Allowable Diversions

Photo by Jordi Mora

A Friend Explores the Morality of Hunting

An interview with Timothy Tarkelly is included in the August 2023 podcast.

I am a hunter, and it has been suggested to me more than once that I cannot be a Quaker so long as I hunt. This suggestion has moved me to serious contemplation over the matter. I have read; I have prayed; and I have even quit hunting for a while. However, after examining early Quaker thought, the real reasons we hunt, and the danger of overly idealizing nature itself, I feel firmly settled.

My own spiritual practice is very nature-driven. I spend as much time as I can outdoors, and not just as a spectator. I believe that as I value creation, I must participate in its natural order.

I am hesitant in writing these thoughts. It is my worry that the words that follow will be seen as either a claim that we must hunt or as some kind of charge against those who do not. However, this is merely an apology for my own life and a potential defense to those who would tell me that I may not be called a true Friend.

There are historical accounts of early Quakers opposing hunting. George Fox himself publicly rejected the sport. However, it can be argued that Quakers were reacting to a culture of violence and merciless conduct, rather than the act of hunting itself. In the 1806 publication A Portraiture of Quakerism, Thomas Clarkson lists hunting as one of many “diversions of the field” that were to be avoided. Clarkson paints a picture of cultural norms surrounding hunting:

It has been matter of astonishment to some, how men, who have the powers of reason, can waste their time in galloping after dogs, in a wild and tumultuous manner, to the detriment often of their neighbors, and to the hazard of their own lives.

This scene of needless violence and danger would certainly contradict certain Quaker sentiments.

It is not surprising to learn that a lot of hunting culture stems from the lasting reaches of European monarchies. When nobles went “hunting,” their goal was to be seen as a master sportsman, to demonstrate martial skill, and to express violence in a socially permissible context. The hunted game was planted, or provided, and they would participate in a theatrical version of hunting that bore no connection or respect for nature. Fox, deer, boar, and other animals would be captured and then let loose for these violent tirades that were purely for the pleasure of a privileged few. Even today, there are modern hunting lodges that provide “European hunts” in which doves, quail, or other bird species are let loose before a group of armed “hunters,” so they can revel in the sport and harvest meat with practically no effort.

It is my contention that specific behavior, and not the hunting of animals in general, is what is being criticized by Clarkson. Earlier in the same publication, he comments on the apparent lack of examination surrounding such behavior:

Those also who attend these diversions, are so numerous, and their rank, and station, and character, are often such, that they sanction them again by their example, so that few people think of making any inquiry, how far they are allowable as pursuits.

His contemporaries were blinded by tradition and never stopped to ask, “how far are they allowable?” amidst concerns of human conduct. Even the phrasing “how far are they allowable” suggests a limit. Perhaps hunting is an allowable and acceptable way of life up to a certain point: that point being needless violence and danger.

While needless slaughter of animals is an obvious affront to creation, hunting can be a dutiful, even worshipful experience. If we are to emphasize personal experience over corporate morality and theology, sure there is a place for those who live close to the land in this regard.

In my limited research, there is not a lot of discussion of hunting in Quaker writings. There are two notable examples of Quaker hunters: Daniel Boone and Annie Oakley. It goes without saying that until recent modern times, hunting has been a normal function of human living. When Quakers came to the colonies, like all other settlers, they hunted for food. While some may have resisted the act of hunting, it did not become a majority view.

This also needs to be said of other religious traditions in which hunting, or even the consumption of meat, is discouraged. In virtually all manifestations of Buddhist thought, abstinence from meat is preached. However, outside the Western world, these tenets only apply to monks and a select few who choose to live these principles in their daily lives. Monks are permitted to eat meat when they beg for food, as long as it wasn’t killed specifically for them. Even the Dalai Lama eats meat, as he is unable to abstain completely due to health concerns. In spite of Western notions of Buddhist culture, the consumption of meat and dairy is a part of Tibetan cuisine, as well as in countries where Buddhism plays a large role. Until recently, Buddhist art and poetry often featured hunters and fishermen. Lay Buddhists rarely adopt a purely vegetarian diet, and some even work in industries involving the hunting, fishing, farming, butchering, and selling of animals.

Hunting purely for enjoyment and status is what philosopher Joshua Duclos calls “sport hunting.” In his article “Is Hunting Moral?”—for Boston University’s research publication The Brink—Duclos describes three types of hunting: sport, subsistence, and therapeutic. Subsistence hunting refers to the act of killing wild animals “to supply nourishment and material resources for humans,” whereas therapeutic hunting is done “to conserve another species or an entire ecosystem.” While sport hunting may be objectionable, hunting for subsistence or to maintain the ecosystem should not be rejected so easily.

The Hunted Deer, Spring; Gustave Courbet, 1867. Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.

There have been many religious traditions throughout time that acknowledge hunting as a vital part of both physical and spiritual life. There are some who would suggest that modern societal norms would overrule such practice. A 2018 blog post from the Lakota People’s Law Project addresses this criticism. In “Native Tradition v. Militant Veganism,” the author, who is a vegan, argues that hunting itself should not be the target of scrutiny but rather inhumane and unsustainable hunting practices. Colonization and the establishments that enforced the practice not only sought to subjugate the people living on newly claimed land, but also brought with it a disregard for the land itself.

The Bible, while it has been used to justify such terrible behavior, demands reverence for creation. According to the Creation account found in the book of Genesis, God places humans in Eden to “care for it and maintain it” (Gen. 2:15 NET). Throughout the Bible, God punishes mankind for such abuses. He says to Jeremiah, “I brought you into a fertile land so you could enjoy its fruits and its rich bounty. But when you entered my land, you defiled it; you made the land I call my own loathsome to me” (Jer. 2:7 NET). Sound stewardship is a clear expectation of God’s people. This stewardship, however, isn’t to be overly idealized. To take care of the earth means to participate in its cycles. While these cycles may seem ruthless and cruel, they are in fact natural realities. Especially as humans continue to grow as a species, we need to acknowledge the effect we have on the ecosystem and the role we are forced to play in it.

Expansion leads to the termination or dislocation of predator species. This is one of the reasons deer populations in Midwest North America have exploded, leading to an increase in automotive accidents, crop damage, and disease transmission, among other concerns. The subjugation of the wolf led to the rise of coyotes, which has led to a whole host of complications. When predators enter human spaces, it is dangerous for both the predator and the human.

Daniel Boone Sitting at the Door of His Cabin on the Great Osage Lake, Thomas Cole, 1826. Mead Art Museum, Amherst, Mass.

According to wildlife biologist Chris DePerno, who is a professor at North Carolina State’s College of Natural Resources (CRN), “Hunters do more to help wildlife than any other group in America,” as quoted in an article for CRN News. This may seem like a contradictory statement, but the truth is that wildlife conservation largely lies on the shoulders of hunters. They fund—privately, publicly, and voluntarily—the majority of conservation efforts. While it is a common misconception that government conservation programs are tax-funded, “in reality, they’re mostly funded by hunters” through the purchase of stamps, licenses, and permits for hunters and anglers. The support doesn’t stop there. As passionate as they are about protecting wildlife, hunters contribute a great deal of personal resources to the cause:

DePerno added that hunters also raise millions of dollars and contribute thousands of volunteer hours to wildlife conservation through their memberships in organizations such as the National Wild Turkey Federation, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Whitetails Unlimited, Pheasants Forever and Ducks Unlimited.

Clearly, hunters are actively involved in promoting the well-being of animal populations and protecting the earth’s natural resources.

The notion that hunters don’t care about the life of animals is unfounded. Hunters are ethical people. Most hunters take precautions beyond regulations to ensure the cleanest death possible. For different types of hunting, certain weapons and ammunition are prohibited. In some states, standard AR-15s— the infamous ArmaLite rifle that has become the target of public outcry—is illegal to use when hunting deer, not because it is too powerful but because it isn’t powerful enough to guarantee a clean kill.

When we overly idealize the stewardship of the earth, we can sometimes cause more harm than good. There is a tradition among Buddhist monks known as “life release” or “mercy release.” In some cases, monks will buy fish from a hatchery and release them into the wild or capture animals from a hunted area and release them elsewhere. While this sounds like an act of mercy, it is naïve at best and dangerous at worst. There have been cases where monks are brought up on criminal charges for releasing carp, crustaceans, and other sea life into ecosystems they were never intended to participate in. This can have far-reaching ecological consequences. There are also instances of monks releasing fish into the wild on a set date every year, which has prompted local anglers to take up the date to fish for easy quarry.

While needless slaughter of animals is an obvious affront to creation, hunting can be a dutiful, even worshipful experience. If we are to emphasize personal experience over corporate morality and theology, sure there is a place for those who live close to the land in this regard.

 Of course, understanding the necessity of wildlife management does not necessitate participating in the efforts ourselves. It has also been argued that the harvesting of meat is an unfortunate but accepted reality, and that we have no business participating in the matter directly.

Knowing what we know about commercial enterprise, it surprises me when I am told, “You don’t need to hunt. You can buy meat at the grocery store.” It is an odd position to support a toxic agribusiness industry and megacorporations but condemn a person who goes into nature and harvests meat themselves. Surely there is value in participating in a natural cycle instead of  buying meat that is pumped full of artificial elements, shipped in gas-guzzling trucks, wrapped in plastic, and sold at a markup by a cashier who is being paid less than a living wage.

Even if we adopt meatless diets, the problem of managing animal populations remains. Veganism is popular among Quakers, and for solid reason. Not surprisingly, the motivating factor for many vegans is the ethics behind the business machinery, not the morality of food consumption. Many people identify the existence of Light in animals, and this fact moves them to never participate in the death of a living thing. I see the logic, and I support the choice. Just like the choice to hunt, I think veganism is a personal decision and isn’t to be presented as a moral absolute among Quakers.

For me, hunting and fishing are not without spiritual merit. While needless slaughter of animals is an obvious affront to creation, hunting can be a dutiful, even worshipful experience. If we are to emphasize personal experience over corporate morality and theology, surely there is a place for those who live close to the land in this regard.


Timothy Tarkelly

Timothy Tarkelly’s work has appeared in Agape Review, Ablucionistas, and Ekstasis magazine. His collections of poetry include On Slip Rigs and Spiritual Growth. While he lives hours from the nearest Friends meetinghouse, he attends Pendle Hill’s online worship, and visits others as travel allows. When he’s not writing, he teaches English and coaches debate in Southeast Kansas.

6 thoughts on “Allowable Diversions

  1. I appreciate the hunter’s (Timothy Tarkelly’s) article. My father was a hunter, and so were my aunts and uncles and sometimes my mother. What they brought our families fed us all well, as did their vegetable gardens. They were not Quakers, but all honored Nature, the Earth, the animals, the forests, the streams. We of the next generation chose not to hunt, and they did not criticize our choice. We have much to be concerned about where the use of the wrong guns or the wrong methods is concerned, but I hope we all heed the care that the hunter may be taking as Tarkelly describes and as he practices.

  2. I read the long article in favor of hunting and I have one simple answer. To take pleasure in the sport of killing defenseless creatures cannot be justified. This hunter may call himself a Quaker, but to kill is not a Friendly action. A life, whether a deer, a dog, a cat, or a human is a miracle of organic creation. It is easy to destroy it. Also, to buy and own a gun is also a questionable activity for one who believes in Peace.
    Jo Ann

    1. I completely agree. Yes, the world can be a ruthless place. But it is up to us to demonstrate a different way of life. Having been a vegetarian for more than 30 years now, I can attest that eating meat is simply not necessary/

  3. So, it is easy to espouse mores that everyone around you propose. We are talking about choices that hopefully we make after listening to the Spirit that guides us. If you are led to abstain from meat, or hunting, or owning guns then do it. If the Spirit says its ok for you to kill and eat meat, do it with thanksgiving for God’s blessing. Romans chapter 14 talks about how we are to relate to our brothers and sisters in faith and love.

  4. As Quakers, as part of the peace, justice, simplicity, truth ideal I was always taught that we don’t seek to impose ourselves or our beliefs upon others. In this instance that begs me to wonder how hunters ascertain that a fellow sentient being wishes to be hurt, mutilated or killed? How do deer, cats, horses, elephants, penguins or whales, or the familial groupings they exist within express such consent? And without it, what moral right does a hunter have, Quaker or otherwise, to hurt them or kill them ‘just for fun’?

  5. I used to think that hunting for food was acceptable but no longer hold this to be true. It’s not that I’m a vegan or even vegetarian, I cannot be as I live in an assisted living facility but it has become apparent that hunting is cruel in almost all instances. As a Friend I don’t think cruelity is defensible. Now to figure out what to do for people in my situation about factory farming.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Maximum of 400 words or 2000 characters.

Comments on may be used in the Forum of the print magazine and may be edited for length and clarity.