St. Basil’s “Animal Prayers” are a “Hoax” (Part Six).
Icon of St. Basil
Image source: http://saints.sqpn.com/saint-basil-the-great/
To read the earlier portions of this work see Part One (here), Part Two (here), Part Three (here), Part Four (here), and Part Five (here).
N.B. The following text in this blog-post St. Basil’s “Animal Prayers” are a “Hoax” Part Six is Copyright © 2012 Philip Johnson.
PREFACE TO PART SIX
In the preceding five parts of this blog-post I have been examining claims made by both academic and mass-market writers concerning two prayers attributed to St. Basil. The previous posts go into deliberate detail on a case-by-case basis to demonstrate that:
- The general claim has been that both prayers are from the fourth-century monk and bishop St. Basil, and that the prayers appear in either his collected writings or are in The Liturgy of St. Basil. The prayers however are not found in the Liturgy or in the collected writings of St. Basil.
- Too many authors have been engaged in a circular process of cross-quoting each other for the texts of the prayers and failed to check if the prayers are in any primary sources. The net effect is that a literary house of cards has been erected because the known works of St. Basil do not contain either prayer.
- The texts of the two prayers have been published in several books, magazine articles and blogs but the actual texts contain significant verbal variations. It is difficult to ascertain “which version” is the original. In effect, the more the prayers are transcribed the more prone they are to being edited and changed without any primary source manuscripts to justify such verbal alterations.
- Both prayers contain ideas and vocabulary that are anomalous for writings from the fourth century AD, and instead contain enough verbal clues to indicate they are of modern-day origin.
- The top-heavy pile of quotations of both prayers ends up as another example of how easy it is for a literary “hoax”, or modern-day apocryphal writing, to circulate and be accepted as genuine at face-value.
It is now time to identify the sources for these prayers, and to point out that they emerged not from the fourth century but during the second decade of the twentieth century.
As there are two prayers with different origins, I will discuss them separately. The conclusions reached here are tentative and may be open to revision in light of any further relevant evidence. However, there is enough data to hand to confirm that the prayers are not from the fourth century Church.
FIRST PRAYER: “OUR BROTHERS THE ANIMALS”:
The Claims of Charles Niven & C.W. Hume
So far as I have been able to determine, the claim that the Liturgy of St. Basil contains the prayer “Our Brothers the Animals” began to circulate in the early 1960s.
Charles D. Niven (1897-1968) wrote a very popular chronicle History of the Humane Movement (New York: Transatlantic Arts, 1967). Niven was a physicist and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and was involved in organising the Eastern Ontario SPCA. His epitaph on his grave states “I know that my redeemer liveth.” His father, also named Charles Niven (1845-1923), served as Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen.
Niven wrote (page 27):
Living round about the time of St. Chrysostom or slightly earlier was St. Basil, the great Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia (326-80). The Reverend C. G. Early, Andrha Pradesh, India, found this prayer in the Liturgy of St. Basil: ‘The Earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof. O God, enlarge within us the sense of fellowship with all living things, our brothers the animals to whom thou hast given the earth as their home in common with us. We remember with shame that in the past we have exercised the high dominion of man with ruthless cruelty, so that the voice of the earth, which should have gone up to Thee in song, has been a groan of travail. May we realise that they live, not for us alone, but for themselves and for Thee, and that they love the sweetness of life.’
Niven’s source is: UFAW Theological Bulletin, No. 2 (1962), p. 3.
Niven brought to his book the commendable energy generated out of his background knowledge in science, his Christian faith, and his practical activism in the SPCA. His book, which was one of several popular chronicles about the history of human attitudes toward animals produced in the 1960s, had a wide reading audience as it circulated on both sides of the Atlantic.
Niven’s remarks point us in the direction of where the original claim about the prayer and the Liturgy of St. Basil comes from. Niven prefaces the quotation by saying, “The Reverend C. G. Early, Andrha Pradesh, India, found this prayer in the Liturgy of St. Basil”. Niven drew this information from an article by C. W. Hume published in 1962.
Charles Westley Hume also known as Major C. W. Hume was an important figure in British twentieth century thought about animal welfare. He was also a professing Christian in the Anglican Church, and wrote works on animals and Christian thought (The Status of Animals in the Christian Religion , Man and Beast ), and also argued in other books the case for the humane use of animals in scientific experiments. Richard Haynes remarks about Hume’s influence that (page 7):
“Major C. W. Hume should be credited as the father of the animal welfare movement. He was instrumental in founding the University of London Animal Welfare Society (ULAWS) in 1926, which subsequently became the Universities Federation of Animal Welfare (UFAW).”
Richard P. Haynes, Animal Welfare: Competing Conceptions and Their Ethical Implications (Springer, Dordrecht, Heidelberg, London, New York: Springer Science and Business Media B. V. 2010).
It is an article by Hume that appears to be the initial publication to claim that “Our Brothers the Animals” is found in the Liturgy of St. Basil. I have, so far, not been able to obtain access to Hume’s article to check it first-hand (UFAW Theological Bulletin, No. 2 (1962), p. 3). However, the article in question is cited by at least four authors: Charles D. Niven (as just noted above), Rod Preece, Richard Ryder, Helena Röcklinsberg (the latter three have been discussed in previous posts).
Of these four authors it is only Niven who provides readers with the clue as to who first called attention to the prayer and the Liturgy of St. Basil. The key figure, whom Hume undoubtedly relied on, is Reverend C. G. Early. I surmise that either a well-meaning friend passed on Early’s claim to Hume or that Hume had contact with Early. Either way (if my reading of Niven’s passage is right), Hume seems to have accepted the claim at face-value.
At the present time, I have not been able to locate any original writing by Rev Early. What I can report is that Rev. Early served as a Methodist missionary-pastor in Andrha Pradesh state in India during the mid-twentieth century. How he came to claim that the prayer is found in the Liturgy remains a mystery. Though it is quite likely that it came to him as a printed excerpt that was disconnected from the original source which is Walter Rauschenbusch.
WALTER RAUSCHENBUSCH’S PRAYER “FOR THIS WORLD” 1910
Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) was born in Rochester, New York the son of a German Lutheran missionary who joined the Baptists. During the mid-1880s Rauschenbusch served as the pastor of a German-Baptist congregation in an impoverished part of New York city. He also became a lecturer at Rochester Theological Seminary. Rauschenbusch is best remembered for being a pivotal figure in the liberal theological movement called the “Social Gospel”. Via his daughter Winifred, Rauschenbusch is the maternal grandfather of the philosopher Richard Rorty.
One thing that has become “forgotten” about Rauschenbusch is that he composed a book of his own prayers, Prayers of the Social Awakening (Boston & Chicago: Pilgrim Press, 1910) [now available to read via the Internet Archive, click here].
Rauschenbusch stated in the book’s preface that he had composed many of the prayers as pieces in the American Magazine. The clamour for them led him to gather the prayers together as a book. He closed his preface with these remarks, which in hindsight may have helped in letting the cat out of the bag for others to republish, decontextualise, and attribute to someone else (page 13):
Permission is gladly given to reprint single prayers in newspapers, church programs, and similar publications, provided no change is made in the wording except by omission or abbreviation. I should be glad if proper acknowledgement were made in every case so that the attention of others may be called to this little book and its usefulness increased.
So, here is the real text that stands behind “Our Brothers the Animals”, which so many people have come to believe was written by St. Basil the Great in the fourth century. It is by Walter Rauschenbusch, published in Prayers of the Social Awakening, and the prayer is called “For this World”. It is reproduced below in its entirety (comprising three paragraphs on pages 47-48):
” O God , we thank thee for this universe, our great home; for its vastness and its riches, and for the manifoldness of the life which teems upon it and of which we are part. We praise thee for the arching sky and the blessed winds, for the driving clouds and the constellations on high. We praise thee for the salt sea and the running water, for the everlasting hills, for the trees, for the grass under our feet. We thank thee for our senses by which we can see the splendor of the morning, and hear the jubilant songs of love, and smell the breath of springtime. Grant us, we pray thee, a heart wide open to all this joy and beauty, and save our souls from being so steeped in care or so darkened by passion that we pass heedless and unseeing when even the thornbush by the wayside is aflame with the glory of God.
Enlarge within us the sense of fellowship with all the living things, our little brothers, to whom thou hast given the earth as their home in common with us. We remember with shame that in the past we have exercised the high dominion of man with ruthless cruelty, so that the voice of the Earth, which should have gone up to thee in song, has been a groan of travail. May we realize that they live, not for us alone, but for themselves and for thee, and that they love the sweetness of life even as we, and serve thee in their place better than we in ours.
When our use of this world is over and we make room for others, may we not leave anything ravished by our greed or spoiled by our ignorance, but may we hand on our common heritage fairer and sweeter through our use of it, undiminished in fertility and joy, that so our bodies may return in peace to the great mother who nourished them and our spirits may round the circle of a perfect life in thee.”
It is the second paragraph of Rauschenbusch’s prayer that has been uplifted, decontextualized, and refashioned into the variant versions of the prayer called “Our Brothers the Animals”. The Emperor’s New Clothes of literary claims about this prayer has now been exposed as being a twentieth century prayer. It is high time then that the credit for the prayer be given to its original author Walter Rauschenbusch. Activists, ethicists, philosophers and theologians alike must call to a halt the juggernaut of claims that the prayer is from St. Basil.
SECOND PRAYER: “THEIR GUILELESS LIVES”
The text of the prayer “Their Guileless Lives” has also been attributed to St. Basil, with some authors claiming that it comes from the Liturgy of St. Basil. In Part Four I quoted lay Catholic theologian Deborah Jones’ The School of Compassion (Gracewing 2009) where she claimed that this prayer is found in Orthodox liturgy (page 61):
His Liturgy still in use today in the Orthodox Tradition, contains another prayer which speaks of God having saved both man and beast, ‘We pray thee, O Lord, for the humble beasts … and for the wild animals, whom thou hast made, strong and beautiful; we supplicate for them thy great tenderness of heart, for thou hast promised to save both man and beast …’
I also noted that there are at least five differently worded versions:
And for these also, O Lord, the humble beasts, who with us bear the burden and heat of the day, we entreat Thy great kindness of heart, for Thou hast promised to save both man and beast, and great is thy loving-kindness, O Master.
For those, O Lord, the humble beasts, that bear with us the burden and heat of day, and offer their guileless lives for the well-being of mankind; and for the wild creatures, whom Thou hast made wise, strong, and beautiful, we supplicate for them Thy great tenderness of heart, for Thou hast promised to save both man and beast, and great is Thy loving kindness, O Master, Saviour of the world.
We pray thee, O Lord, for the humble beasts who bear with us the burden and heat of the day, giving their lives for the well-being of their countries; and for the wild creatures, whom thou hast made wise, strong and beautiful; We supplicate for them thy great tenderness of heart, for thou hast promised to save both man and beast, and great is thy loving-kindness, O Master, thou Saviour of the world.
For those, O Lord, the humble beasts, that bear with us the burden and heat of the day, and offer their guileless lives for the well-being of humankind; and for the wild creatures whom Thou hast made wise, strong, and beautiful we supplicate for them Thy great tenderness of heart for Thou hast promised to save both man and beast and great is Thy loving kindness, O Master, Saviour of the world.
For those, O Lord, the humble beasts, that bear with us the burden and heat of the day, and offer their guileless lives for the well-being of humankind; and for the wild creatures, whom Thou hast made wise, strong, and beautiful, we supplicate for them Thy great tenderness of heart, for Thou hast promised to save both man and beast, and great is Thy loving kindness, O Master, Saviour of the world.
One of the striking differences is that one prayer says they offer their lives “for their countries”, another “for the well-being of humankind”, and another for “mankind”.
The prayer which uses the words “for their countries” provides a strong textual hint that points to a modern-day source rather than to St. Basil.
World War One & The Animal Litany
This prayer about “their guileless lives” takes us back to World War One. The “original” English-language source appears to be in Guy Vernon Smith, The Bishop of London’s Visit to the Front (London: Longmans and Green, 1915). The book profiles how Bishop Arthur Foley Winnington Ingram visited the western front in Easter week in 1915. The Bishop did not write the book but wrote a preface for it.
Guy Vernon Smith, the book’s author who accompanied him on his tour, explains that the Bishop devised a service that was tailored to the circumstances of the war rather than using a typical Anglican liturgy for military-based church services (page 12):
The Bishop felt that the special character of his Mission would be emphasised if a different form of service were used to that which is customary at church parades, and he selected from among the many beautiful prayers which are suitable for use in time of war a Litany adapted from the Russian Liturgy. These prayers were very much appreciated by the soldiers, not only for their own sake, but because they seemed to serve as a link to bind us more closely to our Allies in the East.
In an appendix to the book Smith reproduces in full (pages 91-94) a pamphlet entitled “Good Friday and Easter Day: Thoughts and Prayers for Soldiers at the Front by the Bishop of London”. A further heading is supplied: “From the Liturgy of the Russian Church. Adapted by H.M.M.H”.
The litany consists of 16 invocatory prayers that the bishop or priest or Anglican military chaplain would say followed by congregational responses. The litany in context calls for God to be on the side of the King, Navy and Army (i.e. Britain), and also to show mercy to the Russians, French and Belgians in their campaigns. It is the twelfth invocation which reads (page 93):
And for those also O Lord the humble beasts, who bear with us the burden and heat of the day, and whose guileless lives are offered for the well-being of their countries, we supplicate Thy great tenderness of heart, for Thou Lord, shalt save both man and beast, and great is Thy loving-kindness, O Master, Saviour of the world.
Lord have mercy.
Notice that the prayers in the litany are “adapted” from what is vaguely called the Russian Liturgy. It not stated that the prayers come from the Liturgy of St. Basil as used in the Russian Orthodox Church.
Smith also explains how the Bishop’s prayers were distributed as booklets to the troops (page 13):
The largest package of all contained the “souvenirs”, although we never thought of them by that name at first. The Bishop had written earlier in the year some short prayers and meditations for use by soldiers at the front during Holy Week and Easter. When it was decided that he should go out in person he felt it to be very suitable that he should give them to the men. Some friends very kindly gave the Bishop ten thousand copies, and we could easily have disposed of more than twice as many, so popular were the little booklets and so eagerly were they sought for by the men who attended the services. There was always a demand for them … these booklets were immediately christened “The Bishop’s Souvenirs”.
Smith goes on to say that many soldiers posted the booklets home to their families. The circulation of those booklets in England and in other nations (Canada, Australia, New Zealand etc) may very well have given added impetus for the animal invocation being uplifted and recirculated out of context in later years.
ALAN LETHBRIDGE THE NEW RUSSIA
In 1915 Alan Lethbridge had his book published, The New Russia: From the White Sea to the Siberian Steppe (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1915). Lethbridge describes how he arrived at Tcherdin and says (page 155):
In the immediate foreground lay the river and a wide green plain with countless cattle and a shrine, emblem perhaps of the Russian belief that these dumb creatures are not forgotten by their Creator. For of all Christian nations the Russians are alone in their conviction, that the Almighty cares, not only for men and women, but also for the birds and beasts of the field. In their Litany they evidence it. What could be more pathetic or show a deeper tenderness than the following words: “And for those, also, O Lord, the humble beasts who bear with us the burden and heat of the day and offer their guileless lives for the well-being of their country, we supplicate Thy great tenderness of heart, for Thou, Lord, shalt save both man and beast, and great is Thy loving-kindness, O Master, Saviour of the world.”
Lethbridge supplies a footnote: “Vide English translation of Russian Litany, issued by the O. A. B. G., Bristol.” Lethbridge’s footnote source tallies with that in Guy Vernon Smith’s book.
A MEDIA FOLK-STORY
The war-time litany devised by the Bishop of London was soon to be decontextualised and subjected to myth-making by various periodicals and newspapers.Edward E. Slossen, “A Number of Things: An Occasional Page” wrote a regular column in the periodical The Independent, Vol. 88 (October-December) December 11, 1916, p 472:
St. Francis of Assisi must still live in Russia, for surely from him comes that prayer for the horses in the war liturgy:
‘And for those also, O Lord, the humble beasts, who bear with us the burden and the heat of the day, and offer their guileless lives for the well-being of their countries we supplicate Thy great tenderness of heart. For Thou hast promised to save both man and beast and great is Thy loving kindness. Lord have mercy!’
The Humane Advocate Vol. 12 August 1917, p 173: (published by The Illinois Humane Society)
A Prayerful Plea
A plea for the animals which serve us in war—the horses which are sacrificed in such great numbers—the following is a petition taken from an old Russian Litany specially composed for war time:
‘And for those also, O Lord, the humble beasts, who with us bear the burden and heat of the day and give their guileless lives for the well-being of their countries, we supplicate Thy great tenderness of heart, for Thou hast promised to save both man and beast, and great is Thy loving kindness, O Master, Saviour of the World. Amen.’
St. Andrew’s Cross Vol. 32 (1917): 214:
A Russian Prayer for Horses
From the Church News of Pittsburgh, we reprint this fine prayer for horses translated from the Russian:
“For these also, O Lord, the humble beasts, who bear with us the burden and the heat of the day, and offer their guileless lives for the well-being of their countries we supplicate Thy great tenderness of heart.
Notice that the material found in Smith’s and Lethbridge’s respective books undergoes a shift in the periodicals. There is firstly the curious association of St. Francis with Russia in the minds of the writers in the periodicals. When the periodicals were published the Russian Orthodox Church was the official church of Tsarist Russia (until being toppled by the 1917 Revolution). St Francis of course is a Roman Catholic saint. Presumably, for the journalists and other writers in the periodicals the Russian Orthodox Church was a “terra incognito” — an unknown land. For St. Francis to be a great influence in Tsarist Russia was probably presupposed without any reflection whatsoever.
St Francis of Assisi & St. Basil the Great Romantically Reimagined
Why did the authors think the prayer must originate with St. Francis? It is worth noting that St. Francis of Assisi had largely been forgotten (even among the Franciscans) until a late nineteenth century renaissance began. The renaissance of St. Francis owes an enormous (although not exclusive) debt to the work of the French Huguenot pastor (i.e. a Protestant) Charles Paul Marie Sabatier (1858-1928).
Sabatier’s book Life of St. Francis of Assisi (first published in French in 1893), reinterpreted and reimagined the saint’s life in a romantic nostalgic way that suited the late nineteenth century mindset. Thus St. Francis’ experience of the stigmata and some of his miracles disappear off the surface or become relegated to the context of the “fantastic” (hence not able to be believed as something that happened). Sabatier offered a message about having a compassionate practical theology and repositioned Francis’ sanctity into a palatable form that would suit both Protestants (with St. Francis turned into a quasi-Protestant opposed to Rome) and the modern sceptical mindset about miracles.
Ever since Sabatier wrote, subsequent portraits of St. Francis reinterpret him in all manner of speaking — as a nature-lover (almost unique in the annals of church history, some might say), as a liberal democrat, as a secular saint, as an evangelical Protestant role model, and so on.
[For more discussion about the modern romantic portraits of St. Francis see Eric Sharpe, “The Secularization of Sanctity: the Case and Example of Francis of Assisi” in The World of Religions: Essays on Historical and Contemporary Issues, ed. Garry W. Trompf & Gildas Hamel (Delhi: ISPCK, 2001), pp. 287-308; also Roger D. Sorrell, St. Francis of Assisi and Nature: Tradition and Innovation in Western Christian Attitudes toward the Environment (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988)].
In a smaller way, the romanticised ascribing of these animal prayers to St. Basil and to the fourth century Eastern Orthodox Church liturgy has some uncanny resemblances to the processes in which St. Francis has been reimagined in modern times. St. Basil did have a theological view of animals but these prayers are not connected to it.
Christians Cowering Before Their Critics
Instead of letting St. Francis be who he is, and St. Basil to be who is, our current anxieties about nature and animals plays a big part in looking hither and yon for examples from earlier times to inspire us. To grant an ancient pedigree to the prayers probably says a lot about how “captive” Christians have become today to the polemical agenda set in the late 1960s by Lynn Townsend White about ecology and then in the 1970s by Peter Singer and Richard Ryder about animal ethics.
The impressions that White and Singer have formed about what they read into the history of Christianity may tell us more about the attitudes of these men than that their words actually explains what Christians said and did in the past. Too much has been conceded by some Christians to their critics who allege the Church is the fountainhead for many negative attitudes toward animals and the natural world.
Likewise, instead of developing an ethic and theology that is robustly conceived and shaped within a rich biblical, historical and theological framework, there are too many Christians with unnecessarily bowed and chastened heads standing in the presence of these critics. The history of Christianity concerning animals (as in other topics also) is complex and not reducible down to an old cowboy film with good guys wearing white hats riding white horses and bad guys wearing black hats riding black horses.
Even with several scholarly writings about animals and history in the Christian era not all of the sources that are found within Christianity have been “recovered” and incorporated into the historian’s narratives. Some of the material casts doubt on the negative stereotype erected in the polemics of some critics.
Besides the ignored evidence, one must also have a dose of honesty about our present agendas versus an investigation of the past. An issue that seems patently obvious to us in today’s times would not necessarily have been the case in past epochs. Like it or not, we cannot interrogate the past with the expectation that people in prior epochs should have thought like us or even that some of them actually did think like us about animals. Our industrialised abuse of animals is a peculiar phenomenon of increasing intensity ever since the mid-eighteenth century bore witness to the start of the Industrial Revolution. Our context culturally and technologically is so vastly different from the circumstances of the Renaissance, the Middle Ages, the early Church, Roman Imperial civilisation and so forth. We cannot compel the past to always answer our questions if the questions were not even posed let alone answered by people who lived in past historical and different cultural settings where, for example, battery-hen farms did not even exist.
The other point about the prayer is that in the periodical the Russian Litany then becomes rebranded as “A Russian Prayer for Horses”. There had been other prayers for horses that emerged in the nineteenth century because of their visibility and the pains that they endured in horse-drawn carriages. The focus on the plight of the horse intensified through the story Black Beauty that was written by the Quaker-born invalided novelist Anna Sewell (1820-1878). So it is perhaps not surprising that the Litany was thought to be about prayers for horses.
Nevertheless, while the Cossack soldiers assuredly rode horses into battle, the First World War also saw many other animals drawn into service: homing-pigeons, dogs, donkeys, pigs, sheep, and cattle. On this latter point see the work of the Presbyterian Historian and Librarian John M. Kistler, Animals in the Military: from Hannibal’s Elephants to the Dolphins of the US Navy (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2011).
The prayer though is clearly not from St. Basil, and has a distinct context for use which was devised in the midst of the First World War.
I will conclude with one further post (Part Seven) summing up some lessons and reflections.
<end of Part Six; see next post for continuation of this discussion>