Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Humane Sermon in Three Parts, 1917

Humane Sermon in Three Parts, 1917

By: Ardis E. Parshall - July 26, 2010

Early in the 20th century, the theme of being kind to animals became a prominent, recurring part of both the Sunday School and the Primary schedules. “Humane Sunday” was observed at least once a year. The magazines carried whole sections of stories about dogs who saved families from house fires, old cart horses who brought unconscious masters safely home, and the loyalty of animals of all kinds to children who were kind to them. Sometimes the teachings given to children were really aimed at their parents — a set of photographs showing the humane and the inhumane ways to hold a check rein on a horse, for instance, no doubt caused a few children to correct their fathers when the wrong method was used. I wouldn’t be surprised if Spencer W. Kimball’s memories of the song “Don’t Kill the Little Birdies” had its roots in some youthful church lesson on the humane treatment of animals.

This page from the Juvenile Instructor of 1917 illustrates one of the ways in which Mormon children were taught to notice and consider the lives of the animals around them. Do you suppose this resulted in shrieks of horror from a scandalized child in some chapel in the weeks after its publication?



  1. I haven’t been able to find an online copy of Pres. Kimball’s talk, nor the words to “Don’t Kill the Birdies.” It seems really odd not to find it at — although I didn’t hear it live (it was given at a priesthood session), I well remember the discussions it raised. It had to have been given in the ’70s (and therefore printed in the Ensign), not earlier than that.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 26, 2010 @ 7:11 am

  2. Ah. I found it. It was given in April, 1978, and he referred to it at some length again in October 1978. Strange, though, that the well-remembered word “birdies” appears as “birds,” which prevents the story from being found by a text search. Memory is so fickle!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 26, 2010 @ 7:21 am

  3. I do love how the third panel shows the boy and girl not singing; they have apparently already taken those humane lessons to heart. Then again, no one looks particularly happy except the hunter in panel 2.

    Comment by Jeff — July 26, 2010 @ 7:43 am

  4. Ooh — those tears on the two little birds. So very pathetic.

    Don’t kill the birds! — the little birds
    That sing about your door,
    Soon as the joyous spring has come,
    And chilling storms are o’er.

    The little birds! how sweet they sing!
    O! let them joyous live;
    And do not seek to take the life
    Which you can never give.

    That’s the earliest version I can find of the poem. It shows up in the LDS song books as early as 1909. Here is the book Deseret Sunday School Songs. “Don’t Kill the Birds” is song number 163.

    Comment by Researcher — July 26, 2010 @ 8:22 am

  5. So, were songbird carcasses commonly worn as bonnet festoonery back in the day? Astounding.

    Also, I am wondering what gauge of shot could bring down a robin or thrush but not totally ravage its plumage. I don’t hunt so I am pretty clueless about this.

    Great post.

    Comment by oudenos — July 26, 2010 @ 9:15 am

  6. Researcher,

    I have an old beat-up copy of the Deseret Sunday School Songs book in front of me. No. 163 in this version goes:

    Don’t kill the little birds, That sing on bush and tree, All thro’ the summer days, Their sweetest melody.
    Don’t shoot the little birds! The earth is God’s estate,
    And He provideth food For small as well as great.

    Don’t kill the little birds, Their plumage wings the air, Their trill at early morn Makes music everywhere, What tho’ the cherries fall Half eaten from the stem? And berries disappear, In garden, field and glen?

    Still like the widow’s cruse, There’s always plenty left; How sad a world were this, Of little birds bereft! Think of the good they do In all the orchards round; No hurtful insects thrive Where robins most abound.

    Don’t kill the little birds, That sing on bush and tree, All thro’ the summer days, their sweetest melody, In this great world of ours, If we can trust His Word, There’s food enough for all: – Don’t kill a single bird!

    No author is credited, but it must have been a Nineteenth Century Rachel Carson.
    This book is missing the front pages and has no index. There are many more gems of this quality in its pages.

    Comment by CurtA — July 26, 2010 @ 9:33 am

  7. I also noticed that the little children were not singing in panel 3. As soon as I read Ardis’s comments #1, I headed to my library of old hymnbooks to find the actual song (before reading the rest of the comments). I found the Deseret Sunday School Song Book, but see that Researcher and CurtA already had the source. I should learn to read all the comments first.

    Comment by Maurine — July 26, 2010 @ 12:25 pm

  8. I guess that it’s still open season on big birds? I hope so!

    Canada geese are particularly nasty critters, whether you’re trying to fly an aircraft through a flock of them, or simply walking through a park which was recently visited by a flock.

    And swans! They may look lovely, and glide gracefully through the water, but they’re mean. Once a swan attempted to attack my dear little Labrador Retriever, who was simply out swimming for her exercise. I’ve never forgiven the entire species.

    Comment by Mark B. — July 26, 2010 @ 1:17 pm

  9. I rarely comment anymore, Ardis, but times really have changed. Having grown up in hunt-happy rural Utah . . .

    #5 – Based on my experience as a youth watching those around me, if this had been written in the later-mid 1900’s the gun would have been a .22 or a pellet gun and the hunter a large teenager. You don’t need a shotgun if you’re a good shot, especially if they aren’t flying when you shoot.

    Now I will repent of explaining how to kill the little birdies.

    Comment by Ray — July 26, 2010 @ 2:34 pm

  10. Good to see you again, Ray, even with your blood-thirsty pointers. :)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 26, 2010 @ 2:57 pm

  11. Canadian geese are a protected species in the US. There might be certain conditions and locations for open season on them, but not that I’m aware of. At least not in Indiana.

    But what about chickens? Chickens are birds, aren’t they?

    Such a song could turn little kids into vegetarians.

    I’m a hunter, but of the belief that there has to be a good reason for killing most animals, such as for food, or for valid wildlife management, such as over-population, saving a more important species, or crop-protection (which is again food-related), or it’s classified as a varmint.

    I don’t have a problem with leather, but I’m not sure about harvesting animals for just their pelts, unless you do something with the rest of the carcass, even if it’s just for dog-food.

    BTW, I try to eat parts of dead animals every day.

    Comment by Bookslinger — July 26, 2010 @ 3:24 pm

  12. Ardis, your memory might still be accurate. The live conference doesn’t necessarily match the Ensign. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard things in Conference that I couldn’t find in the written talk. One that stands out is when Elder McConkie said you go to hell if you don’t believe the Book of Mormon. He put a lot of lawyerly qualifications in between the two clauses, so that it fit with the doctrine, but when I read the written talk, there was no hint of what he actually said.

    I’ve read that they’ve even re-recorded some conference talks so the edited version would go out on the cassette tapes that the church used to distribute, and even re-shot the video in some cases.

    If you want a copy of it truly unedited, you have to record the live version at home or at the chapel.

    Comment by Bookslinger — July 26, 2010 @ 3:30 pm

  13. Back around the turn of the century there was a large demand for bird feathers for decorating hats. Many species of birds were decimated by commercial hunting… esp water type birds. cranes, egrets etc.

    In addition to this there was a popular hobby of shooting and mounting/using taxidermy on birds

    As a result of this commercial carnage there was a campaign to stop the large scale extermination of bird populations.

    I suspect that this is why there was a campaign at this time to protect birds and the church became involved. Many federal laws that protect migratory bird species were passed at this time.

    Most states have a goose season. The feds set the timing and bag limit on a year by year basis to protect the population. Again this system of hunting migratory wildfowl comes from this time frame

    Comment by bbell — July 26, 2010 @ 3:36 pm

  14. I know that happened (the re-recording of a talk) on a single occasion, and I know that often some editing occurs between delivery and printing (that’s a very old and very widespread tradition — the Lincoln/Douglas debates as printed, for instance, were much more polished than they were given live). But this time I’m afraid it’s just me, and how I heard the talk discussed afterwards. Because it was a priesthood session in the days when men either had to go to the Tabernacle or to a direct wire broadcast at some chapel, I never heard the talk in SWK’s voice, either live or rebroadcast.

    I just checked the printed Ensign from 1978, and it does in fact say “birds,” not “birdies.” That’s what it actually should say, given that it’s “birds” in the 1909 Deseret SSSongs that others have cited.

    So this time, fer shur, it’s my inaccurate memory. (But still, google “Spencer W. Kimball birdies.” You’ll find that I’m far from the only one who remembered it that way!)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 26, 2010 @ 3:42 pm

  15. Ardis, I wonder if the “birdies” memory comes from those who spoke derisively about President Kimball’s admonition. I know I remembered it the same way you did and I can vividly remember several avid hunters mocking President Kimball’s statement in a raspy-voiced imitation. They may have used the childish “birdies” to emphasize how ridiculous they thought such a restriction was. That memory is so clear because I was so shocked at their responses. (P.S. I want you to know that I restrained myself from a really bad pun. . . but it was tempting!)

    Comment by blueagleranch — July 26, 2010 @ 4:10 pm

  16. I don’t think Canada geese are a protected species. There are so blasted many of them, they shouldn’t be.

    There was an article in the New York Times just last Friday about a plan by the city to reduce the number of those geese in the city by 170,000!

    Comment by Mark B. — July 26, 2010 @ 7:40 pm

  17. Ok. checked it. Indiana does have a Canadian goose season in the fall/winter.

    Comment by Bookslinger — July 26, 2010 @ 9:13 pm

  18. As noted in the OP, the kindness to animals theme went beyond the LDS church. The first Norman Rockwell painting for the Boy Scouts, “A Scout is Kind,” shows a young man tending to an injured dog. The BSA even offered a “first aid to animals” merit badge for many years prior to WWII.

    The early boy scout handbooks teach that kindness to animals is a indicator of whether one is kind to his fellowman.–I guess that’s what Joseph Smith was trying to teach Zion’s Camp with the rattlesnake incident.

    I enjoy steak as much as the next guy. I think it’s the needless killing Pres. Kimball–and the cartoonist–were protesting.

    Comment by Clark — July 27, 2010 @ 9:31 am

  19. Wasn’t Joseph Fielding Smith an avid animal lover and vegetarian?

    Awesome post Ardis. I’ve been meaning to look into Humane Days for a while. See also:

    Comment by Tod Robbins — July 28, 2010 @ 4:51 pm

  20. Thanks for the link, Tod — that’s a great summary of Mormon thought on the life of animals.

    I’m not able to confirm vegetarianism on the part of JFS. I do, however, have a letter he wrote to his missionary son soon after World War II where he speaks quite tenderly of the deer coming down out of the mountains onto city streets, and his worry that they might be hit by cars. You’ve given me a hint for a post on another day.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 28, 2010 @ 5:10 pm

  21. Well, if he were a true lover of vegetables, he should have had a bit more concern for all that were put at risk by those marauding deer! : )

    Comment by Mark B. — July 28, 2010 @ 8:40 pm

Leave a comment

RSS feed for comments on this post.
TrackBack URI