January 1, 1793
The Vegetarian Crusade
Founder of the Bible Christians Church, William Cowherd, joined the Swedenborgian New Jerusalem Church in Manchester in 1793 and embraced the politics of Christian spiritualism, pacificism, and meatless dietetics.
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.
In 1793, Cowherd, tired of the sectarian quibbles and professional jealousies that seemed to pervade Anglicanism, left his pulpit and became the spiritual leader of the Swedenborgian New Jerusalem Church in Manchester. He embraced the radical politics of the movement, including its Christian spiritualism, pacifi st worldview, and meatless dietetics. Cowherd quickly realized, however, that even the Swedenborgians were affl icted by interpersonal conflict and power plays. Infl uenced by the radical politics of Thomas Paine and William Godwin, Cowherd decided to start his own movement. At the heart of the Bible Christian Church were three guiding principles: temperance, pacifism, and a meatless diet. In the early years of the nineteenth century, Cowherd’s church grew, primarily drawing members of Manchester’s working class with the promise of salvation for their souls and free vegetable soup for their stomachs.
January 29, 1809
The Vegetarian Crusade
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."
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).
January 1, 1810
William Metcalfe adopted a meat-free diet in 1810
At the heart of the Bible Christian Church were three guiding principles: temperance, pacifi sm, and a meatless diet.
In the early years of the nineteenth century, Cowherd’s church grew, primarily drawing members of Manchester’s working class with the promise of salvation for their souls and free vegetable soup for their stomachs. The church’s activities attracted the attention of William Metcalfe, a fellow former Swedenborgian. Metcalfe had already adopted a meat-free diet in 1810, viewing it as the most natural of human states. Many of Metcalfe’s friends and colleagues disagreed, urging him to give up what they referred to as his “foolish notions of a vegetable diet,” fearing for his strength and general well-being. To the contrary, Metcalfe pointed out; the eff ects of a meatfree diet had quickly led to an increase in weight and strength. Things were looking up considerably. With his health intact, Metcalfe even married; something he felt was highly unlikely just a few years earlier.
March 29, 1817
The Vegetarian Crusade
Reverends William Metcalfe and James Clarke lead forty-one members of the new Bible Christian Church to Philadelphia aboard the Liverpool Packet.
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.
July 1, 1817
The Bible Christians start a day school and teach that "a meatless lifestyle was the true heavenly inspired diet, present in the garden of Eden and promised during the messianic era."
In 1811, Metcalfe was ordained as a Bible Christian minister. Soon aft er he began looking toward the United States as a new potential home where the group could grow. An increasingly oppressive political environment in England at the end of the Napoleonic Wars led to organized attempts to quell radical reformers. Bible Christians—sympathetic to the Luddite spirit of the times—were, in the words of one church member, “obnoxious not only to the hired minions of power, but also to our relatives.” The notion of emigrating enjoyed significant support among church members, who frequently discussed the opportunities for civil and religious freedom in the United States. What better place than America, Metcalfe argued, to present a nascent, radical religion? Under the guidance of Metcalfe and Clarke, the Bible Christian immigrants arrived on the shores of the United States on June 14, 1817. The group had survived a difficult seventy-nine-day voyage at sea, presumably made even more objectionable by the liberal consumption of meat and alcohol by the ship’s crew, non–Bible Christian passengers, and even by a few renegade church members.
Yet the group arrived in Philadelphia well-funded and determined to “stand still and do good” with faith in the notion that “verily thou shalt be fed.” 9 Immediately, however, the group split along ideological lines. Clarke and his followers viewed agriculture as the key to the growth of the church. Metcalfe—cosmopolitan and decidedly more modernist—saw the city as the location with the greatest potential for expansion. In August 1817, Clarke and his family settled in Elkland Township, Pennsylvania, establishing a small church and Sunday school based on the principles of akreophagy, the habitual abstention from meat-eating. However, the agricultural life would not lead to the growth of the Bible Christians as Clarke and Cowherd had planned. In 1823 Clarke and his family—having lost the few followers they had accrued—resettled in Shelby County, Indiana, living out their days tilling their farm, disconnected from the Philadelphia Bible Christians. 10 The path of William Metcalfe and his followers diff ered signifi cantly from that of the Clarke family. Philadelphia originally attracted the group because of its available land and passable roads connecting the church to the rest of the city. 11 Philadelphia was the country’s second most populous city, and the Bible Christians saw it as an ideal location to gain converts amid a growing urban reform spirit. 12 In Philadelphia, popular fears of perceived new dangers including prostitution, pornographic writers, and other corrupting infl uences led older citizens to attempt to guide the younger generation toward moral piety. Through reform institutions, pamphlets, and novels these reformers sought to quell youthful intemperance. 13 Bible Christians’ attempts at converting individuals to a meatless diet fi t seamlessly within the larger reform milieu that took hold in Philadelphia during the early nineteenth Proto-vegetarianism :: 13 century. Individuals free of the overly invigorating infl uence of meat, Bible Christians believed, were more apt to make morally sound decisions.
In July 1817, the Bible Christians established a day school and informal worship space, inviting Philadelphia’s churchgoing public to join. Metcalfe’s entreaties were based on the desire to “not form a sectarian church, deriving their doctrines from human creeds.” Instead, the Bible Christians promised to “become more efficiently edified in Bible Truths” and “the literal expressions of Sacred Scripture.” A meatless lifestyle, the Bible Christians believed, was the true heavenly inspired diet, present in the garden of Eden and promised during the messianic era. At the heart of the Bible Christian ideology was the notion that biblical truths were to be revealed to humanity progressively over time. Only through dedicated study of the Bible’s tenants could individuals truly understand divine providence. Under Metcalfe’s guidance, the group preached that Jesus himself was a vegetarian and that any stories of his eating meat were misinterpretations.
The group rented a back room in a schoolhouse at 10 North Front Street, providing daily schooling along with Sabbath morning services that featured intensive text study. The church’s space quickly became too expensive, however, particularly aft er a handful of founding members perished during a yellow fever epidemic in the fall of 1818. With dwindling membership and an unpopular philosophy of meat and alcohol abstention, Metcalfe sought to reinvent the Bible Christian Church while holding on to its core principles of pacifism and meatless dietetics