Henry Salt Archive

Henry Salt (1853-1939) was the author of the Life of Henry David Thoreau, Animals Rights and A Plea for Vegetarianism which inspired Gandhi for follow a vegetarian diet.

Biblical Vegetarianism

by Henry S. Salt

WE feel some concern at the growing tendency among orthodox vegetarians to base their dietetic principles on “biblical sanction.” We are not referring to what may be said or done by individuals as such, who have of course a perfect right to advocate their own views; nor can any objection be raised to the methods of societies which avowedly aim at the conversion of “Christendom” to the vegetarian faith, a purpose which deserves the approval of all humane people. What we refer to is the seeming committal of the Vegetarian Societies themselves, by the articles published in their name and the action of some of their members (though membership is supposed to be quite independent of creed), to a tacit assumption that biblical authority is indispensable, which leads to most desperate and disingenuous attempts to interpret as favourable certain texts which in reality are either adverse or irrelevant.* Now, we do not object to any quotation of genuine evidence from the Bible or elsewhere; but we do most strenuously protest against an irrational attempt to prove that black is white.

The bible-quoting vegetarian is himself no more than a counterblast to the bible-quoting flesh-eaterone fallacy-monger brought into existence to silence another. Ever since the food-reform movement began, the “Scriptures” have been invoked by the opponents of vegetarianism as lending sanction to flesh-eating, and as showing that the chosen people were distinctly carnivorous in their tastes. The obvious and only rational reply to this stupid argument is to point out that the Bible cannot possibly be taken as a guide in the discussion of modern problems, and that if it be true that it sanctions flesh-eating, it is equally true that it sanctions slavery and other customs now regarded as indefensible. Unfortunately the biblical vegetarian has taken the contrary line of trying to “go one better” than the biblical flesh-eater; and when confronted with “Rise, Peter, kill and eat,” and similar texts, must needs attempt to hoist his opponent (no pun intended) with his own petard. Hence the many sermons, dissertations, and text-twistings that have appeared from time to time in vegetarian journals, culminating in the absurd offer of a prize for the “Ten Best Texts,” which from their very pointlessness and irrelevance were so evidently “the best of a bad lot” as to do much more harm than good to the vegetarian cause, and to suggest that awful consequences might ensue if the Ten Worst Texts were malevolently hunted up by the Meat Trades Journal, or some other doughty champion of Bible and Beef!

The truth is that, as far as the Bible is concerned, flesh-eaters have all the best of the battle. It is easy for them to show what is quite sufficient for their purposethat their practice, so far from being condemned in the Jewish scriptures, is everywhere taken for granted, and may therefore with perfect truth be said to have the “sanction” they desire. It is useless to plead that the Jews were not “flesh-eaters” in the modern sense, because corn, wine, and oil were their staple food, and their meals of flesh were “connected with sacrifices.” We submit that a nation which indulges in meals of flesh, whether sacrificial or otherwise, is accurately described as a “flesh-eating” nation, and no possible comfort can be derived by vegetarians from the history of such a race. “The animals killed for meat,” says Smith’s “Dictionary of the Bible,” “were calves, lambs, oxen, kids, harts, roe-bucks, and fallow-deer; birds of various kinds, quail, poultry, partridges; fish, with the exception of such as were without scales and fins. This [fish] in our Saviour’s time appears to have been the usual food about the Sea of Galilee.” Scores upon scores of texts might be quoted to show that the chosen people did not hesitate to avail themselves of the divine permission that was accorded them, and that the very idea of vegetarianismthat is, a deliberate and permanent disuse of flesh-food for moral or hygienic reasons, apart from asceticismwas quite unknown to the Jews and unnoticed in their scriptures.

Take for example Peter’s vision (Acts x. 9-16), the “Rise, Peter, kill and eat” passage, so often quoted against vegetarianism. The lesson of the vision was allegorical, not literal; nevertheless, it is difficult to believe that such an allegory would have been employed if flesh-eating had not been assumed to be a natural and blameless habit. It would be as rational to assert that the killing of the fatted calf at the return of the prodigal son does not lend sanction to flesh-eating, because it is narrated as a parable, and not as a record of fact.

That vegetarians should quote Genesis i. 29 (“Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed ... to you it shall be for meat”), as indicating the ideal primitive diet, and Isaiah xi. 9 (“They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain”), as prophetic of the ideal future, is only just and appropriate; for such passages, though dealing with poetry rather than fact, are a thousand times more effective than verses wrenched from their context as were some of the “Ten Best Texts.” But when an attempt is made, as by the late Rev. J. Clark, to show that the divine permission to eat flesh, a permission which prevails through the whole of the historical scriptures, was only given as a kind of dernier ressort on the part of the Almighty, “for a state of mankind in which sin and disobedience abound,” we feel that we are on very shifty footing, there being not a word in the Bible itself to support this assumption as to the reasons that actuated the Lord. “He accommodated them in that way,” said the Rev. J. Clark; and certainly the Deity who provided that very carnivorous bill of fare must be admitted to have been sufficiently “accommodating,” if, all the time, he favoured a vegetarian diet. But, as a matter of fact, in the very passage (Deut. xiv. I-I2) where the edible animals are enumerated, the words, “For thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God,” are twice repeated, which seems to make sad havoc of Mr. Clark’s explanation. And even if the degraded condition of the Jews were the cause of the permission to eat flesh, does it not stand to reason that the same excuse is equally valid to-day in the not less degraded condition of modern races? Why should not we, too, be “accommodated” as the Jews were? The plea frequently urged by flesh-eaters that their diet, though not an ideal one, is necessitated by the imperfect conditions of society, is practically identical with that which Mr. Clark set up on behalf of the Jews. As a vegetarian, and yielding to no vegetarian in zeal for our principles, the present writer feels compelled to say that such biblical arguments as those to which he has referred appear to him to be thoroughly mischievous and delusive. As for such disingenuous evasions as the reading once offered of Luke xxiv. 42 (“And they gave Him a piece of broiled fish, and of an honeycomb, and He took it and did eat before them”), that He probably ate the honeycomb and put aside the fish, they would be comical were they not so humiliating to those whom they concern. No cause, however excellent, can afford to be thus trifled with by its advocates.

Again, what is the point of the insistence on St. Paul’s “liberty” as regards meats, when obviously such liberty justifies the eating of flesh as much as the abstinence from it. At the jubilee meeting of the Vegetarian Society its President quoted St. Paul “to show that Christians are not bound by their religion, as Jews are, to eat flesh.” But who has argued that they are so bound? The contention of the flesh-eaters is not that there is an obligation to eat flesh, but that there is no scriptural reason against eating it; and this contention is strengthened, not weakened, by St. Paul’s claim of “liberty.” That Paul, the author of the contemptuous question, “Doth God take care for oxen?” should be appealed to by vegetarians, suggests that in the unsuccessful search for biblical sanction the smallest contributions are thankfully received. We think it is high time some protest were raised against the use made of the Vegetarian Society’s “platform” by the biblical food-reformers. The Society reckons among its members men and women of all shades of religious belief or unbelief, and if freethinkers were to attempt to couple vegetarianism with freethought, they should be very properly reminded that they have no right to compromise their orthodox fellow-workers. But in these matters there must be mutual consideration and give-and-take, and the essential conditions on which all co-operation is based must be observed by the orthodox as well as by the heretical. The Vegetarian Society is a society, not a sect.

* “Bible Testimony against Flesh-Eating,” by William Harrison, Treasurer and Vice-President of the Vegetarian Society; “Bible Testimony as to the Use of Animal Food,” by the Rev. James Clark.

Published: The Humane Review, 1908-9