The Church and the Vegetarian Movement in Britain (1809–2009)
By John M Gilheany
Published by Ascendant Press
John Gilheany is not, I think it is fair to say, the kind of person one might expect to write this kind of a book. The information about the author provided on the cover says that he, “works in the construction industry,” and that his interests include, “fitness training, illustration and electronic music.” There is no mention of a religious affiliation or interest in animals, so I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect when I began reading.
In fact, this is a meticulously researched and well-written book. Gilheany has accessed several primary sources, notably from the early publications of the Vegetarian Society. Verbatim extracts from his sources are used throughout the book, bringing the characters and events he describes vividly to life. Extracts from the early vegetarian literature show just how ahead of their time the early food reformers were, as many of their arguments still have a place in the debates surrounding animal welfare and human dietary lifestyle today.
The opening chapters of the book are particularly interesting, focusing on the beginnings of the vegetarian movement and its Christian roots. Many of the individuals who emerged as leaders of the movement, and who are profiled by Gilheany, are fascinating characters. Unfortunately, much of the book makes for rather depressing reading, as it highlights just how far we’ve failed to come with regard to getting the churches to engage seriously with animal welfare issues. Some ‘heroes’ do emerge, however, particularly those who were willing to risk reputation and ministry in the defence of animal welfare, notably the Revd James Thompson, who is the subject of an entire chapter. The book ends on an optimistic note, observing the growth of awareness and the prevalence of vegetarianism among Christian youth. The book ends with the hopeful reminder that the vegetarian movement is still in its early days, and that the first two centuries of Christianity looked equally unpromising.
Anyone interested in the vegetarian movement and its links with Christianity will appreciate this book, as will anyone looking for a resource of accessible quotations from key players in the history of Christian vegetarianism.