Review of Adam D. Shprintzen's "The Vegetarian Crusade"

tags: Grahamites, Fruitlands, Seventh Day Adventists

Murray Polner is a regular book reviewer for HNN

The Vegetarian Crusade: The Rise of an American Reform Movement, 1817-1921
by Adam D. Shprintzen
University of North Carolina Press (2013)

When at age 17 I decided not to eat meat or fish my alarmed mother asked our family doctor if I would die. Reassured I would live, I fed stray animals and birds and on occasional Saturdays visited the bookstore of Simon Gould, a Manhattan bookseller who had run for the presidency as a write-in candidate on a ticket called The Vegetarian Party. I doubt he received many votes but he was kind and once gave me a piece of advice. Best to remain a vegetarian for life for humane reasons, the better to resist future pressures to regress into eating meat. Health was important, but secondary to preserving all life.. He also presented  me with a book published in 1892,  Animal Rights, by  Henry Salt, a British  polymath.  Peter Singer, who wrote the indispensable Animal Liberation said it “remains among my most treasured books.”   The word vegetarian itself derives from the Latin “vigitore,” or “giving strength and health” but was more appropriately defined by the long-defunct American Vegetarian Society as  “a diet free of flesh products produced by violence and  suffering.”

Vegetarianism, once derided and ignored is now accepted by millions of Americans,  had its beginnings in Great Britain and  was brought to the United States by the Bible Christian Church. Because it is rarely scrutinized seriously by historians, Adam D. Shprintzen’s illuminating study, The Vegetarian Crusade: The Rise of an American Reform Movement 1817-1921 (University of North Carolina Press) is more than welcome because it tells its fascinating if often eccentric history in the context of momentous societal changes.

When the British-based Bible Christian Church members immigrated to Philadelphia in 1817 they came with the blessing of its founder William Cowherd, a good-looking Lancashire man and devotee of Emanuel Swedenborg, the Swedish philosopher and theologian who preached the virtues of a meatless diet though there is some doubt that he was always faithful to the ideal. Cowherd remained behind in Britain but was said to have been the only man brave enough to read through the complete works of Swedenborg in Latin.

When the 41 members of his Bible Christian Church arrived they were led by the Reverends William Metcalfe and James Clarke and were greeted or assailed as blasphemers. Undaunted and fired with the passion of Christian ardor, they had three indispensable doctrines: “temperance, pacifism, and a meatless diet.” In other words, “Thou Shalt Not Kill”—nor they added, drink alcohol. Radical they were and Metcalfe was never shy about proclaiming the faith. In Shprintzen’s words, “he equated meat consumption with violent, cruel tendencies, appealing to the most uncontrolled whims of human aggression.” Eating animals was to him a refutation of God.

Metcalfe’s growing presence helped promote a vegetarian diet among believers and his sympathizers, notably the imposing Sylvester Graham, who had been working for the Temperance Union. Emerson dubbed him “the poet of bran bread and pumpkin”—a prophetic description of the man, and the diet he too fostered but unencumbered by Scripture. In time, vegetarians like Graham gradually shifted away from associating dietary reform with abolitionism, opposition to war, and women’s right to vote and its relationship with religious doctrine and serious societal changes were muted.

Graham went even further than Metcalfe, blaming a 1832 cholera epidemic on the common diet of meat and whiskey though certainly urban overcrowding, slums, lack of adequate sanitation and filthy water were by far the main malefactors. In doing so, Graham moved beyond the limits of the Philadelphia church. It was Graham, for all his unconventional behavior and passion, who recognized that somehow, in someway, disease was relate to diet. And he didn't stop at the table. Morning calisthenics, a pleasant disposition and open bedroom windows were vital as were chastity and cold baths. By the time he died in 1885, he had deeply influenced the founding of the Vegetarian Society of America, the first national organization for meatless Americans. Shprintzen credits him for helping spread vegetarianism from “a small, localized religious movement focused on spiritual ascension to a growing community throughout the United States attached to the scientific and moral reform principles of Sylvester Graham.”

His impact was certainly felt in the Alcott family. In the 1840s,  Amos Bronson, Louisa May’s aloof, dreamy and visionary father, his cousin William, a school teacher and doctor, and an ascetic British disciple Charles Lane (who Louise May detested) tried to form  a perfect utopian community fourteen miles from Cambridge,  Massachusetts. They called it Fruitlands, the first home of an organized—however minuscule it was— vegetarian colony in the country. Bronson Alcott was well- known for his Library of Health, the principle journal advocating a meatless diet. Still, practical affairs were not his concern and Louisa May complained that her mother became the colony’s workhorse while her father, who was also involved with the transcendentalists, dreamed of a revived Garden of Eden. When Louisa wrote about her family’s very different sort of life she said, with a mixture of kindness and despair, that her father’s venture “was a failure. The world was not ready for utopia yet.”

Fruitlands comprised a few derelict fruit orchards and a neat red frame farmhouse and never had more than eleven members at any one time, of which five were Alcotts. They banned coffee, tea, honey (forcibly taken from bees), cotton (harvested by slaves), leather and silk. When Fruitland collapsed Bronson was practical enough to move his family to Brook Farm, where he could take solace that, while not vegetarian, it had a “Graham Table” where the profane trinity of meat, tobacco and coffee were forbidden

Yet another important 19th and 20th Century reformer was Henry Clubb, barely known to contemporary Americans. British-born, on his arrival he went to work for Horace Greeley’s anti-slavery New York Tribune, whose abolitionist views he consistently reflected. He too started a community of vegetarians but based on the Scriptures. In 1856, Clubb organized the ill-fated Vegetarian Emigration Company, with some one hundred vegetarian and antislavery members. The settlers were ridiculed by the Chicago Tribune as eastern spoiled reformers unfamiliar with the hardships of prairie life. Instead, what the region needed,  the paper’s editorial writer wrote while ensconced in his Chicago office, were “beef-eating men,” strong, vital, men of action packing guns.

The pioneers set out for the Kansas frontier two years after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska  Act of 1854, which permitted white male citizens to decide if slavery should be allowed in their new states. Caught in the middle of raging gun battles and incredible cruelty, their sentiments always on the anti-slavery side, they struggled to succeed. According to Clubb, they did. But not according to a settler named Miriam Davis Colt, who in 1862 published her book Went to Kansas, a personal and decidedly negative account of her experiences living in Clubb’s community.

Clubb never accepted her criticism and later enlisted in the Union army in the Civil War.  That he, a spiritual pacifist, chose to enlist in the Quartermaster Corps, served four years, refused to carry a weapon and was wounded, was not too unusual to some of his followers given those bloody years. Others in his community also enlisted because like Clubb, they believed ending slavery was more important than their dedication to pacifism and vegetarianism.

More significantly, perhaps, in an Otsego, Michigan, kitchen in 1863, Ellen Harmon (Sister) White threw herself onto the floor with a vision proclaiming "Glory, Glory.” A Millerite since her teens—in 1844 she had patiently waited on a Maine hillside for the Adventist William Miller’s predicted second coming of the Messiah—Ellen Harmon White  revealed the sacred commandments that thereafter no Seventh Day Adventurist could eat meat, drink alcohol, use salt or engage in violence against animals or humans. It is today the third largest vegetarian religion in the world, behind Hinduism and Buddhism.

By the time the Vegetarian Society of America closed its doors in 1921 (the year Henry Clubb, its president, died)  vegetarians were hardly diffident about believing there was no need to kill for food, or as Shprintzen, editor of the Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington points out, there was “plenty to eat without any meat.” By then, the seeds of diet and health, animal rights, respect for the earth and concern for the purity of our food supply had been planted.

Vegetarianism is not for everyone and meat eaters are neither amoral nor immoral, one no more or less ethically superior. Still, Shprintzen’s original and probing book offers many ideas for researchers and writers to explore. The field is wide open.

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