By John M. Gilheany

Towards the end of the nineteenth century the cohesion which had sustained the vegetarian movement had begun to stifle the aspirations of many non-secular campaigners. As the Rev. J.H.N. Neville put it to those gathered at the first convention of The Order of the Golden Age held at St. Martin’s Town Hall, in London, on January 21st 1897:

“We want a definite religious society to meet the definite religious yearning of those living in the practice of that true humility, which finds expression in vegetarianism.”
The Herald of the Golden Age, Vol.2, No.1 January, 1897.

The Order of the Golden Age was conceptualised in 1881 by Rev. H. J. Williams (1838-1919) and constituted a year later. (1) However, a lack of funds precluded the development of a society until 1895. Sidney H. Beard (1862-1938) was one of several campaigners to meet with Rev. Williams in order to actualise the concept of a religious food reform organisation. Over a thirty year period, Beard was to become the chief toiler and an inspirational force within The Order whilst editing The Herald of the Golden Age almost entirely, throughout its period of publication between January 1896 and October 1918.

Over the first two decades of the twentieth century The Order of the Golden Age acquired a notable status within the humane reform movement. The society established a professional relationship with the national press from prestigious offices at 153 & 155 Brompton Road, in London. By 1909, The Order was active in 47 countries whilst capable of organising domestic fundraising concerts at the Albert Hall – which attracted 6,000 guests on one such occasion. The Order’s campaigning peak probably occurred around 1911; by which time the organisation had 300 advertisements situated at locations throughout the London Underground.

Yet The Order of the Golden Age experienced perennial frustration which arose from the inherent limitations of their voluntary structure. Whilst the two major vegetarian societies which were based in Manchester and London had each become reliant on salaried staff during the nineteenth century, the offices of The Order of the Golden Age were dependent upon the organisation’s most dedicated local membership.

A long-term administrative policy of publishing at cost-price, or under, was the main factor behind the discontinuation of The Herald of the Golden Age immediately after World War One. In ideological terms, however The Order had become seriously disillusioned with the attitude of the established Churches from a very early stage. A combination of Sidney Beard’s background in spiritual science as well as an exasperation with institutional Churchianity led to later editions of The Herald appearing more theosophical in character, than Christian.

Throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s The Order maintained a substantial stock of publications which were largely distributed by The Vegetarian Society. Yet the inter-war period was a more active one for The Order of the Golden Age of Natal, South Africa, than for their British counterpart. By the late 1950’s, the remaining membership of a once-estimable society had receded into a declining vegetarian movement in the U.K.

The Background to the Ideal

In order to appreciate the idealism which bound the early membership of the O.G.A., it is necessary to consider the status which the vegetarian cause had acquired by the 1890’s:

“I can scarcely tell you the joy I experience in hearing addresses like those to which we have just listened, and in seeing a company like this assembled before me manifesting such signs of vitality in connection with our cause. I remember when the days were dark and friends few, when we did not even know people who had so much money to give for philanthropic purpose as are now associated with the cause. We went into villages and towns discussing and talking about this question, not looking forward to such bright things as those we are anticipating tonight, and not being cheered by the feeling of any great success coming to us within reasonable time but still feeling that God had laid this work upon us and that we must hold to it and bear our testimony, believing we were doing God’s will, and leaving all the rest to him.”
From an address by the Salford Bible Christian Minister, Rev. James Clark (1830-1905), at St. Martin’s Town Hall, London on the 14th of September, 1897.
Cited in: The Herald of the Golden Age, October, 1897.

For twenty-three years The Herald of the Golden Age exuded the optimistic belief that near-national vegetarianism was attainable within a matter of decades. There were certainly underlying factors to support the view that Victorian vegetarianism was transcending the pages of Punch and on an upward ascent; at least in terms of its social perception. Yet as Beard was to recount in an Editorial of October 1914:

“When the O.G.A. was founded in 1895 vegetarianism was ridiculed in almost every newspaper in this country, and regarded as a mild form of insanity in almost every home. Now almost every public journal is sympathetic, and many are co-operating with us.”

It should be observed that the O.G.A. was an entirely separate concept to “The Order of the Golden Age (Paris)” – which was essentially a publishing imprint for the largely anonymous tracts of Rev. Gideon J. Ouseley (1834-1906).

The Order which was devised by Rev. H. J. Williams and others, in 1881 would have appeared all but defunct by 1888, when Rev. Ouseley’s venture was established. During 1896 and upon recognising the potential of the re-invented O.G.A. (2); Rev. Ouseley reverted to earlier working titles for his own ministry and became an active early member of the The Order of the Golden Age.

Interestingly, Rev. Ouseley contributed an article to The Herald of the Golden Age which was among the first of the monthly journal’s hundred or so essays to be reprinted, in tract or booklet form. The Voice of Scripture in Favour of a Bloodless Diet was surprisingly orthodox in its exegesis; given that Ouseley was about to commence work on his now infamous text: The Gospel of the Holy Twelve. (3)

In the course of events, the publication of a collected edition of Ouseley’s newspaper essays as The Gospel of the Holy Twelve was to present a challenge, to even the radical theology of the O.G.A. The Herald nonetheless contained a review, a year later, in August 1902 which stated that:

“Whatever opinions may be held concerning the authenticity and reliability of this version, it will prove interesting, suggestive and instructive to those who read it…”

Over a century later, Rev. Ouseley’s Gospel has become increasingly influential amongst vegetarian Christians whilst the most likely origins of the work have become a matter of obscurity. (4)

“Our Principle Weapon”

The Herald of the Golden Age contained a curious level of military terminology for an eschatological publication. The Editorial Notes of the journal were often inclined to speak of “…bringing an end to the reign of militarism” and admonished the membership of the O.G.A. to become involved in international peace efforts. Yet Beard nonetheless relied heavily on the language of war to engender effort towards “the triumph of our holy cause.” In all likelihood there was emulation of The Salvation Army ethos within Beard’s rhetoric, in the hope that a similarly successful ministry would emerge.

From its inception The Herald was intended to evangelise rather than to serve exclusively as an internal bulletin. As Beard remarked:

“Only a very limited number of vegetarians purchase the various Food Reform journals which are published, and consequently they are left from one year’s end to another without any influence being brought to bear upon them, as an incentive to zealous effort.”
The Herald of the Golden Age,
January, 1897