Health reform is nothing new and is not a product of the twentieth century. And if any church is known for being health conscious, it is the Seventh Day Adventists. Since the 1860s, when the church started, wholeness and health have been an emphasis of the Adventist church. The church is known for preaching a message of health that recommends vegetarianism and strict adherence to the kosher laws described in Leviticus 11. Obedience to these laws means abstinence from pork, shellfish, along with other foods that are considered “unclean.” The church discourages its members from the use of alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs. Some Adventists avoid coffee, tea, cola, and other drinks containing caffeine.
This emphasis on health goes back to its pioneering founder, Ellen G. White. On June 5, 1863, Ellen G. White, the 35-year-old spiritual leader of the fledgling Seventh-Day-Adventists, joined friends in rural Michigan for vespers. For years she had been suffering from ill health and her husband, James, was on the verge of a physical and mental breakdown. While she was praying, she went into an hypnotic trance and started to receive instructions from heaven regarding the preservation and restoration of health. Mrs. White learned that the people of God were to give up eating meat and other stimulating foods, shun alcohol and tobacco, and avoid drug-dispensing doctors. If ill, they were to rely on nature’s remedies: fresh air, sunshine, rest, exercise, proper diet, and above all, water.
Interestingly enough, such advice was nothing new. Since the 1830s, the Presbyterian evangelist and temperance lecturer, Sylvester Graham, famous today for his crackers, had been warning his fellow Americans of the dire consequences of flesh foods, drugs, corsets, stimulants and frequent sex.
Seventh Day Adventists believed in the imminent Second Coming of Christ. In one of White’s early visions, an angel explained that Jesus could not return to earth until the elect obeyed the Ten Commandments, especially the command regarding the Sabbath (fourth). By doing this, she elevated health reform from a physiological to a theological obligation, essential to salvation. From 1863 to her death in 1915, Ellen White proclaimed the gospel of health. As a result, many Adventists adopted a twice a day diet of fruit, vegetables, grains and nuts and gave up tea, coffee, meat, butter, eggs, cheese, rich substances, and “all exciting substances.” Such dietary requirements, White argued, not only caused disease but stimulated unholy sexual desires. According to a 2002 worldwide survey of the church, 35% of Adventists still practice vegetarianism.
The Adventist pioneers had much to do with the common acceptance of breakfast cereals into the Western diet and the modern commercial concept of cereal food originated among Adventists. John Harvey Kellogg was one of the early founders of Adventist health work. He was the leader of the Western Health Reform Institute in Battle Creek, Michigan, which became a world famous sanitarium. In his spare time, he invented corn flakes. His development of breakfast cereals as a health food led to the founding of Kellogg’s which made a fortune for his brother William. In both Australia and New Zealand, the church-owned Sanitarium Health Food Company is a leading manufacturer of health and vegetarian-related products, most prominently Weet-Bix.
Research funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health has shown that the average Adventist in California lives 4 to 10 years longer than the average Californian. The research asserts that they live longer because they do not smoke or drink alcohol, have a day of rest every week, and maintain a healthy low-fat vegetarian diet that is rich in nuts and beans. The cohesiveness of the Adventists’ social networks has also been put forward as an explanation of their extended lifespan.
Despite White’s distrust of doctors, Adventists run a large number of hospitals and health-related institutions. Their largest medical school and hospital in North America is Loma Linda University and its attached medical center. Around the globe, the church runs a wide network of hospitals, clinics, lifestyle centers, and sanitariums. These play a role in the church’s gospel of health message and worldwide missions outreach. Adventist Health System is the largest non-profit Protestant multi-institutional healthcare system in the United States. It is sponsored by the church and cares for over four million patients yearly.
If not the most original health reformer, White is certainly among the most influential. When she died at the age of eighty-seven, she left behind a string of 33 sanitariums and countless treatment rooms on six continents, a medical school in Loma Linda, California, and 136,000 disciples to preach the gospel of health in the twentieth century. The work continues today and one may say the Ellen G. White would be proud of the church she founded.