“A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast”*: Early Modern Christian German-speakers, and the Rights of Other Creatures

Anthony Roeber

*(Proverbs: 12:10); “The Good Shepherd, St. Botolph without Aldersgate” by Andrewrabbott (CC BY-SA 4.0).

The present essay explores why the various versions of Christianity that emerged in North America by the early nineteenth century contributed almost nothing to the emerging concern about the rights of animals and the prevention of cruelty. Despite the gradual emergence of an anti-slavery movement among some of these groups, concern for the dignity of abused humans did not expand to examine the conditions of children or animals, their dignity and places as parts of creation. To date, although some scholarly attention has been paid, legal historians have noted the gradual attention paid to the rights of animals and children among English-speakers, the English-speaking New England Puritan context, little scholarship has emerged on either side of the Atlantic to assess why an apparent lack of concern for the rights of animals characterized German-speakers who comprised a substantial minority in the British North American colonies.1Virginia De John Anderson, Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004); Holly Brewer, By Birth or Consent: Children, Law, and the Anglo-American Revolution in Authority (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2007); Susan J. Pearson, The Rights of the Defenseless: Protecting Animals and Children in Gilded Age America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011). For the first indications of concern for animal rights among German-speakers in Europe, Adam Gottlieb Weigen, De Jure Hominis in Creaturas Oder Schrifftmässige Erörterung Deß Rechts des menschen Über Die Creaturen (Stuttgart: Augustus Metzler, 1711); Martin H. Jung, ed., Christian Adam Dann, Albert Knapp, Wieder die Tierquälerei: frühe Aufrufe zum Tierschutz aus dem württembergischen Pietismus (Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2002).

These German-speaking immigrants included the lawyer Francis Daniel Pastorius. Debate over the consumption of certain kinds of animal flesh that emerged among Catholics could have led Pastorius to write on the European extension of an ancient disinclination to kill and consume animals thought to be closest to rational humans. The wholesale renunciation of flesh as sustenance marked the teachings of the fifth century BCE Pythagoreans. Early Christian groups integrated those customs with ascetic practices and obligations to show justice and mercy inherited from the prophetic witnesses of Israel and Second Temple Judaism and identified especially with John, the Baptizer and Forerunner of Christ.2For Pastorius, Patrick M. Erben, et al, eds., The Francis Daniel Pastorius Reader: Writings by an Early American Polymath (University Park, PA, 2019) The Hebrew tsaddiq or tzadek; for various older interpretations, see e.g. James Hardy Ropes, “’Righteousness’ and ‘The Righteousness of God’ in the Old Testament and in St. Paul,” Journal of Biblical Literature 22:2 (1903), 211-227; Jewish Encyclopedia “Right and Righteousness” www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/12758-right-and-righteousness; for further literature, see Christiane L. Joost-Gaugier, Pythagoras and Renaissance-Europe: Finding Heaven (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Burkhard Dohm, “Vegetarismus-Konzepte im Deutschen und Englischen Spiritualismus des 16. Und 17. Jahrhunderts,” in Cecilia Muratori and Burkhard Dohm, eds., Ethical Perspectives on Animals in the Renaissance and Early Modern Period (Firenze: Sismel-Edizione del Galluzzo, 2013), 167-92.

For German-speakers like Pastorius, the medieval Catholic traditions on abstinence and fasting had been reinterpreted during the Reformation. Some Lutheran voices by the late seventeenth century reengaged the question of the rights of humans and animals in relationship to God — reigniting a debate over whether anything of the original “image and likeness” of humans to God survived the Fall in Eden. For Reformed Protestants, little ambiguity remained, and the answer was a decisive no. Depending on how one chose to answer that central question, the relationship of humans to animals necessarily followed. Were Adam and Eve vegans? Did the command to subdue the earth implicitly sanction the killing and eating of animals, perhaps on a limited basis? These questions circulated in Protestant European circles on the eve of the migrations of German-speakers to North America.

That fact prompts us to ask if arriving Europeans, whether Protestant or Catholic, carried with them some sort of ethic grounded in religious teaching about the rights of animals that extended beyond the purely utilitarian. Philosophers who have struggled with the problem of evil and suffering have suggested that, prior to the rise of Darwinian theories of evolution, animal and human suffering alike were subsumed under the western Christian conviction that this was the just penalty for Original Sin.3Michael J. Murray, Nature Red in Tooth & Claw: Theism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 2. The real story, however, is much more fascinating, if admittedly more sobering for those who would like to believe in a major Christian contribution to the issue of the rights of animals.

The details of everyday life among German speakers in early modern North America recovered from almanacs, newspapers, private letters, and Pastorius’ writings illustrate and comment on animals and their roles. The recipes for curing animal ills, along with comments on the abundance of meat that could be consumed in America — in sharp contrast with the old country — at one level reflect the conventional and inherited European attitude that animals were useful. Little attention was wasted on examining their possible dignity, their rights, or their deeper relationship to humans — a discussion that was engaged between the 1730s and mid-century, and then discontinued for reasons we need to explore.

By the 1790s, a concern for the rights of humans and animals surfaced and became a recognized theme among Pietist Protestants in Europe, but not in the newly founded United States. No simple explanation has so far accounted for the North American silence. But in what follows, examining the arguments about the rights of humans and animals that were already present among the transplanted Europeans helps us to construct a plausible context for explaining why the rights of animals and humans alike failed to re-connect with the old debates about “image and likeness” and were purposefully neglected in the American religious culture of the early republic.

Scholars have argued that the medieval Christian tradition carried an ambivalent attitude that at the same time allowed for the possibility that animals possessed some kind of soul, but that also increasingly insisted on the dominant and “rational” faculty of reason as the unique quality of the soul that distinguished humans from the rest of the animal kingdom.4Paul Münch, „Die Differenz zwischen Mensch und Tier: Ein Grundlagenproblem frühneuzeitlicher Anthropologie und Zoologie,“ in idem, ed., Tiere und Menschen: Geschichte und Aktualität eines prekären Verhältnisses (Paderborn, 1988), 323-47. A careful examination of medieval sermon literature, however, reveals that no open warrant ever emanated from clergy for the wanton exploitation or destruction of animals, no matter how many might have been tempted by a misreading of the famous Genesis passage that authorized humans to fill the earth and subdue it.5Jeremy Cohen, Be Fruitful and Increase, Fill the Earth and Master It: The Ancient and Medieval Career of a Biblical Text (Ithaca: Cornell U. Press, 1989).

The Genesis text focuses us properly on the underlying and disputed question of how German-speakers viewed the material world and the animals in whose midst humans found themselves.6Andrew Louth, “The Body in Western Catholic Christianity,” in Sarah Coakley, ed., Religion and the Body (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 111-130 at 114; 118; 119, 121-22. Caroline Walker Bynum, The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336 (New York: Columbia University Press), 94-104; 180-225. The late-medieval western Christian uneasiness with corruption and decay had also become linked to negative judgments about peasant behavior, both secular and clerical elites concluded, which resembled that of animals. This disdain informed a largely negative view of both peasants and animals among early Protestant pastors, whether Lutheran or Reformed. The association of “unreason” along with “animal-like” indulgence in food, drink, and sex appeared in woodcuts, in sermons, and denunciatory private letters.7See for example, Susan Karant-Nunn, “’Not Like the Unreasoning Beasts’: Rhetorical Efforts to Separate Humans and Animals in Early Modern Germany,” in James van Horn Melton, ed., Cultures of Communication from Reformation to Enlightenment: Constructing Publics in the Early Modern German Lands (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2002), 225-238 at 230-31. On the debates over marriage, A.G. Roeber, Hopes for Better Spouses: Marriage and Protestant Church Renewal in Early Modern Europe, India, and North America (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013).

Precisely because God had assumed flesh, the real Christian was responsible for compassion in the face of suffering — certainly human suffering, but all of creation, with the animals humans lived in closest proximity holding pride of place. Without overindulging the famous distinction between “official” and non-official pieties among European Christians, we still have good grounds to ask whether the official Protestant teaching on the near or total eclipse of the image and likeness of God in humans resulted in uniformly negative views of animals. Those who listened to sermons and viewed the woodcuts and broadside ballads developed a more complex reaction to these first-order questions, and the German-speakers who made the transit across the Atlantic fashioned their own related, but distinct response.

Precisely because God had assumed flesh, the real Christian was responsible for compassion in the face of suffering — certainly human suffering, but all of creation, with the animals humans lived in closest proximity holding pride of place.

Those who eventually became interested in the possibility of a new life among animals in a New World drew upon other sources than sermons and religious instruction. German-speakers and their English Protestant counterparts read the Wolfgang Franzius’ book that purported to be a “sacred history” of animals. Franzius’ mixture of “animal life and cultural interpretations” served his analogical purpose of informing readers about both details of real animals, but more especially, it shed light on the Christian life, one that included living with animals.8Vibeke Roggen, “Biology and Theology in Franzius’s Historia Animalium Sacra (1612),” in Karl A. E. Enekel and Paul M. Smit, eds., Early Modern Zoology: The Construction of Animals in Science, Literature and the Visual Arts (Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2007), 2 vols., 1: 121-144 at 139, 142-44. Franzius did not shy away from including popular proverbs in his description of the animal world. He did so because even the vernacular proverbs that contained references to animals used, for example, the aggression of animals toward one another as moral tales to warn humans against such behavior. Greed and aggression are condemned in such proverbs alongside the admonition to differentiate human from animal behavior. Not surprisingly, the surviving proverbs “for the most part . . . refer to domestic animals.” The observed behavior of the animal world provided a kind of study in proverbial form for understanding “the behaviour of man towards animals, that reflects the human world.”9Franziska Schnoor, “Octopuses, Foxes and Hares: Animals in Early Modern Latin and German Proverbs,” in Enekel and Smith, eds., Early Modern Zoology II: 529-543, at 542, 543.

The earliest descriptions of North America that circulated among German-speakers of central Europe — some 400 titles between 1493 and 1618 — attempted to inform Europeans about at least some animals in the new world. But preconceptions that filtered down from that very small readership to provide a lens of interpretation for less learned German-speakers who actually encountered animals in the New World elude precise focus. Beginning with the small number of German-speakers who populated the Jamestown settlement and extending to the large migration streams of the eighteenth century, readers of German were first enticed to consider the “diversions” to be enjoyed by adventurers to Virginia, including the excitement of the hunt to nobility.

With the rise of the late seventeenth-century church renewal movement known as Pietism, however, the conventional wisdom and categories of classifying and relating to animals began to shift. Protestants most disaffected from the Lutheran and Reformed churches officially recognized as legitimate under the constitution of the Holy Roman Empire turned increasingly to radical re-readings of the origins of creation and the consequences of the Fall. The early descriptions of “New World” animals follow the paradigm of “utility” — useful not merely for consumption and preservation of human life, but important, as well as a warning against unwanted or unwise migration. The image of the “wild” animal surfaced fairly quickly in the published printed materials.

By the late 1720s, as the German-speaking migration stream began to increase, one might have expected that the early surviving printed materials would have more carefully described not only animals themselves, but conditions under which both animals and humans would have to live in unfamiliar climatic and geographic conditions, and again with some attention to diet. Migration, however, could easily be linked to deprivation, and the absence of comforting animals. The consumers of these commemorations were in some instances as interested in the costumes of the emigrants and their patrons as they were in admiring the bravery of religious exile. But the relatively modest role played by animals in the popular broadsides is striking.10For the illustrations that concentrate on the importance of carrying the printed „Word“ and the absence of animals, see Angelika Marsch, Die Salzburger Emigration in Bildern, 2nd ed. (Weissenhorn: Anton H. Konrad Verlag, 1979); I count 248 images of which 226 are from the eighteenth-century; for the glass paintings, 13-24; on the fascination for costumes, 7-8; for the Peacock, image No. 19 of the glass paintings; for the dog asleep during prayer, image No. 15 of the broadsides. For the more typical barren landscapes of Salzburg territory devoid of animals, see image 161. The comprehensive work on German language broadsides is Hermann Wellenreuther, Citizens in a Strange Land: A Study of German-American Broadsides and Their Meaning for Germans in North America, 1730-1830 (University Park, PA, 2013).

In the New World context, some German-speakers replicated this tendency to reach for the comfort of domesticated animals when confronted with the perils of voyaging. Among the titles in the German language that were printed and distributed in North America before 1800, one finds no coherently developing sense of animals that justify one in describing an “ethic” or explicitly theological role for animals among the purchasers of these texts that connects them to an original image and likeness of God in humans, who are in turn responsible for animals.

“Lady with a Dog” by Mather Brown (CC0 1.0).

The thoroughly practical advice that dominates the almanacs for the eighteenth century nonetheless did not prevent some images from emerging that also suggested the burgeoning importance of animals as symbols of success in the New World. By 1745, for example, the cover of the year’s almanac displayed a dock scene with an observant dog watching the arrival of a ship. In general, despite Martin Luther’s praise for his own dog’s dedication in guarding the meat stores of the family, dogs had long held an ambivalent status in ancient and medieval Christianity. Although instances can be found of dogs “accompanying saints, acting as saints, eating meals, ‘being’ evil, hovering at the foot of the cross, and signifying healing,” with the rise of Protestantism’s emphasis upon the written and preached “Word” animals “vanished from the sanctuary.” In Protestantism’s rise, humanity may well have taken “yet another leap away from animals and from nature as a whole.”11See Laura Hobgood-Oster, Holy Dogs and Asses: Animals in the Christian Tradition (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2008), 33- 38, 92-106; 132.

Neither in the iconographic nor the written record did German-speakers tend to anthropomorphize animals. No sentimentality links animals to the human condition; however, the German-speaker “knew” the world and maintained a certain distance between the self and the domesticated creature who continued, in Biblical terms, to be designated as “his beast.” The surviving evidence does not comment on the maltreatment of animals or give warnings against cruelty or violence. If this body of evidence were also completely silent on the maltreatment of other humans — slaves, women, children — the silence would at least be consistent. But such was not the case. The famous Germantown Protest against slavery issued from the midst of the dissenting arrivals of the 1680s did not find reproduction, nor prevent German-speakers from become slaveholders. But unease and criticism of the institution did surface, among Lutherans as well as Moravians and German converts to the Society of Friends.

What conclusions may we deduce regarding the later history of German-speakers and their apparent lack of concern for the rights of animals in North America? First, not a single broadside, no published piece, indeed no private letters take up the question of animals and their relationship to humans in the sense of “rights” that suggests that this question was a primary matter of concern or a topic of discussion among these transplanted Europeans. Second, to the extent that the surviving material sources allow us, one concludes that animals continued to be classified along the general lines that had been developed in medieval and early modern Europe. Third, German-speakers in North America did not significantly differ from their English-speaking neighbors in assuming the importance and priority given to domesticating animals for human use, and for associating the “wild” animals with the equally dangerous “wild” humans and forested areas of the North American continent — neither of whom deserved much attention with regard to their rights in relationship to settlers.

The consumption of meat in North America — a luxury emigrant letters to relatives in Europe mention repeatedly — confirms alongside the broadside record that animals were regarded either as part of domestic comforts, or as sources of nourishment. The priority given to horses, cattle, and dogs (more or less in that order) in the documentary record is, however, surpassed by the fondness for birds as beautifiers of everyday life. The recognition of the beauty of animals hints at a small, but not insignificant, awareness that animate members of creation possessed an inherent beauty, a dignity that was not dependent upon human needs, wants, or rights of use. Cruelty to animals, or their neglect, did not emerge as a major theme among early modern German-speakers, and countermeasures in the form of sermons or denunciatory tracts or broadsides do not survive, if they ever existed.

That only some, and not all of the transplanted Europeans “regarded” the life of “their” beast as a right that demanded human compassion and respect should not surprise us. As the pressures for acquiring land, chattels, and social standing accelerated in the early nineteenth century, the New World made its choices and caught up with the Old in social stratification, and exploitation of creation. The record of secular broadsides among German-speakers as well as the depictions of everyday life show a sharp increase in advertisements and concern for property and prosperity by 1800. Outside observers as well as reform-minded pastors alike lamented that “in unmistakable ways, most Lutheran and even German Reformed faithful stood apart from the reformist impulse that animated much of American evangelical Protestantism. They showed scant interest in assuming responsibility for the larger society’s morality or its cultural direction.” German-speakers, like other Americans became increasingly focused on the utility of the “new” world’s peoples and animals. The brief, and fleeting engagement with the obligation to be “righteous” as a corollary of humans’ own image and likeness had to await its own, later awakening to which early modern Christian Europeans, both English and German speaking, had contributed very little. ♦

Rev. Dr. A. G. Roeber is Emeritus Professor of Early Modern History and Religious Studies, Penn State University; Professor of Church History, St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, Senior Luce Fellow, Orthodox Christian Studies Center, Fordham University and author of Orthodox Christians and the Rights Revolution in America (Fordham U. Press, 2023).

Recommended Citation

Roeber, Anthony. “‘A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast’: Early Modern Christian German-speakers, and the Rights of Other Creatures.” Canopy Forum, July 20, 2023. https://canopyforum.org/2023/07/20/a-righteous-man-regardeth-the-life-of-his-beast-early-modern-christian-german-speakers-and-the-rights-of-other-creatures/.