Evangelical Spirituality and Animal Ethics

phil2Evangelical Christianity and animal advocacy are often perceived as irreconcilably at odds with each other.  Therefore it will come as a surprise to many that the pioneers of animal welfare reform before the twentieth century were Christians who showed a passionate kindness towards ‘God’s beasts’. Dr Philip J. Sampson, Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, discusses the distinctively Evangelical spirituality which inspired them.

Most Christians believe in kindness to animals. Yet sermons on the subject are rare and few preachers consider animal cruelty to be an ethical priority. A survey of pastors in the USA suggests some theological reasons for this disinterest:

  • Animals do not have souls.
  • Humans have dominion.
  • Our focus is on souls.
  • Mercy does not apply to animals.
  • I feel no mandate concerning animals.

Where pastors lead, their flocks follow. Many Christians, especially evangelical Christians, see concern about animal cruelty as marginal, or even treat it with suspicion[1]. Interestingly, secular opinion shares this view of Christian ethics. At best, the Christian doctrine of ‘dominion’ is interpreted as giving animals into our hands; at worst, it justifies our cruelty[2]. Either way, few expect Christians to be leaders in animal ethics. Indeed, evangelical Christians are even seen as part of the problem. It comes as a surprise, then, that some Christians in the past passionately opposed animal cruelty.

A Reputation for Kindness

According to the historian Keith Thomas, the campaign against animal cruelty ‘grew out of the (minority) Christian tradition that man should take care of God’s creation‘. Remarkably, the pioneers of this minority tradition were those claimed by modern evangelicals as their forebears. From the piecemeal reforms by seventeenth century Puritans to the evangelical opposition to vivisection in the 1870s, these Christians passionately protested at animal cruelty.

The Puritans, says the historian Christopher Hill, were known for their hatred of cruelty; Macaulay’s jibe that they ‘hated bear-baiting… because it gave pleasure to the spectators’ was wholly unfair. By the eighteenth century, kindness to animals marked a person out as an evangelical Christian. Horace Walpole is said to have observed in 1760 that a certain man was known to be ‘turning Methodist; for, in the middle of conversation, he rose, and opened the window to let out a moth’. It was not evolutionary thought which inspired the language of human duty towards an animal, but the biblical teaching that an animal’s rights rest in Christ; and it was not Darwinians who drove nineteenth century animal welfare reform, but evangelical Christians.

A Spiritual Vision

CM Spurgeon C.H. Spurgeon was the most celebrated evangelical preacher of the later nineteenth century, a national figure by the time he was thirty. Spurgeon was opposed to capital punishment, yet, in a sermon of 1873, he concluded that a man who had been cruel to animals deserved to hang if anyone did. Today, this kind of passionate, even intemperate sentiment is more often associated with extremists of the Animal Rights movement than with Baptist preachers. Yet Spurgeon regarded animal cruelty as more than just a moral offence deserving punishment; he considered it a serious spiritual issue for the individual.

Animal cruelty, he wrote ‘hardens the heart, deadens the conscience, and destroys the finer sensibilities of the soul. The most eminently spiritual men display great delicacy towards all living things…’. ‘The man who truly loves his Maker becomes tender towards all the creatures his Lord has made. In gentleness and kindness our great Redeemer is our model’. On the other hand the ‘man of dead heart towards God has a heart of stone towards the Lord’s creatures, and cares for them only so far as he can make them minister to his own wealth or pleasure’. He even went to the length of affirming ‘that no person really penitent for sin can be cruel’ to animals.

Spurgeon was not the first to see animal cruelty as a spiritual issue. As early as the mid-sixteenth century, the influential theologian John Calvin warned his Genevan congregation that ‘God will condemn us for cruel and unkind folk if we pity not the brute beast’; and, remarkably, asserted that we owe an equal duty to animals as we do to people. Some 30 years later, we find the English Puritan Philip Stubbes condemning those who hurt animals as pseudo-Christians. Many English Puritans of the seventeenth century held similar views. By the late eighteenth century, John Wesley’s opinion was so well known that Methodism became synonymous with animal advocacy. Nor were these sentiments restricted to dissenting churches. The evangelical Anglican William Wilberforce co-founded the RSPCA alongside campaigning against the slave trade.

A Theology of Kindness

Butterfly-on-handsThis distinctive spirituality had a theological foundation. It was not merely a matter of sentiment, nor even of morality, but was rooted in their understanding of God. Archbishop John Tillotson put it well in the late seventeenth century. There is nothing, he said, ‘more contrary to the nature of God’ than ‘a cruel and savage disposition’ towards both man and animals. Why not? Well, as God is kind and compassionate towards all He has made, so there is nothing more contrary to the nature of God than cruelty (Ps 145.9). Moreover, the earth and its ‘fulness’ belongs to God, and animals were made to praise God, not as culinary ingredients (Ps 24.1; Gen 1.29). Animal cruelty denied God his due, is a sign of wickedness, and is incompatible with righteous living (Prov 12.10). In fact, nineteenth century evangelicals bluntly described animal cruelty as demonic in an age when people took demons more seriously than we do today. This theology lent such a passion to their convictions as would nowadays mark them as extremists.

The Gospel of Peace

These Christians’ passion for kindness often invited ridicule. A man who gets up to help a moth can easily be dismissed as a fanatic – along with his evangelical beliefs. Nowadays this would be seen as a reason for preachers to avoid condemning animal cruelty. Yet before the twentieth century, evangelicals considered it a spiritual issue integral to the gospel of peace. It is a striking fact that God blessed their ministries to a degree unknown among modern evangelical preachers, as well as using them to make England a world leader in animal welfare reform.

Dr Philip J Sampson FOCAE. December 2015

[1] Some even argue from 1 Tim 4 that vegetarianism is a doctrine of devils (eg Godeatsredmeat.com; and http://www.wordofhisgrace.org/vegetarianismqa.htm accessed 27.8.2014).
[2] See P. Sampson  Evangelical Christianity: lord of creation or animal among animals? in Linzey A (ed) Handbook of Practical Animal Ethics (Palgrave, forthcoming); P. Sampson, Six Modern Myths (IVP, 2001), 72