Quakerism has grown from the Christian tradition and, as an advocate of non-violence, it is rightly proud of its pacifist principles. The renowned Quaker Peace Testimony, based on the principle of non-violence, is, primarily, considered a testimony against militarism and the conflict and aggression of war. It is not inclusive of the violence and deprivation inflicted upon animals.
Within Quakerism, there has always been recognition of the need to respect animals as sentient creatures. George Fox, upon catching an ostler stealing his horse’s oats, wrote in his journal, “A wicked thieving people to rob a poor dumb creature of his food, which I had rather they had robbed me”. He also condemned hunting and hawking.
John Woolman, the 18th century Quaker, said, “To say that we love God and at the same time exercise cruelty toward the least creature is a contradiction in itself.” He noted the oppression of oxen and horses and the use of the whip and lamented that, “the creation of this day doth loudly groan.” He refused to use the English stage-coach because the horses were brutalised by strenuous journeys, often resulting in exhaustion, blindness and death.
In many Christian countries, millions of animals are killed annually in slaughter houses, experimented on in laboratories and hunted as sport. Ironically, to celebrate the birth of the founder of Christianity, millions of turkeys are bred each year for Christmas consumption, mostly in horrible, dark and cramped conditions.
Christianity continues to base its rationalisation for such action on the authority of the Bible; Quakers tends to be less inclined to seek the authority of scripture, preferring instead to recognise that, although there is a credible concern, there are more important issues in their list of Quaker priorities.
Regardless of the conflicting theological views on whether or not the Bible sanctions cruelty towards animals, there is one fact that is irrefutable: the intentional and avoidable acts of violence inflicted upon other creatures, resulting in deprivation and death, for whatever reason, are wrong.
If the principle of non-violence is absolute, it must be non-selective; a failure to recognise animals as sentient creatures, and to extend our compassionate protection towards them, is surely contrary to the professed ethics of a religion of love. The Bible informs us that God is Love and those who do not love do not know God. Yet, it would seem that the recipients of this love do not include the whole of creation.
Historically, there have been many followers of Jesus who have advocated vegetarianism, including certain of his apostles, the most notable being James. Hegesippus, 2nd century Saint and Christian historian wrote in The Church History of Eusebius: “James, the brother of the Lord, did not drink neither wine nor strong drink, nor did he eat flesh.”
Violence and cruelty towards animals is inextricably linked in the psyche of universal violence. Dr. Albert Schweltzer, the renowned Christian theologian and missionary said in his Nobel Peace Price Acceptance Speech: “[The] compassion in which all ethics must take root can only attain its full breadth and depth if it embraces all living creatures and does not limit itself to mankind.”
Quakers have been formally active on behalf of animals: in 1978 the Quaker Concern for Animals was established as an informal listed group within the British Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends. It is one of the oldest established faith-based animal protection groups. In 1891, the Friends Anti-Vivisection Association began, later to become the Animal Welfare and Anti-Vivisection Society.
In consideration of the advice of John Woolman that we be mindful of “a tenderness toward all creatures, that we do not lessen that sweetness of life in the animal creation,” might it not be time now for us to consider testing this concern?