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THE DUTY OF MERCY by Henry Primatt, D.D. ( 1734-1778) 
November - December 1996 Issue

When The Duty of Mercy—Henry Primatt's only published work—appeared in print around 1772, the world was a place in which slavery was legal and said to be in accord with God's plan for the earth. Enslaved people were viewed as "things" that existed only to serve the needs and desires of their owners.

Although this attitude was still firmly entrenched in western civilization in his day, Primatt was one of those who saw slavery as an evil, instituted and upheld by man in spite of the biblical narrative which plainly states that all people are descendants of the same human family.

A Doctor of Divinity and a clergyman who labored in Norfolk and Suffolk, England, Henry Primatt not only had to deal with parishioners who sanctimoniously upheld slavery, he was also faced with the brutality of those who used and abused animals in the most ungodly ways, while claiming God's blessing of "dominion"

Appalled by this travesty of Godliness, Primatt wrote his essay on The Duty of Mercy, at a time when most human beings had not even begun to consider their treatment of nonhuman creatures. Sentiment against the enslavement of other people already had some impact on the culture of his time, but awareness of the evil represented by the mistreatment of animals was minimal when Primatt wrote his essay.

The excerpts from Primatt's publication, which follow, have been edited to reflect modern English usage. And the word "animals" has been used in place of the term "brutes" which the author used in the original manuscript. "Brutes" has come to have a much more negative connotation in our own day than it did in the author's time. It is also important to know that for Primatt the word "brutes" was a "general term for every nonhuman creature, whether beast, or bird, or fish or fly or worm."

"Although men may differ about various doctrinal points of religious belief, Justice is a rule of universal extent and invariable obligation. We acknowledge this important truth in all matters which concern mankind, but then we try to limit justice to our own species. Even though we are able to see that God's wisdom and goodness is evident in the formation of various classes of animals, the belief in our own dignity and excellence is such that we are apt to conclude that man alone, of all terrestrial animals, is the only proper object of mercy and compassion.

"Misled with this prejudice in our own favor, we overlook some species as if they beneath our notice and infinitely unworthy of the care and concern of the Almighty. We consider others of them as though they were created only for our service, and are careless and indifferent to their happiness or misery. We can hardly bring ourselves to suppose that there is any kind of duty incumbent upon us toward other species.

“I have written this treatise in order to rectify this mistaken belief. Just as the tender love and mercy of God "are over all his works", so also our love and mercy are not to be confined within the circle of our own friends, and neighbors. Neither can our care be limited only to the larger sphere of human beings. Our love and mercy must be extended to every creature, because all are the object of the love and mercy of God.

We treat other species as though they were created only for our service.

"Let not mistaken notions be imputed to the spirit of the Gospel of Jesus. Love and benevolence are the genuine characteristics of his religion, and they originate in the love of God... Christian love is without partiality, so let us examine ourselves well, and if we find that we hold any doctrine or belief that represents the Supreme Being as partial or accepting of injury to any of his creatures, such doctrine is a misrepresentation of divine goodness.

“The child that can with indifference pull off the leg or wing of a fly, will in time, with the same indifference and hardheartedness, pull off the leg or wing of a bird, or the tail of a cat. He may love his favorite dog but he will throw stones at a neighbors horse or cut off the teats of a cow...

“Cruelty, like other sins, is progressive. A man who commits any act of wanton cruelty, no matter how trifling the object may seem, can have no fear of God, nor any true principle of justice or honor. Even in the smallest act of cruelty, he shows a malevolence of heart that is dangerous to society....

If I know that a man is cruel to his animal , I ask no more questions about him. He may be a noble, rich, polite or learned man—an orthodox man a churchman or a Puritan. It matters not, for this I know: that if he is cruel to his animal, he is a wicked man.


"What should we think of a stout and strong man, who vented his fury and barbarity on a helpless and innocent baby? Should we not abhor and detest that man as a mean, cowardly and savage wretch, unworthy of the stature and strength of a man.

“No less mean, cowardly, and savage is it to abuse and torment the innocent animal who can neither help himself nor avenge himself, and yet has as much right to happiness as any person may have..

“ God, the universal Parent of all creatures, who is righteous and holy in all his works, will undoubtedly require of man a strict account of every creature entrusted to his care, as well as to all those who come across his path. In His justice, God will exact payment for every instance of wanton cruelty and oppression to all creatures, in the day in which he will judge the world in righteousness.”

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