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 whenever the subject of their respective health food creations—Kellogg’s cereal and graham crackers—are brought to the table. Both men were convinced of the rapid deterioration of the American societal body due to market force changes, epidemics and the wide variety of religious movements gaining force. Both men also focused on the body as a medium of spiritual 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) a religious movement developed 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.

The Whites opened a health center in part in response to the continued dominance of heroic medicine, a system of healing based in Galen’s humoral system. Heroic medicine often involved the use of corrosive medicines and blood-letting,  healing practices which were viewed with horror by the Whites and many of their American contemporaries.  Hydrotherapy or the water cure gained in popularity in response to the aggressive methods of heroic medicine.

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

White viewed health reform as the paramount factor in salvation. She believed that illness, meat-eating and sexual excess were a tripartite blight inflicted upon humanity after the transgressions of Adam of Eve in the Garden. White also based her understanding of health on Mosaic dietary laws and their subsequent reinforcement in the personhood of Jesus Christ.

The millenarian views of Seventh Day Adventists strongly informed this preoccupation with health reform and purity of the body. If the millennium was fast approaching, as they believed, 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.

After being trained as a medical doctor, Kellogg assumed leadership at the White’s Temple of Health, later re-named the Battle Creek Sanitarium, a word coined by Kellogg himself and often referred to simply as “the San.”

The facility offered hydrotherapy, heat and light therapies, promoted calisthenics and served a strict vegetarian diet influenced by Graham’s dietary principles.

Kellogg worked indefatigably at the San, putting in 18 hour days without visible signs of wear. Among his many efforts was an attempt to discredit the 19th century cult of female invalidism which taught that women were inherently of weaker physical faculties than their male counterparts. In response, women at the San were encouraged to exercise and shed their overly restrictive garments in favor of loose clothes.

The San could hardly keep up with demand from visitors and was therefore ever-expanding physically, necessitating at one point 1000 workers to keep the institution in working order. To ensure the highest quality of food, 400 acres were annexed to the facility to develop fruit orchards, a dairy farm 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 into a total system he termed Biologic Living. The philosophy drew its essential inspiration from the belief in the intimate relationship between body and morality. Kellogg argued for minimal interference in cases of illness in order 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 void of meat and caffeine and even advocated eliminating eggs and dairy. His approach was not only about the health of humans but the wellbeing of all animals (see: Shall We Slay to Eat?).

Instead, Kellogg emphasized a diet rich in fresh foods and whole grains, a lifestyle with ample fresh air and regular exercise and void of sexual excess and masturbation.

To the modern mind, Kellogg and Graham’s aggressive denunciations of masturbation and sexual excess appear misguided to say the least. The vehemence which these men and their contemporaries levied against what we consider today to be a “healthy” and “normal” aspect of human life tends to overshadow many assessments 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 retroactively apply the principles and attitude of today to those of the past and consequently 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. 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 or crazy functions to put 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 dam up our openness to truly understanding the philosophical and cultural complexities within which such conclusions were 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 a belief in the finite supply of vital energies. Sexual intercourse and masturbation drained such energies, which were understood to be the primary substance informing 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 developing the necessary moral faculties for the pending millennial 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 where 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. In other words, it was not a simple case of Victorian prudishness.


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