Michigan State University

Animals, Natural History

Sunday school teachers dedicated a good deal of their time discussing with students the world around them. In this section one will find three types of texts, those providing more or less straightforward information about animals and plants or natural wonders (e.g. Child's Own Book of Natural History), those offering lessons of moral conduct with respect to animals and the natural world (e.g. Kindness to Animals: or, The Sin of Cruelty Exposed and Rebuked), and those that combine the two (e.g. Talks with Amy Dudley; or, What Makes Me Grow?). The first type tended to rely on facts and illustration, the other types on scripture and precept.

Some of these texts are striking for their relevance to present-day matters. Discussions of cruelty to animals will resonate with contemporary readers though these arguments rest on scripture rather than concepts of rights, which are more frequently used today. These arguments for kindness to animals also resonate with the benevolent disciplinary philosophy associated with Sunday school. Sunday schools prohibited corporal punishment; "kindness alone," and persuasion were said to be sufficient to instruct children. This policy of sparing the rod, fostered a spiritual and social "disciplinary intimacy," as Richard Brodhead has called it, associated with Christian nurture (see Introduction). This relationship is reflected in arguments for being kind to animals. In Kindness to Animals, for example, we are informed that most human cruelty toward animals stems from a misconception that animals must be "frightened into obedience," using corporal punishment as a deterrent. The author contends that correction can be made through kindness and reward. This is precisely the mode of instruction for children and reflected the new child psychology of the antebellum era.

While one would best look elsewhere for popular debates about evolution one will find that advances in natural science are of explicit concern in these books. Most authors go out of their way to reconcile scientific understanding of the universe with knowledge of God. For example, in What is a Star? there is a dialogue discussing the astronomical discoveries of Sir John Hershel. "Dear Mamma," the boy exclaims, "if all these stars are worlds like are own earth and other planet how much God must have to take care of!"

"The discoveries made by the telescopes in these boundless regions, my dear, are well suited to exalt our notions of God's wondrous power."

Other works attempt to reconcile theories of the physical body with man's spiritual nature and provide unusual commentary on such subjects as phrenology, and nervous sympathy. In general, these works seek to ascribe a moral content to nature to man's physical conditions.

— Stephen Rachman, Department of English, Michigan State University

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