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  • The Gospel of Kindness: Animal Welfare and the Making of Modern America by Janet M. Davis
  • Chien-Hui Li (bio)
The Gospel of Kindness: Animal Welfare and the Making of Modern America. By Janet M. Davis. ( Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2016. 302 + xiii pp. Hardback, £22.99. ISBN: 978-0-19-973315-6.)

The Gospel of Kindness makes an exciting contribution to the study of the history and politics of the animal protection movement in America. It marks some important breaks from the traditional historiography in this field in several respects. It deals with the development of the animal protection movement, but does not make it its sole focus. Instead of focusing on the formal organizations and constituents of the movement, it includes in its survey other agents who were directly involved in the politics of animal protection, such as fellow reformers from other fields, missionaries, government officials, journalists, as well as critics of the movement. It is more concerned with probing from every direction the different purposes served by animal activism than its most obvious object—"the protection of suffering animals." Most importantly, this is a work with a global dimension that puts animal protection into a transnational context of empire and nation building—a critical yet hitherto unexplored area in Anglo-American movement histories.

Starting from these unique positions, The Gospel of Animals surveys the undertakings, representations, and appropriations of animal protection by various historical agents in modern America, arguing that these played a central role in the formation and expansion of American civilization and empire from the postbellum years up to World War II. The work is divided into two parts. The first three chapters deal with the animal protection work in America, while the last three chapters direct our focus abroad. In line with current historiography, Davis regards kindness to nonhuman animals as a cultural product of antebellum religious revivalism, the rights revolution of the Civil War era, and the transformative political climates of the Reconstruction reform, yet she takes a step further by linking the movement to the urgent task of national building and empire expansion pursued by America from this point onward. During these decades, the "gospel of kindness to animals," which relied on the biblical concepts of stewardship through a motley collection of agents, gradually became incorporated into the moral vision of a young empire based on Christian benevolence, moral uplift, and also American exceptionalism. It was first made an essential element of character building and civic training for promoting proper citizenship in the forging of a new nation. In subsequent years of imperial expansion, humane advocates, missionaries, officials, and policy makers alike were also quick to mobilize humane legislation in the empire as an essential aspect of the American civilizing project. Davis takes care to point out that animal societies, although often critical of America's militarism, were nonetheless fully supportive of the exceptionalist "moral mandate" of the [End Page 109] American empire, based on the values of free moral agency, personal uplift, and civilization, and willingly worked as a policing arm of the imperial government. Missionaries and government officials overseas in places such as the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, too, collectively propagated kindness to animals and employed animal welfare laws to legitimize American leadership and exercise imperial authority. All considered, Davis argues that the gospel of kindness to animals, apart from its most obvious function of seeking to protect suffering animals, has taken on a variety of crucial meanings (e.g., from "a litmus test for national belonging and exclusion" at the national level, to "a linchpin of higher civilization" at the global stage). In the process, Davis further points out that, with the joint workings of other normative ideologies regarding race, gender, class, and civilization, the laboring people, the native and African Americans, and the peoples from other lands were often specifically targeted as subjects awaiting reform, so the gospel of kindness often unwittingly brought about different forms of human inequality.

In addition to the central thesis of this work, the far broader scope of The Gospel of Animals, both geographically and in terms of the historical agencies embraced, also brings to light many of the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2160-1267
Print ISSN
2156-5414
Pages
pp. 109-110
Launched on MUSE
2018-04-13
Open Access
No
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