Quaker Concerns and the Animal Concern
Animals: Tradition - Philosophy - Religion

FROM Gracia Faye Ellwood, The Peaceable Table
April 2019

Most of what follows is elementary to Friends, but because it is intended to place the Animal Concern in the context of other Quaker Concerns, it has, I hope, something to say to seasoned members of the Society as well.

bright clouds

There’s a light that was shining when the world began
And a light that is shining in the heart of man.
There’s a light that is shining in the Turk and the Jew
And a light that is shining, Friend, in me and in you.

The most basic affirmation of the Society of Friends is that the Divine Light is present in every person. It is usually referred to as the Inner Light. Not everyone reading these lines is a Quaker, but many readers do affirm the reality the language points to, so I will not apologize for using Quakerspeak that I believe is readily understandable. Most of what follows is elementary to Friends, but because it is intended to place the Animal Concern in the context of other Quaker Concerns, it has, I hope, something to say to seasoned members of the Society as well.

This Light that Sydney Carter’s song celebrates cannot really be defined. Parallel terms that Friends use are “That of God” “the Spirit of God” and “The Seed of God.” It can also be described as God Immanent, or as that which links every person to God. I think of the Light as the impersonal dimension of God, i.e., the divine Energy, whereas the Spirit refers to the divine Consciousness, that which loves, inspires and guides us to work toward bringing about on earth a state of planet-wide justice and compassion, also known as the Kingdom of God.

The Peace Concern

Friends’ conviction that the Light/Spirit is present in all persons is the true basis for the Quaker Testimonies, the central principles by which we live. Probably the first Testimony to be proclaimed politically, and the most foundational, was Peace or Nonviolence. The Society of Friends came into existence in England during the 1640s, the time of the civil war of Parliament against King. Having suffered persecution under the Established religion and government, Friends tended to favor the cause of Parliament, and some enlisted in the parliamentary army. But when George Fox, the mystic and prophet generally considered the founder of the Society was offered a commission in the army with flattering words, he refused it, saying that he “lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars.” Many others were already of that mind, and since Fox had considerable spiritual authority among Friends, still others followed. In 1660, leading Friends sent a document to King Charles II, declaring that Friends were “harmless and innocent people” who abjured the use of all “outward weapons”; that they had no part in any violent plot to overthrow the King and government.

Subsequently, Friends have developed their testimony of Peace further, to reject all war and violence by any party (though they do not reject limited police power). In this seventeenth-century situation, the Testimony and the Concern came into existence together. A Testimony is an umbrella principle; a Concern is a conviction, arising in particular Friends, that the Spirit is summoning them to speak up and take action against a cultural evil of their own times which violate that Testimony. Apparently Friends reached unity on the Peace issue within a few decades. I consider this Testimony and Concern to be a primary-level one in Quaker history: it is inconceivable that we should affirm that another bears the same divine Light and Spirit as ourselves, and then attempt to kill him or her to stop some perceived evil.

The Human-Slavery Concern

American slave ship

The next Primary-level Concern arose from the Equality Testimony. Quaker Equality has nothing to do with talents, achievements, income, education, race, or gender, but rather with inherent moral status in the the Spirit, or in the eyes of God. This Testimony arose out of the strong class system in seventeenth-century England, fostered by the fact that most first generation Friends, being from the working class, had felt the sting of being held in contempt by the upper classes. (See the editorial essay, “Nativity Narratives and Class-Busting” in the previous issue of PT.)

Human slavery, fed by the Triangular Trade based in Britain, was not so visible in Britain itself, but was a conspicuous feature in its colonies. Other countries also engaged in the slave trade.

Immensely profitable, it became more and more prevalent as the seventeenth century passed into the eighteenth. Considering that the inequality involved is even more vicious than that of class, it seems unbelievable that most early Friends, for several generations, apparently did not even notice a conflict with their own convictions. Perhaps it was because Friends were not the victims. Already in the second generation Friends began to enter the middle classes, and, in the colonies, themselves bought human beings as slaves. In time a small number even became slavers.

But a handful of Friends spoke against slavery. The two biggest examples: in 1688 four Friends from the Germantown meeting near Philadelphia--immigrants from Germany and the Netherlands, countries that did not have slavery--wrote a Petition to their Meeting, condemning the monstrosity growing around and among them. They pointed out, with considerable sophistication, that no one committed to the Golden Rule could have anything to do with enslaving others. Claiming to find this too large an issue for the group to deal with, their Monthly Meeting passed the buck to the Quarterly Meeting, who, with the same excuse, passed it to the Yearly Meeting. Here the petition died.

Another voice passionately condemning slavery in the darkness of the early eighteenth century was that of the disruptive Benjamin Lay, 1682 - 1759 (whom we featured as a Pioneer in PT 140 ).

Benjamin Lay

Although Lay was expelled from several Meetings and after his death was forgotten by most, a few Friends of the next generation--John Woolman, Joshua Evans, Anthony Benezet--had been listening to him and went on to spread his message widely, both in the American colonies and in Britain. More Quakers began to listen. In 1776, almost ninety years after the Germantown Petition, Friends finally agreed to end slavery in their midst.

Why did it take so shamefully long? No doubt racism has a big part in explaining Friends’ failure, over three or more generations, to live up to their Equality professions; Black people evidently did not look enough like white Quakers to be bearers of the Divine Spirit! (However, Native Americans, oddly, did.) Economics also figure in a major way: many Quakers were getting rich with the assistance of slave labor; and as they fell to the lures of greed, they betrayed also their commitment to the Simplicity Testimony. I am tempted to quote Upton Sinclair’s famous line again: “It is hard to make a person understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Present-day Friends like to dwell on the heroic anti-slavery labors of the saintly John Woolman, without giving too much thought to why, many decades after 1688, those labors were still needed to awaken the Society of Friends from its drugged sleep.

The Animal Concern

The foregoing sketch of early eighteenth century Friends’ inglorious response to the human-slavery Concern prepares the ground for our present situation, which I believe is an even more basic Primary-Level Concern, reaching into almost all Friends’ lives virtually every day, even more than human slavery did. About ninety-five percent of Westerners, and probably of Friends as well, eat animals (thus also killing them). Going vegetarian, let along vegan, is difficult; studies show that about two-thirds of those who try going vegan revert to animal-eating again. It is likely that for many meat-eaters, including Friends, to question so pervasive a feature of the culture they grew up in--to name it as evil and destructive on several levels--threatens anomie, a breakdown in one’s meaningful world.

There seems to be no single landmark event that can be said to have launched the animal concern among Quakers, but a few events may be mentioned. In a number of journals over the centuries, Friends spoke of developing compassion and tenderness for animals. To the best of my knowledge, Friends Benjamin and Sarah Lay were the first to become vegetarian as a result of the Spirit’s leading. Very few, even among Friends, followed.

Friend Anna Sewell’s best-selling 1877 novel Black Beauty had a great impact on the treatment of horses and other draft animals, in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. But Anna had already left the Society of Friends and thereafter moved in evangelical circles, apparently feeling more support there for her and her mother’s compassionate activism on behalf of the poor and of (human) slaves. She had been deeply concerned about horses for decades, but wrote her classic book toward the end of her life, dying five months after it was published.

In 1891, a group of British Friends under the leadership of Joseph Storrs Fry launched the Friends’ Anti-Vivisection Association, now Quaker Concern for Animals. Over the years, the group broadened its original focus on vivisection to address many areas of animal abuse and exploitation; for example, lobbying internationally on behalf of animals is an important part of their work. It has had some limited successes among British Friends, though the majority continue to eat animals.

Ruth Harrison

Perhaps the Quaker work that had the biggest impact on European society was English Friend Ruth Harrison’s 1964 book Animal Machines: The New Factory Farming Industry. It was not addressed to Quakers particularly, but rather to the general public. Harrison (pictured) was a lifelong vegetarian herself, though her book, dense with facts she had unearthed, was primarily welfarist--probably necessarily so if it were to have an impact in 1964. The book resulted in legislation abolishing various extreme abuses, particularly crates and cages. (Unhappily, Harrison’s book had little impact in the US: fifty years later, most of the abuses she describes still prevail. Here and there they are, only recently, beginning to be outlawed.) Quaker Concern for Animals applauded the book, but, as with Anna Sewell’s novel, the majority of Friends apparently were not stirred to action. Most continued to eat animals.

In my experience, different Meetings seem to respond quite differently to the Concern. For example, one Meeting of my acquaintance authorized a committee to consider the animal issue in about 1991. When in May of 1998 the committee made the modest proposal of an experiment of holding two vegetarian potlucks, some members reacted as though their most basic liberties were being attacked. High words ensued. The committee clerk, a gifted cook and a generous soul, had from time to time invited all Meeting members to vegan meals. Some came and continued to come. Despite the hostile response of May 1998 and several sessions thereafter, nevertheless, she persisted; and now, twenty years later, all the Meeting’s potlucks are vegetarian by common consent (though not yet vegan).

In contrast to this long and difficult road, other Meetings I know of have easily found unity when the Concern was broached. Size may partly explain the difference, but there seems to be a kind of spirit of a particular group that may perpetuate itself over time. (See Walter Wink’s The Powers that Be.)

It appears that for many Friends and other religiously- and spiritually-minded persons, animals simply do not look enough like themselves to be included under the Golden Rule, or to be fellow-bearers of the divine Spirit. It’s true that mice, or giraffes, or pigs don’t look much like us humans, but is it so hard to tell that such beings are much more than carrots or cabbages, that they don’t like to be enslaved and killed any more than humans do? If eighteenth- century Quakers already committed to Equality took so long to recognize their racism, what will become of us and of our earth? The animals are waiting, and this time we probably don’t have ninety years.

But we can persist, and we can hope.
- Gracia Faye Ellwood, Editor, The Peaceable Table

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