Saturday, November 27, 2010

Health Reform in 19th Century America

Ronald Numbers, Prophetess of health : Ellen G. White and the origins of the Seventh-Day Adventist health reform, Knoxville : University of Tennessee Press, 1992

Ellen G. White is one of four nineteenth-century founders of a major American religious sect (the others are: Joseph Smith - Mormon, Mary Baker Eddy - Christian Science and Charles Taze Russell - Jehovah’s Witnesses), but she is not widely known outside of her church.  Yet when she died in 1915 she left behind a legacy that consisted not only of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, but also sanitariums and hospitals located throughout the world.  She also inspired an educational system that is still highly regarded, traveled, lectured, and wrote dozens of books.  She was born Ellen Gould Harmon, along with her twin sister Elizabeth, on November 26, 1827.

Her influence sprang from the visions that she began experiencing in 1844, when she was seventeen.  These trances lasted anywhere from a few minutes to several hours, and during them she received messages about events both in the future and the past, heavenly and earthly.  These visions were accepted as genuine revelations from God, and her followers (with her encouragement) regarded her as a true prophetess on a par with the prophets of the Bible.

On June 5, 1863, in Otsego, Michigan, she received her vision regarding health, in which God revealed to her the hygienic laws that should be followed by Seventh-day Adventists.  They were to give up eating meat and other stimulating food, neither drink alcohol nor use tobacco, and avoid medical drugs.  When they were sick they were supposed to rely on the remedies of Nature, including fresh air, sunshine, rest, proper diet, exercise and water.  Women were to cease wearing the fashionable clothing of the time (including hoop skirts and corsets) and wear “short” skirts and pantaloons.  Followers were also supposed to curb their “animal passions” (masturbation was an especial evil leading to deformity of mind and body, not to mention spirit).

Health reform was not new.  In the early nineteenth century, America was not a healthy or hygienic place.  Americans ate too much meat and not enough vegetables and fruits.  Their food was heavy with grease and fats, and they drank too much Brazilian coffee.  Public sanitation was horribly inadequate, and personal hygiene wasn’t much better.  Most Americans seldom, if ever, bathed.

In the 1830s, Sylvester Graham launched a full-blown health crusade.  In the summer of 1830 the Pennsylvania Society for Discouraging the Use of Ardent Spirits invited him to come and lecture under its auspices.  He accepted and was soon giving lectures featuring his scientific and moral arguments against consumption of alcohol.  Reverend William Metcalfe was also preaching in Philadelphia at this time.  He was the author of the first American tract on vegetarianism and had brought his English congregation over in 1817 and established the vegetarian Bible Christian Church.  Graham added the vegetarianism to his lectures on temperance.  In 1831 he broke away from the Society and was lecturing at the Franklin Institute on a broad range of topics including proper diet and the control of the passions.  The 1832 cholera epidemic thrust Graham and his health reforms into the spotlight.

Another reformer, important partly because he was associated with the Millerites (as was Ellen White) and also because her reforms mirror many of his, was Larkin B. Coles.  His claim to health reform fame lie in two books: Philosophy of Health: Natural Principles of Health and Cure and The Beauties and Deformities of Tobacco-Using.  His view of health reform was a moralistic one, and was not unique among health reformers.  But both Cole and White saw obedience to these laws of health mainly as a requirement for entry into heaven rather than as a means for living a more enjoyable and healthy life on earth.

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