I believe in my heart that faith in Jesus Christ can and will lead us beyond an exclusive concern for the well-being of other human beings to a broader concern for the well-being of the birds in our backywards, the fish in our rivers, and every living creature on the face of the earth.
This hopeful statement was made by John Wesley (1703-1791), a lifelong Anglican who was also the founder of the Methodist movement with his brother Charles. Wesley, an evangelical who was intently concerned with both personal evangelism and holy living, was a hugely influential pastor, preacher, theologian and writer in both England and America. He was also an advocate for many social causes.
Wesley's "The General Deliverance" is just as rare as it is valuable, an 18th century sermon which was sincerely given on behalf of both humans and animals. The biblical text which Wesley is working with, one which we've referred to frequently as well, is Romans 8:19-22:
The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.
In this sermon, Wesley does not follow the mainstream Christian tradition in its denial of the value of animals. He preaches a theology that affirms animals as worthy of the Creator’s love and redemption. ... The Fall of humankind affects the entire earth in terrible ways, but God’s redemption not only restores humankind but includes in wonderful new ways all animal kind as well. ("God and Dog and John Wesley")
"The General Deliverance" is well worth reading in full, but here are a few poignant excerpts for now:
Nothing is more sure, than that as “the Lord is loving to every man,” so “his mercy is over all his works;” all that have sense, all that are capable of pleasure or pain, of happiness or misery. In consequence of this, “He openeth his hand, and filleth all things living with plenteousness. He prepareth food for cattle,” as well as “herbs for the children of men.” He provideth for the fowls of the air, “feeding the young ravens when they cry unto him.” “He sendeth the springs into the rivers, that run among the hills, to give drink to every beast of the field,” and that even “the wild asses may quench their thirst.” And, suitably to this, he directs us to be tender of even the meaner creatures; to show mercy to these also. ...
How true then is that word, “God saw everything that he had made: and behold it was very good!” But how far is this from being the present case! In what a condition is the whole lower world! — to say nothing of inanimate nature, wherein all the elements seem to be out of course, and by turns to fight against man. Since man rebelled against his Maker, in what a state is all animated nature! Well might the Apostle say of this: “The whole creation groaneth and travaileth together in pain until now.” This directly refers to the brute creation In what state this is at present we are now to consider. ...
During this season of vanity, not only the feebler creatures are continually destroyed by the stronger; not only the strong are frequently destroyed by those that are of equal strength; but both the one and the other are exposed to the violence and cruelty of him that is now their common enemy, — man. ... He pursues them over the widest plains, and through the thickest forests. He overtakes them in the fields of air, he finds them out in the depths of the sea. Nor are the mild and friendly creatures who still own his sway, and are duteous to his commands, secured thereby from more than brutal violence; from outrage and abuse of various kinds. Is the generous horse, that serves his master’s necessity or pleasure with unwearied diligence, — is the faithful dog, that waits the motion of his hand, or his eye, exempt from this? What returns for their long and faithful service do many of these poor creatures find? And what a dreadful difference is there, between What they suffer from their fellow-brutes, and what they suffer from the tyrant man! The lion, the tiger, or the shark, gives them pain from mere necessity, in order to prolong their own life; and puts them out of their pain at once: But the human shark, without any such necessity, torments them of his free choice; and perhaps continues their lingering pain till, after months or years, death signs their release.
But will “the creature,” will even the brute creation, always remain in this deplorable condition? God forbid that we should affirm this; yea, or even entertain such a thought! While “the whole creation groaneth together,” (whether men attend or not,) their groans are not dispersed in idle air, but enter into the ears of Him that made them. While his creatures “travail together in pain,” he knoweth all their pain, and is bringing them nearer and nearer to the birth, which shall be accomplished in its season. He seeth “the earnest expectation” wherewith the whole animated creation “waiteth for” that final “manifestation of the sons of God;” in which “they themselves also shall be delivered” (not by annihilation; annihilation is not deliverance) “from the” present “bondage of corruption, into” a measure of “the glorious liberty of the children of God.” ...
A general view of this is given us in the twenty-first chapter of the Revelation. When He that “sitteth on the great white throne” hath pronounced, “Behold, I make all things new;” when the word is fulfilled, “The tabernacle of God is with men, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them and be their God;” — then the following blessing shall take place (not only on the children of men; there is no such restriction in the text; but) on every creature according to its capacity: “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes. And there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying. Neither shall there be any more pain: For the former things are passed away.” ...
One more excellent end may undoubtedly be answered by the preceding considerations. They may encourage us to imitate Him whose mercy is over all his works. They may soften our hearts towards the meaner creatures, knowing that the Lord careth for them. It may enlarge our hearts towards those poor creatures, to reflect that, as vile as they appear in our eyes, not one of them is forgotten in the sight of our Father which is in heaven. Through all the vanity to which they are now subjected, let us look to what God hath prepared for them. Yea, let us habituate ourselves to look forward, beyond this present scene of bondage, to the happy time when they will be delivered therefrom into the liberty of the children of God.
"... not one of them is forgotten in the sight of our Father." Amen, and what a powerful sermon. If only we could hear it preached occasionally in our pews today!
("The General Deliverance" text taken from the 1872 edition (Sermon 60), posted by the Christian Classics Ethereal Library; thank you to All-Creatures.org for sharing the first quote; portrait courtesy Utopia Portrait Gallery/Wikimedia Commons)