July 1, 1817
The Bible Christians start a day school and teach that "a meatless lifestyle was the true heavenly inspired diet, present in the garden of Eden and promised during the messianic era."
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In 1811, Metcalfe was ordained as a Bible Christian minister. Soon aft er he began looking toward the United States as a new potential home where the group could grow. An increasingly oppressive political environment in England at the end of the Napoleonic Wars led to organized attempts to quell radical reformers. Bible Christians—sympathetic to the Luddite spirit of the times—were, in the words of one church member, “obnoxious not only to the hired minions of power, but also to our relatives.” The notion of emigrating enjoyed significant support among church members, who frequently discussed the opportunities for civil and religious freedom in the United States. What better place than America, Metcalfe argued, to present a nascent, radical religion? Under the guidance of Metcalfe and Clarke, the Bible Christian immigrants arrived on the shores of the United States on June 14, 1817. The group had survived a difficult seventy-nine-day voyage at sea, presumably made even more objectionable by the liberal consumption of meat and alcohol by the ship’s crew, non–Bible Christian passengers, and even by a few renegade church members.
Yet the group arrived in Philadelphia well-funded and determined to “stand still and do good” with faith in the notion that “verily thou shalt be fed.” 9 Immediately, however, the group split along ideological lines. Clarke and his followers viewed agriculture as the key to the growth of the church. Metcalfe—cosmopolitan and decidedly more modernist—saw the city as the location with the greatest potential for expansion. In August 1817, Clarke and his family settled in Elkland Township, Pennsylvania, establishing a small church and Sunday school based on the principles of akreophagy, the habitual abstention from meat-eating. However, the agricultural life would not lead to the growth of the Bible Christians as Clarke and Cowherd had planned. In 1823 Clarke and his family—having lost the few followers they had accrued—resettled in Shelby County, Indiana, living out their days tilling their farm, disconnected from the Philadelphia Bible Christians. 10 The path of William Metcalfe and his followers diff ered signifi cantly from that of the Clarke family. Philadelphia originally attracted the group because of its available land and passable roads connecting the church to the rest of the city. 11 Philadelphia was the country’s second most populous city, and the Bible Christians saw it as an ideal location to gain converts amid a growing urban reform spirit. 12 In Philadelphia, popular fears of perceived new dangers including prostitution, pornographic writers, and other corrupting infl uences led older citizens to attempt to guide the younger generation toward moral piety. Through reform institutions, pamphlets, and novels these reformers sought to quell youthful intemperance. 13 Bible Christians’ attempts at converting individuals to a meatless diet fi t seamlessly within the larger reform milieu that took hold in Philadelphia during the early nineteenth Proto-vegetarianism :: 13 century. Individuals free of the overly invigorating infl uence of meat, Bible Christians believed, were more apt to make morally sound decisions.
In July 1817, the Bible Christians established a day school and informal worship space, inviting Philadelphia’s churchgoing public to join. Metcalfe’s entreaties were based on the desire to “not form a sectarian church, deriving their doctrines from human creeds.” Instead, the Bible Christians promised to “become more efficiently edified in Bible Truths” and “the literal expressions of Sacred Scripture.” A meatless lifestyle, the Bible Christians believed, was the true heavenly inspired diet, present in the garden of Eden and promised during the messianic era. At the heart of the Bible Christian ideology was the notion that biblical truths were to be revealed to humanity progressively over time. Only through dedicated study of the Bible’s tenants could individuals truly understand divine providence. Under Metcalfe’s guidance, the group preached that Jesus himself was a vegetarian and that any stories of his eating meat were misinterpretations.
The group rented a back room in a schoolhouse at 10 North Front Street, providing daily schooling along with Sabbath morning services that featured intensive text study. The church’s space quickly became too expensive, however, particularly aft er a handful of founding members perished during a yellow fever epidemic in the fall of 1818. With dwindling membership and an unpopular philosophy of meat and alcohol abstention, Metcalfe sought to reinvent the Bible Christian Church while holding on to its core principles of pacifism and meatless dietetics