New Works in the Field


Editors’ Note: Garrett M. Broad reviews Janet M. Davis’s The Gospel of Kindness: Animal Welfare and the Making of Modern America (Oxford University Press, 2016).

Among those who identify as members of the animal rights community in the United States, religion is rarely a motivating factor for activism. Quite the contrary, animal rights activists are more likely to view religion as a primary cause of – rather than an avenue towards solving – non-human animal suffering.

As evidence, they will point to God’s oft-quoted words in Genesis 1:26: “Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness, to rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, and over all the earth itself and every creature that crawls upon it.” While this biblical doctrine of “dominion” could, theoretically, be used as an argument in favor of animal protection, the reality is that it has served as a central foundation for ongoing animal abuse and neglect, these activists insist. An effective movement for animal protection may include some religious people among the flock, but as activists stress, the movement itself must be guided by secular principles, perhaps first among them the biological recognition that we are merely animals ourselves.

Yet, as demonstrated in Janet M. Davis’ thorough and engaging work of history, The Gospel of Kindness, the modern animal rights movement would not have existed in the United States without religiously-motivated animal welfare advocates of yore. Protestant churches, in particular, were at the epicenter of the early phase of the American animal welfare movement, which spanned from the Second Great Awakening in the 1800s to the dawn of the Second World War. As Davis notes, the focus areas, philosophies, tactics, and players that characterize animal protection have changed dramatically since that time, but scholars and practitioners alike would be wise to pay closer attention to those early days of animal welfare advocacy. Doing so not only helps us better understand the evolution of movements for animal protection, but also provides insight into the evolution of the United States itself. Indeed, The Gospel of Kindness uses the history of animal welfare in the U.S. to show how the country was transformed in the modern era, linking the study of religion and animals to broader considerations of globalization, empire, race, gender, and a myriad of other political entanglements that make up the world we know today.

Davis does a skillful job of blending primary archival research with individual and organizational narratives, as well as broader cultural histories from the United States and abroad. Her writing is interspersed with evocative photos and drawings, with some of the most fascinating taken from the pages of Our Dumb Animals, a publication founded in the mid-1800s by George T. Angell, a Boston attorney who was also the founding president of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Angell was one of several key players who, aghast at the treatment of laboring animals, promoted an ethic of animal care through a religious register. During this era, messages in favor of animal mercy were inserted into religious literature, popular novels, and children’s educational materials, highlighted as a key pathway toward moral uplift. At the same time, the movement against animal cruelty intertwined with other fundamental moral concerns and social movements of the day. “Rooted in biblical exegesis,” Davis writes, “metaphors of animal kindness and suffering in the antislavery and temperance movements were significant structures of feeling that presaged the birth of new institutions, strategies, and tactics dedicated specifically to animals” (p. 49).

As Davis examines the philosophical and organizational evolution of the animal welfare movement in the United States, she tempers her praise of advocates’ moral benevolence with noteworthy critiques, both strategic and cultural. Too often, Davis explains, the movement’s focus on individualized initiative, as opposed to collective action, limited its scope and reach. This was exemplified, for instance, in the movement’s opposition to organized labor in the late 1800s, as leaders like Angell insisted that moral education was a better antidote to class conflict than labor militancy. Further, a host of racist and classist assumptions were embedded within the animal welfare movement, leading to selective enforcement of anti-cruelty statutes, as well as an overall exclusionary conception of “proper citizenship” that blended particular perspectives on moral animal treatment with aggressive assimilationist and carceral politics. At the turn of the 20th century, for instance, efforts to improve slaughterhouse sanitation and reduce bubonic plague risk were advanced in no small part through anti-Chinese immigrant sentiment, as those communities were targeted by scornful media rhetoric and aggressive quarantine actions. As Davis puts it: “Kindness to animals was a litmus test for national belonging and exclusion, which could be both liberatory and oppressive” (p. 115).

Had Davis restricted her gaze to domestic developments alone, the work would have offered a solid contribution. By turning her attention in the latter half of the book to the role of animal welfare in U.S. imperial projects, The Gospel of Kindness lives up to its full billing as an exploration of modern America, taking into consideration its emerging global footprint. Through case studies that include cockfighting in the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico; an examination of the influence of Indian cow protection and vegetarian movements on missionaries and US-based advocates; and an investigation of transnational manifestations of bullfighting, Davis shows how “the gospel of kindness was an important agent of Americanization and nation building overseas in the new empire” (p. 219). Attempts to ban blood sports in the United States and across its broader sphere of influence, for instance, were held up as examples of American exceptionalism, while any local resistance was used as a cudgel to assert the moral inferiority of foreigners. With animals deeply connected to the lived experience of colonial life, Davis adds, “human-animal interactions became a flashpoint for local nation building and anticolonial sentiment” (p. 220).

While the book offers valuable insights for scholars of the religious and voluntary sectors, those with interests in philanthropy, specifically, might be a bit disappointed that questions of fundraising and fiscal support are underexplored. As a reader, I was left wondering about the monetary dynamics that undergirded national and international animal welfare efforts. How did those machinations change over time, and what do those developments tell us about the role of money in advancing or constraining particular conceptions of animal kindness and moral uplift?

Still, that oversight does little to deflect from the overall value of the work as a historical project and, importantly, as a window into current discussions about animal protection. The book concludes with brief reflections on current animal advocacy debates, pointing to both discontinuities and historical connections. While dominant concerns about laboring animals have been replaced by concerns about animals killed for food, for instance, low-income communities are still the most likely to be vulnerable to prosecution for animal cruelty. While many animal activists purport a commitment to the liberation of humans and non-humans alike, the racial and gender politics of the movement remain fraught. Indeed, debates about the politics of identity and the prospects for “intersectional veganism” permeate contemporary animal activism, highlighted by classic works of feminist critique like Carol Adams’ The Sexual Politics of Meat (1990), the recent creation of racially inclusive communities like Black Vegans Rock, and the resignation of several high-profile male animal protection movement leaders in the face of #MeToo allegations. Davis’ work shows that such internal strife is part of a much longer trajectory of contestation in the animal welfare movement than might be otherwise assumed.

Central to Davis’ core interests, and while religious affiliation and participation in the animal protection movement have become disentangled over time, her work reminds readers that the deep relationship between faith, moral uplift, and concern for animals has never quite disappeared. Considering this topic in his ecologically-focused 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si, Pope Francis commented on these very concerns: “Often, what was handed on was a Promethean vision of mastery over the world, which gave the impression that the protection of nature was something that only the faint-hearted cared about. Instead, our ‘dominion’ over the universe should be understood more properly in the sense of responsible stewardship” (para 116). Contrary to many animal activists’ assumptions, Davis demonstrates that the modern secular movement has a religiously-motivated history to which it owes a great deal. Ultimately, the future of U.S. religious engagement in animal welfare may be unclear, but The Gospel of Kindness has shown Davis to be a responsible steward of its history.

-Garrett M. Broad

Garrett M. Broad is an Assistant Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University and the author of More Than Just Food: Food Justice and Community Change (University of California Press, 2016). His research focuses on networked social movements in local and global food systems, exploring how food can contribute to social justice, environmental sustainability, and the rights and welfare of animals. For more on Garrett, find him on Twitter (@garrettbroad), or please visit his personal website (

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