Biblical Vegetarianism

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Biblical Vegetarianism

By Henry S. Salt
November 2012
Originally Published in The Reformer, 15th October, 1897

Freethinking food-reformers who happen like myself, to be members of the Vegetarian Society, have reason to feel some concern at the growing tendency among orthodox vegetarians to base their dietetic principles on “biblical sanction”. I am not referring to what may be said or done by individuals as such, who have of course a perfect right to advocate their own views; nor can any objection be raised to the methods of such societies as the Order of the Golden Age, which avowedly aims at the conversion of “Christendom” to the vegetarian faith, a purpose which deserves the approval of all humane people. What I complain of is the seeming committal of the Vegetarian Societies themselves, by the articles published in their journals and the actions of some of their members (though membership is supposed to be quite independent of creed), to a tacit assumption that biblical authority is indispensable, which leads to most desperate and disingenuous attempts to interpret as favourable certain texts which in reality are either adverse or irrelevant. Now freethinkers do not object to any quotation of genuine evidence from the Bible or elsewhere; but they do most strenuously protest against being associated in an irrational attempt to prove that black is white, and to being thus exposed to well-deserved ridicule when their argumentative position, if properly utilised, is entirely secure.

The Bible-quoting vegetarian is himself no more than a counter-blast to the bible-quoting flesh-eater—one fallacy-monger brought into existence to silence another. Ever since the food-reform movement began, the “Scriptures” have been invoked by the opponents of vegetarianism as lending sanction to flesh-eating, and as showing that the chosen people were distinctly carnivorous in their tastes. The obvious and only rational reply to this stupid argument is to point out that the Bible cannot possibly be taken as a guide in the discussion of modern problems, and that if it be true that it sanctions flesh-eating, it is equally true that it sanctions slavery and other customs now regarded as indefensible. Unfortunately the Biblical vegetarian has taken the contrary line of trying to “go one better” than the Biblical flesh-eater; and when confronted with “Rise, Peter, kill and eat,” and similar texts, must needs attempt to hoist his opponent (no pun intended) with his own petard. Hence the many sermons, dissertations, and text-twistings that have appeared from time to time in vegetarian journals, culminating in the recent offer of a prize for the “Ten Best Texts,” which from their very pointlessness and irrelevance were so evidently “the best of a bad lot” as to do much more harm than good to the vegetarian cause, and to suggest that awful consequences might ensue if the Ten Worst Texts were malevolently hunted up by the Meat Trades Journal or some other doughty champion of Bible and Beef!

The truth is that, as far as the Bible is concerned, flesh-eaters have all the best of the battle. It is easy for them to show what is quite sufficient for their purpose—that their practice, so far from being condemned in the Jewish scriptures, is everywhere taken for granted, and may therefore with perfect truth be said to have the “sanction” they desire. It is useless for the President of the Vegetarian Society, the Rev. Professor Mayor, to plead (Vegetarian Messenger, July, 1897) that the Jews were not “flesh-eaters” in the modern sense, because corn, wine, and oil were their staple food, and "their meals of flesh were connected with sacrifices”. I submit that a nation which indulges in meals of flesh, whether sacrificial or otherwise, is accurately described as a “flesh-eating” nation, and no possible comfort can be derived by vegetarians from the history of such a race. “The animals killed for meat,” says Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible, “were calves, lambs, oxen, kids, harts, roe-bucks, and fallow-deer; birds of various kinds, quail, poultry, partridges; fish, with the exception of such as were without scales and fins. This (fish) in our Saviour’s time appears to have been the usual food about the sea of Galilee.” Scores upon scores of texts might be quoted to show that the chosen people did not hesitate to avail themselves of the divine permission that was accorded them, and that the very idea of vegetarianism—that is, a deliberate and permanent disuse of flesh-food, for moral or hygienic reasons, apart from asceticism—was quite unknown to the Jews and unnoticed in their scriptures.

Take for example Peter’s vision (Acts x. 9-16), the “Rise, Peter, kill and eat” passage, so often quoted against vegetarianism. “The context", says Professor Mayor (Vegetarian Messenger, September, 1897), "protests against such a use of the words. They do not enjoin eating all kinds of flesh, clean and unclean, but break down the middle wall of prejudice between Jew and Gentile: the baptism of Cornelius, not a ration of pork, was the fulfilment of Peter's vision." True; but this does not meet the point, such as it is, to which the flesh-eater is fairly entitled. The lesson of the vision was allegorical, not literal; nevertheless, it is difficult to believe that such an allegory would have been employed, if flesh-eating had not been assumed to be a natural and blameless habit. It would be as rational to assert that the killing of the fatted calf, at the return of the prodigal son, does not lend sanction to flesh-eating, because it is narrated as a parable, and not as a record of fact.

That vegetarians should quote Genesis i. 29 (“Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed ... to you it shall be for meat”), as indicating the ideal primitive diet, and Isaiah xi. 9 (“They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain”), as prophetic of the ideal future, is only just and appropriate; for such passages, though dealing with poetry rather than fact, are a thousand times more effective than verses wrenched from their context as were some of the “Ten Best Texts.” But when an attempt is made, as by the late Rev. J. Clark (Vegetarian Messenger, July, 1897), to show that the divine permission to eat flesh, a permission which prevails through the whole of the historical scriptures, was only given as a kind of dernier ressort on the part of the Almighty, “for a state of mankind in which sin and disobedience abound,” we feel that we are on very shifty footing, there being not a word in the Bible itself to support this assumption as to the reasons that actuated the Lord. “He accommodated them in that way,” says the Rev. J. Clark; and certainly the Deity who provided that very carnivorous bill-of-fare must be admitted to have been sufficiently “accommodating,” if, all the time, he favoured a vegetarian diet. But, as a matter of fact, in the very passage (Deut. xiv. I-I2) where the edible animals are enumerated, the words, “For thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God”, are twice repeated; which seems to make sad havoc of Mr. Clark’s explanation. And even if the degraded condition of the Jews were the cause of the permission to eat flesh, does it not stand to reason that the same excuse is equally valid to-day in the not less degraded condition of modern races? Why should not we, too, be “accommodated” as the Jews were? The plea frequently urged by flesh-eaters that their diet, though not an ideal one, is necessitated by the imperfect conditions of society, is practically identical with that which Mr. Clark set up on behalf of the Jews. Writing as a vegetarian, and yielding to no vegetarian in zeal for our principles, I feels compelled to say that such biblical arguments as those to which he has referred appear to him to be thoroughly mischievous and delusive. As for such disingenuous evasions as the reading once offered of Luke xxiv. 42 (“And they gave him a piece of broiled fish, and of an honeycomb, and he took it and did eat before them”), that he probably ate the honeycomb and put aside the fish, they would be comical were they not so humiliating to those whom they concern. No cause, however excellent, can afford to be thus trifled with by its advocates.

Again, with all possible respect for Professor Mayor, as a man distinguised not only by his great learning, but by his kindly and tolerant spirit, I must ask what is the point of the insistence on St. Paul’s “liberty” as regards meats, when obviously such liberty justifies the eating of flesh as much as the abstinence from it. At the Jubilee meeting of the Vegetarian Society its President quoted St. Paul “to show that Christians are not bound by their religion, as Jews are, to eat flesh.” But who has argued that they are so bound? The contention of the flesh-eaters is not that there is an obligation to eat flesh, but that there is no scriptural reason against eating it; and this contention is strengthened, not weakened, by St. Paul’s claim of “liberty.” That Paul, the author of the contemptuous question, “Doth God take care for oxen?” should be appealed to by vegetarians, suggests that in the unsuccessful search for Biblical sanction the smallest contributions are thankfully received.

I think it is high time some protest were raised against the use made of the Vegetarian Society’s “platform” by the Biblical food-reformers. The Society reckons among its members men and women of all shades of religious belief or unbelief, and if freethinkers like myself were to attempt to couple vegetarianism with freethought, we should be very properly reminded that they have no right to compromise their orthodox fellow-workers. But in these matters there must be mutual consideration and give-and-take, and the essential conditions on which all co-operation is based must be observed by the orthodox as well as by the heretical. From the time of Plutaarch to the time of Shelley, and onward, an important part has been played by freethinkers in the spread of vegetarian principles, which are, in fact, the outcome of nothing more or less than free-thought in diet. It would be a thousand pities if the impression were now to become general that modern vegetarianism seriously advances as one of its claims for acceptance the supposed sanction of the Bible, not only because such sanction is wholly superfluous, so long as the claims of reason and humanity (by which all modern causes must stand or fall) are established, but also because this Biblical authority for vegetarianism is found, on critical examination, to be practically non-existant. I have no wish to play the part of “candid friend” to vegetarians, and during the seventeen years that I have been writing for the movement I think I have never, until a few weeks ago, touched on this controversy; but recent events ahve made it necessary to speak out. The Vegetarian Society is a society, not a sect. Let its members show, then, that they are not committed to this fatal craze for text-hunting, which if persevered in, will alienate the support and sympathy of all rational persons.

Originally Published: The Reformer, 15th October, 1897