Nineteenth Century Health Beliefs Without the widespread availability of physicians in the first third of the nineteenth century, many Americans depended on self-help books and articles for information on how to treat recurrent illnesses such as dyspepsia, consumption and tuberculosis. In addition to the limited number of physicians, there was a far reaching distrust of the “regular”/heroic physicians whose painful treatments included blood-letting and violent purgatives. In contrast, the “irregulars”, including botanics, Thomsonians [a herbal remedy system] and homeopaths, fit nicely with the Jacksonian era belief in every individual’s ability to be their own physician.
Many “medicines” that were then prescribed are now known to be poisonous—such as Mercury & Tobacco. J. N. Loughborough as an 18 year old preacher was advised to use tobacco to relieve a chronic lung difficulty. Thus he smoked cigars for two years until he pictured the contrast in his mind between the filthiness of tobacco and the purity of those who dwell in the New Jerusalem. Feeling nothing should defile him, he threw his cigar into the river and abandoned forever the use of tobacco. In 1860 Dr. Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote that, “if the whole materia medica , as now used, could be sunk to the bottom of the sea, it would be all the better for mankind—and all the worse for the fishes.”
“ America in the early nineteenth century was a sick and dirty nation. Public sanitation was grossly inadequate, and personal hygiene, virtually nonexistent. The great majority of Americans seldom, if ever, bathed….Fruits and green vegetables seldom if ever appeared on the table, and the food that did appear was of ten saturated with butter or lard.” Ronald Numbers, Prophetess of Health , 48.
Early Adventists suffered the same poor health as other Americans. J. N. Loughborough wrote, “I was a great lover of animal flesh as food. I wanted fat pork for breakfast, boiled meat for dinner, cold slices of ham or beef for supper. One of the sweetest morsels was bread well soaked in pork gravy.” “ Gospel of Health,” Oct. 1899.
The nineteenth century began a period of great reform in America in education, prisons, abolition, women’s rights, politics, and health. A distrust of ‘heroic’ medicine—purging, bleeding etc. and its lack of results turned many to prefer treatment based on sound principles and common sense. Health reform movements arose across the country promoting various ‘isms’—vegetarianism, renunciation of “all evil habits,” development of physiological societies, public health programs, and sanitation, better hospitals and ‘water treatments.’
One of the key figures in the health reform revolution of the 1830’s was the controversial Sylvester Graham.
Sylvester Graham was born in West Suffield, CT, in 1794. His father and grandfather had been ministers, and he wanted to become a minister, too, but poverty forced him to delay his studies. In 1823, at age 31, he entered Amherst College, but withdrew after a short period of time due to illness. During this illness he continued studying, and in 1826 he became a Presbyterian minister. Graham had apocalyptic visions and became obsessed with reforming society through diet, nutrition, and physical effort.
In particular, Graham argued that a non-vegetarian diet and the consumption of alcohol caused disease and immorality. One key component of his dietary prescription was the consumption of Graham flour, which is coarsely ground, unsifted (“unbolted”) wheat flour, often pressed into a dry cracker. In his later years he lived in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he died in 1851.
By 1831, Graham was lecturing independently on vegetarianism & temperance. He visited most major American cities in the East and gathered a large group of followers. His views became more extreme: “ All medicine, as such, is itself an evil.” Graham’s attitudes on sexuality were also quite extreme. He linked spicy food, meat, alcohol, tea, and coffee to increased sexual urges; and preached on the evils of masturbation and “marital excess”—sexual intercourse more than once a month.
There were many other health “reformers” including: Dr. James C. Jackson—in 1858 began ‘Our Home on the Hillside’—a health institute, near Dansville, NY and became one of the most influential people promoting health reform in the United States.
Jackson promoted 10 natural remedies: air, food, water, sunlight, dress, exercise, sleep, rest, social influence, mental and moral forces. “ Our Home on the Hillside” Dansville, NY, c. 1870
Dr. R. T. Trall—a very popular physician, famous for conducting a practice entirely without drugs: “ All history attests the fact, that wherever the Drug Medical System prevails, desolation marks its track, human health declines, vital stamina diminishes, diseases become more numerous, more complicated, and more fatal, and the human race deteriorates. On the contrary, wherever the Hygienic Healing System is adopted—and there is no exception—renovation denotes its progress, and humanity improves in all the relations of its existence.” The True Healing Art
Ellen White was shown in vision in 1848, that tobacco, tea, and coffee were harmful. A public stand against tobacco use, was not however taken until 1855. Use of tobacco was made grounds for disfellowshipping members in Vermont in 1855. Rescinded in 1857 with this action—“Resolved that the use of tobacco is a fleshly lust which wars against the soul, and therefore we will labour in the spirit of meekness, patiently and perseveringly to persuade each brother and sister who indulge in the use of it, to abstain from this evil.”
Church now ready to receive a major impetus to health education 1. Civil War soon to end. 2. Church members becoming interested in health principles. 3. Reformers dying out in America because of other interests. 4. SDAs not the first with these ideas—in many cases the last.
On May 21, 1863, at Battle Creek, Seventh-day Adventists organised themselves under a General Conference which linked the scattered congregations. This new centre had the promise of unity and efficiency. It would appear that God had waited until the organisational issues were settled before giving the young church a new assignment, one which depended on harmony and unity. On June 6, 1863 Ellen White had her well known health vision in Otsego, Michigan. The vision astonished Ellen White as it confronted her beliefs.
Outdoor exercise is important to the health of mind and body.
Overwork breaks down both mind and body; routine daily rest is necessary.
Many die of disease caused wholly by eating flesh food.
Caring for health is a spiritual matter, reflecting a person’s commitment to God.
A healthy mind and body directly affects one’s morals and one’s ability to discern truth.
All God’s promises are given on condition of obedience.
Ellen White enlarged these key principles in The Ministry of Healing (1905). Her well known summation statement is: “Pure air, sunlight, abstemiousness, rest, exercise, proper diet, the use of water, trust in divine power—these are the true remedies.”
Healthful living principles given to Ellen White in a vision on May 21, 1863—but she and the Church needed, and took, time to apply those principles. The General Conference and Michigan Conference Committees could not meet in 1865—two of the three members of each committee were ill. Whites, Loughborough and Smith all trekked wearily to Dansville, NY, for treatment by Dr. Jackson. Jackson did not like Ellen White using salt at the table—so she took her meals in her room!
The issue of eating swine’s flesh is a good example of an important Biblical concept that had to wait until the church was ready for its significance. Some had argued as early as 1850 that the Bible definitely forbids eating pig flesh, but James White thought that some of the Biblical reasoning was inappropriate: “ We do object to a misapplication of the Holy Scriptures in sustaining a position which will only distract the flock of God, and lead the minds of the brethren from the importance of the present work of God among the remnant.” Present Truth , November 1850.
By 1858 the issue was being zealously pushed by the Haskells, to whom Ellen White wrote this interesting counsel: “ I saw that your views concerning swine’s flesh would prove no injury if you have them to yourselves; but in your judgment and opinion you have made this question a test, and your actions have plainly shown your faith in this matter....If it is the duty of the church to abstain from swine’s flesh, God will discover it to more than two or three. He will teach His church their duty....I saw that the angels of God would lead His people no faster than they could receive and act upon the important truths that are communicated to them.” Testimonies for the Church I , 206, 207.
The Whites were not ready to take a position unless they had the clearest Biblical evidence or a clear word from the Lord through a vision. Up to the health vision of June 6, 1863, they believed that the dietary restrictions set forth in Leviticus 11 as part of the Jewish ceremonial laws, were no longer applicable since the Cross. During the 1850s, Adventists freely ate pork.
After the June 6 vision, the issue of eating swine’s flesh was settled among Seventh-day Adventists. Ellen White now wrote: “ God never designed the swine to be eaten under any circumstances.... The eating of pork has produced scrofula [derived from the Latin word for a breeding sow, a term for tuberculosis of the lymph nodes], leprosy, and cancerous humors [blood or lymph fluids]. Pork-eating is still causing the most intense suffering to the human race.” Spiritual Gifts IV , 124, 146. We will examine the claims made in this vision in a later lecture on problem statements.
REFERENCES: Lester D. Divine, Lecture Notes, Database and Resources , 2004. EGW Research Centre, Avondale College, Australia. Herbert E. Douglass, Messenger of the Lord , Nampa: Pacific Press, 1998. Ronald L. Numbers, Prophetess of Health , New York: Harper and Row, 1976. D. E. Robinson, The Story of Our Health Message , 3 rd ed. Nashville: Southern Publishing, 1965. Rennie B. Schoepflin, “Health and Heath Care,” in The World of Ellen G. White , Garry Land (ed.). Washington DC: Review and Herald, 1987, 143-158.
This PowerPoint presentation has been produced by Jeff Crocombe for a class on SDA Church History at Helderberg College in Semester 1, 2007. It should not be used without giving credit to its compiler, nor reproduced in any way without permission. You may contact Jeff Crocombe at: [email_address]