Friends [Quakers] and the Vegetarian Way
Animals: Tradition - Philosophy


Robert Heckert on The Peaceable Table

With few exceptions, Friends, though noted for their principle and practice of nonviolence, have not treated certain animals and other warm-blooded creatures in a nonviolent manner. Along with tens of millions throughout the world, they think it is perfectly justifiable to kill billions of creatures annually to satisfy taste and appetite, to relieve hunger. And so our slaughterhouses are kept busier than ever, usually beyond sight of the people who consume the meat. These people are blissfully unaware of the cruelty and suffering perpetrated upon hapless creatures, which have the right to live out their natural span of life.

Vegetarianism has its biblical sanction in the first chapter of Genesis, verse 29: "God also said, 'I give you all plants that bear seed everywhere upon the earth . . . they shall be yours for food.'" (New English Bible) Genesis goes on to say that humans were to rule the fish in the sea, the birds of heaven, all the animals and reptiles, but not to eat them. It was the golden age of peace in the world, celebrated in primitive legends, when there was neither war nor bloodshed and humans lived in friendly companionship with the other creatures of the earth.

But then something happened . . . . To keep alive in the cold regions in the absence of non-flesh food, humans took to eating fish and animals. A virtue was made of necessity. Human beings eventually became caretakers and breeders of animals for food on a greater and greater scale. It seems that from about 6000 B.C. domestication of meat animals and organized war went hand in hand.

Ethically, the only justification for the practice of meat-eating--namely, necessity--is no longer valid. Today, with our vast transportation system, efficient refrigeration, and storage systems, food of plant origin, including trees, is certain and available to all, at least in the U.S.

But it is widely asserted and assumed that consumption of meat and fish is essential to maintain health and strength. This is absolutely false. In the September 1981 Reader's Digest is found an article, "How Healthy Is a Vegetarian Diet?" by Jane Brody, food and nutrition editor of the New York Times. She declares, "In recent years, the meatless way of life has surged in popularity, largely because increasing evidence indicates that a sensible vegetarian diet is better for you than the typical meat-heavy American one."

She goes on to detail how a vegetarian diet "protects your heart, controls your weight, and reduces the risk of cancer." It promotes longevity. Jane Brody points out that the human body is not designed for meat-eating. "Our anatomical equipment--teeth, jaws, digestive system--favors a diet that emphasizes plant foods."

Flesh-eating produces horrible, putrefactive fermentation in the system . . . . Many animals are afflicted with disease and parasites. They pass through careless, and often corrupt, government inspection, and are eaten by humans, causing untold misery. There are the chemicals in the fish, such as lead, mercury, and cadmium, which are deadly. Then there are the chemical additives like sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite, as well as dangerous hormones such as DES.

For about 36 years I have practiced the vegetarian way of life, and I thank God for what it has done for me. It has given me a light and clear head, a tranquil body and spirit. I have never experienced a single day of sickness or even a slight indisposition. At 78 I continue to work regularly at an editorial job. I can walk long distances, covering 20 miles in less than five hours with relative ease. I rejoice in being in the company of such great men of history as Socrates, Plato, Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus, Leonardo da Vinci, Franklin, Newton, Shelley, Tolstoy, Gandhi, . . . and I believe at least one outstanding woman, Susan B. Anthony, a Quaker.

How many Friends in the U.S. and Canada know that since 1902 there has existed in England a flourishing Friends Vegetarian Society functioning within London Yearly Meeting? I came in touch with them a few years ago. Terence Lane, the secretary, tried his best to encourage me to move toward the formation of a similar society in this country. I did conscientiously take some steps in that direction, but I was unable to find any Friends who were willing and able to devote time to such an endeavor. I gave up the effort. Perhaps one or more Friends who see this article will be moved to take up the torch. I would be glad to hear from them.

In 1978, during Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, a concern of mine about the colossal scale of slaughter of animals for food was read by the clerk. No discussion from the floor was opened, and of course no action was taken on that concern. It was sad for me, and I think sad for the Religious Society of Friends. I look forward with hope to a better day, when Philadelphia and other yearly meetings will join that blessed vanguard of humanity who champion the vegetarian way of life for the sake of humanitarianism, good health, and a more intelligent ordering and use of our precious land.

1982 Friends Publishing Corporation. Reprinted with permission. To subscribe:

Friend Heckert's hopes were to find some fruition. In response to this essay in the June, 1982 Friends Journal , the Friends Vegetarian Society of North America was formed. The first issue of its newsletter, The Friendly Vegetarian (FV), appeared in October 1982 under the editorship of Steve Kretzmann; it was issued quarterly most of the time thereafter until its much-regretted end in 1995 due to lack of volunteer support. The Friendly Vegetarian was the main inspiration for The Peaceable Table, begun nine years later.

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