|International Vegetarian Union (IVU)|
A thesis presented to the London School of Economics, University of London,
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now Professor of Social Policy and Sociology at Kent University, England, and has given permission for this previously unpublished thesis to be published on the IVU website.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.
CHAPTER SIX: THE LATE NINETEENTH AND EARLY TWENTIETH CENTURIES.
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THE RELIGIOUS BACKGROUND
We can turn now to the main movements with which vegetarianism had affinities.
The background in liberal theism is perhaps best illustrated in the person of Francis Newman whose Phases of Faith was one of the classic accounts of the earlier phase of the Victorian crisis of faith. Newman eventually arrived at a mystical version of religion, rooted in the experience of God in the individual soul, and allied to a belief in the absolute primacy of moral duty. (1) Many in ethicalist and liberal Christian circles reached a similar position. (2) Of great influence in this milieu was American transcendentalism.
American transcendentalism had of course, already been influential in vegetarian circles in the period of the Concordium; however in the later nineteenth century it achieved a new degree of influence, and through the 1880s accounts of and quotations from Emerson and Thoreau become increasingly common both in the vegetarian magazines and more widely. (3) New England Transcendentalism had itself developed out of, and in reaction against, puritanism, and it stressed optimism, the divinity of human nature, the romantic glorification of consciousness, and the pointlessness of creeds and. dogmas; it also retained a strong ethical bias. (4) Its similarity in character to English liberal religion meant that Emersonianism became at this time a sort of theology for these advanced religious circles. Its influence also reached many indirectly through the writings of Carpenter.
The language of transcendentalism is vague and amorphous, with its emphasis on Oneness, Wholeness and the mystic unity of the soul and the universe; and its very cloudiness made it more a language of feeling - its works were read almost as devotional texts - than a system of ideas. (5) What it did stand for, however, was a reassertion of the possibility of vision in the world, and of the central reality of the individual.
The third major area of association was with the arrival of Indian religion. Though the Indian religious texts had by the early nineteenth century already begun to reach the west – the New England Transcendentalists, for example, were among those influenced by them - it is from the 1880s that the popular impact of Indian religion establishes itself, and the vegetarian magazines reflect these developments: Max Müller's work is reviewed with respect, and Arnold's Light of Asia quoted; and it is clear from Gandhi's autobiography that the vegetarians were much interested in the Indian spiritual tradition. (6) An important milestone here was the World Parliament of Religions at the 1893 Chicago World Fair, to which the Vegetarian Society sent a delegation. (7) [editor's note] The enthusiasm for eastern religion was a widely based phenomenon, though its best known institutional expression was in the Theosophical Society founded in 1875. (8) Madame Blavatski was not herself a vegetarian, though many of her followers were, and Annie Besant was a prominent speaker in the cause. (9) Theosophy had a wide general influence among the vegetarians; and through Edward Carpenter, Indian thought also reached socialist circles. (10)
The interest in eastern religion was very generalised; no great distinction was made between the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, nor in the case of Kingsford and Maitland, between these and the gnostic and occult traditions of the West. Carpenter similarly wove together ideas taken from Indian material with those of the transcendentalists; he was not unusual in this, for what people sought and found in Indian thought was very similar to the critical values expressed in the transcendental tradition; and Coomaraswamy pointed out that: 'the "New Theology" is little else than Hinduism'. (11) For most people it was not so much a direct commitment to Indian beliefs, so much as to the powerful image of Indian Spirituality; and to an important extent their conception of Indian religion took its form from what were felt to be the deficiencies and errors of western culture. India came to represent the great polar image of the West. It was a development that was not confined to the religious sphere, the Arts and Crafts movement, particularly through the influence of Coomaraswamy, (12) who in the mid 1900s belonged to Ashbee's Cotswold circle, saw in India the kind of pre-industrial, craft society where art was fully integrated into life, where community was strong and labour unalienated, that they dreamed of re-establishing.
The process of discovery and selection whereby Indian religion came into popular consciousness is a complex one, made more so by the transformations that native Hinduism itself underwent in response to the particular focus of interest of the West and to its political position. (13) However, certain features of the West's apprehension do stand out. First, the interior, intuitive aspects of the East were stressed. (14) Coomaraswamy declared that the 'Message of the East' was precisely: 'Look within : Thou art Buddha'; (15) and the most profound influence of Indian thought has always centred on the conception of the identity of Brahman and Atman - a conception that underpins the ideas referred to earlier in the context of inner being. Secondly, caste is denigrated and perceived as a corruption of true Hinduism, and an ethic of universal brotherhood is substituted. Thirdly, in vegetarian circles, there is an emphasis put upon the exemplary figure of the Buddha and particularly on his concern for the animals (there are echoes here also of the late nineteenth century Protestant cult of St Francis), and a central place is given to the Bhagavad Gita whose similarities to the Sermon on the Mount - always a central text in these religious circles - is not missed.
The close connection of this eastern inspired religious strain with vegetarianism is less a result of direct cultural contact than of congruence, for in the process of cultural selection referred to, a phenomenon like vegetarianism – though not one like caste, nor other of the forms of ritual impurity - passes through the cultural filter because it relates to an already established western language. Two figures in particular illustrate this mixture of eastern and western spiritual ideas and their relation to vegetarianism they are Anna Kingsford and Edward Maitland.
Anna Kingsford was born in 1846, the daughter of a prosperous city merchant. After what Maitland described as an isolated and sickly childhood - she died young, at the age of thirty four - she married her cousin, the Reverend Algernon Kingsford, though by amicable agreement they lived largely separate lives. Both she and Maitland were converted to vegetarianism by her brother, John Bonus. Against considerable opposition she trained in Paris as one of the first women doctors, and wrote for her thesis on the physiology of vegetarian diet; this was published in revised form in 1881 as The Perfect Way in Diet. She was vice-president of the Vegetarian Society. Her deepest feelings were always for animals, and she crusaded against vivisection - something that exposed her to vilification, as her opposition was seen as part of a womanly unfitness for the medical profession. With Edward Maitland, her close partner and biographer, she explored spiritualism, mysticism and the occult. They were involved in the Theosophical Society, but broke away in 1884 to form the Hermetic Society, dedicated to promoting the gnostic, cabalistic and Pythagorean traditions. Their ideas were developed in such close relationship that I shall treat them as one, the principle differences being ones of personality. Maitland was older than Kingsford - he was fifty when they met in 1874. After leaving Cambridge, he abandoned his plan to take orders and set out instead to acquire 'true knowledge'; this led him to the influence of Emerson, Carlyle, and later Swedenborg, Boehme and Plotinus. (16)
Central to their ideas was the belief that everything was a manifestation of Being; there was no dualism in matter and spirit; there was only universal consciousness in different modes. (17) From this flowed the 'key revelation' of the substantial identity of God and Man, (18) and thus that 'self culture is God culture'. (19) 'God is the birthright of every man', (20) and Christ was here seen as representing the ultimate potentiality of man for complete being. (21) This state of complete being encompassed the supernatural. (22) Kingsford and Maitland hated in particular the image of Christ as the tortured and crucified, and like many in the esoteric tradition, rejected the tradition of the 'man of sorrows' and presented Christ instead as a shining youth 'lovely and blooming, surrounded by vines, doves, lambs and fishes'. (23) This they believed was the true and original image; and the crime of traditional religion had been that it had distorted this and presented a 'low conception of God'. (24)
This presentation of Christ is significant in the context of their vegetarianism because it draws on a recurring image within vegetarianism - one that will be discussed later in their symbolism of the purified body - and one through which the theology of immanence is linked with the cult of health and well being; and their belief that self-culture is god-culture lies at the 1eart of the spiritual/physiological link that underpins their vegetarianism. Both Kingsford and Maitland stress the spiritual benefits of the diet - its ‘sensitising effect' for the reception of messages from beyond, (25) and they believed that the adoption helped them in their dreams, visions and spirit writing. (Vegetarianism was often found in spiritualist and psychical circles.) (26) Maitland testified how: 'the wall which seemed always to he shut in his mental vision, when he tried to look inwards, seemed removed. (27) Maitland believed that meat eating, inculcated by 'priestcraft' was the cause of our failing to achieve our true natures:
This brings us to the final category, that of the religion of nature. The religion of nature and the ideal of the simple life were in this period largely co-extensive; however, I shall touch here on the strain that found in nature a source of religious significance. Nature as religion was often explicitly non-Christian, and frequently set in opposition to conventional morality. Richard Jeffries' The Story of My Heart, is the classic in the field. Among the vegetarians the clearest exponent was William Jupp, though Semple, Redfern and Carpenter provide further examples.
William Jupp, (29) having lost his father at an early age, was brought up, separated from his mother, in a Calvinist atmosphere which he describes as terrible, blighted and oppressive. At the age of thirteen he moved to town to learn a trade, which he hated. In these years, under the influence of the first of many pantheistic experiences of a Presence in the world that was loving and kindly, he broke free from the old religious creed. From then on, he reported, religion was no longer a 'painful mystery of dread'. He trained as a Congregational minister but found the corrosive impact of the Higher Criticism lead to the collapse of his evangelical beliefs; though a more fundamental influence was the impact of Emerson and Thoreau and. the renewed vision he gained, while a minister in Croydon and walking in the Surrey Hills, of Nature as instinct with Religion. Before this reality he felt there was no need of theology or creeds. During the 1880s he was a leading figure in the Fellowship of the New Life. He left the ministry, and founding the Ethical and Religious Fellowship in Croydon, made his living from Sunday addresses to the fellowship and to the many ethical societies that were then springing up. He eventually ended his days in Letchworth Garden City.
Across the pathway of the vegetarians and especially of the religion of nature lay the problem of evolution. The Darwinian revolution had presented nature as an aimless universe, indifferent to morality, throwing up and allowing to die the random variations of the species. The Victorian age was one that took great delight in the beauties of nature and part of the agony of the loss of faith in this period under the impact of evolutionary ideas arose from the sense that the vision and meaning in creation had been replaced by the cold mechanistic worldview of science. The very prodigality of Nature in its pointlessness and its indifferent cruelty were ideas quite alien to the vegetarian spirit, but evolution was an immensely powerful idea and one that could not simply be put aside, particularly since many vegetarians were drawn from sections of society that followed popular scientific developments and associated the advance of science with the attack on established privilege. During the late sixties and seventies, the decades in which the theory took hold, there is relatively little mention of it in vegetarian writing; for it was not until the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first of this, that the resolution was achieved. What happened was that evolution was turned on its head and given a radical reinterpretation; and Jupp in his Religion of Nature and Human Experience gives us a classic example of this. (30) After praising Wordsworth as the first great prophet of the religion of nature, he turns to Darwin and his Origin of Species and The Descent of Man and makes the startling comment that:
'What Wordsworth felt concerning the relations of Man to Nature, Darwin proved to have a reasonable basis in fact'. (32) The fears that had initially been felt concerning evolution, Jupp declared, were groundless; rather 'to many of us it has proved one of the strong intellectual supports of a reasonable and reverent religious faith'. (33) Religious aspiration was still possible, for in the movement from the lower to the higher forms lay the promise of movement to yet higher forms. Thus the second aspect of evolution that had threatened traditional religion – the destruction of the absolute barrier between man and the beasts, with its implications for the soul – proved positively beneficial to the vegetarians. At last there was scientific proof for their holistic feelings - for Whitman's cry, quoted by Jupp, that 'a vast similitude interlocks all. (34) it is a significant aspect of his religion of nature that Jupp credits Wordsworth, the great prophet of this, with - against all the evidence - 'vigorous physical health'. (35) The visionary religion of nature could not be denied its bodily expression, nor be disentangled from natural health.
Jupp explicitly rejects the view that nature can have nothing to do with ethics, and that human ideals are in direct conflict with evolutionary forces. Newman had been unusual among the vegetarians (and he perhaps points to the contrast between the 1870s and the later period) in his belief that moral imperatives - in this case the duty not to cause suffering to animals - were. of a different order to natural phenomena, and that the humanitarian argument, which he saw as central, could make no appeal to ideas of the Natural, (36) Jupp in contrast argues that it was wrong to cut up the organic unity of Nature; man too was a child of Nature and she would not betray him - her beauty was the pledge of his moral ideals. (37)
The vegetarians thus retained the language and references of evolution but gave it a totally different meaning. The process was given a romantic Hegelian significance, and Nature, far from being indifferent, becomes the central embodiment of meaning. There is a grand planned system in the universe and a moral core at the heart of nature.
The religion of nature was to be a real religion rooted in a this-worldly reality:
It was a religion of Sunday walks and not of attendance at church:
When conscious of moral ailments, many still cringe and call themselves "miserable sinners" shrinking into the confessional to tell their real or imaginary crimes to the priest, others have found that to walk alone in some quiet place under the skies of heaven and then return to honest labour is a far nobler and surer way of access to the peace of reconciliation and recovery in virtue and purity of heart. (39)
This holistic religion of nature was very much concerned with the goodness of man and of the universe. Pain and suffering are caused by artificial ways, unnatural traditions 'sin is another word for ugliness' (40) Natural ethics were also natural aesthetics and the true ethical impulse became to make life beautiful. (41) It was through the beauty of nature that we become aware of the ultimate unity that lies behind all things and of which we are part. (42) it was a theodicy that rested upon the experience of the beauty of the world and this vision at times even contained within it the transcendence and denial of death. (43)
Editor's note: to be precise the Vegetarian Society sent the delegation to the International Vegetarian Congress, also at the World's Fair, and included the Religious meetings while they were there. Annie Besant attended the Parliament of Religions separately.