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/stable/27645034?
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/id/eprint/4575/
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/stable/20091642?
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/wiki/Joshua_Evans_(Quaker_minister)
“Conversations with Alice Paul,” an interview conducted by Amelia Fry (1972). http://content.cdlib.org/view?docId=kt6f59n89c&doc.view=entire_text