Celebrating Historic Vegans: The Five Earliest Proponents of Veganism
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To truly understand the incredible journey of the philosophy we now call “veganism”, we must look back throughout the ages and celebrate its earliest pioneers. These proponents of veganism were true thought-leaders who were committed to challenging the status quo of the time - a hugely inspiring feat that has shaped how we think and feel about animal rights today.
Here are five of the most influential pioneers of veganism and what they believed in!
Five incredible vegan pioneers
Al-Ma'arri (c. 973 – c. 1057)
Al-Ma’arri was a Syrian poet and philosopher who believed wholeheartedly in living with integrity. For him, this meant following a lifestyle completely governed by his personal belief system. Consequently, he opposed religion and preferred to live an ascetic lifestyle, meaning he largely lived in seclusion away from the thoughts and attitudes of his peers.
As a pacifist, Al-Ma’arri opposed every structure and practice that might cause violence or pain to another being. This belief extended so far as to determine him an antinatalist, as he disagreed with the idea of bringing children into a world where suffering is unavoidable.
A true social justice advocate, Al-Ma’arri also committed to living a life that did not contribute to animal suffering. Although his lifestyle was known at the time as “moral vegetarianism”, his poetry clearly details his aversion to consuming all animal products, including milk. The passion with which he writes about this in I no longer steal from nature shows that Al-Ma’arri played a truly pivotal role in shaping the earliest beginnings of veganism!(1)
Roger Crab (1621–1680)
Roger Crab was a monk and a hermit,(2) and like Al Ma’arri, lived part of his life in seclusion. As potentially “the most famous hermit in English history,” it’s fair to say that Crab left his mark on the world! It’s thought that he may even have been the inspiration behind the one-and-only Mad Hatter.
Although not a particularly controversial figure, Crab was unique in his devotion to living a perfect life. Many of Crab’s decisions were motivated by ethics and religion, and while some of his lifestyle choices haven’t necessarily bled into today’s mainstream (such as celibacy), many of them have become widely accepted.
This includes his dedication to veganism. Although many historical texts describe Crab as a vegetarian, his diet consisted predominantly of vegetables and water, and he gave up eating animal products in 1641. He abstained from meat and other animal products for both health and religious reasons, believing that eating the flesh of other beings would cause disease and encourage violence.(3)
Johann Conrad Beissel (1691–1768)
Johann Conrad Beissel, born in Germany, spent much of his life as a religious leader after undergoing a “religious conversion” aged 27.(4) He is most famous for founding the Ephrata Community, previously known as the “Camp of the Solitary'', in what is now known as Philadelphia.
As part of the Ephrata Community, Beissel invited many prominent religious figures to join his cloister and share their teachings. The members of the community were committed to helping the poorest families in the Philadelphia region and offering educational opportunities to children, with education being incredibly important to the cloister.
Beissel is also recognised as one of the pioneers of vegetarianism in North America, which certainly makes him one of the most influential proponents of the plant-based lifestyle! As his religious community expanded, he eventually encouraged them to adopt a fully vegan diet, believing that eating the flesh of animals was not spiritually sound.
Although the Ephrata Community has since disbanded, veganism in North America is only becoming more popular!
James Pierrepont Greaves (1777–1842)
Born in England, James Pierrepont Greaves was a self-described “sacred socialist” who believed he had a responsibility to share his religious commitment and love for God.(5) Greaves held many views that were deemed unconventional at the time, but none more so than his transcendentalism.
Greaves advocated the philosophical belief of spiritual renewal and wanted to create a better and more morally driven world. This motivated him to establish Alcott House, a progressive school with the ultimate aim of “instilling God-like spirituality” into its pupils.(6)
In addition to teaching his pupils about many social justice issues, including the promotion of pacifism as a way of life, Alcott House supported a meat-free diet. Greaves himself typically ate a very simple diet of raw vegetables, fruits and nuts, and greatly urged his pupils to do the same.
He may not have advocated for animal rights publicly, but Greaves is a great example of where living ethically and abstaining from animal products exist hand-in-hand!
Amos Bronson Alcott (1799–1888)
Amos Bronson Alcott was a philosopher and teacher who advocated for a long list of poignant social justice issues, many of which we still campaign for today. Alcott was very progressive for his time, lending his support to both women’s rights groups and the abolitionist movement.(7)
According to Alcott, “To be ignorant of one's ignorance is the malady of the ignorant.”(8) This quote perfectly sums up his devotion to acknowledging the injustices of the world and actively resisting them through education and reform. It is perhaps no wonder that James Pierrepont Greaves, inspired by these philosophies, founded his school in Alcott’s name.
Alcott was much more than a human rights advocate; he also played a crucial role in shaping the future of veganism. He believed that eating animal products was immoral and impure. He also believed it was environmentally unsound, stating:
“The extensive tracts of the country now appropriated to grazing, mowing, and other modes of animal provision, could be cultivated by and for intelligent and affectionate human neighbors.”(9)
Inspired to share this message and encourage people to avoid consuming animal products, Alcott founded Fruitlands, a spiritual community that is widely considered to be the first vegan commune.
Historic vegans and their links to social justice
We can only imagine the strength of character and all-around moral drive of these five historic vegans who could never have predicted the dark future of factory farming that lay ahead of them. It is unsurprising, then, that Al-Ma’arri, Crab, Beissel, Greaves and Alcott were also dedicated to advocating for social justice.
Although animal rights are often ignored as part of the wider social justice conversation, these early proponents of veganism show that animal and human rights have always evolved hand-in-hand.
As modern-day vegans, we must continue to recognise the intertwining nature of animal and human rights as part of our mission to create a kinder and more compassionate future. Start today by signing our No to Nestlé petition, where we ask The Vegan Society to reconsider its approval of Nestlé’s KitKat V in light of the ongoing child slavery lawsuit against them.
To lend your support to our campaign, please sign the petition below
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2. "Collections Online | British Museum", Britishmuseum.Org<https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/term/BIOG135119> [Accessed 11 April 2021].
3. "Roger Crab, English Hermit - Articles - Hermitary", Hermitary.Com <https://www.hermitary.com/articles/roger_crab.html> [Accessed 11 April 2021].
4. "Conrad Beissel | American Religious Leader", Encyclopedia Britannica <https://www.britannica.com/biography/Conrad-Beissel> [Accessed 11 April 2021].
5. “History of Education Quarterly”, vol. 41, no. 4, 2001, pp. 578–580. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3218272 [Accessed 11 April 2021].
6. "James Pierrepont Greaves", Alcott.Net<http://www.alcott.net/cgi-bin/home/champions/Greaves.html> [Accessed 11 April 2021].
7. "Amos Bronson Alcott (1799-1888) | The Walden Woods Project", The Walden Woods Project <https://www.walden.org/work/texts-by-amos-bronson-alcott/> [Accessed 11 April 2021].
8. "Amos Bronson Alcott Quotes (Author Of How Like An Angel Came I Down)", Goodreads.Com<https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/138631.Amos_Bronson_Alcott> [Accessed 11 April 2021].
9. "AMOS BRONSON ALCOTT: IDEALIST, TRANSCENDENTALIST, VEGETARIAN", The Vegetarian Resource Group<https://www.vrg.org/history/AmosBronsonAlcott.html> [Accessed 11 April 2021].