The Voice of “Beautiful Joe”

22nd November 2017

Joe was a bull terrier/fox terrier mix who lived at the turn of the century in Meaford, Ontario. After being abused to the point of near death by his owner, he was rescued by Walter Moore. The disfigured Joe was deemed “beautiful” and his story immortalized in Margaret Marshall Saunders’ fictionalized “autobiography” of his life, a story that became the winning entry to a writing competition sponsored by the American Humane Education Society.

In 1903, “Beautiful Joe” was published by the American Baptist Publications Society and went on to become a best-selling children’s novel. By the late 1930s, it had sold more than 7 million copies worldwide. It was translated into many languages, leading Saunders to comment, “I have had the honour of leading the old Ontario dog around the world on a chain of translations and rejoice in the report that he has become quite a propagandist for humanitarianism.”

As a longtime American Baptist and animal advocate, I was excited to learn about this piece of our history from Laura Alden, publisher of Judson Press, who described the impact of the book on her life:

 I have never forgotten reading Beautiful Joe as a 10-year-old. Not that I would have been able to articulate this at the time, but Beautiful Joe helped me begin to see that humanely treating the animals in our care is part of our spiritual task—and that advocating for animal welfare is good for God’s creation, good for us all.

I later learned that “Beautiful Joe” does not stand alone in American Baptist history. In 1925, Judson Press published “Animal Land,” a children’s book that opens with a call to kindness and is dedicated to “The American Humane Education Society of Boston Mass and to all the boys and girls everywhere who love animals.”

With these books, American Baptists were continuing a commitment to animal welfare that has a long—if oft-overlooked—history within Christianity. Many Christian thinkers from Clement, Chrysostom and Francis of Assisi to Birgitta of Vadstena, John Wesley, Charles Spurgeon and C.S. Lewis held that animals have intrinsic value, are loved by their Creator and are, therefore, deserving of human kindness. While these theologians approached the topic from various perspectives, all grounded their convictions in the biblical witness, which makes it clear that God cares for all living creatures:

Who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God for help and wander about for lack of food? Do you know when the mountain goats give birth? Do you observe the calving of the does? … Who has let the wild donkey go free? Who has loosed the bonds of the swift donkey, to whom I have given the arid plain for his home and the salt land for his dwelling place? . . . Is the wild ox willing to serve you? Will he spend the night at your manger (Job 38:41-39:1, 5-6, 9 ESV)?

Proverbs declares “The righteous care for the needs of their animals” (12:10 NIV), yet we often read scripture with a humanocentric lens that obscures this divine imperative. How many of us noticed that God established covenant relationships with other creatures (Genesis 9:8-10; Hosea 2:18)? How often have we read about the Sabbath without seeing its mandate to give animals the same day of rest (Exodus 23:12; Deuteronomy 5:14)? Have we noticed that cruel practices are explicitly prohibited (Deuteronomy 22:10, 14:21, 22:6, 25:4; Leviticus 18:23) or that the limited natural yield of the Sabbatical year was to be shared not only among all people, regardless of status, but also with all animals, wild as well as domesticated (Exodus 23:11 and Leviticus 25:6-7)?

When we give voice to the voiceless, we exponentially expand our impact. Saunders gave a sad little mutt a voice. The American Baptist Publication Society, in turn, gave her a voice, and the result was a book that, for more than a century, has moved people to embrace animal advocacy. After the novel’s success, Saunders continued writing, publishing more than 20 titles and addressing numerous social issues of her day, including child labor and slum clearance. At age 73, the woman who published “Beautiful Joe” under a male pen name lest it not be taken seriously, was awarded Commander of the Order of the British Empire—

Canada’s highest civilian honor at the time—and a medal from the Societe Protectice des Animaux in Paris, France.

While some may question the validity of expending energy on animal welfare when there is so much human tragedy, recent research has confirmed what many of us knew intuitively: Human suffering and animal suffering are interconnected (“The Link between Animal Abuse and Human Violence,” Andrew Linzey, ed., Sussex Academic Press, 2009). Compassion is not a limited commodity. The more broadly we practice it, the more bountiful it becomes; and the more abundant our compassion, the more power we have to transform the world . . . for all living creatures . . . for one simple reason: It is what we are called to do.

 . . . be kind to dumb animals, not only because you will lose nothing by it, but because you ought to; for they were placed on the earth by the same Kind Hand that made all living creatures.
— Margaret Saunders in “Beautiful Joe”

The Revd Cassandra Carkuff Williams, Ed.D., an appointed fellow of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, serves as American Baptist Home Mission Societies’ (ABHMS) national director of Discipleship Ministries. For more on animals and the Bible, download ABHMS’ “God, Animals and Us” workshop (#C905) from > Publications & Resources > Workshops for Church Life and Leadership.

The legacy of Beautiful Joe continues in a park dedicated to his memory in Meaford, Ontario, Canada, and through the work of the Beautiful Joe Heritage Society.

This article first appeared in The Christian Citizen magazine, a publication of The American Baptist Home Mission Societies. Reprinted by permission.