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On Sunday 29 January 1809, the Reverend William Cowherd stepped into the pulpit of his Salford church to issue his sermon and changed the world forever. "Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things. But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat."

January 29, 1809

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Cowherd's meat-free movement

On Sunday 29 January 1809, the Reverend William Cowherd stepped into the pulpit of his Salford church to issue his sermon and changed the world forever.

Surprisingly, his subject wasn't one of the hot topics of the day - industrial change, the Napoleonic Wars or the abolition of slavery – but animals and, in particular, the eating of them.

Reading from his King James Bible, he read to the congregation from the book of Genesis and, in particular, chapter nine verses three and four:

"Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things. But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat."

With these words, Rev Cowherd began the first formal vegetarian movement in Britain. There had been many vegetarians before him - the Ancient Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras and famous writers Mary Shelley and Voltaire for example – and religions such as Buddhism and Zoroastrianism held vegetarian beliefs, but his sermon set in motion a chain of events that would lead to an abstinence from meat becoming separate from any religious beliefs and traditions.

Of course, Rev Cowherd's motivations were spiritual and religious – he saw the eating of meat as a symbol of man’s expulsion from Eden (where Christians believe humans had lived harmoniously alongside animals) – but they also came from his egalitarian ideals.

His belief that 'all men are created equal' had been simply stretched to the idea that 'all species are created equal' – something that would ring true with many modern vegetarians.


Opposition to the movement

It didn't, however, ring quite so true with his fellow churchmen. The minister’s church, Christ Church on King Street in Salford, was part of the Swedenborgian New Church (a Christian movement which developed from the writings of the eighteenth century Swedish theologian Emanuel Swedenborg), who regarded the idea of vegetarianism as "a pernicious doctrine".


In fact, another local Swedenborgian minister, Reverend Richard Hindmarsh, who set up a chapel on nearby Bolton Street, said that if Cowherd's followers died, it would be precisely because they weren't eating meat, and referred sarcastically to the vegetarian church as the "Beefsteak Chapel".

Such was the rift between Cowherd's ideals and that of his church, that in the summer of 1809, he made the decision to leave the Swedenborgians behind and set up his own order, that of the Bible Christians, made up of his own congregation and those of three other churches (in Hulme and Ancoats).