Humane Day: Mormonism’s Forgotten Moral Conscience

As we continue Animal Week, today we have a guest post from  Claudia.

A few years ago, I came across a gem of a little book which I wish would be a standard work in the book collection of any Mormon.

Kindness to Animals and Caring for the Earth, compiled by Richard D. Stratton, “contains over 200 statements and stories on kindness to animals and caring for the earth from leaders, scholars, scientists, astronauts, historians, and frontiersmen of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Approximately ninety percent of the passages are from prophets and apostles, including excerpts from nearly every President of the Church.  Each share their opinions, stories, or heartfelt expressions on kindness to animals and respect and admiration for the natural world.”

George Q. Cannon, counsellor in the First Presidency under Brigham Young and editor of the Juvenile Instructor, probably wrote more concerning the humane treatment of animals than any member of the Church. In 1868 he began writing editorials advocating kindness to animals by 1897 had founded the Sunday School-sponsored “Humane Day” (aka “Mercy Day”), an annual event dedicated to animal welfare.  In addition to Humane Day, the LDS Church held “Bird Day” from 1913-1915, where a certain day was appointed for Sunday Schools to teach about the preservation of birds locally.

Most Mormons are completely unaware that there were such officially sanctioned Church programs dedicated to animal welfare. Humane Day was sponsored by the Sunday Schools of the LDS Church from 1897-1918 and was held during the month of February each year.  According to Richard D. Stratton, the last significant mention of it was by President Joseph F. Smith in 1918.  The last officially sanctioned Church program related to animal welfare was the “Kindness to Animals Club” (KTA) from 1952-1956.  Stratton writes that the KTA “was sponsored by the Primary organization and published in The Children’s Friend.”

Stratton’s book is full of inspiring and, for their time, very progressive statements in support of animal welfare and not consuming meat except to preserve one’s life. It is perhaps a bit ironic that leaders of the Church – in the days when members were more dependent on animals for their survival – were so frequently vocal about the humane treatment of animals, emphasizing that we should never take their lives unless it is to save our own.  Today, on the other hand, we are much less dependent on animals for our survival and supposedly much more enlightened on the subject of animal intelligence, emotion, and sensitivity to pain.  The current leaders of the Church have been mostly silent on the issue of animal welfare for several decades, even seeing fit to profit from sport hunting grounds, once operated by missionaries (http://www.deseretnews.com/article/770568/Tending-the-flock.html) and including the appalling practice of canned hunting (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canned_hunt).

In certain areas, it has not been unheard of for the youth to kill animals for mutual activities.  I can recall the young men in my ward in Canada excitedly recounting their Wednesday night activity of chopping off the heads of chickens.  A missionary here in Norway told me about “performing service” for a family by tying string around the necks of their unwanted cats and hanging them from a window.  In response to my blog post about the LDS-owned hunting preserves, a blogger from Utah recalled a certain church activity from his youth:

“It was so sad to see my fellow “priests” shoot rabbits with glee and then when they ran out of bullets catch up to panting rabbits that were being driven into a trap and club them with their rifles.”

The Humane Society of the United States, in a section of its website dedicated to the views of different religions regarding animal life, has a page praising The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for its animal-friendly teachings.  I’m afraid, however, that this praise is largely undeserved.  Presumably, HSUS is unaware of the lucrative LDS-owned hunting preserves.  It also appears to be unaware of the fact that, while they have been good at talking the talk, Mormons get a failing grade in walking the walk where animal welfare is concerned.

In addition to a growing ethical awareness in western society about animal suffering induced by inhumane treatment and commercial farming practices, we also know that the world’s population is being “multiplied and replenished” at a staggering rate, with Mormons making a significant contribution.  With the world’s growing appetite for meat, and what we now know about the environmental consequences of consumption, we are living in a time when animal welfare and caring for the earth should be at the forefront of the Mormon moral conscience.

Sadly, it doesn’t even appear to be on the radar.