Vegetarianism and veganism

Vegetarianism and veganism have distinct but overlapping histories, both Christian and secular. In this guest post, Michael Ainsworth comments on the origins of Christian vegetarianism in Salford, and David Walker, Bishop of Manchester, on some issues of contemporary veganism, including the recent debate about whether it engages human rights protection.

‘Eaters of flesh!’ Could you decry
Our food and sacred laws
Did you behold the lambkin die,
And feel yourself the cause?
Lo! There it struggles! Hear it moan
As stretched beneath the knife:
Its eyes would melt a heart of stone
How meek it begs its life!
Had God, for man, its flesh design’d;
Matur’d by death, the brute
Lifeless to us had been consign’d,
As is the ripen’d fruit.
Hold, daring man! From murder stay!
God is the life of all.
You smite at God when flesh you slay:
Can such a crime be small?

This hymn of 1810 sets out the doctrine of the inappropriately-named William Cowherd (1763-1816), from Beverley, who was curate of St John Deansgate in Manchester and, like his incumbent William Clowes, a Swedenborgian (said to be the only one who had read his works in Latin in their entirety). He was an early proponent of vegetarianism, seeing abstinence from meat as akin to temperance, citing Genesis 9.3, Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things, as proof against God’s intention that we should eat meat.

Swedenborgians, however, regarded vegetarianism as a pernicious doctrine, and Francis Hodgson produced a parody:

Eater of cabbage – ‘Kill and eat’
Are words once said to Peter.
For thee, around, the Flocks do bleat
Thou may’st partake – Herb-eater…

Cowherd founded the Bible Christian Church in Salford in 1800 (known locally as the ‘beefsteak chapel’), and subsequently the ‘Round House’ in Every Street, Ancoats. His successor – deacon at Salford – was Joseph Brotherton, later Salford’s first MP, whose wife Martha Harvey Brotherton wrote, originally anonymously, A New System of Vegetable Cookery, with over 1,200 recipes; it went through three subsequent editions and was probably the first western vegetarian cookbook. She wrestled with the Biblical texts: why did Christ, and his church, not enjoin vegetarianism?

Cowherd died in 1816 and was buried in the churchyard of the church he had built. His tombstone read All feared, none loved, few understood. The Salford Church moved from King Street to Cross Street and kept its centenary in 1909. Thus Greater Manchester can claim to be the home of ‘Christian vegetarianism’; and the Vegetarian Society, founded in 1847, is based at Altrincham.

The ‘vegetarian theology’ of those whose ‘ovo-lacto vegetarian’ [no meat, fish or poultry but eating some dairy products] or vegan diet is based on religion rather than environmental or health commitments, continues to debate whether this is an ordinance that comes before or after the Fall, and will end at the Second Coming: see Derek Antrobus: A Guiltless Feast: the Salford Bible Christian Church and the rise of the modern vegetarian movement (1997).

Michael and his wife Jan are ‘flexitarians’ – rarely eating meat but enjoying (sustainable) fish, eggs and cheese. Michael used to take holy communion to a Salford care home, where a resident told him she had attended a vegetarian Sunday school. At first, he put this down to elderly confusion, but research showed it to be true. It had its own hymnbook. In 1930 the church closed and merged with Pendleton Unitarians.

(The care home service, with a repertoire of about six hymns except at Christmas, was in the communal lounge, being the only available space. Ethel, who most months mercifully slept through the proceedings, would sometimes wake and announce “I’m 92 you know”, a fact with which we were all thoroughly familiar. A second intervention might be “I’ve got a medal from the Mayor of Salford”, which we also knew – it was apparently for knitting dishcloths in the war. The dreaded killer line would then follow – “Get away from me, you with your nightgown [= surplice] and holy communion; I’m a Unitarian”. “Pipe down, Ethel,” the others said.)

On which note, over to Bishop David…

It’s been many years since our family (knowingly – I still don’t entirely trust French motorway services) ate meat. But about 15 years ago, my wife Sue decided to go vegan. In part, she was influenced by her brother, a dairy farmer in Canada, who pointed out that the milk industry was responsible for the slaughter of many male calves each year. Being vegan back then was straightforward at home, good vegan cookbooks were not hard to find, but far harder elsewhere. Meals in restaurants invariably meant a complicated telephone conversation when making the booking. Despite such efforts, there was an even chance that the message would have failed to reach whoever was running the kitchen on the day, and frantic negotiations would take place with waiters and chef until something plausible, if not always highly palatable, could be obtained. Dessert was invariably fruit salad. Travelling in the global south, where much of the protein was non-meat-based, usually proved easier than North America or Europe; though on one occasion in Peru, where the message had not got through, the vegan and vegetarian alternative was to remove the larger pieces of chicken from the stew. We were good guests; we smiled and ate.

We’ve come a long way in the last decade or so, through increasing numbers of specialist vegetarian and vegan restaurants (look them up on the HappyCow app!), via Veganuary, to the point where almost a quarter of new food products are marketed as vegan. Then 2020 began with news that Veganism has been accepted in a UK court as representing a sufficiently coherent and serious philosophical and ethical position as to warrant consideration under Equalities legislation.

Few if any vegans would claim it as a religion, not least since like both my wife and the Reverend Mr Cowherd, their position sits within a wider faith context. But there are aspects of it, and how others respond to it, that show significant similarities. Veganism is no more a single united set of beliefs and actions than Judaism or Christianity. For example, the prime motivations of its adherents vary considerably. For some, it’s avoiding exploitation of animals; for others, it stems from the desire to live a more ecologically sustainable lifestyle; it can even be primarily motivated by personal health considerations. Some vegans are distinctly evangelical about their beliefs – one Manchester group regularly chalks messages on the pavements of Market Street, a favoured locus for street preachers of all types – others are content to follow their practice quietly.

Animal products are of course not only present in food. Many vegans would completely avoid leather products, vegan shoes are now quite a standard item. Reflecting the distinction between products that directly depend on death and those that are a byproduct of many centuries of animals husbandry, fewer vegans completely eschew wool. I’m aware that in penning this paragraph I am almost certainly courting the ire of someone who believes I have included heretics or apostates within my definition, but if you really want to get a bunch of vegans arguing among themselves, just shout the word “Honey” (not as a term of affection) then retire to a safe distance.

Perhaps the most intriguing parallel between Veganism and religion though is the fact that it can evoke genuine hatred. Veganaphobia (yes, I have just coined that word) is alive and well. The great Greggs Sausage Roll furore of 2019 has perhaps been the most visible example in the UK but it is far from alone. Why should making something else available, alongside the things we ourselves choose to buy, attract anger? Some recent research suggests that negative attitudes towards vegans correlate with strongly right-wing political views, denialist positions on climate change and opposition to feminism. Could Veganism be seen as a threat to a long-standing cultural hegemony in the same way that minority religions, non-White ethnicity and identifying as LGBT+ are? Has it become wrapped up in a populist reaction to the collapse of a lifestyle for long defined in the West by the attitudes and aspirations of the male industrial worker and his dependents? Does hostility to vegans in the UK correlate with strong support for Brexit? Whatever the cause, the reality remains. It may not be long before the courts find themselves considering whether a particular criminal offence has been aggravated by hatred of vegans, and if so, by how much the perpetrator’s sentence should be extended.

Meanwhile, Veganuary goes from strength to strength, with more people participating every year. And perhaps, in a final parallel to religion, it’s like going to church at Christmas. Lots of us try it out, at the time when it’s most socially acceptable. A few may forget it. Some will make it a permanent change. And many who do not go completely vegan will find it has introduced them to a new range of culinary possibilities, improving both their diet and their harmony with God’s creation.

Happy Eating!

Cite this article as: David Walker and Michael Ainsworth, “Veganuary“, 22 January 2020, https://www.lawandreligionuk.com/2020/01/21/vegetarianism-and-veganism/

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