Cows, Communities, and Religious Responses to the 1865–66 British Rinderpest Outbreak*

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The devastating outbreak of rinderpest in the British Isles in 1865–66 — the so-called “cattle plague” — was a significant event in Victorian Britain, one that did much to shape British agriculture, animal disease control, and veterinary medicine. This article argues that the cattle plague also had long-term significance for the relationship between the Church of England and non-human animals. During eighteenth-century rinderpest outbreaks, Anglican clergy had rarely considered the suffering animals. In 1865–66 and afterwards, services in Anglican churches increasingly involved animal themes, issues, and presences. From this time, it became usual for Anglicans to mark moments of severe animal disease with special prayers and services. The crisis also encouraged changes in how Church of England clergy, and ministers in other Christian denominations, spoke about animals in sermons. During the outbreak of rinderpest, there was a sharpened awareness of the extent to which cows and humans had common interests and inhabited a shared community. A heightened appreciation of the bonds and interdependencies between people and farmed animals, the article suggests, had much significance for ecological thinking among nineteenth-century ministers of religion. The article argues for the distinctive status of cattle in modern Christianity.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-19
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Religious History
Early online date8 May 2024
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 8 May 2024

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