by David Clough.
In 1760, Horace Walpole is said to have remarked that a man was ‘turning Methodist; for, in the middle of conversation, he rose, and opened the window to let out a moth’ (cited in an article by Philip Sampson). Perhaps this reputation Methodists had for being concerned about animals comes as a surprise to you, but it was well founded. John Wesley wrote an essay on the souls of animals, referred to them frequently in his journal, published the book A Survey of the Wisdom of God in Creation that discussed animals, and preached a famous sermon on Romans 8 called ‘The General Deliverance’ in which he stated that the Bible was clear that animals would be redeemed by God, and that Christians should be concerned about the cruelties inflicted on them daily in the streets. Walpole’s comment indicates that this concern was widely shared among Methodists, and early Methodist magazines regularly included articles opposing cruelty towards animals.
This Methodist history of concern for animals finds a place in a wider history of broader Christian concern particularly among evangelicals. Most Christians are now unaware that Christians were responsible for campaigning for the first legislation against cruelty towards animals, and founded the RSPCA in the first part of the 19th century. Later, Christians were at the forefront of campaigns against the cruelties of vivisection, seeing it as a clear example of the weak being exploited by the strong contrary to Christian teaching. This activism in defence of animals was in strong continuity with long Christian traditions of being concerned about animals: John Calvin preached that ‘God will condemn us for cruel and unkind folk if we pity not the brute beast’; an early 15th century English commentary on the Ten Commandments stated that ‘men should have compassion on beast and bird and not harm them without cause and have regard for the fact that they are God’s creatures’; and many early stories of Christian saints include examples of their compassion towards animals.
These roots of Methodist and wider Christian concern for animals comes as news to most Methodists, and most Christians. We tend to see concern for animals as a secular concern, sometimes even to the extent of thinking Christianity gives us divine permission to exploit animals without being concerned about them. There are atheist perspectives on animal rights that reinforce this message and identify Christianity as part of the problem in relation to cruelties inflicted on animals. But it’s a historical mistake to think that concern for animals is not deeply embedded in Christian faith.
But those who have come to associate Christians with a lack of concern for animals could take the ways the animals we eat are treated as evidence. Most of us are unaware or insufficiently concerned that most chickens raised for meat in broiler sheds are bred in windowless sheds to reach slaughter weight in only 35 days. All commercially produced eggs requires the culling of all male chicks after hatching. Most pigs are raised in crowded bare sheds that give no opportunity for their diverse natural behaviours. Dairy cows are often now also kept indoors, have their calves taken away immediately after birth, and are culled for beef after three or four pregnancies. Sheep and cattle raised for beef usually do better, but we kill lambs at only a few months of age, and still inflict painful procedures such as castration on calves and lambs without anaesthetic. And all this isn’t good for humans, either: it contributes to obesity, diabetes, human food and water insecurity, and climate change. What we are currently doing is very clearly bad for humans, bad for animals, and bad for the planet.
Here’s a proposal: as Methodists we could reclaim our legacy to join with other Christians to be in the vanguard of a modern movement against cruelty to animals, starting with what we are doing to farmed animals. We could make clear that raising animals in this way is contrary to our faith, and commit to reducing our consumption of animal products and choosing higher welfare options in our church catering and our own homes. Jesus taught that not a single sparrow is forgotten by God (Mt. 10.29; Lk. 12.6). Who’s in for remembering our Methodist legacy, and our Christian responsibilities towards other animals?
If you’re interested in practical action in relation to the intensive farming of animals, my project CreatureKind has resources for churches to think through the issues and act in response. Do get in touch if you’d like to discuss ideas for how to take this forward in your church.
If you’re interested in learning more about early Methodists and other animals, the 2015 Fernley Hartley Lecture I gave on the topic is available online. A recent article I published on the ethics of eating animals is available online. If you’d like a longer read about how animals figure in Christian understandings, have a look at one or more of these books.