This is Kathleen from Dialogue writing. I was trolling through some Dialogue magazines looking for information about the Word of Wisdom and found this in the opening paragraph of an article by Thomas G. Alexander. (“The Word of Wisdom: From Principle to Requirement, ” 14, No. 3 [Fall 1981] 78 – 87). In May of 1898 the First Presidency and the Twelve were discussing the Word of Wisdom. One member read from the 12th volume of the Journal of Discourses where Brigham Young seems to support the idea that the Word of Wisdom is a commandment. “Lorenzo Snow, then President of the Council of Twelve agreed, saying that he believed the Word of Wisdom was a commandment and that it should be carried out to the letter. In doing so, he said, members should be taught to refrain from eating meat except in dire necessity, because Joseph Smith had taught that animals have spirits.” Wilford Woodruff agreed the Word of Wisdom is a commandment, but thinks no action should be taken except that “members should be taught to refrain from meat.” (p. 78)
I think I can safely say that “eat meat sparingly” is not the portion of the Word of Wisdom that today we pay the most attention to, especially in the context of the status of animals as creatures with spirits. We don’t discuss animals at church very much at all, except maybe to comfort someone who has lost a pet. We can assure the bereaved that since animals have spirits, we will see them again. Someone might refer to what Joseph Smith said during Zion’s Camp, when the men wanted to kill the rattlesnakes in the camp. “Men must themselves become harmless before they can expect brute creation to be so. When man shall lose his own vicious disposition and cease to destroy the inferior animals, the lion and the lamb may dwell together, and the suckling child play with the serpent in safety,” is how Wilford Woodruff remembers it. And we know Brigham Young was displeased when the men of the first 1847 pioneer company killed more animals than they needed for meat.
I think most Mormons think of human beings as the lords of creation, as being “a little lower than the angels,” as the stewards of the earth–not really as part of the animal kingdom. We do not think of ourselves as “human animals” the way animals’ rights advocates do–just part of a continuum of fauna, more complex than some, more arrogant than all. As animals I think it’s fair to say humans are at once the most creative and the most destructive species ever to evolve on the planet.
In order for any animal, or plant either, to live, something else must die. That’s the brutal truth of it. Even the purest of vegetarians kill to live. It’s specious to argue that plants aren’t “alive”. They are immobile and have nothing we recognize as a brain, but they are complex and sophisticated, and are capable of reaction, to threat for example. They attract insects to aid them in reproduction. This idea that plants can manipulate us is the idea behind Michael Polanyi’s The Botany of Desire, which I was skeptical about at first, but have been forced to reconsider. When we eat seeds, couldn’t it be argued that we are eating an embryo with the potential for life? Chapter 3 of Moses says God created all things spiritually before they were created “naturally upon the face of the earth.” I suppose it could be argued whether creating something spiritually is the same as that thing having a spirit, but I think it does.
Given that all creation has a spirit, what should our attitude be towards what we eat, especially the animals we eat. My daughter-in-law won’t eat anything that “has a mother.” She will eat chicken and fish, chicken and fish mothers being too detached from the process of child rearing to count, I suppose. This is something we tend not to want to think too much about because it affects us as often as we eat, which is often. Eating is pleasurable, but it wouldn’t be if a person had to think with every mouthful about what creature gave its life to provide the meal.
My own eating is full of contradictions. I don’t eat a lot of beef, but I eat a lot of chicken. One dead beef animal can feed far more people than one dead chicken, so it would be more sparing of life to eat beef. Furthermore, I prefer only certain parts of the animals I eat–the best parts, not the “hubcaps” as my mother used to say. I don’t eat organs either; I don’t eat stomachs or tails or tongues. I eat what I like and don’t give much thought to the potential waste. It is also clear to me that if I had to kill the animal myself, and butcher it or pluck it, I probably wouldn’t eat meat at all.
I think it is true that when people lived on small farms, where they raised and ate their own animals, they had a more rounded sense of what it meant to share the earth with what became their food. It might be they drew a big distinction between themselves and the animal world, so they didn’t have to think about animals in a personal way. It might be that they had more reverence for the animals, who had no choice, and gave up their lives to feed a family, a family of chosen creatures or just a group of other animals, depending on how you look at it.
Well, vegetarians and animal rights advocates are bores, mostly, which makes it easy to dismiss them with a joke. How far down do they want to take it, after all? Bacteria are animals–mosquitoes and fleas and ticks are animals. We kill them pretty readily, even if not to eat them. But as participants in a religion that asks us to give money and go hungry once a month, which reminds us every time we dress that we have made covenants, that can exact a great deal of time from us, maybe we should also examine our relationship to those animals with spirits, not just the ones that are our pets.