Unitarianism and its contribution to animal rights

In 1773, long before she arrived at Newington Green, Anna Laetitia Barbauld wrote one of her better known poems; A Mouse’s Petition. Addressed to her friend and fellow Unitarian, the chemist Joseph Priestley, the poem is an appeal for liberation.  Part metaphor and part literal it may be seen as an early presentation of support for animal rights (and specifically the anti-vivisection cause). 

A decade and a half later, in the wake of the French revolution and a published sermon in its support by Richard Price (A Discourse on the Love of Our Country 1789), Edmund Burke wrote Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) a polemic against the revolutionaries and their supporters in England.  Burke, a Whig MP and a supporter of the American colonists during their revolution, had initially been ambivalent about the events in France but the march on Versailles by women demanding bread in October 1879 seems to have been too much for him, hence his polemic against Price.

These then were the opening salvoes of the so called pamphlet war of the 1790’s.

The first return of fire was from Mary Wollstonecraft who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1791), in support of the revolution.  This was followed shortly by Tom Paine’s Rights of Man written in the same vein. Wollstonecraft then famously followed her first pamphlet with a sequel extending her demands to women in the thus aptly titled Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)Other notable supporters of the revolution who contributed to the pamphlet war included Wollstoncraft’s husband and ‘father of anarchism’ William Godwin; (Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on Morals and Happiness (1793)) and her fellow congregant at Newington Green the aforementioned poet, Anna Barbauld (Sins of the Government, Sins of the Nation (1793)).

Among those contributions from the other side, was one from Thomas Taylor, a supporter of Burke and an opponent of women’s rights.  Taylor took a more ironic course of action when contributing to the polemics that were shooting back and forth, writing a parody called A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes in which he reasoned, if women were to be given rights then, animals too should be granted them.  This equation between women and animals would backfire posthumously on Taylor as several decades later when Wollstonecraft’s own work was being rehabilitated during the emergence of the women’s suffrage movement, Taylor’s work was also rediscovered but the irony was seemingly forgotten and it was seen as an honest demand for animal rights (of which Taylor undoubtedly cared little).  Indeed, several authors have suggested that this led to the unintended consequence of many women (and some men) embracing animal rights alongside their support for suffrage and related issues.

Annie Besant, Anna Kingsford, Lizzy Lind af Hageby and Gertrude and Harold Baillie Weaver are all good examples of this trend, but we will concentrate on Frances Power Cobbe, not least because she too was a Unitarian.

Cobbe was born in Ireland in 1822.  She was not raised as a Unitarian but like many of her class and generation learnt to read using Anna Barbauld’s Lessons for Children (originally published 1778/1779).  As an adult, Cobbe identified as a Theist but attended a number of Unitarian congregations, most notably that in Little Portland Street.

Although thought of today as a nineteenth century radical, Cobbe was actually a member of the Conservative Party and that party’s women’s organisation; the Primrose League.

Part of Cobbe’s reputation as a radical was derived from her involvement with the Women’s suffrage movement although here she was very much on the moderate wing of the new movement.  In 1865 Cobbe became a founding member of the Kensington Society, so named because meetings were hosted at Charlotte Manning’s Kensington home.  It was this group which, in 1866 organised the first petition for Women’s suffrage.  The rejection of the petition by Parliament prompted the group to re-orientate and rename itself the following year when it became the London National Society for Women’s Suffrage.

This group then federated with others, notably the Manchester and Edinburgh societies to become the National Society for Women’s Suffrage later, following further mergers, renamed the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.  Cobbe didn’t approve of the more radical approach of the Manchester group in particular and resigned from suffrage activity.  (Cobbe’s opposition to radicalism here is very much a relative term, as this was still very much in the context of the moderate, petition submitting suffragists and decades before the window smashing and hunger striking of the suffragettes).

Frances Power Cobbe’s most well-known contribution and ironically the one in which she took the more radical course, was as a leader in the anti-vivisection movement.  In 1875 Cobbe founded the Victoria Street Society for the Abolition of Vivisection (named after the Westminster street where its headquarters were located). From 1897 the Society was renamed the National Anti-Vivisection Society (NAVS).  The following year the NAVS adopted a policy of ameliorating animal suffering short of total abolition of vivisection (though that remained the ultimate goal).  This was too much of a compromise for Cobbe who led a schism from the organisation she had founded to form the British Union, later the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, which continued up to 2015 until it changed its name to Cruelty Free International.

Meanwhile back in 1809 a former Swedenborgian minister called William Cowherd founded a new denomination in Salford.  The Bible Christian Church (often referred to simply as the Bible Christians or even Cowherdites) had a fairly latitudinal approach to Christian theology but with two social prohibitions which were required of all its members: total abstinence from alcohol and vegetarianism.  The denomination grew modestly, establishing two churches in Manchester and, through emigration, one in Philadelphia. Cowherd died in 1816 and was succeeded by Joseph Brotherton who continued the movement’s ethos.  

Growing support for vegetarian ideals elsewhere in Britain culminated in 1847 with Brotherton and other members of his church attended the founding conference of the Vegetarian Society.  Another Bible Christian, James Simpson was elected first president of the Society. 

Three years later, in 1850 the American Vegetarian Society was founded and the American branch of the Bible Christians, led by their minister William Metcalfe played a significant role in this.

Back in Salford Joseph Brotherton (who subsequently became the local MP) was also a member of the Little Circle, a Manchester based group of liberal progressives, most of whose members were Unitarians.  Among these was John Taylor who founded the Manchester Guardian.

The Brotherton – Unitarian connection embodied in the Little Circle was a prelude for what was to come later.  Brotherton died in 1857 but his church continued until 1930 until a declining membership took its toll and the remaining members were forced to merge into the nearby Pendleton Unitarian congregation.  Thus the Unitarians can rightfully claim the Bible Christians and the Vegetarian Societies of Britain and the United States as part of their legacy. Placed alongside Anna Barbauld’s Mouse’s petition, Mary Wollstonecraft’s, somewhat accidental, contribution and the work of Frances Power Cobbe , the contribution Unitarianism has made to the animal welfare and animal rights movement is quite simply remarkable.

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