Vegetarianism and Concern for Animals Can Be Found in Protestant Christianity
Commenting on Deuteronomy 22:6, which forbids harming a mother-bird if
her eggs or chicks are taken, Martin Luther (1483-1546) wrote: “What else
does this law teach but that by the kind treatment of animals they are to
learn gentleness and kindness? Otherwise it would seem to be a stupid
ordinance not only to regulate a matter so unimportant, but also to promise
happiness and a long life to those who keep it.”
According to Luther, Adam “would not have used the creatures as we do today,” but rather, “for the admiration of God and a holy joy.” Referring to passages from Scripture concerning the redemption of the entire creation and the Kingdom of Peace, Luther taught that “the creatures are created for an end; for the glory that is to come.”
British historian William Lecky observed that, “Luther grew sad and thoughtful at a hare hunt, for it seemed to him to represent the pursuit of souls by the devil.” Author Dix Harwood, in Love for Animals, depicts a grieving young girl being comforted by Luther. Luther assures her that her pet dog who died would certainly go to heaven. Luther tells her that in the “new heavens and new earth...all creatures will not only be harmless, but lovely and joyful...Why, then, should there not be little dogs in the new earth, whose skin might be as fair as gold, and their hair as bright as precious stones?”
Biblical teachings on human responsibilities towards animals were not lost on John Calvin (1509-1564). According to Calvin, animals exist within the framework of human justice: “But it must be remembered that men are required to practice justice even in dealing with animals. Solomon condemns injustice to our neighbours the more severely when he says, ‘a just man cares well for his beasts’ (Proverbs 12:10). In a word, we are to do what is right voluntarily and freely, and each of us is responsible for doing his duty.”
John Wray (1627?-1705), the “father of English natural history,” made the first systematic description and classification of animal and vegetable species. He wrote numerous works on botany, zoology, and theology. In 1691, Wray published The Wisdom of God Manifest in the Works of His Creation, which emphasized the sanctity and value of the natural world.
Wray advocated vegetarianism and made two points in his book. The first was that God can best be seen and understood in the study of His creation. “Let us then consider the works of God and observe the operation of His hands,” wrote Wray. “Let us take notice of and admire His infinite goodness and wisdom in the formation of them. No creature in the sublunary world is capable of doing this except man, and yet we have been deficient therein.” Wray’s second point was that God placed animals here for their own sake, and not just for the pleasure of humans. Animals have their own intrinsic value. “If a good man be merciful to his beast, then surely a good God takes pleasure that all His creatures enjoy themselves that have life and sense and are capable of enjoying.”
Thomas Tryon’s lengthy The Way to Health, Wealth, and Happiness was published in 1691. Tryon defended vegetarianism as a physically and spiritually superior way of life. He came to this conclusion from his interpretation of the Bible as well as his understanding of Christianity. Tryon wrote against “that depraved custom of eating flesh and blood.” The opening pages of his book begin with an eloquent plea for mercy towards the animals:
“Refrain at all times such foods as cannot be procured without violence and oppression, for know, that all the inferior creatures when hurt do cry and fend forth their complaints to their Maker...Be not insensible that every creature doth bear the image of the great Creator according to the nature of each, and that He is the vital power in all things. Therefore, let none take pleasure to offer violence to that life, lest he awaken the fierce wrath, and bring danger to his own soul. But let mercy and compassion dwell plentifully in your hearts, that you may be comprehended in the friendly principle of God’s love and holy light. Be a friend to everything that’s good, and then everything will be a friend to thee, and co-operate for thy good and welfare.”
In The Way, Tryon (1634-1703) also condemned “Hunting, hawking, shooting, and all violent oppressive exercises...” On a separate occasion, he warned the first Quaker settlers of Pennsylvania that their “holy experiment” in peaceful living would fail unless they extended their Christian precepts of nonviolence to the animal kingdom:
"Does not bounteous Mother Earth furnish us with all sorts of food necessary for life?” he asked. “Though you will not fight with and kill those of your own species, yet I must be bold to tell you, that these lesser violences (as you call them) do proceed from the same root of wrath and bitterness as the greater do.”
“Thanks be to God!” wrote John Wesley, founder of Methodism, to the Bishop of London in 1747. “Since the time I gave up the use of flesh-meats and wine, I have been delivered from all physical ills.” Wesley was a vegetarian for spiritual reasons as well. He based his vegetarianism on the Biblical prophecies concerning the Kingdom of Peace, where “on the new earth, no creature will kill, or hurt, or give pain to any other.” He further taught that animals “shall receive an ample amends for all their present sufferings.”
Wesley’s teachings placed an emphasis on inner religion and the effect of the Holy Spirit upon the consciousness of such followers. Wesley taught that animals will attain heaven: in the “general deliverance” from the evils of this world, animals would be given “vigor, strength and swiftness...to a far higher degree than they ever enjoyed.”
Wesley urged parents to educate their children about compassion towards animals. He wrote: “I am persuaded you are not insensible of the pain given to every Christian, every humane heart, by those savage diversions, bull-baiting, cock-fighting, horse-racing, and hunting.”
In 1786, Reverend Richard Dean, the curate of Middleton, published An Essay on the Future Life of Brute Creatures. He told his readers to treat animals with compassion, and not to “treat them as sticks, or stones, or things that cannot feel...Surely ...sensibility in brutes entitles them to a milder treatment than they usually meet from hard and unthinking wretches.”
The Quakers have a long history of advocating kindness towards animals. In 1795, the Society of Friends (Quakers) in London passed a resolution condemning sport hunting. The resolution stated in part, “let our leisure be employed in serving our neighbor, and not in distressing, for our amusement, the creatures of God.”
John Woolman (1720-72) was a Quaker preacher and abolitionist who traveled throughout the American colonies attacking slavery and cruelty to animals. Woolman wrote that he was “early convinced in my mind that true religion consisted in an inward life, wherein the heart doth love and reverence God the Creator and learn to exercise true justice and goodness, not only toward all men, but also toward the brute creatures...”
Woolman’s deep faith in God thus led to his reverence for all life. “Where the love of God is verily perfected and the true spirit of government watchfully attended to,” he taught, “a tenderness toward all creatures made subject to us will be experienced, and a care felt in us that we do not lessen that sweetness of life in the animal creation which the great Creator intends for them.”
Joshua Evans (1731-1798), a Quaker and a contemporary of Woolman’s, stated that reverence for life was the moral basis of his vegetarianism. “I considered that life was sweet in all living creatures,” he wrote, ‘and taking it away became a very tender point with me...I believe my dear Master has been pleased to try my faith and obedience by teaching me that I ought no longer to partake of anything that had life.
The “Quaker poet” and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-92), wrote: “The sooner we recognize the fact that the mercy of the Almighty extends to every creature endowed with life, the better it will be for us as men and Christians.”
One of the most respected English theologians of the 18th century, William Paley (1743-1805), taught that killing animals for food was unjustifiable. Paley called the excuses used to justify killing animals “extremely lame,” and even refuted the rationalizations concerning fishing.
The founder and first secretary of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) was an Anglican priest, the Reverend Arthur Broome. The RSPCA was originally founded as a Christian society “entirely based on the Christian Faith, and on Christian Principles,” and sponsoring sermons on humane education in churches in London. The Society formed in 1824, and its first “Prospectus” spoke of the need to extend Christian charity and benevolence to the animals:
“Our country is distinguished by the number and variety of its benevolent institutions...all breathing the pure spirit of Christian charity...But shall we stop here? Is the moral circle perfect so long as any power of doing good remains? Or can the infliction of cruelty on any being which the Almighty has endued with feelings of pain and pleasure consist with genuine and true benevolence?”
This Prospectus was signed by many leading 19th century Christians including William Wilberforce, Richard Martin, G.A. Hatch, J. Bonner, and Dr. Heslop.
The Bible Christian Church was a 19th century movement teaching vegetarianism, abstinence from intoxication, and compassion for animals. The church began in England in 1800, requiring all its members to take vows of abstinence from meat and wine. One of its first converts, William Metcalfe (1788-1862), immigrated to Philadelphia in 1817 with forty-one followers to establish a church in America. Metcalfe cited numerous biblical references to support his thesis that humans were meant to follow a vegetarian diet for reasons of health and compassion for animals.
German composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883) believed flesh-eating to be responsible for the downfall of man. He felt vegetarianism could help mankind return to Paradise. He wrote: “Plant life instead of animal life is the keystone of regeneration. Jesus used bread in place of flesh and wine in place of blood at the Lord’s Supper.”
General William Booth (1829-1912), founder of the Salvation Army, practiced and advocated vegetarianism. Booth never officially condemned flesh-eating as either cruelty or gluttony, but taught that abstinence from luxury is helpful to the cause of Christian charity. “It is a great delusion to suppose that flesh of any kind is essential to health,” he insisted.
“The moral evils of a flesh diet are not less marked than are the physical ills,” wrote Ellen White, founder of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. “Flesh food is injurious to health, and whatever affects the body has a corresponding effect on the mind and soul.”
Although Seventh-Day Adventists strongly recommend vegetarianism for reasons of health and nutrition, White also espoused the belief that kindness to animals should be a Christian duty. In Ministry of Healing, she urged the faithful to:
“Think of the cruelty that meat eating involves, and its effect on those who inflict and those who behold it. How it destroys the tenderness with which we should regard these creatures of God!”
In Patriarchs and Prophets, White referred to numerous passages in the Bible calling for kindness to animals, and concluded that humans will be judged according to how they fulfill their moral obligations to animals:
"It is because of man’s sin that ‘the whole creation groaneth and travaileth together in pain’ (Romans 8:22). Surely, then, it becomes man to seek to lighten, instead of increasing, the weight of suffering which his transgression has brought upon God’s creatures. He who will abuse animals because he has them in his power is both a coward and a tyrant. A disposition to cause pain, whether to our fellow men or to the brute creation is satanic.
“Many do not realize that their cruelty will ever be known because the poor dumb animals cannot reveal it. But could the eyes of these men be opened, as were those of Balaam, they would see an angel of God standing as a witness to testify against them in the courts above.
“A record goes up to heaven, and a day is coming when judgement will be pronounced against those who abuse God’s creatures.”
In Counsels on Diet and Foods, White referred to the Garden of Eden, a Holy Sanctuary of God, where nothing would ever die, as the perfect example of humans in their natural state:
“God gave our first parents the food He designed that the race should eat. It was contrary to His plan to have the life of any creature taken. There was to be no death in Eden. The fruit of the tree in the garden was the food man’s wants required.”
“Tenderness accompanies all the might imparted by Spirit,” wrote Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science, in Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. “The individuality created by God is not carnivorous, as witness the millenial estate pictured by Isaiah (11:6-9). All of God’s creatures, moving in the harmony of Science, are harmless, useful, indestructible. A realization of this grand verity was a source of strength to the ancient worthies. It supports Christian healing, and enables its possessor to emulate the example of Jesus. ‘And God saw that it was good.’”
Congregational minister Frederic Marvin preached a Christmas Eve sermon in 1899 entitled, “Christ Among the Cattle.” Marvin regarded Jesus’ birth in the manger as that of God incarnate teaching humanity by dramatic example. Birth among the cattle was a sign for people all over the world to follow—a lesson teaching the need to show compassion towards the animals.
In his 1923 work, The Natural Diet of Man, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg observed:
“The attitude of the Bible writers toward flesh-eating is the same as toward polygamy. Polygamy as well as flesh-eating was tolerated under the social and religious systems of the old Hebrews and even during the early centuries of the Christian era; but the first man, Adam, in his pristine state in the Garden of Eden was both a monogamist and a flesh-abstainer. If the Bible supports flesh-eating, it equally supports polygamy; for all the patriarchs had plural wives as well as concubines. Christian ethics enjoin a return to the Edenic example in matters matrimonial. Physiologic science as well as human experience call for a like return to Eden in matters dietetic.”
An essay on “The Rights of Animals” by Dean William Ralph Inge (1860-1954) can be found in his 1926 book, Lay Thoughts of a Dean. It reads in part:
“Our ancestors sinned in ignorance; they were taught (as I deeply regret to say one great Christian Church still teaches) that the world, with all that it contains, was made for man, and that the lower orders of creation have no claims upon us. But we no longer have the excuse of saying that we do not know; we do know that organic life on this planet is all woven of one stuff, and if we are children of our Heavenly Father, it must be true, as Christ told us, that no sparrow falls to the ground without His care. The new knowledge has revolutionized our ideas of our relations to the other living creatures who share the world with us, and it is our duty to consider seriously what this knowledge should mean for us in matters of conduct.”
Dean Inge is reported to have said, “Whether animals believe in a god I do not know, but I do know that they believe in a devil—the devil which is man.”
“The day is surely dawning,” wrote the Reverend V.A. Holmes-Gore, M.A., “when it will become clear that the idea of the Blessed Master giving His sanction to the barbaric habit of flesh-eating, is a tragic delusion, foisted upon the Church by those who never knew Him.”
Reverend Holmes-Gore called vegetarianism “absolutely necessary for the redemption of the planet. Indeed we cannot hope to rid the world of war, disease and a hundred other evils until we learn to show compassion to the creatures and refrain from taking their lives for food, clothing or pleasure."
Perhaps alluding to the twin doctrines of karma and reincarnation, Reverend Holmes-Gore explained:
“The Church is powerless to free mankind from such evils as war, oppression and disease, because it does nothing to stop man’s oppression of victimizing living creatures...Every evil action, whether it be done to a man, a woman, a child, or an animal will one day have its effect upon the transgressor. The rule that we reap what we sow is a Divine Law from which there is no escape.
“God is ever merciful, but He is also righteous, and if cruel men and women will learn compassion in no other way, then they will have to learn through suffering, even if it means suffering the same tortures that they have themselves inflicted. God is perfect Love, and He is never vengeful or vindictive, but the Divine Law of mercy and compassion cannot be broken without bringing tremendous repercussions upon the transgressor.”
Reverend Holmes-Gore acknowledged that a great deal of social progress has been made, but injustices continue to flourish:
“...we have made many great reforms, but there remains much to be done. We have improved the lot of children, of prisoners, and of the poor beyond all recognition in the last hundred years. We have done something to mitigate the cruelties inflicted upon the creatures. But though some of the worst forms of torture have been made illegal, the welter of animal blood is greater than ever, and their sufferings are still appalling.
“What we need is not a reform of existing evils,” concluded Reverend Holmes-Gore, “but a revolution in thought that will move Christians to show real compassion to all God’s creatures. Many people claim to be lovers of animals who are very far from being so. For a flesh-eater to claim to love animals is as if a cannibal expressed his devotion to the missionaries he consigns to the seething cauldron.”
“Dear God,” began the childhood prayers of Dr. Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965), “please protect and bless all living things. Keep them from evil and let them sleep in peace.” This noted Protestant French theologian, music scholar, philosopher and missionary doctor in Africa won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952.
Schweitzer preached an ethic of reverence for life: “Not until we extend the circle of compassion to include all living things shall we ourselves know peace.” When a man questioned his philosophy, saying God created animals for man to eat, Schweitzer replied, “Not at all.”
Schweitzer reflected, “How much effort it will take for us to get men to understand the words of Jesus, ‘Blessed are the merciful,’ and to bring them to the realization that their responsibility includes all creatures. But we must struggle with courage.” According to Schweitzer, “We need a boundless ethics which will include the animals also.”
Schweitzer founded the Lambarene Hospital in French Equatorial Africa in 1913, managing it for many years. “I never go to a menagerie,” he once wrote, “because I cannot endure the sight of the misery of the captive animals. The exhibiting of trained animals I abhor. What an amount of suffering and cruel punishment the poor creatures have to endure to give a few minutes of pleasure to men devoid of all thought and feeling for them.”
Schweitzer taught compassionate stewardship towards the animal kingdom: “We...are compelled by the commandment of love contained in our hearts and thoughts, and proclaimed by Jesus, to give rein to our natural sympathy to animals,” he explained. “We are also compelled to help them and spare suffering as far as it is in our power.”
In a sermon preached in Bath Abbey, the Reverend E.E. Bromwich, M.A., taught: “Our love of God should be extended as far as possible to all God’s creatures, to our fellow human beings and to animals...In His love, God caused them all to exist, to express His feelings for beauty and order, and not merely to provide food and companionship for man. They are part of God’s creation and it is God’s will that they should be happy, quite as much as it is His will that we should be happy. The Christian ought to be bitterly ashamed for the unnecessary suffering that men still cause their animal brothers.”
According to the Reverend Lloyd Putman: “In the beautiful story of creation in Genesis, God is pictured as the Creator of all Life—not just of man. To be sure, man is given ‘dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth,’ but far from being a brutal dominion, man is to view the animal world with a sense of stewardship and responsibility. If man lives recklessly and selfishly with no regard for animals, he is denying that God is to be seen as the creator of all life, and he is forgetting that God beheld not only man, but all creation and said that 'it was very good.' He is omitting the Biblical emphasis on man and animals sharing a common creation.”
On June 5, 1958, the Reverend Norman Vincent Peale stated, “I do not believe a person can be a true Christian, and at the same time engage in cruel or inconsiderate treatment of animals.”
One of the leading Protestant thinkers of the 20th century, Karl Barth (1886-1968), wrote in The Doctrine of Creation (1961):
“If there is a freedom of man to kill animals, this signifies in any case the adoption of a qualified and in some sense enhanced responsibility. If that of his lordship over the living beast is serious enough, it takes on a new gravity when he sees himself compelled to suppress his lordship by depriving it of its life. He obviously cannot do this except under the pressure of necessity.
“Far less than all the other things which he dares to do in relation to animals, may this be ventured unthinkingly and as though it were self-evident. He must never treat this need for defensive and offensive action against the animal world as a natural one, nor include it as a normal element in his thinking or conduct. He must always shrink from this possibility even when he makes use of it.
“It always contains the sharp counter-question: who are you, man, to claim that you must venture this to maintain, support, enrich and beautify your own life? What is there in your life that you feel compelled to take this aggressive step in its favor? We cannot but be reminded of the perversion from which the whole historical existence of the creature suffers and the guilt which does not really reside in the beast but ultimately in man himself.”
Responding to a question about the Kingdom of Peace, Donald Soper of the Church of England was of the opinion that Jesus, unlike his brother James, was neither a teetotaler nor a vegetarian, but, “I think probably, if He were here today, He would be both.” In a 1963 article on “The Question of Vivisection,” Soper concluded: “...let me suggest that Dr. Schweitzer’s great claim that all life should be based on respect for personality has been too narrowly interpreted as being confined entirely to the personality of human beings. I believe that this creed ‘respect for personality’ must be applied to the whole of creation. I shouldn’t be surprised if the Buddhists are nearer to an understanding of it than we are.
“When we apply this principle, we shall be facing innumerable problems, but I believe we shall be on the right track which leads finally to the end of violence and the achievement of a just social order which will leave none of God’s creatures out of that Kingdom which it is our Father’s good pleasure to give us.”
In 1977, at an annual meeting in London of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), Dr. Donald Coggan, the Archbishop of Canterbury, said: “Animals, as part of God’s creation, have rights which must be respected. It behooves us always to be sensitive to their needs and to the reality of their pain.”
“Honourable men may honourably disagree about some details of human treatment of the non-human,” wrote Stephen Clark in his 1977 book, The Moral Status of Animals, “but vegetarianism is now as necessary a pledge of moral devotion as was the refusal of emperor-worship in the early church.” According to Clark, eating animal flesh is “gluttony,” and “Those who still eat flesh when they could do otherwise have no claim to be serious moralists.”
“Clark’s conclusion has real force and its power has yet to be sufficiently appreciated by fellow Christians,” says the Reverend Andrew Linzey. “Far from seeing the possibility of widespread vegetarianism as a threat to Old Testament norms, Christians should rather welcome the fact that the Spirit is enabling us to make decisions so that we may more properly conform to the original Genesis picture of living in peace with creation.”
The contemporary Christian attitude towards vegetarianism is perhaps best expressed by Kenneth Rose, in a 1984 essay entitled “The Lion Shall Eat Straw Like the Ox: The Bible and Vegetarianism.”
“At present,” Rose acknowledges, “vegetarianism among those who base their lives on the Bible is quite rare. Nevertheless, vegetarianism remains God’s ultimate will. Since, according to the Bible, the goal of history is the transformation of the predatory principle in the principle of universal love, it seems reasonable to suppose that people who take the Bible seriously should strive to bring their lives into accordance with the righteousness and nonviolence that will prevail in God’s kingdom. Surely we can’t in this life fully escape the consequences of the Fall, but we can try, with God’s grace, to live in accordance with God’s perfect will.
“...no rational or scriptural reason can be discovered,” Rose observes, “that would prohibit the teacher of Christian truth from encouraging believers to go beyond the concession to human weakness granted in Genesis 9:3 so that, even now, before the full dawning of God’s kingdom of peace, they may begin living according to the ethics of that kingdom. To live in this way must be considered as part of God’s ultimate intention for humanity, for how else can one account for the fact that the Bible both begins and ends in a kingdom where the sound of slaughter is unknown?
“For those of us who take the Bible seriously,” Rose concludes, “our obedience to God will then become greater as it aspires to live out the vision of the peaceable kingdom the Bible points to. To the degree that we stop slaughtering innocent creatures for food, to that degree we will nullify the predatory principle, a principle that structures the injustices characteristic of this fallen age. And seeing all creatures with equal vision, we will enter more deeply into the kingdom of God."
In 1986, Dale and Judith Ostrander, ministers in the United Church of Christ, a pro-choice Protestant denomination, issued a biblical call for stewardship, in which they concluded: “For Christians the Scriptures contain the Word of God. And there is a particular conviction about Jesus Christ being the normative Word through whom all scriptural words are interpreted—the central meaning of Love and reconciliation of all creation. Therefore, all other biblical themes and all specific pieces of Scripture become authoritative for the Christian insofar as they affirm or are consistent with God’s reconciling purpose.
“The role of Christians is to help God’s reconciling purpose become a reality. This means, among other things, living out our calling to care for God’s creation. It means taking seriously the interconnectedness of all life and our kinship with all living things. If Christians accept God’s loving dominion, then, created in God’s likeness, we are called to exercise our given ‘dominion’ over creation with the same kind of love. And if the great commandment is to love God, we must love God also through the complex ecological relationship of all living things.
“To misuse our delegated authority over the creation in exploitative, abusive, cruel or wasteful ways is to live as if we did not love God. We are led, therefore, as Christians to raise questions about our attitudes toward and treatment of animals. A growing number of ‘voices crying in the wilderness’ are calling us to take more seriously the ways in which we are despoiling the Earth and threatening its ability to sustain and support life. These voices are calling us to rethink our attitudes and our treatment of animals as we consider anew what it means to be faithful stewards of creation.”
In 1987, the Reverend Carolyn J. Michael Riley declared Unity Church in Huntington, N.Y. a fur-free zone. Reverend Riley, a vegetarian since 1982, remains committed to her position. “I really do believe,” she says, “that everyone is able that much more to feel the Spirit, because there are no longer vibrations of death.” Reverend Riley says she wants to “help raise the consciousness of the suffering going on in the animal kingdom.”
According to the Reverend James Caroll, an Episcopal priest in Van Nuys, California, “A committed Christian, who knows what his religion is about, will never kill an animal needlessly. Above all, he will do his utmost to put a stop to any kind of cruelty to any animal. A Christian who participates in or gives consent to cruelty to animals had better reexamine his religion or else drop the name Christian.”
In 1992, members of Los Angeles’ First Unitarian Church agreed to serve vegetarian meals at the church’s weekly Sunday lunch. This decision was made as a protest against animal cruelty and the environmental damage caused by the livestock industry.
Vegetarianism and ethical concern for animals are consistent with Protestant Christianity:
“It is not a question of palate, of custom, of expediency, but of right,” wrote the Reverend J. Tyssul-Davies, B.A., on the subject of vegetarianism. “As a mere Christian Minister, I have had to make my decision. My palate was on the side of custom; my intellect argued for the expedient; but my higher reason and conscience left me no alternative. Our Lord came to give life, and we do not follow Him by taking life needlessly. So, I was compelled, against myself, to eschew carnivorism.”
The Reverend George Laughton taught that: “The practice of kindness towards dumb creatures is a sign of development to the higher reaches of intelligence and sympathy. For, mark you, in every place there are those who are giving of their time and thought and energy to the work of protecting from cruelty and needless suffering the beasts of the field and streets. These are the people who make the earth clean and sweet and more like what God intended it to be.”
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