In September, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, in conjunction with the Ethics and Public Policy Center and Clapham Group, released Every Living Thing, an Evangelical Statement on Responsible Care for Animals.
The statement modestly points out that it is not “a doctrinal end and it doesn’t prescribe specific action.” Rather, it is intended to provide “a framework for conversation about the redemptive work of God’s grace.” This is an important conversation for the contemporary church to have. As Russell Moore explains,
Our treatment of animals is a spiritual issue. The Bible is clear that our being created in the image of God does not lessen our responsibility to steward the physical world well, but heightens it. This statement is a reminder that the gospel transforms our use and care of animals as we see all of God’s glory reflected in his good creation.
As tempting as it to credit Moore and the other signatories with being pioneering visionaries, the fact is that the statement is not adding to Baptist legacy, but rather, reclaiming it. And perhaps no voice in Baptist history has weighed in more boldly or more passionately on the issue of animal welfare than the “Prince of Preachers” himself, the nineteenth century Reformed Baptist, Charles Spurgeon.
Following a couple of highly-publicized cases of animal cruelty, in 1873 Spurgeon published the article “A Word for Brutes Against Brutes” in the magazine he founded, The Sword and The Trowel. The article begins by describing these two horrific instances of abuse, one involving a coachman who drove a horse for miles on bloody and broken feet, the other involving a businessman who pricked out the eyes of birds with a pin to make them into better songbirds.
Of the first case, Spurgeon exclaimed, “If there be no law which would award the lash to such a fiend incarnate an Act ought to be passed at once, or Mr. Justice Lynch might for once be invoked to give the demon his reward in an irregular Manner.” The second case, the cruelty to birds, even tempted Spurgeon to reconsider his considered rejection of the death penalty: “if we were not averse to all capital punishment we should suggest that nothing short of a rope with a noose in it would give him his deserts.”
Like the evangelical reformers who came before him, including the evangelical abolitionists William Wilberforce and Hannah More, Spurgeon considered humane treatment of animals to be an issue central to both personal morality and civil society. Spurgeon was adamant that active opposition to animal cruelty is the duty of all good citizens:
Cruelty to animals must be stamped out. Each case must be earnestly dealt with. Where the laws are violated humane persons must undertake the unpleasant duty of prosecuting the offenders, or must at least report them to the proper authorities: and where no law exists to protect the 'unhappy victims, instances of cruelty should be reported by the press, that shame may be aroused and a right public sentiment treated.
But even more than mere good citizenship was at stake for Spurgeon. He viewed animal welfare as a matter of spiritual welfare for human beings:
It is not only for the sake of the creature subject to cruelty that we would, plead for kindness, but with a view to the good of the person causing the pain; for cruelty hardens the heart, deadens the conscience, and destroys the finer sensibilities of the soul. The most eminently spiritual men display great delicacy towards all living things, and if it, be not always true that "he prayeth best who loveth best both male and bird and beast," yet the converse is assuredly the fact, for the man who truly loves his Maker becomes tender towards all the creatures his Lord has made. In gentleness and kindness our great Redeemer is our model. …. In proportion as men decline from the highest standard of goodness their sympathies become blunted, they lose delicacy, and tenderness, and becoming more selfish become also less considerate of others. He who dwells in God has a great heart which encompasses all creation, and as it were lives in it all like the soul in. the body, feeling akin with all, yea, one with all life, so that it joys in all true joy, and sorrows in all sorrow. The man of dead heart towards God has a heart of stone towards the Lord's creatures, and cares for them only so far as he can make them minister to his own wealth or pleasure.
Because we in contemporary America no longer (openly) countenance the forms of animal cruelty that were rampant in Spurgeon’s day (such as bull baiting, cock throwing, dog fighting), we are lulled into thinking the problem no longer persists.
But as a recent news story reveals, systemic animal cruelty persists in our culture today. Undercover video footage taken at one of Hormel Foods’ suppliers, according to the Washington Post, depicts
… pigs being dragged across the floor, beaten with paddles, and sick to the point of immobility. By law, pigs are supposed to be rendered unconscious before being killed, but many are shown writhing in apparent pain while bleeding out, suggesting that they weren’t properly stunned. "That one was definitely alive," a worker says.
Rather than taking place openly in the village square as blood sports once did, animal cruelty continues, now hidden in the recesses of industrial farming operations that produce much of the food we eat. It’s easy to turn a blind eye, because it seems, like other systemic wrongs, to be a “necessary evil.”
Considering how neglected animal welfare issues have been within modern American evangelicalism, it is almost astonishing to learn that Spurgeon went so far as to tie true Christian conversion to care for animals, boldly declaring that,
…. we will go the length of affirming that no person really penitent for sin can be cruel, that no man who feels the love of God shed abroad in his heart can find pleasure in giving pain, and furthermore that wanton cruelty to an animal may be that last deadening deed of ill which may for ever leave the heart callous to all the appeals of law and gospel.
Spurgeon’s words in the nineteenth century are just as relevant to the church in the twenty first century: how we care for and steward animals is a gospel issue because the gospel applies to every aspect of the believer’s life and the witness of the church body.