William Cowherd. 1763-1816
(text from the 1st edition, 1883)
In any history of Vegetarianism it is impossible to omit record of the lives and labours of the institutors of a religious community who, in establishing human dietetics as an essential condition of membership, may well claim the honourable title of religious reformers, and to whom belongs the singular merit of being the first and only founders of a Christian church who have inculcated a true religion of life as the basis of their teaching.
William Cowherd, the first founder of this new conception of the Christian religion, which assumed the name of the "Bible Christian Church," was born at Carnforth, near Lonsdale, in 1763. His first appearance in public was as teacher of philology in a theological college at Beverley. Afterwards, coming to Manchester, he acted as curate to the Rev. J. Clowes, who, while remaining a member of the Established Church, had adopted the theological system of Swedenborg. Cowherd attached himself to the same mystic creed, and he is said to be one of the few students of him who have ever read through all the Latin writings of the Swedish theologian. He soon resigned his curacy, and for a short time he preached in the Swedenborgian temple in Peter Street. There he seems not to have found the freedom of opinion and breadth in teaching he had expected, and he determined to propagate his own convictions, independently of other authority. In the year 1800 he built, at his own expense, Christ Church, in King Street, Salford - the first meeting place of the reformed church. (1) His extraordinary eloquence and ability as well as earnestness of purpose may well have brought to recollection the style and matter of the great orator of Constantinople of the fourth century. One characteristic of his Church - perhaps unique at that time - was the non-appropriation of sittings. Another unfashionable opinion held by him was the Pauline one of obligation upon Christian preachers to maintain themselves by some "secular" labour, and he therefore kept a boarding school, which attained extensive proportions. In this college some zealous and able men, who afterwards were ordained by him to carry on a truly beneficent ministry, assisted in the work of teaching, of whom the names of Metcalfe, Clark, and Schofield are particularly noteworthy. Following out the principles of their Master, two of them took degrees in medicine, and gained their living by that profession. The Principal himself built an institute, connected with his church in Hulme, where, more recently, the late Mr. James Gaskill presided, who, at his death, left an endowment for its perpetuation as an educational establishment.
It was in the year 1809 that Cowherd formally promulgated, as cardinal doctrines of his system, the principle of abstinence from flesh-eating, which, in the first instance, he seems to have derived from "the medical arguments of Dr. Cheyne and the humanitarian sentiments of St. Pierre." He died not many years after this formal declaration of faith and practice, not without the satisfaction of knowing that able and earnest disciples would carry on the great work of renovating the religious sentiment for the humanisation of the world.
Of those followers not the least eminent was Joseph Brotherton, the first M.P. for Salford, than which borough none has been more truly honoured by the choice of its legislative representative. A printing press had been set up at the Institution, and, after the death of the Master, his Facts Authentic in Science and Religion towards a New Foundation of the Bible, under which title he had collected the most various matter illustrative of passages in the Bible, and in defence of his own interpretation of them, was there printed. It is, as his biographer has well described it, "a lasting memorial of his wide reading and research - travelers, lawyers, poets, physicians, all are pressed into his service - the whole work forming a large quarto common-place book filled with reading as delightful as it is discursive. Some of his minor writings have also been printed. He was, besides his theological erudition, a practical chemist and astronomer, and he caused the dome of the church in King Street to be fitted up for the joint purpose of an observatory and a laboratory. His microscope is still preserved in the Peel Park Museum. His valuable library, which at one time was accessible to the public on easy terms is now deposited in the new Bible Christian Church in Cross Lane. The books collected exhibit the strong mind which brought them together for its own uses. This library is the workshop in which he wrought out a new mode of life and a new theory of doctrine - with these instruments he moulded minds like that of Brotherton, and so his influence has worked in many unseen channels." He died in 1816, and is buried in front of his chapel, in King Street, Salford. (2)