St. Basil’s “Animal Prayers” are a “Hoax” (Part Three)

St. Basil’s “Animal Prayers” are a “Hoax” (Part Three)

Icon of St. Basil.

Image source:

To read the earlier portions of this work see Part One (here), and Part Two (here).

N.B. The following text in this blog-post St. Basil’s “Animal Prayers” are a “Hoax” Part Three is Copyright © 2012 Philip Johnson.


In my previous post (Part Two) I pointed to various examples of mostly academic writers who quote the prayers attributed to St. Basil “Their Guileless Lives” and “Our Brothers the Animals”. I noted how each author has failed to provide a direct citation from St. Basil’s writings or from a translated text of the Liturgy of St. Basil. In this present post I will provide further examples of the same problem by concentrating primarily on what Christian authors have published. This is also a long post and the subject will carry forward to further posts.

Torben (2010-present). Photo Copyright © 2012 Philip Johnson.


As I stated in my previous post (Part Two), I will continue to identify authors who claim that the prayers are from St. Basil. I am underscoring the point that a serious error is perpetuated in the genre of animal ethics and theology because of a lapse in maintaining rigorous and high standards of documentation.

One should expect that particularly in the case of an early church figure like St. Basil that modern-day authors would be at pains to provide an unambiguous and direct citation of the prayers from St. Basil’s works. The issue is not trivial particularly when it turns out that the prayers do not come from St. Basil or from the liturgies of the Eastern Orthodox churches. However, let me emphasise once again that I am not picking on the authors named.


St. Basil’s  “Our Brothers the Animals” is regarded as a genuine prayer in a recently published reference work. The Encyclopedia of Applied Animal Behaviour and Welfare, ed. Daniel S. Mills (Wallingford, Oxfordshire & Cambridge, Massachusetts: CAB International, 2010) contains an article on “Christianity” (pp 102-103). The author is Dr Helena Röcklinsberg. She is a Swedish scholar who worked for seven years at the Centre for Theology and Religious Studies, Lund University, and having completed her doctorate in animal ethics (2001) in the theology department at Uppsala University. She now holds a post as lecturer in animal ethics in the Department of Animal Environment and Health at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala.

She states on page 103:

St. Basil of Caesarea (also 4th century) goes one step further by emphasizing human interdependence and interaction with the rest of the creation: “O God, enlarge within us the sense of fellowship with all living things, our brothers the animals to whom Thou gavest the earth as their home in common with us.” (Hume, 1962). In St. Basil’s Liturgy Christians ask for forgiveness for being cruel towards animals — without a second thought for eternal life.  Rather, his prayers are a very early expression of animals seen as valuable in themselves. St. Basil’s position has strongly influenced Eastern Christendom, and there is a direct connection to today’s Orthodox liturgy. Expressing his holistic perspective blessing of creation and creatures is still part of a service.

Röcklinsberg uses as her source for the prayer C. W. Hume (for more discussion on Hume see Part Six), and does not provide a direct bibliographical reference to a published translation of St. Basil’s Liturgy.

In the absence of any specific bibliographical texts concerning Eastern Orthodox liturgy or St. Basil, her comments about that tradition should be investigated further. It is very true, as Röcklinsberg says, that Orthodoxy liturgies do include occasions for the blessing of creation. Likewise, St. Basil’s Liturgy is normally celebrated on ten selected occasions during the liturgical year: January 1 (St. Basil’s feast), the five Sundays in Lent, on Christmas Eve, and Theophany. However, in this article Röcklinsberg seems to overstate the prominence of St. Basil’s Liturgy because it is not the only liturgical text used in Eastern Orthodox churches.

The very awkward fact though is that the prayer “Our Brothers the Animals” is not in St. Basil’s Liturgy or for that matter in any other liturgical text used in the Eastern Orthodox community of churches.

Nelson 1996-2010. Photo Copyright © 2012 Philip Johnson.


Several Christian theologians, clergy, and church-based animal activists in English-speaking nations have published books and articles that include one or both of the prayers attributed to St. Basil. As it will become clear below, very few have raised any cautionary comments about the authenticity of these prayers.

(A). Evangelicals

Several authors within the various niches of the North American evangelical traditions have commendably written books concerning animal ethics and theology. Some evangelicals have referred to St. Basil’s prayers in both academic and mass-market publications.

David Graham Henderson

David Graham Henderson is a contributor to the recently released book Taking Christian Moral Thought Seriously:The Legitimacy of Religious Beliefs in the Marketplace of Ideas, ed. Jeremy A. Evans (Nashville: B & H Publishing, 2011). This book is part of an academic series B & H Studies in Christian Ethics released by the Baptist publishing firm Broadman & Holman (or B & H).

Henderson is described as “assistant professor in the Philosophy and Religion Department at Western Carolina University” (p ix). In this book Henderson has contributed a chapter “Creation Care”. He begins his chapter (p 177) with an epigraph quotation which is the prayer, “Our Brothers the Animals”. Henderson’s source is Richard Ryder, Animal Revolution: Changing Attitudes towards Speciesism (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989), p. 34.

In Part Two I indicated that Ryder relied on C. W. Hume as his source for the prayer. So the literary chain-link here is at least fourth-hand: Henderson to Ryder to Hume to another source.

It can also be noted in passing that Henderson previously quoted the same prayer in his unpublished doctoral dissertation “Wilderness: The History, Significance and Promise of An American Value”. The dissertation was submitted in August 2008 to the Office of Graduate Studies at Texas A & M University.  He prefaced the prayer by stating on page 16:

While not addressing wilderness per se, consider the biocentric outlook revealed in St. Basil’s prayer.

His bibliographical source was Matthew Scully’s book Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002), p. 13. Scully’s book is discussed in more detail in Part Four, and a few comments also appear in discussing the next author Craig Bartholomew.

Craig Bartholomew

Craig Bartholomew is Professor of Philosophy and Religion & Theology at the liberal arts Redeemer University College, Ontario Canada. He is a prolific author. One of his recent books is Where Mortals Dwell: A Christian View of Place for Today (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011). As readers may be aware, my recent co-written book The Cross Is Not Enough, is published by Baker. I will refrain from reviewing Where Mortals Dwell in this post but want to note in passing Bartholomew writes on page 18:

As early as AD 375 Basil of Caesarea could pray, “Oh, God, enlarge within us the sense of fellowship with all living things, our brothers the animals to whom Thou gavest the earth 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.”

One is struck by Bartholomew’s confident assertion that evidence of benevolence toward animals among Christians is found in St. Basil in the year A.D. 375. The date supplied suggests that the prayer “Our Brothers the Animals” can be pin-pointed to that year. Bartholomew’s source is Matthew Scully, Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002), p. 13.

Bartholomew’s rhetorical emphasis on the prayer’s date appears to rely on the words that Matthew Scully used to introduce the same prayer. Scully indicates that he found the prayer which comes “from Saint Basil, the bishop of Caesarea, circa A. D. 375”. The problem though is that Scully’s bibliographical citation gives no clear clue as to how one could demonstrate that the text of the prayer can be dated to around A. D. 375. Scully is a lay Roman Catholic author and not a professional church historian or professional theologian. It is curious that a scholar of Bartholomew’s rank and reputation has selected Scully as his source rather than heading directly to the primary sources.

I will discuss Scully separately in Part Four. Right now it is sufficient to note that Scully’s bibliographical source is Basil’s writings collected in volume 8 of The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. In Part One of this post I noted that neither “Their Guileless Lives” or “Our Brothers the Animals” is found in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers.

Bartholomew’s literary chain-link for the prayer leads to a dead-end: Bartholomew to Scully to The Nicene Fathers (and the prayer is not in that text).

Richard Alan Young

Richard Alan Young writes from within the Baptist tradition and is commendably an enthusiastic advocate of a vegetarian diet and lifestyle. On page 140 of his book Is God a Vegetarian? Christianity, Vegetarianism, and Animal Rights (Chicago & LaSalle, Illinois: Open Court, 1999), Young reproduces “Our Brothers the Animals”. His source is The Complete Book of Christian Prayer (see Part Two for analysis of that book). His documentary chain-link for the prayer is very weak: Young quotes Complete Book, which in turn does not seem to have an unambiguous source listed for its quote of the prayer.

Robert Wennberg

The late Robert Wennberg (1935-2010) taught philosophy at the evangelical liberal arts  Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. Wennberg wrote two books concerning right-to-life questions, and also God, Humans, and Animals: An Invitation to Enlarge Our Moral Universe (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003). Wennberg refers to St. Basil (pp 303-304):

Basil of Caesarea (c.329-379), also known as Basil the Great, insisted “that animals live not for us alone, but for themselves and for God.’ Indeed, Basil could pray,

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.

Basil thus prays for both domesticated and wild animals, commending them, along with their needs, to a compassion that extends to all creatures.

Wennberg inserts two footnotes regarding his two quotes. The first is Sorabji’s Animal Minds and Human Morals, pages 199-200; while the second is from Linzey & Regan’s anthology, Love the Animals.

As I noted in Part Two, Sorabji says “Basil of Caesarea insists that animals live not for us alone, but for themselves and for God.” and he immediately gives as his only bibliographic reference “Basil Liturgy”. Sorabji failed to provide a direct reference to a published version of the Liturgy. Thus Wennberg’s documentary chain-link is very weak.

Similarly, Wennberg’s quotation of “Their Guileless Lives” is at best fourth-hand: Wennberg to Linzey & Regan to Newman to an unknown source.

Randall Balmer

Randall Balmer has distinguished himself as an astute historian of American evangelicalism. In Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America (New York: Basic Books, 2006), Balmer discusses the problems of the environment. His fifth chapter begins (p 143) with an epigraph quote, which consists of St. Basil’s “Our Brothers the Animals”. Unfortunately, there is no bibliographical reference for the quote.

Fred Van Dyke

Fred Van Dyke is Professor of Field Biology at Wheaton College, Illinois. He has written a number of articles, contributed chapters to books, and authored two books, many of which are concerned about developing a distinctly Christian attitude and ethic about the environment. In Between Heaven and Earth: Christian Perspectives on Environmental Protection (Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2010), Van Dyke cites on page 75 both “Their Guileless Lives” and “Our Brothers the Animals”. He obtained both quotes from the Roman Catholic Irish Columban missionary Sean McDonagh, The Greening of the Church (Maryknoll: Orbis 1990). However, Van Dyke does not supply any page references from McDonagh’s book.

Peter Illyn (Restoring Eden)

Over a decade ago I co-founded an e-journal called Sacred Tribes Journal. I helped co-edit the first few editions (from Volume 1 to Volume 2), and then editorial responsibilities were assumed by other colleagues. Much to my chagrin, I find that one guest contributor to the journal has added to the top-heavy pile of unsourced quotes concerning St. Basil’s prayer “Our Brothers the Animals”.

A themed edition of Sacred Tribes Journal was devoted to discussing Bron Taylor’s book Dark Green Religion which was published as Volume 6, number 1 (Spring 2011). One of the articles (pp 47-65) was by Peter Illyn, “Belly-Button Christianity: Tribal Christians Speak to Today’s Church. An Interaction With “Dark Green Religion.”

On page 55, Illyn states:

Contrast the grossly utilitarian worldview of Ann Coulter with that of St. Basil, the Bishop of Caesarea around 375 AD, who wrote “Oh, God, enlarge within us the sense of fellowship with all living things, our brothers the animals to whom you gave the earth 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 you in song, has been a groan of travail.”

There is no bibliographical reference given in his essay but on the face of it one can surmise that Illyn obtained this quote from Scully’s Dominion.

I might add parenthetically that elsewhere in his essay (page 64) Illyn also makes use of material obtained from the Philokalia (Volume1), which he says that was written by St. Anthony the Great. Unfortunately, Illyn does not alert his readers to the fact that the  editors expressly state in a preface to the work attributed to St Antony that they do not believe it is a genuine work. They go further to disclaim that it is even a Christian text:

For these reasons, the Editors of the English translation do not regard the work On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life as a Christian writing, and have therefore placed it in an appendix.

The Philokalia, Volume 1, translated and edited by G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware (London: Faber, 1979), p 328.

Ben Lowe

Ben Lowe is a younger evangelical author writing for the mass-market. His book Green Revolution: Coming Together to Care for Creation (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2009) tells stories to inspire evangelicals to become active in practicising a lifestyle ethic that preserves the creation. On page 155 he reproduces “Our Brothers the Animals” but does not supply any bibliographical reference.

Janet Regina Hyland

The late J. R. Hyland (1933-2007) began her spiritual life as a Roman Catholic but subsequently participated in the Assemblies of God (AOG) churches and was ordained a home missionary in the AOG. She was a strong advocate for animal rights and for adopting a vegetarian diet, and established in Florida her para-church organisation Viatoris Ministries. Hyland wrote God’s Covenant with Animals: A Biblical Basis for the Humane Treatment of All Creatures (New York: Lantern, 2000). On page xi she reproduces an abbreviated version of “Our Brothers the Animals” but did not supply any reference for the quote. She also incorrectly dated St. Basil to “A.D. 275”.

<end of Part Three; see next post for continuation of this discussion>