|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now Professor of Social Policy and Sociology at Kent University, England, and has given permission for this previously unpublished thesis to be published on the IVU website.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
There are a series of interconnected religious movements with which vegetarianism is at this time associated and which give it its religious flavour. They are: liberal Christianity, the influence of American transcendentalism, the arrival of Indian religious ideas, the religion of nature and the religion of socialism. (1) All of these are outside orthodox religion, and all are primarily currents of ideas rather than institutional groups. Those vegetarians that were connected with orthodox religion tended to continue the non-conformist link; Anglican following the usual pattern with vegetarianism and institutions of the centre - were rare. (2) These religious currents are strongly interrelated, both in that people move from the influence of one to another, are indeed involved with several at the same time, and in that there are certain underlying themes shared by all of them. Before looking at the movements themselves, I shall touch on some of the shared themes.
The most important common link in the background of many in this milieu was the inheritance from evangelicalism; and an evangelical childhood is a common feature in the biographies of vegetarians. Evangelicalism, though by the mid-century well on the wane, still remained a formative influence, producing an intense reaction against its doctrines and its heavy psychological demands to believe, at the same time as creating a cast of mind still receptive to the broad form of religious ideals and emotions. (3) Vegetarianism, particularly in some of its health and moral concerns, can be seen as a secular transformation of this impulse.
In particular, many attacked what was seen as the evangelical denigration of the self, bound up in the presentation of man as a child of sin, corrupt and utterly below God; and a powerful motive behind the rejection of orthodoxy was the moral repugnance felt for the wrathful God of the Old Testament and the Protestant tradition. Fearful childhoods with stories of everlasting punishment were rejected, together with the tortured conscience and tortured Christ of the Atonement. Maitland experienced this very strongly, revolting against his background among 'the strictest of evangelical sects', with its doctrines of essential depravity and vicarious atonement, which he believed kept men in slavery and darkness: 'However weak and unwise I might be, I was not evil'. (4) Carpenter believed that the sense of sin was essentially morbid and should never be cultivated as it was in Christianity. (5) The adoption of free Christianity, or Indian spirituality, or the religion of Socialism, was experienced as a release into a world of lightness and freedom. Trevor and Jupp both reiterate this theme: anxiety and the jealous God were to be replaced by comforting feelings of God's love and the simple hopes of natural religion:
It was part of the wider late-nineteenth-century cult of simplicity in religion; liberal Christianity especially had rejected the anxieties and difficulties of the previous decades and emphasised a spirit of acceptance, and of taking what one could from Christianity. It was what the vegetarian the Reverend Walter Walsh, quoting Tennyson, later referred to as the 'larger hope' phase in theology. (7)
In this milieu, conventional religion was often rejected as lacking, and great emphasis was placed on - for example - the greater spirituality of the East in contrast to the dreary concerns and involvement of Christianity with the world and its affairs. Nethercot describes how Annie Besant rejected Protestantism for being 'too meagre, too earthly, "too calculating in its accommodations to social conventionalities"'. (8) Indian religion, or New England Transcendentalism, or - as we have seen in the case of many feminists - theosophy, were not bound up in traditional positions, not compromised by the past, and they were thus free from the complex of political, social and moral connotations that surrounded the churches and that were so often the focus of attack of these progressivist groups.
The heavy emphasis that the nineteenth century put upon belief, which thus became the focus for the Victorian religious crisis, meant that Christianity was increasingly seen in terms of an impossible dogma, demanding subscription by virtue of revelation and authority. There are frequent references to narrow ecclesiasticism and oppressive dogma, and great emphasis is placed on the rights of understanding, not subscription. (9)
The concept of religious truth was individualistic and interior, and yet often drew on the idea of religion as objective and law-like. Beatrice Webb, for example, felt that Buddhist ideas of moral causation and the impersonality of the law of karma were wore compatible with increasingly prevalent ideas derived from science. (10) The theosophical use of evolution, translated into the sphere of spirit and working through reincarnation, displays the same concern with the laws of the universe as something to be apprehended rather than believed and the religion of nature has this same quality of accepting and understanding rather than straining at belief. This presentation of religion as an objective account of being in the universe went hand-in-hand with its removal from areas of socially sustained knowledge.
As part of the escape from dogma and Christian literalism, religion was either ethicalised - partly, in the case of the liberal Christians and the Brotherhood and Labour Church socialists, with their interpretation of Christ as the architypical Good Man; or wholly, in the case of the ethicalists with their secular developments towards a religion of duty – or it was given an interior gnostic reading, as in the developments of the theosophists or of esotericists like Kingsford and Maitland. (11) Much of the appeal of Indian religion related to this second aspect, both through its intrinsic richness for such symbolic interpretation and through its exotic and unfamiliar character which made such interpretation both necessary and appealing in ways that did not apply to the familiar Christianity. There is a heavy emphasis on the syncretic, on taking the best from all traditions, with a strong feeling pervading the vegetarian journals that all religions, in some deeper sense, say the same thing, and that some universal religion lies behind them. Thus Jupp could write:
Kingsford and Maitland believed that there was a unity in all pure versions of the great religions: 'esoteric religion is identical throughout all time and conditions, being eternal in its truth and immanent in the Human Spirit'. (13)
Lastly there is the sense that religion is about inner being. God and truth were to be sought inside, uncovered within the self, and with this goes the corollary of the supreme spiritual potentiality of man. Related to this is the growing repugnance for the doctrine of sin, and a rejection of the idea that religion is external to the individual, whether gathered in the form of the church or of dogmas, orobjectified in a transcendent God or personal Saviour. As we have seen, these themes were not new but were also elements in an older tradition: however, their siginificance and scope - urged forward by the development of a modern cosciousness formed around individualism - grow in the nineteenth century, and in the twentieth spread to underpin other, not necessarily religious, perceptions.