Health reform in the nineteenth century

Health reform and Adventists in the nineteenth century

On Health and Religion

Ronald D. Graybill, Ph.D., is associate professor of history at Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California.

Josepha Hale, a popular novelist and purveyor of domestic advice to antebellum housewives, offered the following recipe in her new cookbook: "Pork CheeseChoose the head of a small pig. . . . Sprinkle over it, and the tongues of four pigs, a little common salt and a very little saltpeter. Let them lie four days; wash them and tie them in a clean cloth; boil them until the bones come easily out of the head; take off the skin as whole as possible.... Place the skin round the tin and nearly half fill it with meat, which has been highly seasoned with pepper, cayenne, and salt. ... It is eaten with vinegar and mustard, and served for luncheon or supper."1

Health reformer Russell Trail described this effort to make a dead pig resemble a live one as "vitiating to all true delicacy and refinement." Because he found other popular cookbooks equally unsatisfactory, Trail issued his own Hydropathic Cook Book in 1853, and it was from books like this that health-minded Adventists received their first lessons on cooking and diet.

Adventists and the health reform movement

Pioneer Adventist Joseph Bates was typical of the reformers of the day. An abolitionist and pacifist, he was also a temperance advocate and vegetarian before he ever heard of William Miller or the seventh-day Sabbath. 2

Ellen White turned to the writings of the health reformers to buttress the messages she received in vision. In 1865 Mrs. White completed the written account of her major health reform vision in Health: or How to Live. There, along with her own articles, she included articles by other health reformers that supported what she was teaching. She sometimes used other reformers' words in her writings, 3 so it is remarkable that her writings are as free as they are from the more questionable ideas of the health reformers, though they do include some concepts that scientists might question to day. 4

J.H. Waggoner explained that the Adventist health message was unique, not so much in what it taught as that it was given "by the method of God's choice . . . more clearly and powerfully unfolded." 5

Dietary advice of early health reformers

When Adventists consulted the health reformers of their day, what ad vice did they receive? Sylvester Graham's 1839 volume Lectures on the Science of Human Life was considered the classic reference among Adventists. Mrs. E. G. White's personal copy of this book can be seen in the White Estate library.

Graham provided extensive arguments for a vegetarian diet. He was especially keen on the value of bread, devoting 40 pages of text to this topic alone.6 Fruits ranked next to bread as the most appropriate food for man, and Graham, unlike some of his followers, even asserted that the healthy and vigorous could digest cabbage, cucumbers, lettuce, and other salads. 7

Graham warned about all artificial combinations and concentrations of either animal or vegetable food, giving sugar as an example. Saccharine matter in vegetables was nutritive and salutary, he taught, but when concentrated in syrup or crystallized in sugar, it was "decidedly unfriendly to the physiological interests of our bodies."8 Except for bread, Graham offered no recipes. He believed that raw food was generally better than cooked. 9

In 1849 the lack of recipes was made up for by Dr. William A. Alcott, a Yale graduate and prolific health reform author, who included a 22-page pamphlet, "Outlines of a New System of Food and Cookery," complete with recipes, in his book Vegetable Diet. 10

Alcott's recommendations contained some curious notions. Bread of the first order, he taught, was made with nothing but unbolted wheat flour and water. Bread of the second order allowed for the mixing of various kinds of whole-grain flours, and only if you wanted bread of the third order could you allow carbonate of soda to enter the recipe. 11

Grains came next in Alcott's cook book. They could be boiled, baked, parched, roasted, or "torrefied." He included green beans among the grains, but labeled them "least healthy." 12

Cakes could be made by adding butter or olive oil, together with eggs or milk, to the bread recipes. Puddings could be "a little salted, if it must be so," and some recipes allowed for molasses, eggs, and even sugar or raisins. 13

Pies, as commonly made, were "vile compounds", "a mongrel race" as far as Alcott was concerned, but he did deign to offer recipes for squash, pumpkin, and potato pies. Alcott conceded that plain apple pie, made so plain as to become mere applesauce, was not objectionable.14

Among other foods Alcott had little respect for were oranges, which were too "stringy"; 15 raw onions, which were unwholesome; and cabbage, which was "tolerable, but rather stringy, and of course, rather indigestible."

Of the many roots he considered the potato the best. It could best be prepared by baking, worst prepared by frying. The sweet and watery rootsbeets, parsnips, turnips, and carrotswere far less healthful than the mealy ones, and the radish, "fashionable as it is, is nearly useless." 17

In 1856 Alcott published The Laws of Health, which Mrs. White also owned. Here he repeated many of the cautions that Graham had earlier voiced, and that were to become standard advice in Adventist literature about eating: food should be eaten in a cheerful mood and thoroughly chewed. One should not eat more often than three times a day at six hour intervals, but eating two meals a day is preferable; one should stop eating while still a bit hungry. No eating between meals, no liquids with meals, not too many varieties of food at one meal, and hold the sugar, the condiments, and the meat, especially pork. 18

Alcott also discussed digestion and digestive juices, although he had no notion of the specific action of the various juices. He entertained the curious idea that digested food got into the blood stream via a large duct that carried it up to a point near the left shoulder and poured it into a large vein.19

He provided a list of foods that were considered indigestible, at least for debilitated stomachs: fat meat, butter, preserved substances of every kind, hardboiled eggs, mince pies, piecrusts, pancakes, doughnuts, shortcakes, and fritters. Gruels, broths, and soups were impossible to digest since they were eaten without chewing and were swallowed unmixed with saliva. Green cu cumbers, grapes, tomatoes, and peppers were "quite insoluble and unwholesome." Salt tended to scurvy and other changes and was therefore "opposed to healthy digestion." 20 Alcott also had a good deal to say about the dangers of disease from poisons in meat and other foods.

When James White edited and published the Health: or How to Live pamphlets in 1865, he included the first collection of Adventist recipes. The 12 Adventist ladies from Battle Creek who compiled the recipes gave credit, however, to earlier works by Russell Trail and others. 21

Trail's New Hydropathic Cook Book was more than a list of recipes. It included material on digestion as well as a nearly exhaustive illustrated catalog of vegetable foods.

Trail included a few directions for cooking meat as a compromise with "present appetences" and the "degenerate state of society." 22 His selection of vegetables, grains, and fruits was much broader than Alcott's, and he lacked, by and large, Alcott's prejudices against certain vegetables.

The fundamental principle in Trail's philosophy of diet was that all nutritive material is formed by vegetables, hence animal foods are inferior because they are derivative and likely to be impure. Trail understood that the body was composed of various chemical elements, 13 of which must be gotten from our food. This provided little help in choosing foods, however, since Trail believed that these elements were thoroughly distributed throughout the animal and vegetable kingdom so that people always got a sufficient supply. 23

Trail also entertained the notion that only a very small quantity of water was necessary, provided one's diet was correct. Unlike Alcott, Trail had a very high regard for the place of fiber in the diet. He thought, however, that it was nutritious, and rejected the notion that it stimulated the action of the bowels.24

Dietary advice by early Adventists

From the mid-1860s onward, Adventists had available to them advice from Adventist authors on digestion, nutrition, and cookery. Ellen White's own counsels gave some guidance, and others chimed in as well. In general, their ad vice was that foods should be eaten in as fresh, natural, unadulterated, and simple a state as possible.

By the end of the century John Harvey Kellogg was clearly dividing foods into fats, carbohydrates, and proteins, although he used different terms. He still had little concept of such things as protein requirements. He had some slight appreciation of the role of certain minerals, but knew nothing, of course, about vitamins.

In the absence of knowledge about how the body utilizes food, other criteria were used to determine the desirability of various foods. Throughout this period the danger of disease from flesh food and animal products loomed large. Near the end of the century Kellogg made a great deal about adulteration and contamination in food. Earlier on, digestibility and whether food was stimulating or not were important criteria. In 1868 J. N. Loughborough's Hand Book of Health observed that food that was too stimulating caused a greater expenditure of vital energy and, like alcohol, left the body depressed. 25

According to Loughborough, fats such as butter and animal oils were too concentrated and impure, were only slightly nutritious, and were difficult to digest. 26 Merritt Kellogg also believed that fats and oils did not contain the proper elements to build up vital tissues.

None of the books Adventists consulted on diet recommended nuts until the very end of the nineteenth century. Mrs. White did not include nuts in her summary lists of acceptable foods ("fruits, grains, nuts, and vegetables") until late in her life, when her primary concern was to warn against using nuts too freely.

Adventists and meat eating

The most basic distinction in the Adventist diet was the distinction between vegetables and flesh food. And animal products such as milk, butter, cheese, and eggs received only slightly stronger sanction.

Loughborough's two chief arguments against flesh foodthat it is more stimulating and more diseased than plant productswere used extensively throughout the nineteenth century by Adventists. The anatomical argument, especially as regards the teeth (human teeth are not like carnivores' teeth), also received a great deal of emphasis.

Clean and unclean meats

Adventists would have nothing to do with pork, but on physiological, not biblical, grounds. "We believe there is better ground on which to rest [prohibition of pork] than the ceremonial law of the former dispensation," Uriah Smith wrote. "For if we take the position that that law is still binding, we must accept it all, and then we shall have more on our hands than we can easily dispose of." 28

It should not be too surprising, then, to learn that some of our pioneers, including Ellen White, sometimes ate unclean meat such as oysters. 29 They did not understand that they were under any biblical injunction against unclean meats.

Adventists and other health reformers came down hard against pork, though. Alcott insisted that pork caused leprosy and other skin diseases, as did Trail. 30 Ellen White affirmed the idea, 31 although in 1858 she had not yet condemned the eating of "swine's flesh." 32 Kellogg could describe a hog in the most disgusting, revolting terms, and did so at great length. 33

Health reformers and animal products

The health reformers' advice on animal productsmilk, butter, cheese, and eggsgenerally discouraged their use without imposing an absolute ban.

Sylvester Graham observed that milk was praised by almost every writer on diet as being "one of the most nourishing and wholesome kinds of food that man can eat," 34 but eight years of research on the subject had shaken his confidence in this widely held belief. 35

Trall also took a dim view of milk. In his Hydropathic Encyclopedia he argued that it was "apt to irritate the kidneys, or produce restlessness and uneasy sleep, with feverishness, and dryness or bad taste in the mouth." Even so, he regarded sour milk, whey, and buttermilk to be entirely harmless, though no better than water. 36

Merritt Kellogg's Hygienic Family Physician discussed milk only under "food for infants," 37 and the 1875 Hygienic Cook Book, which John Harvey Kellogg probably edited, argued that cow's milk is better for children than for adults because of certain changes in the digestive organs that render milk "and all kinds of fluid nutriment" objectionable. 38

The 1875 cookbook further argued that milk was likely to be "freighted with the products of disease," especially typhoid fever.

Kellogg's advice on milk seems to have kept up well with scientific developments of the times. In 1886 the chemist Soxhlet, who developed pasteurization, had recommended heating milk fed to infants. 39 Kellogg advised his readers to do so the very next year. It was not until 1892 that the first bacterial count of market milk was made in the United States, but Kellogg had already been warning his readers for years of germs in milk. Not until 1910 was the relationship between tuberculosis in animals and children definitely established. Kellogg had spoken of the danger of tuberculosis in 1887.

Digestibility, adulteration, and disease were again the chief concerns when these writers turned their attention to cheese. Graham would allow only a little cheese, and that not more than three months old, for robust laboring men because old cheese of any type was frequently adulterated by the addition of annatto and even arsenic to give it a rich, creamy appearance. 40 Alcott echoed these same objections. Trail said: "Green cheese is not very objectionable, but old, strong cheese is one of the most injurious and indigestible things in existence." 41

Butter also got poor reviews. Graham suggested avoiding it altogether. It aggravated diseases of every kind, he said, and injured children and youth more than adults. 42

Alcott believed it to be one of the worst things to enter the human stomach, next to fat pork, and if it did "not, like pork, quite cause the leprosy," it would certainly cause every other skin disease. 43 Trail found it difficult to digest, only slightly nutritive, and "liable to generate rancid acids in the stomach." 44 Fresh-made and slightly salted, it was almost innocuous, but melted or cooked, it was a "very deleterious aliment." Trail, like all these writers, recommended sweet cream as a substitute. 45

Kellogg had even more serious objections to margarine, "an article which is wholly counterfeit," containing "immense quantities of lard arid tallow," and often "portions of flesh, membranes, and muscular tissue, probably from diseased hogs and cattle." 46

Graham considered all he had said about milk to be applicable also to eggs, though he also considered eggs more "highly animalized" than milk. Still, if they were taken raw or only very slightly cooked, they were quite nourishing and not difficult to digest. But he considered hard-boiled eggs very difficult for the stomach to handle without oppression. 47 Alcott's opinions were similar. In addition to hard-boiled eggs, Trail added poached eggs and omelettes to the for bidden list, declaring them "outrages on human stomachs."48

The 1875 Hygienic Cook Book reiterated all the earlier arguments eggs were exciting and stimulating and when boiled hard or fried in grease and eaten with pepper and salt, very indigestible. For these reasons they should be excluded from cakes and custards as well. 49

Adventist vegetarian diet

Without further research we cannot thoroughly answer the question of what Adventist vegetarians ate. We can cite only the example of Ellen White, who was probably stricter than many Adventists, yet not as strict as others. She always considered herself a vegetarian, but between the 1870s and the early 1890s she occasionally ate a little meat.

"We have always used a little milk and some sugar," Mrs. White wrote in 1873, 50 and it is likely that she continued this practice in later years. She made a similar moderate use of eggs. Even though she anticipated a time when milk and eggs would need to be discarded, she urged Adventists riot to bring on a "time of trouble" prematurely and assured them that God would reveal when the time had arrived to discard milk, butter, and eggs. 51

For some years before the Whites' trip to the Rocky Mountains in 1873, they had not used butter. Once there, however, Mrs. White concluded that in the absence of vegetables and fruit, it was less detrimental to health than "sweetcakes and nicknacks." 52

In 1884, after her visit to the St. Helena Sanitarium, she wrote that "not a morsel of meat or butter" had been on her table since she returned. 53 Then in 1894 she said, "We eat no meat, and do not have butter on the table." 54 The distinction between "eating" and having something "on the table" may imply that they still used butter in cooking, but did not place it on the table for use as a spread or to flavor food.

Mrs. White probably used cheese less than she used meat. She admitted to having taken a small piece of cheese that was set before her when she was a guest, but, she said, the family did not "buy cheese, or make a practice of eating it." 55 In 1901 she explained that she had "tasted cheese once or twice, but that is a different thing from making it an article of diet." 56 Other Adventists apparently ate cheese more freely. It was being sold in the provision tent at one camp meeting where Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, newly arrived on the grounds, discovered it. The camp grocer said he had the permission of one of the camp directors to sell the cheese. Kellogg bought it all and dumped it in the river. 57

In addition to a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, the Whites and other Adventists ate many other foods.

Kellogg produced granola, a dry breakfast cereal, for his patients at the Battle Creek Sanitarium, and then in 1877 he organized the Sanitarium Health Food Company to serve a wider market with products such as oatmeal, graham and fruit crackers, and whole-grain cooked cereals. 58 In 1896 he began to produce Nuttose, a substitute for meat. 59 He also produced a cereal coffee made from burned bread crusts, bran, molasses, and corn. 60 Kellogg introduced peanut butter into the American diet, 61 but his most famous invention was cornflakes, which his brother Will parlayed into a multibillion-dollar business. 62


Health has always been an avenue along which Adventists met and appealed to the world. Perhaps because of this, religious and biblical arguments were scarce in Kellogg's writings. The Review contained an occasional article dealing with the theme, but much of the dietary advice Adventists got was through Kellogg's journals and books. Mrs. White, of course, provided religious perspectives, but she did not write much on diet in the 1870s and 1880s, and her writings from the 1860s were at times out of print later in the century.

By the end of the century this situation had changed. Milton C. Wilcox's 1899 essay "Man's Primitive and Best Diet" strongly emphasized the biblical perspective. 63

He stressed the importance of the food we eat in the sight of God: "I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health" (3 John 2); "Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God" (1 Cor. 10:31); and numerous other texts. Then he went on to argue that good health is a part of being wholly sanctified.

Harking back to man's original diet, he traced the history of diet through biblical times, ending with a chart depicting this history from the natural fruit and grain diet of Eden through the flesh meats of Babylon and Egypt and then ascending again after 1844 to a diet of fruits and grains at the Second Coming. But whether the rising line after 1844 is as straight, steep, and unbroken as Wilcox depicted it, or whether it curves away to a plateau after a hundred or so years, is something for us to determine

1 R. T. Trail, The New Hydropathic Cook Book
(New York: Fowlers and Wells, 1857), p. vii.

2 Godfrey T. Anderson, Outrider of the Apocalypse
(Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub.
Assn., 1972), pp. 37, 38, 42, 104.

3 Compare, for instance, Ellen O. White, Appeal
to Mothers (Battle Creek, Mich.: Steam Press,
1864), p. 9, with James C. Jackson, The Sexual
Organism and Its Healthful Management (Boston: B.
Loverett Emerson, 1861), pp. 74, 75, where Ellen
White uses nine separate parallels from Jackson's book. Such parallels are rare in Ellen White's earliest
health writings, but they do exist.

4 See Roger Coon, Seminar on Contemporary
Issues in Prophetic Guidance (Washington, D.C.:
White Estate, 1986), pp. 10-14, for a discussion of
some of the problem statements of Ellen G. White.

5 J. H. Waggoner, "Present Truth," Review and
Herald, Aug. 7, 1866, p. 77.

6 Sylvester Graham, Lectures on the Science of
Human Life (New York: Office of the Health
Reformer, n.d.), pp. 517-547.

7 Ibid., pp. 540, 549.

8 Ibid., p. 547.

9 Ibid., pp. 513-516.

10 William Alcott, Vegetable Diet (New York:
Fowlers and Wells, 1850), pp. 16, 17.

11 Ibid., pp. 293-298.

12 Ibid., p. 301.

13 Ibid., pp. 302-304.

14 Ibid.,pp. 306, 307.

15 Ibid., p. 308.

16 Ibid., pp. 311,312.

17 Ibid., pp. 309-311.

18 William Alcott, The Laws of Health (Boston:
JohnP. JewettandCo., 1860), pp. 122-196.

19 Ibid., p. 109.

20 Ibid, pp. Ill, 145, 149, 150.

21 James White, ed., Health: or How to Live
(Battle Creek, Mich.: Steam Press, 1865), No. 1,
pp. 31-51.

22 Ibid., p. 206.

23 Ibid., pp. 19,15-26.

24 Ibid., pp. 29, 41.

25 J. N. Loughborough, Hand Book of Health
(BattleCreek, Mich.: Steam Press, 1868), pp. 184,

26 Ibid., p. 189.

27 M. G. Kellogg, The Hygienic Family Physician
(Battle Creek, Mich.: Office of the Health Re
former, 1873), p. 21.

28 Uriah Smith, "Meats Clean and Unclean,"
Review and Herald, July 3, 1883, p. 424.

29 Ron Graybill, "The Development of Adventist
Thinking on Clean and Unclean Meats," E.
G. White Estate, Apr. 27, 1981; the topic is also
discussed in Coon, pp. 20-22. J.H. Waggoner did
distinguish between clean and unclean meats on
the basis of Leviticus 11 in 1873, but his view was
not the predominant one. See Health Reformer,
January 1873, pp. 17, 18.

30 Alcott, Vegetable Diet, p. 258; Laws of Health,
p. 157; Trail, p. 44; Ellen G. White, Spiritual Gifts
(Battle Creek, Mich.: Steam Press, 1864), vol. 4,
p. 146.

31 James White, p. 58.

32 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church
(Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn.,
1948), vol. l,pp. 206, 207.

33 J. H. Kellogg, Pork (Battle Creek, Mich.:
Steam Press, 1897).

34 Graham, p. 422.

35 Ibid., pp. 508-510.

36 R. T. Trail, The Hydropathic Encyclopedia
(New York: Fowlers and Wells, 1873), p. 422.

37 M. G. Kellogg, pp. 22, 23.

38 [J.H. Kellogg?], Hygienic Cook Book (Battle
Creek, Mich.: Office of the Health Reformer,
1876), p. 10.

39 Richard O. Cummings, The American and His
Food (Chigago: University of Chicago Press,
1941), pp. 92-94.

40 Graham, p. 507.

41 Trail, New Hydropathic Cook Book, p. 167.

42 Graham, p. 506.

43 Alcott, Vegetable Diet, p. 258.

44 Trail, New Hydropathic Cook Book, p. 107.

45 Ibid.

46 J. H. Kellogg, Home Hand-Book (Battle
Creek, Mich.: Modern Medicine Pub. Assn.,
1896), p. 417.

47 Graham, p. 510.

48 Trail, New Hydropathic Encyclopedia, p. 422.

49 Hygienic Cook Book, p. 10.

50 Ellen G. White to Brother and Sister Canright,
Nov. 12, 1873 (E. G. White letter 1, 1873).

51 Ellen G. White to Dr. D. H. Kress and wife,
May 29, 1901 (E. G. White letter 37, 1901).

52 Ellen G. White to Brother and Sister Canright,
Nov. 12, 1873 (E. G. White letter 1, 1873).

53 Ellen G. White to Brother and Sister Feb.
17, 1884 (E. G. White letter 2, 1884).

54 Ellen G. White to Sister Clausen, June 14,
1894 (E. G. White letter 13a, 1894).

55 Ellen G. White to Brother and Sister Canright,
Nov. 12, 1873 (E. G. White letter 1, 1873).

56 Ellen G. White, "Talk in the College
Library," Apr. 1, 1901 (E. G. White manuscript
43a, 1901, p. 11).

57 Ellen G. White to Brother and Sister McCullough,
Sept. 7, 1893 (E. G. White letter40, 1893).

58 Richard Schwarz, John Harvey Kellogg, M. D.
(Nashville: Southern Pub. Assn., 1970), p. 209.

59 Ibid., p. 109.

60 Ibid., p. 110.

61 Ibid., p. 120.

62 Ibid.

63 M. C. Wilcox and Flora and J. R. Leadsworth,
The Natural Food of Man and How to Prepare It
(Oakland: Pacific Press, 1899), pp. 5-44.

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Ronald D. Graybill, Ph.D., is associate professor of history at Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California.

October 1988

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