biologic living

Reading: Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and the Religion of Biologic Living by Brian C. Wilson

Both John Harvey Kellogg and his health reform contemporary Sylvester Graham often enjoy mention when the subject of their respective health food creations, Kellogg’s cereal and graham crackers, are brought to the table. Each were thoroughly convinced of the rapid deterioration of the American societal body precipitated by a combination of market force changes, epidemics, and the wide swath of religious movements gaining force. Both focused on the body as the primary unit of redemption, a neglected system of control whose divinely penned manual had been lost in the vagaries of flour refinement and masturbatory excess.


Kellogg’s story is inextricably linked with the beginnings of the Seventh Day Adventist (formerly the Sabbatarian Adventists) who began systematically formulating their religion in the wake of the Great Disappointment. As a youth in Battle Creek, Michigan, Kellogg was chosen by Ellen White, co-founder of the Seventh Day Adventists, as her de-facto son after she saw the youth in a vision foretelling Kellogg’s role in the future of the new religion. The Whites were prompted to develop a health center as a response to the practice of heroic medicine predicated in Galen’s humoral system which, remarkably, continued to dominant the male medical field undisrupted since the ancient world. The practices of applying of corrosive medicines and blood-letting were viewed with horror by the Whites and many of their American contemporaries. A variety of therapies emerged as a response principally among them hydrotherapy, administered at popular water-cure facilities.

“God’s great medicine, water, pure soft water, for disease, for health, for cleanliness, for luxury” from Health by Ellen White

White assumed health reform as the paramount factor in salvation. Deducing that illness, meat-eating, and sexual excess were the tripartite blight inflicted upon humanity after the transgressions of Adam of Eve in the Garden, White continued her health hermeneutic through reference to the Mosaic dietary laws and their subsequent reinforcement in the personhood of Jesus Christ.

Of course the millenarianism of the Seventh Day Adventists strongly reinforced this occupation with health reform and purity of the body, for if the millenium was approaching how better to translate into Christ’s Kingdom than with a clean receptive mind facilitated by the proper maintenance of its vessel? These principles informed the creation of the Western Health Reform Institute, a place where the application of drugs would only come after attempts at healing the body through Nature, that is, the Water, Air Light, Heat, Food, Sleep, Rest, Recreation, &c. Each visitor would be inculcated with the principles of right living and all would be welcome regardless of religious denomination. This last point would be become the needle that broke the camel’s back.

After being trained as a medical doctor, Kellogg assumed leadership at the White’s Temple of Health which was re-named the Battle Creek Sanitarium, a word coined by Kellogg himself to suggest, and often referred to simply as the San. The facility offered hydrotherapy, served a strict vegetarian diet influenced by Graham’s principles, calisthenics, as well as heat and light therapies. Kellogg worked indefatigably at the San, working 18 hour days without sign of wear. Among his many efforts was to discredit the cult of female invalidism which taught that women were inherently of weaker physical faculties than their male counterparts. Women were encouraged to exercise and shed of their overly restrictive garments in favor of Kellogg’s prescription for loose clothes. The San could hardly keep up with demand from its visitors, and was therefore ever-expanding physically, reaching an apex of 1000 workers to keep the San in working order. To ensure the highest quality of food 400 acres were annexed to the facility for fruit orchards a dairy farms and vegetable production. Each guest room enjoyed electricity, an advanced ventilation system to ensure clean air, as well as hot and cold running water.

Kellogg incorporated his ideas for health as a system he termed Biologic Living which drew its essential inspiration from the belief in the inter-relatiosnhip between body and morality. In resolving any illnesses, Kellogg argued the minimal interference was always preferred such that the body’s natural ability to assume health would be assisted rather than interrupted. He favored amending the thought of medical sectarians such as Graham with concentration on the development of medical science. Like many of the Christian physiologists of the time he preached a lifestyle without meat and caffeine, taking the former injunction as far as proscripting even eggs and dairy and advocating for the sentience of all beings (see: Shall We Slay to Eat?). Kellogg emphasized a diet rich in fresh foods and whole grains, full of ample fresh air and regular exercise and void of sexual excess and masturbation.

To the modern mind, Kellogg and Graham’s vehement denunciations of masturbation and sexual excess appear misguided to say the least. The vehemence which these men and there contemporaries levied against what we consider today to a “healthy” and “normal” aspect of human life tends to overshadow our assessment of the men’s lives. But I will argue again and again that the views of the past which concentrate on what abhors us today, which relegate people in the past as ignorant or backward, serve us no purpose in understanding our history for better or worse. This is certainly most often the case with lay considerations of history and especially religion. And certainly historians and other scholars are not immune from this pitfall, often introducing historical subjects with reference to their most scathing or inflammatory details. But where does this get us in understanding these details? To label them backwards or wrong hinders our understanding for such conclusions function as periods on the sentences of our understanding. And what happens beyond such criticism? What happens when the bottom falls out of cynicism?  I argue exploration and understanding. If we label Kellogg and Graham insane for their concentration on the damning effects of masturbation we damn up our openness to truly understanding the philosophical and cultural complexities within which such conclusions are drawn. Better instead to meet our historical subjects where they saw themselves, on their own terms. But, enough pontificating on my part.

Graham, Kellogg, Ellen White and the rest of the Christian physiologist party of the 19th century were in part so very insistent on the elimination of masturbation due to their understanding of the finite supply of vital energies. Sexual intercourse and masturbations drained such energies which were understood to be the primary substance of the body’s health. If the health of the body was compromised, the spiritual state of its inhabitant was thus terrifyingly put at stake. Weakness of the body not only precluded one from developed the necessary moral faculties for the pending millenial translation but sapped the moral strength of future generations and society as a whole. Moreover, for a people who conceived of the human body as a gift from God, or even as coterminous with the divine as Kellogg would conclude, the perceived abuse of the body was tantamount to sin. And in an environment when the salvation of the soul was bound up in the health of the body, a sinful state of being originating in the body was enough to bar one from eternal life. It was not a simple case of Victorian prudishness.






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