Friday, February 3, 2023
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History of the Vegan Movement

Veganism in Eastern Religions:

Hindus, Buddhists and Jains have all long promoted plant based diets for ethical reasons. An early Jain called Parsva (877-777 BC), taught followers about ‘Ahimsa’ which means ‘non-violence to living forms’. Taoism and Chinese Buddhism in the late 4th century stipulated that their monks and nuns were to eat an egg free vegetarian diet.

Veganism in Christianity:

Several Christian communities teach that instead of ruling and dominating, humans should think of themselves as having stewardship over the planet and every creature. Among these is the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which highlights a passage in the Bible saying that God created plants, seeds and fruits to be human food, and therefore human diets should be entirely plant-based (Genesis 1:29). 

Adventists are often entirely plant-based or vegetarian. Although the focus of their founding member Ellen White was on human health and wellbeing, her statements about compassion towards animals as sentient beings were almost unprecedented in the mid-19th century:

“[The animals] manifest sympathy and tenderness toward their companions in suffering. Many animals show an affection for those who have charge of them, far superior to the affection shown by some of the human race. They form attachments for man which are not broken without great suffering to them. What man with a human heart, who has ever cared for domestic animals, could look into their eyes, so full of confidence and affection, and willingly give them over to the butcher’s knife? How could he devour their flesh as a sweet morsel?”

UK Vegan Society:

In July 1943 The Vegetarian Messenger, the magazine of the UK Vegetarian Society, printed a letter from Leslie Cross condemning the consumption of cows’ milk.  Cross had become vegan in 1942.  Correspondence between Cross and the Vegetarian Society continued for many months, culminating in Donald Watson asking vegetarians interested in avoiding dairy to write him. Over 50 responses were received and in August 1944 he and Elsie Shrigley petitioned the Vegetarian Society to allow a non-dairy group to be set up. Their request was refused, and Watson went on to form the Vegan Society in November 1944.

The pioneers of the vegan movement had just been through World War 2, which had a profound and shocking effect on them.  They believed that veganism should be seen as part of the moral evolution of humanity. Watson said:

“We don’t know the spiritual advancements that long term veganism – I mean not over years or even decades, but over generations, would have on human life. It would be certainly a different civilisation, and the first one in the whole of our history that would truly deserve the title of being a civilisation. Full stop.”  (Source: Roger Yates)

In spring 1946, the first issue of The Vegan magazine was published (back issues of which can be viewed here). In 1949 Leslie Cross pointed out that the society lacked a definition of veganism and he suggested: “[T]he principle of the emancipation of animals from exploitation by man”, later clarified as: “To seek an end to the use of animals by man for food, commodities, work, hunting, vivisection, and by all other uses involving exploitation of animal life by man”.  (Source: Roger Yates)

The Vegan Society’s ‘statement of purpose’ that appeared in the inside cover of The Vegan from 1962 includes the sentence: “Veganism remembers man’s responsibilities to the earth and its resources and seeks to bring about a healthy soil and plant kingdom and a proper use of the materials of the earth.”

Vegans were early proponents of what we now call environmentalism and green issues. For vegans, the lifestyle encompassed a natural way of living that respected not just sentient beings but the very planet we inhabit.

When the society became a registered charity in 1979, the Memorandum and Articles of Association defined “veganism” as:  […] a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alernatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment.”

America and other countries:

Jay Dinshah founded the American Vegan Society in February 1960, and the society published the first American vegan magazine, Ahimsa. Germany’s first vegan society was founded in the 1950s and the vegan society of India was founded in 1957.

Donald Watson (1910-2005):

Watson was born in Yorkshire, the son of a headmaster in a mining community. He later became a teacher. As a child, Watson spent time on his uncle’s farm. The slaughtering of a pig on the farm horrified him and he became a vegetarian at the age of fourteen. He gave up dairy products about 18 years later, having seen that the production of milk-related products was also unethical.

Watson was sickened by the events of World War Two, and saw vegan movement as the ‘salvation of Man’.  The vegan pioneers saw a connection between humanity’s tyranny towards each other and animals. Watson wrote about the beginnings of the movement in 1988:

“Perhaps it seemed to us a fitting antidote to the sickening experience of war, and a reminder that we should be doing more about the other holocaust that goes on all the time. Or perhaps it was that we were conscious of a remarkable omission in all previous vegetarian literature – namely, that though nature provides us with lots of examples of carnivores and vegetarians it provides us with no examples of lacto-carnivores or lacto-vegetarians. Such groups are freaks and only made possible by man’s capacity to exploit the reproductive functions of other species. This, we thought, could not be right either dietetically or ethically. It was certainly wrong aesthetically, and we could conceive of no spectacle more bizarre than that of a grown man attached at his meal-times to the udder of a cow.” (Source)

Watson declared that all other movements are “lesser” compared to veganism because they had a limited vision of the future. He said that other movements were like people re-arranging deckchairs on the Titanic, whereas they could be helping the vegans who were busy shining their searchlight “on the iceberg which is going to be the end of the whole show.” (Source: Roger Yates)

In his address to the International Vegetarian Congress in 1947, Watson said:  “The vegan believes there is nothing in the idea of vegetarianism so long as this regrettable practice of eating more dairy produce continues. Indeed the use of milk must be a greater crime than the use of flesh-foods, since after all the exploitation of motherhood and calf killing the cow must face the slaughterhouse. Thus the dairy cow suffers far more than the bullock taken from the field and slaughtered.”

Watson also emphasised the health aspects of the vegan diet and showed how veganism could abolish food shortages throughout the world.

Read more Donald Watson quotes here.

Further Reading:

Leslie Cross (1914-1979):

Donald Watson stated that Leslie Cross was a great friend of his and one of the outstanding contributors to the early years of the vegan movement. Both men saw veganism as something that would emancipate human and other animals.

In 1956 Cross set up the Plantmilk Society. The company, later renamed as ‘Plamil’, produced one of the first widely distributed soy milks in the Western world.

Leslie Cross quotes:

“[In] order to produce a dairy cow, heart-rending cruelty, and not merely exploitation, is a necessity. Milk and its derivatives are products of pain, suffering, and abominable interference with the law of love.”

 “Veganism owes its birth to the fact that at the deepest point within us we believe impregnably in freedom.”

“The real, the indelible significance of veganism is its devastatingly logical demonstration that by denying to the animals the right to be free, man keeps locked against himself the gateway to his own further pursuit of happiness.”

“In a vegan world the creatures would be reintegrated within the balance and sanity of nature as she is in herself.   A great and historic wrong, whose effect upon the course of evolution must have been stupendous, would be righted. The idea that his fellow creatures might be used by man for self-interested purposes would be so alien to human thought as to be almost unthinkable.  In this light, veganism is not so much welfare as liberation, for the creatures and for the mind and heart of man; not so much an effort to make the present relationship bearable, as an uncompromising recognition that because it is in the main one of master and slave, it has to be abolished before something better and finer can be built.”

“Veganism is in truth an affirmation that where love is, exploitation vanishes.  It possesses historical continuity with the movement that set free the human slaves.  Were it put into effect, every basic wrong done to animals by man would automatically disappear.  At its heart is the healing power of compassion, the highest expression of love of which man is capable.  For it is a giving without hope of a getting.  And yet, because he would free himself from many of the demands made by his own lower nature, the benefit to man himself would be incalculable.”

 “While we must admit that changes in world dietary habits cannot take place overnight, the long term view must surely be that we wish to bring practice more and more into line with what we inwardly know to be worthy of man’s better nature. If as we claim, we are a more noble creation than the animals, then we cannot avoid the logic of noblesse oblige. The most stringent test of the character of a man is how he acts toward those over whom he possesses power, and here the animals present us with an absolutely acid test. Surely we diminish ourselves by using our power over them merely to satisfy our own self-interested desires?”

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