International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
IVU logo

The Ethics of Diet - A Catena
by Howard Williams M.A., 1883

William Metcalfe M.D. 1788-1862
(text from the 1st edition, 1883 )

Amongst the immediate disciples of the founder of the new community, the most active apostle of the principles of Vegetarianism, William Metcalfe, to whom reference has already been made, claims particular notice. Born at Orton in Westmoreland, after instruction in a classical school kept him by a philologist of some repute, he began life as an accountant at Keighley, in Yorkshire. His leisure hours were devoted to mental culture, both in reading and in poetic composition. Converted by Cowherd in 1809, in the twenty-first year of his age, he abandoned the flesh diet, and remained to the end a firm believer in the truths of "The Perfect Way." In the year following he married the daughter of the Rev. J. Wright who was at the head of the "New Church" at Keighley, and whom he assisted as curate. His wife, of highly-cultured mind, equally with himself was a persistent follower of the reformed mode of living. Sharing the experiences of many other dietary reformers, the young converts encountered much opposition from their family and friends, who attempted at one moment ridicule, at another dissuasion, by appealing to medical authority. Unmoved from their purpose, they continued unshaken in their convictions.

"They assured me," he writes at a later period, "that I was rapidly sinking into a consumption, and tried various other methods to induce me to return to the customary dietetic habits of society; but their efforts proved ineffectual. Some predicted my death in three or four months; and others, on hearing me attempt to defend my course, hesitated not to tell me I was certainly suffering from mental derangement, and, if I continued to live without flesh-food much longer, would unquestionably have to be shut up in some insane asylum. All was unavailing. Instead of sinking into consumption, I gained several pounds in weight during the first few weeks of my experiment. Instead of three or four months bringing me to the silent grave, they brought me to the matrimonial altar.

"She [his wife] fully coincided with my views on vegetable diet, and, indeed, on all other important points was always ready to defend them to the best of her ability - studied to show our acquaintances, whenever they paid us a visit, that we could live, in every rational enjoyment without the use of flesh for food. As she was an excellent cook, we were never at a loss as to what we should eat. We commenced housekeeping in January, 1810, and, from that date to the present time, we have never had a pound of flesh-meat in our dwelling, have never patronised either slaughter-house or spirit shops.

"When, again, in the course of time we were about to be blessed with an addition to our family, a renewed effort was made. We were assured it was impossible for my to get through her confinement without some more strengthening food. Friends and physicians were alike decided upon that point. We were, notwithstanding, unmoved and faithful to our principles. Next we were told by our kind advisers that the little stranger could not be sufficiently nourished unless the mother could eat a little 'meat' once a day; or, if not that, drink a pint or half a pint of ale daily. To both proposals my wife turned a deaf ear; and both she and the child did exceedingly well. (1) It may be proper to add here [remarks the biographer], that the 'little stranger' above referred to is the author of this Memoir, - that he is in the fifty-sixth year of his age, that he has never so much as tasted animal food, nor used intoxicating drinks of any kind, and that he is hale and hearty."

These experiences, it is scarcely necessary to remark, in the lives of followers of reformed dietetics, have been not seldom repeated.

In the Academy of Sciences, instituted by Dr. Cowherd, Metcalfe was invited to assume the direction of the "classical" department (1811). In the same year he took "Orders," and, at the solicitation of the secessionists from the Swedenborgian Communion (which, with some inconsistency, seems to have looked with indifference, or even dislike, upon the principles of akreophagy), he officiated at Adingham, in Yorkshire. By the voluntary aid of one of his admirers a church was built, to which was added a commodious school-room. He then resigned his position under Dr. Cowherd, and opened a grammar school in Adingham, where he was well supported by his friends.

The United States of America, however, was the field to which he had long been looking as the most promising for the mission work to which he had devoted himself; and in this hope he had been sustained by his Master. In the spring of 1817 a company of forty-one persons, members of the Bible Christian community, embarked at Liverpool for Philadelphia. They comprised two clerics - W. Metcalfe and Jas, Clark - twenty other adults, and nineteen children. Of this band only a part were able to resist the numerous temptations to conformity with the prevalent social practices; and the vast distances which separated the leaders from their followers were almost an insuperable bar to sympathy and union. Settling in Philadelphia - for them at least a name of real significance - Metcalfe supported his family by teaching, while performing the duties of his position as head of the faithful few who formed his church. His day-school, which was attended by the sons of some of the leading people of the city, proved to be pecuniarily successful until the appearance of yellow fever in Philadelphia, which broke up his establishment and involved him in great difficulties; for upon his school he depended entirely for his living. He had many influential friends, who tempted him, at this crisis of his fortunes, with magnificent promises of support, if only he would desert the cause he had at heart - the propagandism of a religion based upon principles of true temperance and active goodness. Both moral and physical superiority pointed him out as one who could not fail to bring honour to any undertaking, and, had he sacrificed conviction to interest, he might have greatly advanced his material prospects. All such seductions he firmly resisted.

Meanwhile, through the pulpit, the schoolroom, and, more widely, through the newspapers, he scattered the seeds of the gospel of Humanity. But the spirit of intolerance and persecution, of self-seeking religionism, and of rancorous prejudice, was by no means extinct even in the great republic, and the (so-called) "religious" press united to denounce his humane teaching as well as his more liberal theology. Nor did some of his more unscrupulous opponents hesitate, in the last resort, to raise the war-cry of "infidel" and "sceptic." These assailants he treated with contemptuous silence; but the principle of moral dietetics he defended in the newspapers with ability and vigour. In 1821 he published an essay on Abstinence from the Flesh of Animals, which was freely and extensively circulated. For several years his missionary labours appear to have been unproductive, In the year 1830 he made two notable converts - Dr. Sylvester Graham, who was at that time engaged as a "temperance" lecturer, and was deep in the study of human physiology; and Dr. W. Alcott. Five years later, the Moral Reformer was started as a monthly periodical, which afterwards appeared under the title of the Library of Health. In 1838-9 the Graham Journal was also published in Boston, and scientific societies were organised in many of the New England towns. The Bible was largely appealed to in the controversy, and a sermon of Metcalfe's had an extensive circulation through the United States. With all this controversy upon his hands, he was far from neglecting his private duties, and, in fact, his health was over-taxed in the close and constant work in the schoolrooms, overcrowded and ill-ventilated as they were. In the day and night school he was constantly employed, during one half of the year, from eight in the morning until ten at night; and Sunday brought him no remission of labour.

In the propagandism of his principles through the press he was not idle. The Independent Democrat, and, in 1838, the Morning Star, was printed and published at his own office - by which latter journal, in spite of the promise of support from political friends, he was a pecuniary loser to a large amount. The Temperance Advocate, also issued from his office, had no better success. Several years earlier, about 1820, it is interesting to note, he had published a tract on The Duty of Abstinence from all Intoxicating Drinks; and the founder of the Bible Christian Church in America can claim the merit of having been the first systematically to inculcate this social reform.

In the year 1847 the Vegetarian Society of great Britain had been founded, of which Mr. James Simpson had been elected the first president. Metcalfe immediately proposed the formation of a like society in the United States. He corresponded with Drs. Graham, Alcott, and others; and finally an American Vegetarian Convention assembled in New York, May 15, 1850. Several promoters of the cause, previously unknown to each other (except through correspondence), here met. Metcalfe was elected president of the Convention; addresses were delivered, and the constitution of the society determined upon. The Society was organised by the election of Dr. William Alcott as president, Rev. W. Metcalfe as corresponding secretary, and Dr. Trall as recording secretary. An organ of the society was started in November, 1850, under the title of The American Vegetarian and Health Journal, and under the editorship of Metcalfe. Its regular monthly publication, however, did not begin until; 1851. In that year he was selected as delegate to the English Vegetarian Society, as well as delegate from the Pennsylvania Peace Society to the "World's peace Convention," which was fondly supposed to be about to be inaugurate by the Universal Exhibition of that year. The proceedings at the annual meeting of the Vegetarian Society of Great Britain, and the eloquent address, amongst others, of the American representative, are fully recorded in the Vegetarian Messenger for 1852. On this occasion Joseph Brotherton, M.P. presided.

Two years later he suffered the irreparable loss of the sympathising sharer in his hopes for the regeneration of the world. Mrs. Metcalfe died in the seventy-fourth year of her age, having been, during forty-four years, a strict abstinent. Her loss was mourned by the entire Vegetarian community. By far the larger part of the matter, as well as the expenses of publication, of the American Vegetarian, was supplied by the editor, and, being inadequately supported by the rest of the community, the managers were forced to abandon its further publication. The last volume appeared in 1854. It has been succeeded in later times under happier circumstances, by the Health Reformer which is still in existence.

In 1855 Metcalfe received an invitation to undertake the duties attached to the mother church at Salford. Leaving his brother-in-law in charge of the church in Philadelphia, he embarked for England once more, and in the most memorable event, during his stay in this country, was the deeply and sincerely lamented death of Joseph Brotherton, who for twenty years had represented Salford in the legislature, and whose true benevolence had endeared him to the whole community. Metcalfe was chosen to preach the funeral eulogy, which was listened to by a large number of Members of Parliament and municipal officers, and by an immense concourse of private citizens. Returning to America soon afterwards, at the urgent request of his friends in Philadelphia, he was, in 1859, elected to fill the place of president vacated by Dr. Alcott, whose virtues and labours in the cause he commemorated in a just eulogy. His own death took place in the year 1862, in the seventy-fifth year of his age, caused by haemorrhage of the lungs, doubtless the effect of excessive work. His end, like his whole interior if not exterior life, was, in the best meaning of a too conventional expression, full of peace and of hope. His best panegyric is to be found in his life-work; and, as the first who systematically taught the truths of reformed dietetics in the "New World," he has deserved the unceasing gratitude of all sincere reformers in the United States, and, indeed, throughout the globe. By all who knew him personally he was as much loved as he was esteemed, and the newspapers of the day bore witness to the general lamentation for his loss. (2)

 

    Footnotes

    1. Memoir of the Rev. William Metcalfe, M.D. by his son, Rev. Joseph Metcalfe, Philadelphia, 1866.
    2. See Memoir of the Rev. William Metcalfe. by his son, the Rev. J. Metcalfe, Philadelphia, J. Capen. 1866.

Howard Williams, The Ethics of Diet - index