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With the evangelical zeal of the temperance movement, social reformers and Christians began advocating for people to stop eating meat. They formed the Vegetarian Society in Manchester, England in 1847, to carry the message to the British public that eating meat was bad.
Religious Foundation of Vegetarianism
In 1809, a preacher at the Bible Christian Church began admonishing his flock about the evils of meat eating. The parson could hardly have had a more unfortunate name to be the point man for vegetarianism; he was the Reverend William Cowherd.
The Vegetarian Society notes that “The Rev. Cowherd’s emphasis on vegetarianism was that it was good for health and that meat eating was unnatural and likely to engender aggression.”
The vicar is reported to have said “If God had meant us to eat meat then it would have come to us in edible form, as is the ripened fruit.”
After his death in 1816, members of his congregation carried the movement forward, and there was an audience ready to listen among middle-class Victorians. (For members of the working class whose incomes allowed only for the purchase of tiny portions of cheap cuts, the issue was how can I get more meat, not less?)
The Vegetarian Health Argument
Victorians were very health conscious, and why wouldn’t they be? There were frequent outbreaks of typhus and cholera that wiped out thousands.
In 1858, The Vegetarian Messenger publication made the extraordinary claim that “No vegetarian in this country has ever been attacked with cholera. The same is stated of New York; when, in 1832, the cholera raged there so fatally, not a single vegetarian fell victim to its ravages.”
As cholera was mostly caused by drinking tainted water being vegetarian or not was entirely beside the point.
“You can’t possibly ask me to go without having some dinner. It’s absurd. I never go without my dinner. No one ever does, except vegetarians and people like that.”
— Algernon in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, 1895
Robley Dunglison was Thomas Jefferson’s personal physician. In his 1851 Medical Lexicon; A Dictionary of Medical Science he wrote that vegetarianism is “a modern term, employed to designate the view that man . . . ought to subsist on the direct productions of the vegetable kingdom and totally abstain from flesh and blood.”
In The Vegetarian Crusade (2013) Adam Shprintzen writes that “Flesh foods were seen as the source of moral and physical illness among humans . . . The harmful effects of meat were caused by its inorganic nature, its sitting and rotting in the stomach rather than passing quickly through the digestive system.”
The Moral Argument for Vegetarianism
One of the features of Victorian society was the emphasis on self improvement. This gave fuel to the temperance movement and social reform through Christianity, so the growing numbers of Victorian vegetarians claimed the moral high ground.
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Someone who identified themselves as “G. P.” wrote to The American Vegetarian in 1852 that he/she had given up smoking and taken up vegetarianism. The writer added “I now devote the money, heretofore spent on those pernicious things to the purchase of books and otherwise, to the cultivation of my mind, until very recently much neglected.”
As is the case today, the argument made by vegetarians was that it was immoral to slaughter animals for human consumption.
Henrietta Latham Dwight leaned on the Scriptures for support of vegetarianism. In her Golden Age Cookbook (1898) she wrote that meatless eating was ordained by God because “The Bible tells me so . . . A man hath no pre-eminence above a beast.”
However, the same book sort of knocks that argument on the head with “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”
Also, there was a widespread belief among Victorians that the consumption of meat caused men to be warlike. They weren’t to know, of course, that one of the world’s most famous vegetarians was Adolf Hitler.
Economic Support for Vegetarianism
“How is it possible that an agricultural labourer, earning nine shillings a week, can pay rent, clothe a family, and feed them upon flesh?” This question was posed by a correspondent to The Hereford Times in 1863.
So, the argument was made that giving up meat was a way out of poverty. But, there were plenty who took up the counter argument, not the least of which was the meat industry. Working men needed meat to sustain them through long days of manual labour. In 1850, the editorialists at The Times were moved to state that “the laws of the human economy demand that we should consume animal food.”
The economic thesis did not gather many adherents.
As the Victorian age advanced, the vegetarian movement in Britain gathered more followers and its message spread around the world. Many of its advocates took up other causes such as an end to child labour, prison reform, and votes for women.
- The Presbyterian minister Sylvester Graham was one of the founders of the American Vegetarian Society in 1850. Another claim to fame of the Reverend Graham was that he invented Graham Crackers.
- The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have a beef (oops) with carnivore idioms. They want to see expressions such as “Bringing home the bacon,” “Your goose is cooked,” and “Kill two birds with one stone” consigned to oblivion.
- Some famous vegetarians who lived in the Victorian age include George Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain, Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, Thomas Edison, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Leon Tolstoy.
- “Vegetarianism.” The Vegetarian Messenger, September 1, 1858.
- “History of the Vegetarian Society.” John Davis, Vegetarian Society, August 2011.
- “The Vegetarian Crusade” Adam D. Shprintzen, UNC Press Books, 2013.
- “The Benefits of Vegetarianism.” American Vegetarian and Health Journal, Volume 1, Issue 1 - Volume 2, Issue 12.
- “The Poetry and the Politics: Radical Reform in Victorian England.” James Gregory, I. B. Tauris, October 2014.
- “Victorian Vegetarians.” Dr. Bruce Rosen, Victorian History, June 15, 2008.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on December 11, 2018:
At times I have been vegetarian so I found this article very interesting. Good to know that so many famous people, including writers, endorsed the practice. Thanks for the information.
Liz Westwood from UK on December 11, 2018:
I had not realised the history of vegetarianism. I shall be showing your article to my vegetarian daughter.
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on December 10, 2018:
Rochelle Frank from California Gold Country on December 10, 2018:
A very enjoyable feast of facts about vegetarian history. I had no idea that so many famous Victorian age notables chose meatlessness.
Your articles are always of interest.