A Spark Divine? Animal Souls and Animal Welfare in Nineteenth-Century Britain

Authored by: A. W. H. Bates

The Routledge Handbook of Religion and Animal Ethics

Print publication date:  October  2018
Online publication date:  September  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138592728
eBook ISBN: 9780429489846
Adobe ISBN:


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In the nineteenth century, Britain passed Europe’s earliest anti-cruelty laws and prosecutions were brought privately by animal welfare organisations, particularly the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), which purported to be motivated by Christian principles. These included claims that the ‘dominion’ granted over animals in Genesis I was an exhortation to benevolence, and that mercy and compassion were prime virtues that could not be abrogated. The focus on character and duty was anthropocentric, but virtuous conduct depended upon the perceived status of animals: laudable compassion became vain sentimentality if directed at creatures incapable of feeling. The Christian tradition that non-human animals lacked rational, immortal souls can be seen as a limitation on compassion since it placed an ontological barrier between animals and humans. This paper examines the contribution of non-Christian philosophies and theologies of animals to British animal welfare activism. In the late-eighteenth century, Thomas Taylor introduced Pythagorean and Hindu concepts of transmigration of souls in the context of animal rights. What for Taylor was a debating point became for the humanitarian Lewis Gompertz in the nineteenth century a persuasive argument against cruelty, though it was repudiated by the SPCA. Poets entertained the ‘heathen’ idea of animal immortality in elegies on companion animals, but, aside from Thomas Forster, a student of Hindu philosophy, medical men and scientists did not give transmigration serious consideration. They were, however, influenced by transcendentalism, which placed humans in ‘permanent affiliation’ with other animals, saw nature as a process and emphasised harmonies between living things, to the extent that critics labelled it pantheistic. For transcendentalists, who generally opposed vivisection, nature and the soul were inextricably linked and it was difficult, as it was for Pythagoreans, to separate animal interests from those of humans, or to deny them ‘Christian’ charity.

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