Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Saying no to blood sports: A Portraiture of Quakerism III

Perhaps the section of Thomas Clarkson's 1806 A Portraiture of Quakerism most congenial to modern sensibilities discusses the Quaker prohibition on blood sports and cruelty to animals. This prohibition is not, Clarkson points out, against hunting game for food--it is a prohibition against hunting for sport. It is not censuring or forbidding having animals as stock for food, labor or wool--it censures causing such animals unnecessary sufferings.

Clarkson splits this section into three parts, leading with rational and empatheric reasons to avoid harming animals, then discussing Old Testament and New Testament objections to cruelty.

Rational reasons are as follows:

It has been matter of astonishment to some, how men, who have the powers of reason, can waste their time in galloping after dogs, in a wild and tumultuous manner, to the detriment often of their neighbours, and to the hazard of their own lives; or how men, who are capable of high intellectual enjoyments, can derive pleasure, so as to join in shouts of triumph, on account of the death of an harmless animal; or how men, who have organic feelings, and who know that other living creatures have the same, can make an amusement of that, which puts brute-animals to pain.

In keeping with his campaign to "normalize" Quakers, Clarkson aligns their anti-cruelty sentiments with those of the mainstream poet and abolitionist Thomas Cowper, a favorite of both Quakers (both Olney, Maryland and Olney Friends Schools are named in honor of Cowper's home town of Olney in England) and Anglicans (Jane Austen, for example, was a great fan of Cowper).

Cowper, too, railed against animal cruelty in his long poem The Task:

Detested sport
That owes its pleasures to another's pain,
That feeds upon the sobs and dying shrieks
Of harmless nature, dumb, but yet endued
With eloquence

Clarkson then goes on to find a prohibition against animal cruelty in the Old Testament:

The Jews obliged all their converts to religion ... to observe what they called the seventh commandment of Noah, or that "they should not eat the member of any beast that was taken from it, while it was alive." This law therefore of blood, whatever other objects it might have in view, enjoined that, while men were engaged in the distresing task of taking away the life of an animal, they should respect its feelings, by abstaining from torture, or all unnecessary pain.

The New Testament, according to the Quakers, further enlightens humans in mercy and lovingkindness, leading to gentle treatment of animals.

But in proportion as he is restored to the divine image, or becomes as Adam was before he fell, or in proportion as he exchanges earthly for spiritual views, he sees all things through a clearer medium. ... Beholding animals in this sublime light, he will appreciate their strength, their capacities, and their feelings; and he will never use them but for the purposes intended by providence. It is then that the creation will delight him. It is then that he will find a growing love to the animated objects of it. And this knowledge of their natures, and this love of them, will oblige him to treat them with tenderness and respect. ... Hence they uniformly look upon animals, not as brute-machines, to be used at discretion, but as the creatures of God, of whose existence the use and intention ought always to be considered ...

Two notes--as he does throughout, Clarkson shows his understanding of Quaker culture by invoking George Fox, this time, Fox's outrage at hunting and hawking and other activities which cause animals to suffer. It's interesting that Quaker deployment of Fox as authority has not much changed in two centuries. Further, Clarkson plugs into a wider current of late -eighteenth century "sensibility" that was probably the first sustained modern view of animals as having a right not to be tormented. Of course, throughout history, individuals have objected to torturing animals, but the Enlightenment saw a rise of interest in a movement against animal suffering.

Finally, Clarkson understands Quaker theology as one rejecting mindless dominion and aligned to what we would today call "creation care."

Certainly, in a culture that could justify cruelty to slaves as "dumb brutes," compassion towards animals was of piece with compassion towards slaves. If it was wrong to beat beasts of burden unmercifully, so it was wrong to do the same to human "beasts of burden." As today, we see the linkage between how we treat the least in nature and how we treat the least of humankind.

I find little to argue with in the eighteenth-century Quaker ban on blood sports and animal cruelty: If only it were more embraced today. What is of more interest to me are blind spots. Many of those who hunted, for example, probably never thought about the terror and pain they were causing an animal, which leads me to wonder what cruelties we're blind to today? Can you think of any?


Bill Samuel said...

Note that the Quaker rationale quoted in being as much like Adam before the fall would also apply to vegetarianism, since the diet prescribed before the fall was plant-based. The change occurred after the fall, when humans were then permitted to use animals for food.

Anonymous said...

In answer to your last question, there are big development projects such as dams. We may see debate between people who understandably want to see jobs created, development, etc. and people who want to protect the ecology of an area, not lose trees and so on, or if there is an endangered species there it causes trouble, but I've never seen anyone talk publicly about the cruelty of killing the millions of living things that inhabit that land. In our culture that would be seen as absurdly tree-hugging even by many people who care about the "environment." If it isn't endangered, the reasoning goes, there's no need to save it.

Diane said...


Yes, an interesting inconsistency. I have, btw, been a vegetarian (with some shellfish thrown in) for 22 months now.

Rosemary, I agree that acting as if undeveloped land is devoid of animal life is a blind spot--we seldom think of what we are doing to the animals--until displaced deer end up living, against their wills, in our suburban yard.

ralph berney said...

Silence, refusal to give comfort, is a blind spot, in the sense of a cold heart. Though we may not wilfully hurt or kill, in an active way, we withhold sympathy and empathy, and fail to go out of our way to protect endangered or ill treated creatures. Yet we may subscribe to an humanitarian code of ethics that embraces animal welfare. If we do this to animals we surely do it to men. The good Samaritan does not distinguish.