New user? Register here:
Email Address:
Retype Password:
First Name:
Last Name:
Existing user? Login here:

Harnessed to death

Philip Sampson

Long before War Horse, evangelicals used the Bible to argue that deploying animals in conflict was incompatible with faith. Philip Sampson believes it's time for modern Christians to protect fellow creatures from modern war.

Most people know that the Victoria Cross is the highest UK award for gallantry in warfare. Fewer know that there is an animal equivalent, the Dickin Medal, which is awarded to animals showing 'conspicuous gallantry or devotion to duty'. More famous - or infamous - is the Animals In War Memorial in Park Lane, London, unveiled in 2004 by the Princess Royal at a cost of more than £1.5 million. Many condemned it as a nonsensical waste of money, political correctness gone mad - and the annual services held there each Armistice Day were seen as offensive to the many humans who had died in wars.

But why? Those who found the Animal Memorial and the Dickin Medal absurd, did so because they counted animal suffering as insignificant in comparison with human suffering. Animals are seen as being for human use and to have no souls. They are expendable. Indeed, some 56 billion animals are killed each year for no better reason than the taste of their flesh in our mouths. How much more justified is their suffering to help us win a war. After all, who cares if a few carrier pigeons get killed? In warfare, there are bigger fish to fry.

In my experience, modern Christians overwhelmingly take this view. Indeed, many see it as a touchstone issue. Even vegetarianism is commonly viewed with suspicion.1 What can the Bible possibly say about this, other than that we have dominion over animals and can use them if it helps win a war? It's simply not an issue, let alone a moral one.

However, there were some Christians before the twentieth century who thought differently. They belonged to the older 'evangelical' tradition, from the magisterial Reformers on.2 And I want to draw on their work to show how the Bible addresses animal suffering in warfare.


Moses envisaged that the people of Israel would want to appoint a king, and he spelt out those things that a just king should avoid. In particular, 'The king... must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself... He must not take many wives,... He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.' (Deut 17.16-17).

Now we can easily understand the prohibition on accumulating wives and wealth. Powerful men are inclined to do both, and the ban simply indicates that exploiting women and oppressing the poor is wicked. This remains good advice to rulers even today, as modern politicians regularly demonstrate. But why shouldn't the king have horses?

In the Ancient Near East horses meant only one thing: warfare. Indeed, they were the height of military sophistication, the laser-guided missiles of their day (see 1 Samuel 8.10-12). Infantry were no match for cavalry, and horses remained of prime military importance well into the twentieth century: eight million were killed during the First World War alone.

Why, then, were Israel's kings forbidden the use of the best weapon of their age?


Picasso's Guernica (1937) is the best known portrayal of the horrors of modern war. It highlights suffering as an injured horse gazes at us in anguish, implicating the viewer in the human carnage around it. Even today, animal mutilation remains iconic of human cruelty, and of war's ability to reduce even the noblest creature to suffering flesh.

War horses have always suffered. During wars, asked George Abbot in 1613, 'are not the horses wounded, and perhaps slain in the fight?'. Indeed, a mounted warrior is generally too high to attack; the first assault is against the horse. Horses are big and do not die easily; disemboweled, or with crushed and broken legs, they lie on the battlefield sharing the agony of the human wounded and dying. In Homer's Iliad we read of the noble horse Pedasus which, when speared in the right shoulder blade, 'screamed aloud as it lay, groaning in the dust until the life went out of it'.

In short, using horses for warfare is cruel. John Calvin, reading of God's 'compassion on all He has made' (Ps 145.9) and of the wickedness of animal cruelty (Prov 12.10), concluded that such cruelty is hateful to God: if 'a man spare neither his horse, nor his ox, nor his ass, therein he betrays the wickedness of his nature'. 'God', he says, 'will condemn us for cruel and unkind folk, if we pity not the brute beasts'. This was no mild rebuke: for Calvin, to be condemned by God was the worse thing that could happen to you.3


Today, we naturally abhor cruelty and human slaughter in warfare. But we rarely remark on our mutilation or destruction of any of the animals. According to our evangelical forebears, their suffering 'betrays the wickedness' of our nature, and we ought to be horrified. Moreover, neglect of animal suffering leads to indifference towards human suffering.

The ban on horses in ancient Israel not only prevented their cruel use in war, it also affected Israel's preparation for war. The skills of horsemanship, of spearing the enemy at full gallop, required long practice. In the ancient world, this was acquired through hunting, an activity which gave pleasure to the senses even as it accustomed the hunter to the agonies and gore of killing. Naturally, only the elite could afford the visceral excitement of hunting with horses, but even the poor could gain enjoyment from maiming and killing smaller prey or domestic animals. Both rich and poor could thereby gain the hardness of heart indispensable on the battlefield. Except in faithful Israel.

The Elizabethan Puritan, Philip Stubbes, observed that there are no holy hunters in the Bible. In 1630 Thomas Adams also noticed this and asked if 'it were so hateful [to God] to hunt beasts, what is it to hunt men?'4. The association between godlessness and the hunt meant that, in faithful Israel, neither rich nor poor could prepare for warfare by hardening their heart through hunting animals. Indeed, as Andrew Bonar argued in 1846, the provisions of Leviticus 17 implied that if 'the wild spirits of youth' hunted, 'it must lead them to the most solemn views of sin and righteousness'. Hardly an advertisement calculated to appeal to young men keen for the exploit and adventure of war.


The gentile world considered hunting to be a good preparation for warriors because it honed skills and lessened the hunter's sensitivity to suffering and death. Our evangelical forebears agreed that indulging in visceral pleasures such as hunting makes us insensitive, feeds our lust, and makes us greedy for cruelty (Eph 4.19). But they did not regard these as desirable character traits. Men, said Robert Bolton in 1625, 'bloodily minded towards harmless beasts, discover our natural propensity to cruelty'5. By contrast, they considered that Christians should become more sensitive, not less. In the mid-seventeenth century, John Bunyan heard the gospel and found a 'marvel' within him: 'a very great softness and tenderness of heart', further nurtured by a sermon on the love of God. This is not a state of mind much prized in Army Basic Training.

From the sixteenth century onward, the heightened sensitivity of evangelicals towards suffering was noted by their contemporaries, not always favourably. Indeed, Christian compassion towards animals was seen as a threat to the martial spirit of the nation. In the nineteenth century, attempts to outlaw cruel sports were especially associated with women and Methodism, and were criticised in Parliament as endangering Britain's capacity to defend itself militarily. Compassion towards animals was, and remains, a dangerous first step towards a reluctance to kill the enemy.


In ancient Israel, the ban on horses combined with the negative portrayal of hunting, not only dis couraged war but also effective preparation for war. As any modern general will tell you, this is to neglect the first duty of a state: the defence of the realm. However, faithful Israel disdained modern military wisdom. Kings, they believed, are not saved by military strength, neither do many horses bring safety: 'Some trust in chariots, and some in horses: but we will remember the name of the Lord our God' (Ps 33.14-17, 20.7, 147.10f, Is 31.1, Zech 12 etc).

As John Calvin comments: 'The people of God here protest that they do not place their hope, as is the usual way with men, in their military forces and warlike apparatus, but only in the aid of God'.6 Of course, a nation deficient in 'warlike apparatus' certainly has no spare weapons to sell. This affects the economy; the budding arms dealers of the day must have wondered if turning swords into ploughshares might come next (Is 2.4).

The current UK government considers that the arms trade plays a key role in our economy, showcased by our military engagements overseas7. Stanley Hauerwas is said to have remarked that the Church should do things which only make sense if God exists. To voluntarily relinquish armaments is certainly such a thing.


But Israel's ban on horses was not simply a sentimental aversion to animal suffering. Both cruelty to animals and warfare cut to the heart of God's purposes for creation.

Before the twentieth century, evangelicals believed that creation fulfills its purpose by worshipping God, and that humans are called to conduct this great orchestra of praise. As John Gill put it in about 1763: 'Let his praise resound from all creatures on earth, and reach him in the highest heavens'. The phrase 'all creatures on earth', says Gill, includes 'all that arise from it, are upon it, or within it'. In short, everything should praise God. God has entrusted humans with orchestrating this praise; what will He do if we smash up all the instruments before the performance begins? In particular, smashing up animals intended to praise their Lord is cruel; and God, as Calvin noted, hates cruelty.

An animal screaming in warfare cannot praise God, and the only joyful listener is the devil who hunts out whom he may destroy. The praise of God lay behind much of the Christian protest against animal cruelty from Elizabethan Puritans to the social reformers of the nineteenth century. Cruelty robs God of praise and is the custom of the wicked, not of the righteous. Our evangelical forebears did not mince their words. Adam Clarke, the leading Methodist commentator of the early nineteenth century, considered that there is a special hell for those who are cruel to animals; he specifically mentions the cruelty arising from 'wars for the extension of territory, and the purposes of ambition'.8


It is not only horses that suffer in war. Humans continue to deliberately exploit a variety of animals for warfare, including birds, dogs, camels, and oxen. In fact, rather than make them redundant, modern technology has enabled us to weaponize animals on a scale and with a cruelty previously unimagined. MAY 2015 25 From 'Acoustic Kitties' (cats implanted with listening devices to spy on the enemy) to surgically modified sharks and dolphins, animals are exploited to better mutilate or kill the enemy; prevention of suffering is not usually a consideration.9

Moreover, there is no weapon, however hideous, that has not first been perfected upon animals; shooting, blasting, burning, gassing, irradiating or infecting with disease have all been tried first on animal flesh. U.S. Department of Defence figures show that over half a million animals were used in 2007 for military research, some 30 per cent higher than in 2006. Of these, over half were exposed to painful procedures, some 40 per cent without pain relief. But perhaps most cruelty arises from mere indifference, rather than deliberate abuse.

In the film Apocalypse Now, there is a scene of a forested area being napalmed to flush out the enemy; it has become iconic of modern war. Such scenes were commonplace throughout the twentieth century, and vast numbers of wild animals were blown apart, burned to death, or died of starvation following habitat loss. Other than the biblical teaching, I know of no military code which gives even a passing thought to this.


It seems unlikely that the faithful kings of Israel would have foreseen that the restriction on horses would have such far-reaching consequences for warfare and arms trading. Even less would they have envisaged that having compassion towards animals would further our love towards our neighbour. Yet the peaceable kingdom, which begins with care towards animals, does not stop there (Is 11, 65, etc). John Calvin emphasised that the covenant kingdom of peace is a harmonious whole, unifying God's blessing to animals and humans alike. The end to violence among animals carries within its heart the end to warfare and hatred between people:

'Though Isaiah says that the wild and the tame beasts will live in harmony, that the blessing of God may be clearly and fully manifested, yet .... if Christ shall bring animals into a state of peace, much more will brotherly harmony exist among men …'.

Hosea prophesied that it is God's covenant with animals which presages the end of weapons of war, and the beginning of justice and peace (Hos 2.18). Again, this is not an obvious consequence, but, as Calvin observed, it reflects the harmonious unity of the peaceable kingdom:

'.. a law had been enacted, that their kings were not to provide themselves with horses and chariots, ...God wished to deprive them of all stimulants to audacity, in order that they might live quietly contented with their own limits, and not unjustly attack their neighbours' .10

In 1801, Thomas Coke pictured Israel living within the boundaries of the promised land as a peaceable kingdom of God's people, echoing the harmony of Eden.


However, the peaceable kingdom is also not yet. The kingdom of darkness continues its campaigns of cruelty and oppression. As Solomon notes, animal cruelty is wickedness incompatible with living right eously (Prov 12.10). And just as kindness towards animals presages harmony between people, so cruelty and the destruction of animals should terrify us, as the apprehension of 'human bloodshed and violence against lands, cities, and all who live in them' (Hab 2.17).

Modern states are entirely indifferent towards animals that are killed or mutilated in war. They also develop weapons and encourage the arms trade. According to the older evangelical teaching I've been outlining, all oppression of the weak - both animal and human - is interconnected. Their radical vision was then in the vanguard of the Church's mission. Sadly, that day has long since passed. With few exceptions, contemporary Christians - especially, now, evangelicals - are silent on this, and our silence begins with animals used in warfare. So far as I am aware, C H Spurgeon was the last person to systematically preach peace, not warfare, among both animals and people from an evangelical pulpit in the UK:

'The sheep is feeding from the cannon's mouth, and the bird builds his nest where once the warrior did hang his helmet. … For peace is the conqueror. … If she be driven from one part of the earth, yet she dwells in another; and while war, with busy hand, is piling up here a wall, and there a rampart, and there a tower, peace with her gentle finger, is covering over the castle with the moss and the ivy, and eating the stone from the top, and letting it lie level with the earth. . . . I think this is a fine thought for the lover of peace; and who among us is not? Who among us ought not to be? Is not the gospel all peace?'.11

I started with the Dickin medal and the Animals' Memorial. Perhaps these tributes to animals in warfare are less eccentricities than moral markers of a lost biblical vision.

Philip Sampson is a writer, lecturer and former research fellow at the University of Southampton. His publications include Six Modern Myths (IVP) and 'Humans, Animals and Others' in C Falke (ed) Intersections in Christianity and Critical Theory (Palgrave- Macmillan).


1 Interview in Third Way May 2014 p24

2 Representative quotations below have been modernised.

3 Homer Iliad Book XVI tx Samuel Butler Dover (1925) p196. George Abbot An Exposition upon the Prophet Jonah London (1613) p453. For John Calvin's views, see P Sampson Six Modern Myths IVP (2000) p81.

4 For Stubbes' view, see Sampson op cit p82. Thomas Adams Works (1630) p116.

5 Robert Bolton Some General Directions for a Comfortable Walking with God (1634) p156

6 John Calvin (1571) Commentary on Psalm 20.7

7 Its 'key role' is debatable: world/2013/feb/18/britains-arms-trade-making-killing

8 Adam Clarke (1831) Commentary on Prov 12. 10

9 See, eg:;; http://

10 John Calvin (1559) Commentary on Isaiah 11.6; (1564) Commentary on Joshua 11.6 11 C H Spurgeon Sermon 'The Desolations of the Lord, the Consolation of His Saints,' April 28, 1858, Music Hall, Royal Surrey Gardens