Reverends William Metcalfe and James Clarke lead forty-one members of the new Bible Christian Church to Philadelphia aboard the Liverpool Packet.
March 29, 1817
The Vegetarian Crusade
It was the early morning of March 29, 1817. A cool breeze waft ed through the foggy Liverpool air along with an overriding sense of excitement, anxiety, and anticipation. The Reverends William Metcalfe and James Clarke gazed out on their gathered flock, surveying the situation before them. Inspired by the providential timing—it was, aft er all, near the time of the year when the ancient Israelites made their exodus from Egypt—forty-one followers of the fledgling Bible Christian Church boarded the majestic Liverpool Packet . 1 For months church members had discussed rumors of religious freedom and abundant providence in the new American republic. With a radical religious and political spirit that had led to isolation and intimidation in England, Bible Christians saw the nascent American experiment as fertile ground where their independent lifestyle could flourish. The fear of political persecution combined with a burgeoning industrial society pushed Bible Christians westward to Philadelphia.
The Bible Christians’ decision to leave England for the United States would eventually have larger social and cultural implications than the group could have imagined. The activities of this small band of dissidents would lead to the development of a much larger movement in the United States, focusing on one particular component of the church’s doctrine, the abstention from meat. Proto-vegetarianism—the individuals and groups who would lay the foundations of a vegetarian movement in the United States— began with the arrival of the Bible Christians.
The group was the first to adopt meatless dietetics at the center of its members’ lives while also advocating for this lifestyle in American society at large. The Bible Christians, however, were not the only group to introduce the principle of meat abstention to Americans in the early years of the republic. Within years of the group’s establishment in Philadelphia, another movement, known popularly as Grahamism, inspired larger groups of interested reformers to abandon their carnivorous practices.
In the first decades of the nineteenth century, multiple groups and individuals experimented with meatless diets, driven by a desire to create moral, social, and political reform. Proto-vegetarian movements in the United States were marked by outreach to meat-eaters through speeches, publications, newspapers, and public meetings that sought to illustrate the larger social and political implications of dietary choices. These early developments set the stage for a larger movement to mature outside of Philadelphia and eventually gave rise to American vegetarianism. The Bible Christians migrating to Philadelphia did so with the full support of the movement’s founder, William Cowherd, who preached that it was only possible to live an authentic religious life in an agricultural society.