Freethought Almanac

Lighting a candle in toxic air.

June 16: Founding the RSPCA (1822): Churches and Animal Cruelty

RSPCA Founded (1824):
Churches and Animal Cruelty

It was on this date, June 16, 1824, that the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded in a London pub as the SPCA. It was the first society in history set up to end animal cruelty, so you may wonder why it took the religion of Gentle Jesus and St. Francis of Assisi so long to condemn the ill-treatment of the lower branches on the evolutionary tree. It all started on the sixth day of creation:

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. ...And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. (Genesis 1:26, 28)

We're a little behind on the replenishing part, but the "dominion over" nature command? Humankind has performed that with élan! It never occurred to Christians that animals were anything but the personal playthings of people: after all, God created the creatures of the earth, air and water for our use, not for our protection. As St. Augustine (354-430) said, "All creatures are either useful, hurtful, or superfluous to us. ... As for the hurtful creatures, we are either punished, or disciplined, or terrified by them, so that we may not cherish and love this life." (The Literal Meaning of Genesis, 415)

And why would a benevolent God create hurtful creatures? Theologian Peter Lombard (1095-1160) explained in the 12th century: "no created things would have been hurtful to man had he not sinned; they became hurtful for the sake of terrifying and punishing vice or of proving and perfecting virtue; they were created harmless, and on account of sin became hurtful."

Over six centuries later, John Wesley (1703-1791) agreed that before Adam's sin, "none of these attempted to devour or in any wise hurt one another ... the spider was as harmless as the fly, and did not lie in wait for blood." The only impediment to the Churches closing down all scientific inquiry into the animal world, until the appearance of Darwin, was the universal acceptance of God's hand in the design of nature.

All animals lived at man's pleasure: "A crane, which is scurvy meat, lays but two eggs in the year," explained Nehemiah Grew (1641-1711) in the 18th century, "but a pheasant and partridge, both excellent meat, lay and hatch fifteen or twenty." An unpersuaded Goethe (1749-1832) quipped that the Creator was wise "in foreordaining the cork tree to furnish stoppers for wine-bottles"!*

But bear-baiting, cock-fighting, the mistreatment of draft animals and brutality toward stray cats and dogs, were no laughing matter to Richard Martin (1754-1834), an Irish member of Parliament who got "Martin's Act" against animal cruelty passed in Parliament. He was nicknamed "Humanity Dick" by King George IV. Two years later, on this date in 1824, at Old Slaughter's Coffee House, Martin oversaw the founding of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which put teeth into Martin's Act. His efforts so impressed Queen Victoria that, in 1840, the SPCA was renamed the RSPCA, as they have been known ever since.

* The couplet in the original German reads:
"Welche Verehrung verdient der Weltenerschöpfer, der Gnädig,
Als er den Korkbaum erschuf, gleich auch die Stopfel erfand."

Originally published June 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

Our Fearless Leader.

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