International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
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1847-1981 :

A thesis presented to the London School of Economics, University of London,
for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, by Julia Twigg
©AUTUMN 1981 - Thesis Index

The author is now Professor of Social Policy and Sociology at Kent University, England, and has given permission for this previously unpublished thesis to be published on the IVU website. The ownership and copyright remain hers and no part of this thesis may be used elsewhere without her express permission.


[Numerical links are to the author's footnotes, use your back button to return to the same point in the text. Text links are to relevant items on the IVU website, all open in new windows. The original was text-only, all pictures have been added.]

It was out of the Bible Christian Church that the Vegetarian Society developed [editor's note ], and the two are in this early period so intertwined that this and the following subchapter on the Society must be read together.

The Bible Christians (1) - often called Cowherdites after their founder William Cowherd - were an offshoot of eighteenth-century Swedenborgianism. In 1773 Swedenborg's writings had attracted the attention of the Reverend John Clowes, rector of St. John's Manchester, and he became a leading follower of Swedenborg, though, despite doubts and criticism, he remained in the Church of England. Swedenborg had originally hoped that his ideas would permeate the established churches and lead to their spiritual rebirth, rather than form the basis of a separate sect, and Clowes, like many other Anglicans, found the church sufficiently tolerant of his views. Other Swedenborgians, however, including many who were dissenters, found their churches less accommodating, and from these groups came the main drive to establish separate Swedenborgian congregations. In the late eighteenth century these formed themselves into the New Church. (2) The desire for a separate Swedenborgian church was also felt among some of Clowes' congregation, and in 1793 they formed themselves into the New Jerusalem Temple, Peter Street, Manchester, and they invited Clowes' ex-curate, William Cowherd, to become their minister. In 1800, after a disagreement, Cowherd left Peter Street, and opened his own chapel at Christ Church, King Street, Salford. By 1808, through a combination of differences in interpretation and in personality, relations between Cowherd and the New Church, especially the London congregations, were increasingly strained. The break finally came in 1809 when Cowherd unfolded his new beliefs in vegetarianism and total abstinence; (3) from then on these were to be the two distinctive features and enthusiasms of the Bible Christians, as they were now to call themselves.

click on pictures for bigger images

church 1
King Street Chapel and William Cowherd's tomb, Salford.

Rev. William Metcalfe
Philapelphia Minister 1817-1862

Philadelphia: 'First Church Edifice, Third Street above Girard Avenue 1823-1844'

bcc 1845
'This building, erected in 1845, replaced the original frame structure on the same site, Third Street above Girard Avenue.'

Newsletter showing the Cross Lane Chapel, Salford

Centenary Souvenir, Salford - in conjunction with the 1909 IVU Congress

Before we look at the Bible Christians themselves, however, we need to place this schismatic version of Swedenborgianism within the wider context of an older, non-orthodox religious tradition, for Swedenborgianisrn, whether in the form of the New Church or in the more diffuse influence of Swedenborg's writings, is part of a more enduring, though submerged, religious strand that can be traced from at least the seventeenth century, and that is most clearly associated with the influence of Jacob Boehme. (4) John Harrison believes that this 'mystical, antinomian' strand achieved in the eighteenth century a degree of popular following, and he identifies as the central features of this Behmenist influence: 'first, that all things have an outward and an inward form, and the former is the reflection or parable of the latter; and second, that God is made manifest within men'. (5) These were allied to a mystical apprehension of nature that drew on alchemic and astrological ideas and that can be said to have preserved elements of the hermetic tradition. As we shall see in subsequent chapters, there are important similarities between this earlier religious tradition and late-nineteenth and twentieth century developments in the broad context of Indian spirituality and of various forms of esotericism. While one need not accept the pedigrees that such gnostic groups have, since the late nineteenth century, produced to validate themselves, there are sufficient similarities to suggest the existence here of an enduring and coherent strand within the western religious tradition. The principle features of this centre around: the tendency to self-deification and God as indwelling; a neo-palagian strand of perfectionism; an interest in symbolism and in the microcosm/macrocosm analogy; an immanantist approach to the natural world; a concern with purity, sometimes including sexual purity or ideas of divine marriage; an emphasis on Spirit and Love; and, sometimes, on female symbolism. Vegetarianism is also a recurring association. It is essentially non-normative, both in the sense of being outside the socially accepted versions of religion, and in the sense of not being involved in the validation of social structures. Later periods add other features such as reincarnation.

Cowherd at Salford attracted a large following among the working class that extended beyond the actual membership of the sect, restricted by its temperance and vegetarian demands. (6) This was partly through their offering free seats and an open burial ground, but it was due also to Cowherd's concern for the poor - the people came to him for medical help and for his well-known soup. This approach was continued in other Bible Christian chapels, situated in the depressed areas of Hulme and Ancoats.

In 1817 a section of the congregation, some twenty adults and nineteen children, fired with the idea of America, set sail under the leadership of the Reverend William Metcalfe. (7) America at this time exerted a powerful appeal for radicals who saw in it the home of free republican institutions. (8) After many difficulties Metcalfe established a congregation in Philadelphia and began to make contact with the forerunners of American vegetarianism - Dr William Alcott, Bronson Alcott and Sylvester Graham. Metcalfe himself returned to England on more than one occasion to act as pastor for the Bible Christians and to work as a lecturer for the Vegetarian Society. The English Bible Christians retained close links with their sister congregation in Philadelphia, and through them with the American Vegetarian Society. It is clear that the Bible Christians, and later the Vegetarian Society, belong to what Thistlewaite has called the Atlantic Community, that shared network of contacts and friendships on both sides of the Atlantic, centred around the humanitarian crusade, anti-slavery, peace and temperance, and ultimately resting on the interdependence of the Atlantic economy. (9) The Concordium's connections with the New England Transcendentalists are also part of this; and English vegetarianism retains its close American links until at least the 1870's. (10)

The Cowherdites had chosen the title Bible Christian to denote their reliance on scripture alone as the source of doctrine. (11) Despite the shared name, there were no links between the Cowherdite Bible Christians and the Bryanite Methodists; indeed like the main branch of Swedenborgianism represented by the New Church, their religion was markedly different in character from Methodism and from the traditions of Old Dissent, for though Biblical exegesis was central, following Swedenborg's 'science of correspondences' they applied a symbolic and rationalistic approach to scripture that was very different from the literalist and fundamentalist traditions. (12) The author of the preface to Cowherd's Facts Authentic to Science and Religion, probably Scholefield, attacked literalist interpretations as often absurd and even at times counter to the true essence of biblical religion, repudiating 'dry disquisitions about words' and urging that people look behind these fallible products of man for the true principles of religion which are grounded in religious 'facts', (13) In the same way that science is grounded, so too can religion be, when it rests on facts revealed through scripture, properly understood. The approach was strongly rationalistic, and the model was science. Science at this time held a strong appeal for working-class radicals. It represented the fount of reason, providing true knowledge of the world and of men. It was part of the enlightenment attack on obfuscation and priestcraft, and as such on privilege and traditional claims to power. This rationalistic approach gave an intellectualist cast to their appeal. The Bible Christians formed part of what has been termed the proletarian enlightenment, and this was reflected in their strong interest in medicine, science and education. We shall discuss this background further in the context of the Vegetarian Society. (14) The Bible Christians put great emphasis on independence of mind; 'we do not really believe what we cannot rationally understand' (15) and they emphasised freedom of belief, stating that they did not presume 'to exercise any dominion over the faith or conscience of men'. (16) They recorded that 'they did not form a sectarian church', (17) for in the same way that science has no sects, they argued, religion, properly understood, reveals the same truth to all men. Their vaunting of reason and their popular scientism makes them at times appear very like the deists, and they clearly operated in the same social and intellectual milieu as did the early working-class deists and free thinkers; indeed Richard Carlile took the view that 'this sect of Bible Christians is so mixed up with infidelity and made up of infidels that it is to me incomprehensible' (18)

It was an approach that stressed religious optimism - original sin, the cross and salvation were set aside – and Christ's divine humanity glorified, so that man's aspiration became to realise the divine humanity within himself. There was no emphasis on personal sin or conversion. Man was not saved by the experience of faith, so much as by the value of his life as a whole. Their strong belief in free-will gave a Pelagian tone to their approach; the emphasis was on spiritual and moral regeneration according to principles rationally apprehended, and their vegetarianism was part of this.

Central to Swedenborgianism was the assertion of' the reality of and primacy of spirit. Swedenborg, though trained in the new scientific world view, had turned away from its single world to assert the reality of another realm of being. (Though this did not, as we have seen, among the Bible Christians at this time imply the rejection of science.) This was the realm of true causes behind the surface phenomena of the material world; here, states of being rather than the measured time and space of science were the fundamental categories. Events in the world incarnate the deeper reality of spirit, which reality is made accessible through the doctrine of correspondences, and the literal events and descriptions found in the Bible are thus symbols of deeper religious truth. (19) It was an easy step from this cognitive style to the idea of eating patterns as manifesting a deeper moral relationship. Though Swedenborg does not appear himself to have been a full vegetarian, (20) his characterisation of meat-eating as symbolic of man's Fall lends itself to obvious vegetarian development. (21)

There is an implicit dualism in this tradition and certain thinkers, perhaps including Cowherd, took up its radical implications and argued for a total primacy of spirit; thus all the Trinity and not just the Holy Ghost was pure spirit and the death of Christ, so far from being the means of the atonement of the material world, was symbolic of the sacrifice of bodily necessity to free the spirit. Man too could become fully spirit, and thus restore the open vision which he had once enjoyed and which Swedenborg had experienced in his visions of Heaven and Hell. Eating the more spiritual food could be part of this. (22) However the secular activities of the Bible Christians suggest that this dualist implication of some of their thought was much tempered in practice, and developments within the church and its partial transmogrification into the Vegetarian Society in the 1850's represent a subtle but important shift on this issue.

  1. 18.The most useful account of the Bible Christians comes from W.E.A. Axon, The History of the Bible Christian Church, Salford, Manchester, 1909. Axon (1846-1913) was a member of the church, a librarian and journalist. See brief biography in Manchester Faces and Places, Vol III, Manchester, 1892, p109 and obituary in VM, Feb 1914, p52.
  2. 19.I am indebted to Peter Lineham for information concerning the Swedenborgian groups.
  3. 20.See VM, Aug 1850, p107, for an account of this in the memoir of John Wright, 'the Bolton Philosopher'.
  4. 21.See, for example, the seventeenth-century vegetarian Thomas Tryon. Tryon was a follower of Boehme, who as well as advocating vegetarianism promoted raw food, the reduction of luxury and abstinence from tea, coffee and tobacco. See his Wisdom's Dictates, 1691 and an account of Tryon by Alexander Gordon, A Pythagorean of the Seventeenth Century, Liverpool 1871. See also Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, 1971, for Tryon and the Behmenist background. For Boehme see, John Joseph Stoudt, Sunrise to Eternity: A Study of Jacob Boehme's Life and Thought, Philadelphia, 1957.
  5. 22.J.F.C. Harrison, The Second Coming: Popular Milienarianism, 1780-1850, 1979, p20,
  6. 23.W.R, Ward gives the occupation, of the majority of Bible Christians as silk weavers, 'Swedenhorgianism: Heresy, Schism, or Religious Protest', D. Baker, ed, Schism, Heresy and Religious Protest, Cambridge, 1972. See also p88 for these working-class links.
  7. 24.WILLIAM METCALFE 1788-1862, went as an accountant to Keighley where he came under the influence of the Swedenborgian Reverend Joseph Wright whose daughter, Susanna, he married. He then became a teacher of classics at Cowherd's academy while studying there to become a minister. He was ordained in 1811, and was established at Adingham where he founded a grammar school. In 1850 he helped to found the American Vegetarian Society. (See Reverend Joseph Metcalfe, Memoir of the Reverend Wm. Metcalfe, M.D. Philadelphia, 1866).
  8. 25.'The civil and religious freedom of the people of the United States has been the topic of many an hour's conversation among the teachers of the Salford Academy and the members of the church', Joseph Metcalfe quotes this remark of his father in his Memoir of the Reverend Wm Metcalfe, M.D. For the American history see also, The History of the Philadelphia Bible Christian Church, 1817-1917 [2mb PDF], Maintenance Committee, Philadelphia 1922. The committee included the aged H.S. Clubb - 92 at the time – whose memories went back to the Concordium and the early years of the Vegetarian Society.
  9. 26.Frank Thistlewaite, America and the Atlantic Community, 1790-1850, Pennsylvania, 1959.
  10. 27.Figures like Dr T.L.NICHOLS and his wife MARY S.GOVE NICHOLS, for example, were influential in London diet-reform circles in the 1860s and '70s. The Nichols' had been influenced by Henry Gardiner Wright of the Concordium, who had been a patient of Preissnitz, and by Sylvester Graham, and they were important in the linking, of diet reform and water cure. They were also advocates of divorce reform and, to some degree, free love (Mrs Nichols had left her first husband). Mrs Nichols was a feminist and a water-cure practitioner in her own right, lecturing on health to women. She had, like her parents, revolted against New England Puritanism and. had been influenced by mystical Quakerism and Swedenborgianism, and like many of the latter was involved in Spiritualism; she eventually became a Roman Catholic. The Nichols moved to England in 1861 on the outbreak of the American Civil War, where he founded and edited the Herald of Health. See T.L. Nichols, Nichols' Health Manual, being also a Memorial of the Life and Work of Mrs Mary S. Gove Nichols, 1887; Mary S. Gove Nichols, Experience in Water Cure . . . , New York, 1849; C.W. Forward, Fifty Years . . . , p45, and John B. Blake, 'Health Reform', E.S. Gausted, ed, The Rise of Adventism: Religion and Society in Mid-Nineteenth Century America, New York, 1975.
  11. 28.See Axon, p22, for an account of the 1809 Conference that defined the character of the church.
  12. 29.InThe History of the Philadelphia Bible Christian Church, 1817-1917 [2mb PDF], reference is made to the churches of the period insisting on the zealous adherence to literal details of creeds and texts: 'No latitude was allowed to rationalise any doctrine' and Metcalfe's approach is contrasted favourably with this.
  13. 30.Preface to Facts Authentic to Science and Religion, William Cowherd, Salford, 1818 and 1820. (Published after his death in 1816).
  14. 31.Many pastors of the church - Cowherd, Scholefield, Metcalfe - practised medicine, both orthodox (Metcalfe graduated as MD in America) and unorthodox, frequently homeopathic. This combination of the religious and medical vocations exemplified the linking of the moral and the medical that is characteristic of vegetarianism. Cowherd himself carried out chemical experiments and made astronomical observations (see Axon). The quotations gathered in his Facts Authentic.., display his reading of scientific works. For the educational links see p101. This background and the religious tone of the church bear out the argument of Stuart Mews that working-class religion was not at this time confined to highly emotional versions of Christianity but that intellectualist approaches also had appeal, especially to some radicals. 'Reason and Emotion in Working Class Religion, 1794-1824, D. Baker, ed, Schism, Heresy, and Religious Protest, Cambridge, 1972.
  15. 32.Preface to Facts Authentic...
  16. 33.Report of the Conference held at Christ Church, Salford, 1809, quoted by Axon, p22.
  17. 34.Ibid. Hostile critics like Hindmarsh and ex-members like Detrosier present the Bible Christians very much as an exclusive and eccentric sect. See Robert Hindrnarsh, The Rise and Progress of the New Jerusalem Church, 1834, for an unflattering account of Cowherd and his followers. The Westminster Review, 1852, p405 rather grandly refers to them as a 'humble and fanatical’ in its article on 'Physical Puritanism'.
  18. 35.The Lion, Vol i, 1828. The ease with which Detrosier moved from the orbit of the Bible Christians to that of deism reinforces the point (see p103), The Dietetic Reformer, April  1863, p46, makes reference to Cowherd's 'advanced doctrines which were at that time considered by some too philosophical to be called religious’.
  19. 36.For example, in Swedenborg's Arcana Caelestia, the Creation in Genesis is interpreted as the stages in the regeneration of man. This approach perhaps lies behind some of the unexpected imagery of the Bible-Christian hymns. Though their hymn book contains explicitly vegetarian and tee-total hymns, it also, under the section Holy Supper, includes hymns like No 125 that take up traditional eucharistic imagery: 'His blood is drink indeed/His flesh is sacred food'. (Selected Hymns for the Use of Bible Christians, W. Cowherd, appendix by Scholefield., 7th ed., Manchester, 1841). This perverse use of imagery seems almost to have had a positive appeal within the convoluted interpretations of the Bible Christians. Playing with such imagery perhaps underlined the drama of the 'correspondences': the symbol of what was polluting in material animal terms became transformed when related to God in the spiritual reality.
  20. 37.Despite arguments by the Bible Christians. See W.E.A. Axon's pamphlet on the topic, Was Swedenborg a Vegetarian? Manchester, 1910.
  21. 38.See Arcana Caelestia, Vol I, Swedenborg, trs Clowes, 1783, 1806 ed.
  22. 39.John Wright gives an account of Cowherd's preaching on the issue: ‘partaking of flesh was a result of the fall of man; and consequently was incompatible with that state of resurrection from sensual to spiritual existence . . . that flesh tended to inflame the passions, and to sensualise the man; and consequently to impede the reception in the soul, of heavenly love and wisdom'. VM, Aug 1850, p107.

    Editor's note: this statement is a little generous, the Vegetarian Society developed from three separate organisations, though it was the Bible Christians who ensured it survived. See The Origins of the Vegetarians for a more detailed account.

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