he Seventh-day Adventist health promotion and wellness movement, popularly known as “health reform,” arose in the context of nineteenth-century health conditions.
During the first half of the century most Americans died of communicable diseases such as tuberculosis, cholera, pneumonia, malaria, typhoid, and yellow fever. Suffering from arthritis, asthma, and dyspepsia, among other ailments, many resorted to patent medicines and home remedies. Physicians practiced “heroic therapy,” designed to restore physiologic balance through bleeding, sweating, vomiting, or purging. Commonly prescribed medications included opium, calomel, arsenic, prussic acid, mercury, and antimony.
Most Americans bathed infrequently, if at all, and slept with closed windows to avoid the “dangerous” night air. Women laced themselves in tight corsets, which constricted vital organs, while their heavy dresses swept the filthy streets. Typical diets were high in meat, sugar, and fats, and deficient in fruits and vegetables. Overeating and the liberal use of tobacco, liquor, coffee, tea, spices, and condiments were common. Inadequate sanitation and poorly maintained water systems contributed to the spread of disease.
In the 1830s Presbyterian minister Sylvester Graham launched a health reform campaign urging a simple vegetarian diet, pure water, rest, cleanliness, exercise, and simple dress; the avoidance of alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea; control of the “natural passions”; and the use of unbolted, or Graham, flour. Gaining national attention during the cholera epidemic of 1832, he was joined by other health reformers in a movement that influenced Ellen White and other Adventist pioneers such as Joseph Bates, an early advocate of health reform and temperance.
Instruction From God
In visions during 1848 and 1854, Ellen White was shown the harmful effects of tobacco, tea, and coffee, and the need for dress reform, cleanliness, denial of appetite, and simplicity in diet. But despite health reform practice among many Adventists, the church as a body did not adopt the cause until 1863. On June 6 in Otsego, Michigan, less than two weeks after the 1863 General Conference session, during which she urged health reform, Ellen White received a major vision on health.
While many of the specific measures she advocated were already espoused by other health reformers, the most important aspect of her counsel was the concept that caring for the body was a sacred, religious duty, making a strong link between spirituality and the stewardship of the body temple. Thus today, adherence to health principles forms part of the fundamental beliefs of the Adventist Church.
Ellen White began publishing on health with “An Appeal to Mothers” in 1864, followed by articles in Spiritual Gifts, volumes III and IV, and a six-part pamphlet series, “Health, or How to Live,” which included the work of other health reformers. Her counsel included a warning against “solitary vice” (masturbation), pork, meat eating, liquor, tobacco, tea and coffee, rich foods, and popular drugs such as strychnine, mercury, calomel, and quinine. She encouraged cleanliness, fresh air, pure water, sunlight, and a healthful diet. Careful to provide substitutes for unhealthful foods, Adventist women in Battle Creek prepared articles and recipes on “hygienic cookery,” which the church published along with pamphlets on health principles and simple remedies.
A vision in 1865 led Ellen White to encourage the establishment of a church institution that combined health promotion with curative care. The Western Health Reform Institute, later Battle Creek Sanitarium, was the result. Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, who became medical superintendent in 1876, used the sanitarium as a platform to promote “biologic living,” stressing strict diet and obedience to the laws of health. Kellogg’s membership in the American Public Health Association and other professional organizations provided credibility for Adventist health-promotion endeavors.
An Uphill Battle
At the General Conference session of 1866 Ellen White linked health with the third angel’s message, urging ministers to adopt health principles and advocate them prominently in churches. She repeated this admonition at General Conference sessions and in publications throughout the years, but was never fully satisfied that the counsel was heeded. In 1868 Ellen White issued a vision-based warning against extremism in health reform, which could potentially damage the work of the church.
Although Joseph Bates was an early temperance advocate, Adventists did not become active in the movement until 1879, when a revival of interest in temperance efforts after the Civil War led the church to organize the American Health and Temperance Association. In 1889 the association sponsored a class to prepare teachers and lecturers for temperance work.
A Time of Change
The Progressive Era, 1890 to 1920, provided the backdrop for important developments in Adventist health promotion. Urbanization and industrialization drew many from rural farms. Automobiles, skyscrapers, and airplanes shared the innovative horizon with aesthetic developments such as jazz, modern art, motion pictures, and mass newspapers. Women engaged in reform efforts and demanded the right to vote. Schooling lengthened, professions organized, and the divorce rate rose. The Plains Indians were defeated, the western frontier closed, and the “New South” industrialized amid racial strife. Modern labor unions formed while the gap between rich and poor increased. The U.S. Navy sailed around the world, and two wars were fought. Adventists supported the constitutional amendment for prohibition that took effect in 1920.
Ellen White’s introduction of the “true remedies” in The Ministry of Healing (1905) reflected the health-promotion emphasis of progressivism. Her focus on pure air, sunlight, the use of water, moderation, proper diet, sunlight, exercise, and trust in divine power, which many contemporary Adventists memorize using the acronym NEWSTART, plays a continuing role as the basis for Adventist health promotion.
By 1890 the medical missionary work of the church had developed an international scope that included Pitcairn and other South Sea Islands, Mexico, parts of Europe, New Zealand, India, South Africa, Egypt, and Palestine. This international focus presaged a growing denominational commitment to the combination of curative health services and evangelism with health promotion and education.
From Prevention to Cure
At the reorganization of the church during the 1901 General Conference session Ellen White urged, and the delegates accepted, the concept of unified medical and evangelistic work. The 1902 fire that consumed the Battle Creek Sanitarium led to the decentralization of medical missionary training. In 1910 the College of Medical Evangelists was opened in Loma Linda, California, with a strong emphasis on community health promotion and education programs.
By the 1930s there was a denominational drift from the old sanitarium ideal. Patients had been taught health principles during long stays in sanitariums. Rising medical care costs resulted in shorter stays for more seriously ill patients who were more interested in cure than in learning health principles. As physicians focused more on scientific medical practice, sanitariums gradually became hospitals. This change was reflected in the renaming of sanitariums as hospitals or medical centers. The increase in hospital employees who were not Adventists led to institutional emphases that were more “Christian” and less “Adventist.” In 1963 F. D. Nichol, Review and Herald
editor, urged the church to curtail further development of acute care hospitals in favor of institutions designed to teach the laws of health; but this did not occur.
Studies Reveal Benefits
Several epidemiological studies by Loma Linda University highlighted the benefits of Adventist health promotion. In 1958 Drs. Frank Lemon and Richard Walden initiated the eight-year Adventist Mortality Study of 50,000 California Adventists. A comparison of death rates revealed that their life expectancies were higher than those of California residents as a whole. In 1973 100,000 California Adventists were asked to participate in a 15-year investigation comparing the health experiences of Adventists with widely different lifestyles. Findings indicated that Adventists who practiced health principles experienced reduced risk for a number of diseases, and that Adventists tended to die much later than the general population. In 2001 the nationwide Adventist Health Study-2 began, investigating the relationship between dietary choices and other health habits and the risk for heart disease or cancer.
Twentieth-century developments in Adventist health promotion included the Five-Day Plan to Stop Smoking, the 4 DK (Dimensional Key) plan for those dependent on alcohol, and the 1974 film Circle of Love, addressing drug dependency. Every level of the church—in the U.S. and internationally—implemented health promotion programs for members and surrounding communities.
The Health Focus Continues
Today a variety of health promotion efforts by denominational and church-related organizations address traditional health principles in the context of the HIV and AIDS pandemic, environmental degradation, and the increasing global burden of infectious and chronic disease—challenges that engender renewed recognition of our “sacred duty” to emphasize the Christ-centered connection between spirituality, health, and our unique eschatological perspective.
Carol Easley Allen, PH.D., R.N., is a professor and chair of the department of nursing, Oakwood University, in Huntsville, Alabama, and a past president of the American Public Health Association.