By John Gilheany
Perhaps it's the top-hats and those businesslike expressions which
adorn the features of the Vegetarian Society’s founding members…
Whatever the Victorian photographers may have sought to capture, it
would certainly have been a difficult task to have depicted naïve,
sentimental, heretical, or even vaguely hippy-like, idealists.
However, due to the ample efforts of Punch magazine and subsequent
satirists, most of the dismissive terms which became attributed to
abstinence from animal products had already been cast at 'Food
Reformers' over a century before the modern rise of the lifestyle.
Perhaps more remarkably - when one considers the credibility gulf
which often exists between the Vegetarian movement and the Churches - is
the way in which Christian leadership, energy, finances, apologetics and
indeed, values; largely gave rise to and nurtured the growth of
orchestrated vegetarianism throughout the developed world.
It has often been remarked upon that the inaugural meeting of the
Vegetarian Society was chaired by the first M.P. for Salford , Joseph
Brotherton, in 1847. However, before the twentieth century had dawned
there were further and far more well known Christian advocates of a
reformed dietary relationship to other creatures.
The prison reformer, John Howard and Methodism’s founder, John
Wesley, were already an inspiration to religious supporters of ‘Food
Reform’ by the nineteenth century. Yet other Christian leaders who may
seem colossal today were to provide vegetarianism with significant
credibility, including C.H. Spurgeon; Pope Pius X, Leo Tolstoy, General
Booth and other early leaders of the Salvation Army.
It is even notable that Mahatma Gandhi's legendary path to political
Ahimsa, or 'dynamic harmlessness', began with Christian vegetarian
campaigning in South Africa during the 1890s.
However, it has often been the case that even vegetarians among the
faithful are inclined to regard theology as existing within an entirely
separate sphere to the decisions which inform their dietary choices. So
what did historical vegetarian Christians of almost every denomination
really believe in the face of frequent biblical challenge? How much of
their objection to slaughterhouse cruelty and degradation remains
relevant and what, if any, contemporary criteria for avoiding
meat should inform the Christian conscience in parts of the world where
our everyday food choices have become so vast?
In short, the spiritual case for vegetarianism which was presented
through lectures at Church halls, tracts and food reform periodicals,
focused upon the extension of mercy and an eschatological vision of the
Peaceable Kingdom in the course of daily life. There was obviously a
great deal of depth to the theological contentions which so easily arose
from meat-eating Christians.
Progressive revelation has always been a factor in the discernment of
Scripture and eventually enabled the moral abandonment of Church-led
human slavery, child labour and the subjugation of women: values which
Christians today take for granted. Yet compassion and ethical progress
should never be allowed to stagnate when the promptings of the Holy
Spirit are forever present.
It is therefore pertinent to wonder - and perhaps loudly – if, as
heralds of a peace which the world of itself is unable to provide: can
commercial killing ever really reflect Fatherly care “On earth, as it is
Recent undercover investigations by animal activists and RSPCA
demands for CCTV cameras in slaughterhouses would suggest otherwise.
One of today’s major pastoral figures, Tony Campolo, has laterally
emphasised modern criteria for Christian choice in the matter: “In this
day and age, it is important for us to consider vegetarianism – not only
for health reasons, but also for the good of the planet,” he said. In
his ministry, Dr Campolo is well aware of global concern at
government-level since the publication of the United Nations report
Livestock’s Long Shadow in 2006. It is now widely documented that
methane emissions from cattle contribute to more ‘greenhouse gases’ than
the entire world transport system every year.
When one further reflects on the exponential demand for meat in
emerging economies and the realisation that livestock rearing often
depends upon vast quantities of grain which could otherwise support
starving human populations; then the hitherto marginal Christian case
for vegetarianism may yet become mainstream before the end of this
(Originally published in the Baptist Times, September 5, 2011 edition
as 'Some eat only vegetables'.)
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