1873 Evangelicals and Cruelty to Animals

During the 2008 presidential primary I wrote an essay on religion and politics for The Bridge–the alumni magazine of Messiah College. The occasion for the essay was the “Compassion Forum“–a nationally televised conversation on religion and public life held, just a few days before the Pennsylvania primary, on Messiah’s campus in beautiful Grantham, PA. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were the guests of honor. Campbell Brown and Jon Meacham asked the questions. It was a great event. Not only did it bring exposure to Messiah College, but it also brought attention to the role that religion could play in politics.

In that essay, I wrote:

The Christian Right gained a powerful influence over evangelical voters in Ronald Reagan’s America. Its leaders have been commended by many for their work in fighting abortion and promoting what they referred to as “family values.” But their approach did not go far enough. Today’s generation of evangelicals wants to expand the reach of their social action by bringing faith to bear on a host of these compassion-based issues.

This expansion has created some confusion — and even some fear — among many who worry that evangelicals, by embracing a program of compassion, will get sidetracked from what is most important, namely saving the lost and defending human life. This, however, is not the case. By engaging the pressing social issues of the day, evangelicals are not abandoning their primary work of spreading the gospel or ceasing their opposition to abortion, a reform which many understand as a means of showing compassion to the unborn. Yet in the political sphere, it does seem that the days of choosing a candidate based solely on one or two moral concerns may be fading away.

When I wrote this piece, the Christian Right was criticizing evangelicals for focusing too much of their attention on issues like the environment and global AIDS. Putting too much effort into fighting global warming or alleviating poverty in Africa, it was argued, would distract from the REAL social issues that Christians should be addressing: abortion, gay marriage, and stem-cell research. More on this in a second.

This morning I read through the records of the 1873 meeting of the General Conference of the Evangelical Alliance. The Evangelical Alliance was an international organization committed to fostering unity among evangelicals in all Protestant denominations. Anyone who could affirm the inspiration of the Bible, the Trinity, the depravity of human nature, the incarnation of Jesus Christ and his atonement for sins, justification by faith alone, the work of the Holy Spirit in the world, and the resurrection of the body, could participate in this fellowship. Since this was an international gathering of evangelicals, it only met every few years. In other words, it was the equivalent of an evangelical Olympic Games or World Cup.

What struck me about this meeting of evangelicals was the vast array of subjects that were discussed during the twelve days in which the conference met. There were sessions on the labor problem, church and state, temperance, the Sabbath, infidelity, Catholicism, the family, theology, Christian unity, philosophy, world religions, wealth, capitalism, literature, education, preaching, religious liberty, missions, philanthropy, caring for the sick around the world, crime, and industry. In other words, evangelicals were engaged with almost every major social, intellectual, cultural, and religious issue of the day (race, gender, and immigration excluded).

On the last day of the conference, the attendees heard a speech by Henry Beroh. From what I can tell from Google, Beroh was the president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. In 1875, the New York Times had a news story about him entitled “Looking After the Shivering Horse.” Beroh was apparently an evangelical. His speech to the Evangelical Alliance was entitled “Cruelty in Animals.”

Now I think cruelty to animals is wrong, but I am not an activist by any means. I am not even sure if this speech has any real theological merit. I must admit that I found myself chuckling at some of it when I imagined the context in which it was presented. But I bring this up here to show just how many social and moral issues late-19th century evangelicals were engaged with.

Beroh argued that evangelicals had a “religious duty to that vast portion of God’s creation, the inferior animals.” He went on to show how animals were respected in the Bible and played important roles in the birth of Jesus and his triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. He concluded that the “instinct of cruelty is opposed to religion, and is not less a sin because the object of it is a speechless brute; nay, the sentiment of mercy seems all the more lovely in proportion to the humbleness and dependence of the recipient of it. We have voices to make our wrongs heard and respected, but these humble beings have only the faculties of feeling and endurance.”

I was trying to imagine what it would be like today if evangelicals took up the cause of “cruelty to animals.” (They actually have). I would guess that if the members of the Christian Right heard a speech like Beroh’s the fight against global warming would looking a whole lot better.