It turns out we’re celebrating Earth Day a month late! While April 22 gets all the attention and a politician gets the credit, the first Earth Day 50 years ago took place March 21. And it was created by a Pentecostal peacemaker.
The lesser-known story is that the first Earth Day was created by visionary John McConnell Jr. About the same time, an Environmental Teach-In was promoted by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson. Nelson’s protest against pollution was scheduled for April 22 and took over the Earth Day name in the US—though the United Nations and some countries still observe International Earth Day on the vernal equinox.
Why the vernal equinox? This was important to McConnell because of the spiritual significance of life in balance, with March 21 representing not just the renewal of the earth but also the moment when day and night are equal. He thought of the equinox as “nature’s global holiday,” says the Earth Flag website. On that day “the sun is shared equally between people of the northern hemisphere and people of the southern hemisphere.”
According to the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center, which holds a collection of his materials, McConnell saw Earth Day as an opportunity for Christians “to show the power of prayer, the validity of their charity, and their practical concern for Earth’s life and people.” In addition to launching the first governmentally recognized Earth Day, he created the Earth Flag and numerous ventures related to peace and the environment.
McConnell credited his Pentecostal background “for his concern for peace, justice, and care of earth,” says the heritage center. His parents were founding members of the Assemblies of God, and his father was an itinerant preacher and evangelist. His grandfather was part of the Pentecostal movement at the Azusa Street Revival.
While I’m happy to mark April 22 each year with renewed commitment to protecting the world that God gave us, I’m even happier to learn of this story behind the story. Whether in March or April, let’s join in the spirit of McConnell’s Pentecostal fire and fervor: “Let each person choose to be a Trustee of Planet Earth, each in their own way, seeking to think, choose, and act in ways that will protect, preserve and increase Earth’s natural bounty, ever seeking fair benefits for all Earth’s people and for its creatures great and small.”
Wendy McFadden is publisher of Brethren Press and Communications for the Church of the Brethren.