Elias Hicks, Environmentalist

Elias Hicks is best known among Friends as the man for whom one branch of Quakers was named following the separations of 1827-28. The "Hicksites" were the spiritual forbears of many of the Friends now within Friends General Conference.

In preparing a new edition of the Journal of Elias Hicks for publication, I came across the following passage which had been deleted from the current version. Elias Hicks wrote this reflection on his youth when he was 80 years old. It seems to demonstrate an extraordinary degree of what we today might call environmental consciousness. Of particular interest, he sees the charge to humanity in Genesis (frequently disparaged as justifying the abuse of nature by humanity) as requiring the preservation of a balance in the natural world.

This material comes from the Elias Hicks Manuscripts in Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College and is used with their permission. It has been edited to modernize spelling and punctuation.

I have already observed that the delight I took in fishing and fowling had a tendency frequently to preserve me from falling into unlawful and sinful amusements. Now, I began to feel through the rising intimations and reproofs of the precious gift in my own heart that the manner in which I sometimes amused myself with my gun was not without sin. I mostly preferred going alone, thereby, while waiting in stillness for the coming of the fowl, my mind hath been at times so taken up in divine meditations that they have been to me seasons of great instruction and comfort, wherein my gracious redeemer was striving gradually to turn my mind from such low and perishing amusement. Nevertheless, at divers other times, when in company with others on party of pleasure, and no fowls presented that were good and useful when taken, we have merely for sport and to try which could excel in shooting, fell upon the small, though innocent birds that we could decoy and cause to fly to us that were of no use when dead. We destroyed many of them from wantonness or for mere diversion and for which cruel procedure my heart is sorrowfully affected whilst penning these lines. This conduct, from the conviction I felt and the result of such reflection, soon appeared to be a great breach of trust and an infringement of the divine prerogative. Therefore, it soon became a principle with me not to take the life of any creature, but such as were esteemed really useful when dead or very obnoxious and hurtful when living. And it also appeared to be a duty that, when we apprehend it right to take the life of any of these, that we endeavor to do it in the most mild and tender manner in our power. From due consideration, it must appear to every candid mind that the liberty we have for taking the lives of the creatures, and using their bodies to support ours, is certainly an unmerited favor and ought to be used as the mere bounty of our great benefactor and to be received by us with great humility and gratitude.

I have likewise, from reflections founded on observations and from the nature and reason of things, been led to believe that we frequently err by the liberty we take in destroying what we esteem noxious creatures. We not only abuse the power and rule given us over them by our great common creator, but likewise act very contrary to and subversive of our own true interest. For no doubt, as all in the beginning was pronounced good that the good God had made, there was a right proportion and a true medium and balance among the creatures that were to inhabit this lower world. Man, being made as a crown to the whole, no doubt his true interest lay in preserving, as much as might be, this true medium on balance. But man fell from the state of rectitude in which he was created and wherein he only was capable of governing the creatures agreeably to the will of the creator. Hence, by exerting his power over them under the influence of his fallen wisdom, and not understanding their true natures nor end of their creation, he has wantonly fallen upon and destroyed such kinds as to his limited understanding appeared noxious, because at some times, they were observed to feed upon some of the fruits of the field that were the product of his industry. A little care in frightening them away would have been sufficiently effectual and their lives preserved to fill up the place assigned them in creation. Hereby, the true balance has been so materially affected that the tribes of lesser creatures, such as reptiles and insects (which were to feed and support those creatures man had wantonly destroyed and which come not so obviously under man’s comprehension nor so generally within the limits of his power to destroy), have increased to a proportion sufficient to spread destruction and devastation over the fields and left the face of the earth, at times, as a scorched or barren desert.

For such has been the wisdom and goodness of the Supreme Being in the creation of man that he has so intimately connected his duty with his truest interest, both in regard to temporals as well as spirituals. If man falls short in the first, he will likewise feel himself affected in the latter and, for every shortcoming or act of sin, feel the consequent punishment and disappointment.

Therefore, it is our indispensable duty, as reasonable, accountable beings, wisely to ponder our ways and consider the consequent effect of all our conduct. If we are to give an account for every idle word, it must appear clear to every rational mind, therefore, every idle or presumptuous act must be still more criminal. How presumptuous must it then appear from rational reflection for limited, borrowed beings to sport themselves with the lives of other beings? However little they may appear in the view of proud man (who vainly supposes all made for his use), yet they may be as necessary a link in the
great chain of nature and creation as his own existence.

In the course of divine providence, we may be permitted to take the lives of such of the creatures in a reasonable way as are suitably adapted to the accommodation of our bodies in a line of real usefulness. Yet, that by no means carries any warrant for us wantonly, or in a sportive way, to destroy the lives of those that are not useful when dead. Neither is this privilege given to man, any partial act of the deity. We see he has given the same privilege to almost every other creature and also furnished them with means whereby they are enabled to take such of the creatures as he has intended for their use and by which the true balance might be maintained. Had man kept his station as well as the other creatures, I have no doubt but the true balance would have been at least much better preserved than it now is—if not inviolably kept.

Paul Buckley

Paul Buckley, a Quaker historian and theologian, attends North Meadow Circle of Friends in Indianapolis. He gives short courses, workshops, and retreats for Friends gatherings across the Quaker spectrum and teaches occasional Quaker Studies courses at Earlham School of Religion.