treasured possession and an old family Bible when a rare Colorado tornado threatened their home. They are currently searching for a museum that will take it and treat it with respect, but its very existence is a testament to remarkable lives marked by perseverance. Indeed, John chuckled again as he recalled all that he went through to get those signatures.

Undoubtedly, John and Anna would welcome more recognition for the original Earth Day and their other accomplishments. In 2011, with the assistance of Regent University professor, Dr. John Munday, John McConnell’s story and writings were collected in Earth Day: Vision for Peace, Justice, and Earth Care: My Life and Thought at Age 96, published by Wipf & Stock. Additionally, Robert Weir’s 2007 biography on McConnell (which informs much of this article) chronicles his life at length as well. Perhaps these works will help a fuller history of Earth Day enter the American consciousness. Regardless, the McConnells seem humbly content that a greater audience of One saw their life’s work.

When asked specifically if there was anything he would like to share with those reading about him for the first time, John turned to the work of his father, a 1925 pamphlet that catalogues all of the commandments of Jesus (the text can be seen at www.earthsite.org). Noting especially Jesus’ call in Luke 6:27 to “Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you,” John McConnell stated, “If Christians would do this, we would turn our enemies into friends and we wouldn’t have any war or poverty, and the Earth would flower with a great future.” Fitting words from a man who has, for almost a century, worked faithfully towards that flourishing.


John Murdock is a natural resources attorney living in the Washington, D.C. area, and now the proud owner of a vintage Earth Flag.

Comments

  1. Pam Stonebraker says:

    John,
    Thank you SO MUCH for posting this wonderful article! I am so happy to have learned the “true meaning of Earth Day.” We can learn something new every day, if we want to.
    PEACE, JUSTICE and CARE of the EARTH—excellent words to live by! Thanks again.

  2. Nancy Harlan says:

    What a lovely article, John, and what a wonderful way to celebrate this couple! Thank you.

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