(c) Mara Zemgaliete

Vegetarianism in Quaker History

© Mara Zemgaliete


Many Quakers view reflection upon food ethics as a relatively recent phenomenon. In reality, such discernment has been an important part of the tradition of Friends for centuries. Numerous Quaker abolitionists in the 1700s, for example, were deeply committed to vegetarianism as an integral part of their spiritual path at a time when vegetarianism was very rare in the broader culture.

One such committed vegetarian Quaker was Benjamin Lay, whose life and witness has received much attention in the last couple years since the publication of The Fearless Benjamin Lay by the historian Marcus Rediker. Lay was one of the first people in history to call for the total abolition of slavery. Lay’s commitment to respecting all of God’s creatures also led him to a deep concern for non‐human animals. It was said of him that “his tender conscience would not permit him to eat any food, nor wear any garment, nor use any article which was procured at the expense of animal life.”

Another vegetarian Quaker abolitionist was Joshua Evans, a contemporary of and influence upon the thought of John Woolman. “I considered that life was sweet in all creatures,” Evans states, “and the taking it away became a very tender point with me.” “My spirit was often bowed in awful reverence before the Most High, and covered with feelings of humility and tenderness,” Evans relates, out of which experiences it was revealed “that I ought no longer to partake of anything that had life.” Anthony Benezet, another well‐known Quaker abolitionist, similarly adopted a vegetarian diet, commenting that he had formed “a kind of a league of amity and peace with the animal creation.”

John Woolman shared similar sentiments concerning the status of animals as beloved creatures of God. “To say we love God as unseen and at the same time exercise cruelty toward the least creature moving by his life, or by life derived from him,” said Woolman, “was a contradiction in itself.” While there is no evidence that Woolman ever became fully vegetarian like Lay, Evans, and Benezet, it was written by a friend that Woolman “had seldom eaten flesh.” Woolman also demonstrated his concern for animals in other ways, for example by walking in all of his travels through England in order to avoid contributing to cruelty to horses in the stagecoach industry.

Quaker leaders of the movement for women’s right to vote, in a later time period, were also often vegetarian. Among these women was Alice Paul, a key figure in the movement for women’s suffrage and other struggles for women’s equality in the United States. Speaking of her decision to become vegetarian, Paul stated: “It occurred to me that I just didn’t see how I could go ahead and continue to eat meat. It just seemed so … cannibalistic to me. And so I’m a vegetarian, and have been since that time.” Similarly, many leaders of the movement for women’s suffrage in England were vegetarian, including numerous Quakers.

The Society of Friends was the first Christian denomination to form a faith‐based vegetarian association, establishing the Friends Vegetarian Society in 1902. Quakers had previously also played a major role in the formation of the Vegetarian Society of England in 1847.

Whereas it has become somewhat common lately to criticize vegetarianism as a white, wealthy elite phenomenon, the reality is that people of color have often been at the forefront of the vegetarian movement, recognizing the deep connections between all forms of oppression and abuse.

This embrace of a vegetarian diet has been shared by many other spiritually motivated nonviolent reformers throughout history. Gandhi, for example, challengingly asserts that “spiritual progress does demand … that we should cease to kill our fellow creatures for the satisfaction of our bodily wants.” “It ill becomes us to invoke in our daily prayers the blessings of God, the Compassionate,” he says, “if we in turn will not practice elementary compassion towards our fellow creatures.” Along with Gandhi, some other recent prominent nonviolent visionaries who have adopted a vegetarian diet include Cesar Chavez, Coretta Scott King, Dexter King (son of Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King Jr.), Thich Nhat Hanh, Vandana Shiva, and others. One striking characteristic of the people in this list is that all are people of color. Whereas it has become somewhat common lately to criticize vegetarianism as a white, wealthy elite phenomenon, the reality is that people of color have often been at the forefront of the vegetarian movement, recognizing the deep connections between all forms of oppression and abuse.

While concern for animals has clearly historically been the main motivation for Quaker vegetarianism, in more recent years other important and compelling concerns have been added as well. These include recognition of the benefits of vegetarianism to human health, the environment, and world hunger. As the Christian Vegetarian Association states, “Modern animal‐based diets tend to significantly harm our health, the environment, the world’s poor and hungry, and animals. Since a plant‐based diet helps to address these concerns, we see it as an opportunity to honor God.”


Geoffrey Plank, “ ‘The Flame of Life Was Kindled in All Animal and Sensitive Creatures’: One Quaker Colonist’s View of Animal Life,” Church History 76:3 (2007): 569–590.  https://​www​.jstor​.org/​s​t​a​b​l​e​/​2​7​6​4​5​034?

Samantha Jane Calvert, “Eden’s Diet: Christianity and Vegetarianism 1809–2009,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Birmingham (2012), pp. 163–201. https://​etheses​.bham​.ac​.uk/​i​d​/​e​p​r​i​n​t​/​4​5​75/

Donald Brooks Kelley, “ ‘A Tender Regard to the Whole Creation’: Anthony Benezet and the Emergence of an Eighteenth‐Century Quaker Ecology,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 106:1 (1982): 69–88. https://​www​.jstor​.org/​s​t​a​b​l​e​/​2​0​0​9​1​642?

A Journal of the Life, Travels, Religious Exercises, and Labours in the Work of the Ministry of Joshua Evans; select quotations from the journal available at https://​en​.wikiquote​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​J​o​s​h​u​a​_​E​v​a​n​s​_​(​Q​u​a​k​e​r​_​m​i​n​i​s​ter)

“Conversations with Alice Paul,” an interview conducted by Amelia Fry (1972). http://​content​.cdlib​.org/​v​i​e​w​?​d​o​c​I​d​=​k​t​6​f​5​9​n​8​9​c​&​d​o​c​.​v​i​e​w​=​e​n​t​i​r​e​_​t​ext

John Sniegocki is a member of Community Friends Meeting in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he and his family serve as resident caretakers. John teaches religious ethics and directs the Peace and Justice Studies program at Xavier University.

This online version of the June-July 2019 print article includes citations and references.

Posted in: Features, June/July 2019: Food Choices

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10 thoughts on “Vegetarianism in Quaker History

  1. jules says:

    City & State
    Love it…viva Planet Earth…viva Vegetarianism…viva Quakers…

    GREEN, because:
    there is NO planet “B”

  2. Keith Barton says:

    City & State
    Berkeley CA
    There is one glitch in a purely vegetarian diet and that is vitamin B12, which is only obtained in animal‐based food products. This vitamin is essential To health; its absence produces anemia and/or neurological disease when levels are too low.

    Even people with some meat in their diet may have low B 12 levels. Vegetarians and stricter vegans should obtain a reliable source of B 12. For the past 50 years or more, it’s been available over the counter as a vitamin supplement.

  3. Donald Crawford says:

    City & State
    Friends, let’s think about all becoming vegetarians and the consequences both intended and unintended. Perhaps by eliminating all animal products from our diet we would be a healthier world. Those of us who still had a job. Here in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia we are an agricultural community. One of the products we grow and process is poultry. A large number of the workers in the poultry plants are immigrants who earn a wage and support their families. Farmers raise the chickens and turkeys and the corn used to make the feed. Feed mills with their employees turn the corn into poultry food. Truck drivers deliver the feed to the farmers and the birds to the poultry plants. And many more businesses support this industry. So if we all quit eating poultry, what happens to these workers? What about the KFC stores, the Popeye Fried Chicken stores, the other restaurants which serve poultry? How will those employees fare?
    In our home we eat a balanced diet which includes animal products along with locally produced vegetables from the farmers market and groceries. We celebrate the opportunity our recently arrived neighbors have to work in local industries and in the companies which support them. Is it not also “honoring God” to provide a safe place to live and employment for those escaping hunger and violence in their home countries?
    When we advocate eliminating entire industries, let’s please think through the intended and unintended consequences. Just look at what happened to communities who depended on coal for their livelihood.

    1. Mary Luckhaus says:

      City & State
      Greensboro, NC
      Thank you for publishing this inspiring article. In response to Donald’s comment, I would like to suggest that farmers can change to directly growing food– vegetables and fruit,and such. In NC, when numerous tobacco farms were forced to change or leave farming, many found niche areas such as herbs and edible flowers. Local colleges even offered expert advice. Unfortunately, some changed to hog farming, also. Following one’s conscience and feeding one’s family do not have to be at odds. Many immigrants and refugees are offered jobs by large corporate animal agriculture “processing plants” soon after settling into apartments in NC. They are paid 180% of minimum wage or more. They are pleased to take the positions because refugees have only three months to become self sufficient, and language, education, and skill‐sets are of little importance there. But then, dealing with daily violence at high speeds takes it toll. Repetitive motion injuries, accidental amputations, increased domestic violence are some of the consequences of working at such places. It doesn’t seem to honor the Divine when people fleeing violence feel coerced into committing violence against other creatures who share the same divine Light.

    2. Dave Wells says:

      City & State
      Mesa, AZ
      Donald you seem to assume it’s a zero‐sum game. It’s not. Much of the immigrant labor in the meat industry has been part of a larger process that has undercut what used to be high paying union jobs. Now working conditions are often unsafe and the pay too low. I fully expect immigrants, who are quite resourceful, would find other sources of employment. Farmers can grow other crops–and may even find crops that bring a higher income. As a one who has been a vegetarian for 33 years (now pretty much vegan)–and did so because I didn’t want to be complicit with factory farms, I would love to see the day where vegetarians and vegans had ample fast food options that might replace KFC and Popeyes.

    3. Tim Curtis says:

      City & State
      Monteverde, Costa Rica
      An abrupt change of any kind, for good or bad reasons, would of course cause problems in the transition. However, if people are convinced gradually to change to something that is good for them, the society and the economy adjust. Good agricultural lands can be used to grow whatever food that the people near the are eating.

    4. Fred Cline says:

      City & State
      Glendale, CA
      If there is a morality to the avoidance of meat, then the economic considerations should not be a hindrance to the embracing of a vegetarian diet. Many people a denied military jobs with the declaration of peace, but keeping those people employed is not a reason to prolong the war.

  4. emilie hamilton says:

    City & State
    Amherst Massachusetts
    thank you for sharing this article with us. here in western Massachusetts as a member of Mt Toby Friends meeting for quite a number of years I felt ‘out of place’. still remain a member of the meeting but no longer attend. very pleased to read there were historical Quakers choosing to be vegetarian so as not to harm animals. and pleased to learn of a Friends Vegetarian Society. this is the first time I have read of it. thank you.

  5. johanna hofman says:

    City & State
    I am so happy with this article!
    To be honest, I do not understand how you can serve the problems of environment, scarcity of water and zo on better than being a vegeterian. In the Netherlands not many Quakers are vegeterian…
    With love, Johanna Hofman

  6. Donna Sassaman says:

    City & State
    Cowichan Bay, BC
    Greetings from Vancouver Island, Canada!

    This is such an inspiring article. My husband and I eat a primarily vegetarian diet for personal and planetary health reasons. I am inspired by the spiritual teachings in the article to eat a completely vegetarian diet.

    Thank you, Friends, for sharing the article.

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