It’s surprising to delve into the ecclesiastical aspect of the Vegetarian movement and discover that Henry Salt, a lifelong agnostic, should have acquired such an influential role in Christian affairs.
Whether the circumstances stemmed from theological propaganda with its dozens of ‘Biblical’ vegetarian tracts and even a rewrite of the New Testament; or criticism from Catholic literary giant, G.K. Chesterton and the equally influential Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral; a voice of reason was needed to keep the movement intact and on track which Henry Salt often provided with relatively few internal skirmishes for almost half a century.
Of his foremost dealings with non-secular campaign matters; the dispute between Dean Inge and the London Vegetarian Society (L.V.S.) afforded the most exuberant example of Salt’s contribution to the intellectual defence of vegetarianism. In addition to straightforward argument and analysis, the vegetarian press published satirical literary sketches and verse which tended to convey Salt’s lack of estimation for the philosophical prowess of their widely esteemed opponent.
The Inge controversy has been touched upon in a few modern studies of vegetarian activity in Britain which refer to a booklet by the Rev Francis Wood (1854 - 1934), a Unitarian clergyman and Vegetarian Society member of several decades standing. Wood’s booklet, A Reply to Dean Inge’s Defence of Flesh-Eating was published in 1934. However the dispute with vegetarianism which the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral instigated, and perpetuated, really began to simmer upon the publication of his Outspoken Essays in 1922. Rev Wood dealt with the matter at a theological level whereas Henry Salt discussed and tended to ridicule the basis of the Dean’s somewhat singular contention during the 1920s and 30's.
The philosophical assumption that animals bred for food products should, effectively, owe their lives to human appetites, was acknowledged by Bernard Shaw but dismissed by Salt who expressed consternation that the theory should have endured so far into the twentieth century. For to the mind of the latter reformer, the matter had been settled in Parliament during a debate on pigeon shooting which occurred in 1883. As Salt recalled: “It was argued that a ‘blue-rock’ would prefer to live and be shot at than not to live at all, at which Mr. W.E. Forster retorted that what we have to consider is not a ‘blue-rock’ before existence, but a ‘blue-rock’ in existence. That is the sum of the whole matter”.
On that basis, it was with an aloof sense of satire that Salt was inclined to provide the L.V.S. with ideological guidance in response to Inge's literary contributions; most of which had first appeared as articles in the Evening Standard where Inge typically stated: “If we assume that survival has a value for the brutes, no one has so great an interest in the demand for pork as the pig.”
It should however be emphasised that the term “brutes” belied a notable facet of Inge’s ethical outlook, which was surprisingly supportive of animals’ rights, insofar as everyday circumstances seemed to permit their recognition. For even to this day, widespread assumptions prevail that meat should form an essential part of a balanced human diet. Therefore, although the Vegetarian movement of the inter-war years may have experienced an expansion of their sparse and often remote ranks, alongside the rise of pacifism in Britain, the traditional cultural suspicion that meat was an integral aspect of health and vigour took an inevitable toll on the sympathies of most militant animal welfare campaigners. It was only among a minority of vegetarians that the contemporary concept of animal rights campaigning was fully foreshadowed.
Therefore, an outspoken supporter of animals’ rights - such as Dean Inge – was able to condemn particular aspects of animal exploitation with a relatively clear conscience towards consuming abattoir products for nutritional reasons. Indeed instances of clergy animal rights advocacy - whilst exceptionally rare - remain indicative of the largely unknown extent of Salt’s ethical influence during the early decades of the twentieth century.
A short chapter of my book, Familiar Strangers: The Church and the Vegetarian Movement in Britain (1809 – 2009) is devoted to the topic described in this article and to the wider controversy which saw leading ethicists clash and adopt unlikely standpoints towards vegetarian values.
Henry S. Salt Society, 4 March 2011