The Fellowship of Life
a Christian-based vegetarian network founded in 1973


Christian values and Vegetarianism

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 in heaven”?

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 century.

(Originally published in the Baptist Times, September 5, 2011 edition as 'Some eat only vegetables'.)

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