On the sixth day, so the biblical Creation story goes, God created animals. Around 1,000 years later, the prophet Noah saved an unknown number of species from the flood. However, since the Old Testament era, very few Christians have spent time considering their commitments to animals.
The Humane Society of the United States is attempting to change that with a new video series that addresses religious reasons for getting involved in animal welfare work. The 12 short videos, titled "Living Legacy: Faith Voices on Animal Protection," feature leading American scholars discussing three historical figures famous for their faith-based arguments for ending animal abuse.
The series, which profiles William Wilberforce, Hannah More and C.S. Lewis, is the first installment of an ongoing effort to raise awareness of the organization's close ties to communities of faith. Christine Gutleben, senior director of faith outreach for the society, said that few people realize modern animal welfare organizations like the Humane Society and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals would not exist today if it weren't for passionate religious leaders of centuries past.
"Animal welfare has always been a matter of faith, and it's important for every animal advocate — no matter their belief system — to be aware of the roots of this movement," she said.
The Humane Society does not highlight any particular biblical passages in its outreach to religious communities, relying instead on the stories of prominent believers and their efforts on behalf of animals. With this video series, Gutleben said, the organization hopes to "raise the national consciousness of faith leaders in order to build support for animal welfare policies," reminding Americans that, politics aside, this work can be an important part of living a faithful life.
The voices of the series
Rather than simply post information online or publish brochures about Wilberforce, More and Lewis, Gutleben chose to commission videos to best capture their "inspiring and whimsical" spirit through interviews with similarly engaging academics.
To offer a look at Wilberforce, an early 19th-century English parliamentarian who was famous for his work to abolish slavery, the Humane Society interviewed Eric Metaxas, a prominent author who wrote "Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery."
In his four videos, Metaxas outlined Wilberforce's extensive efforts to reform English culture. For the political leader, Metaxas explained, ending cruelty to animals was closely intertwined with improving human morality.
Karen Swallow Prior, a professor of English at Liberty University, discussed More for the series, drawing on the research that went into her book "Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More — Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist."
More was a contemporary and friend of Wilberforce, committed to living out her evangelical Christian beliefs at a time when religious observance was out of style.
Prior, who considers herself like More an advocate for animal welfare issues, said she appreciated the opportunity to encourage her fellow evangelical Christians to look past political biases and get involved in the Humane Society's work.
"The time is just really right for evangelicals to rediscover our own heritage in these issues," she said.
The third and most well-known of the faith leaders included in the series, C.S. Lewis, was profiled by Jerry Root, a professor and associate director at Wheaton College's Billy Graham Institute for Strategic Evangelism. Root has been studying Lewis for the majority of his academic career.
Famous for both fantasy stories such as The Chronicles of Narnia series and treatises on the Christian faith, Lewis was a lifelong lover of animals who, according to Root, regularly displayed this attribute in his writing.
"All of his evil characters are cruel to animals," he said, explaining his view that "C.S. Lewis opened more than wardrobe doors. And one of those doors leads to compassion for animals."
The forgotten faith connection
Animal welfare activism, like environmentalism, is often associated with liberal politics and secular culture in American society.
Prior said that's likely because faith leaders stopped talking about the issue in their communities, leaving other social issues to fill the void.
"Anytime the church fails (to address) a topic, then other voices are going to pick it up," she said. "And they're not going to pick it up in the same way we would."
Metaxas shared a similar sentiment in one of the Wilberforce videos, explaining, "Many people write it off as a left-wing obsession, but the reality is that the roots of it come from people of faith."
In fact, for 34 of the Humane Society's 60 years of operation, the organization was under the leadership of an ordained pastor. John Hoyt, a Presbyterian minister, served as president from 1970 to 1992, and Paul Irwin, a Methodist minister, served from 1992 to 2004.
And although the current president, Wayne Pacelle, is not ordained, Gutleben noted that he started the society's Faith Outreach program, which has raised the profile of the Humane Society's connection to faith communities and made the new video series possible.
Avenues for action
As the program's website details, Gutleben's faith outreach work includes recruiting faith allies from across the country and leading a Faith Advisory Council, of which Root and Prior are a part. She also coordinates the Humane Society's faith-focused programs, including "Fill the Bowl," "Humane Backyards" and "Eating Mercifully."
Through all of her work, Gutleben said she has been reminded of the universality of her organization's message.
"Animal welfare is an issue that transcends traditions and backgrounds," she said.
In the spirit of that belief, Gutleben explained that the next step for the "Living Legacy: Faith Voices on Animal Protection" video series is to feature leaders from non-Christian traditions.
"There are many figures that we have to choose from because of the rich history of religious involvement in animal issues," she said.
In the meantime, Gutleben and the other video participants will focus on the involvement of everyday believers, bringing their research on the religious roots of the Humane Society to the masses.
Prior doesn't think people will watch the video series and suddenly start volunteering at their local animal shelter or commit to vegetarianism. But she is hopeful that people of faith will begin to relate to the issue in new ways.
"Once people understand that animal welfare is a biblical concern, there are so many ways we can address that concern," she said. "It (will take) small steps, but every step counts."
Email: [email protected] Twitter: @kelsey_dallas
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