o browse through the old issues of the Adventist Review is like taking a walk through the woods of Adventist history. Known throughout most of its history as the Review and Herald, or simply the Review—in spite of numerous name changes in its almost 160 years of existence—the publication was there from the very beginning, before we had a name, before we had the church. The Review was there, a mirror reflecting what was happening and a light pointing to what was to come.
Among all the trees one finds in the Adventist woods, none is more remarkable than the one tagged Health and Healing. Its story is surprising and amazing. Surprising, because the roots of our movement gave no hint of it. Amazing, because this unexpected member of the forest, beyond all expectations, would grow into a giant.
For convenience we can divide our walk in the woods into four stages: the early period, 1850 to 1866; the second phase from 1866 to Ellen White’s death in 1915; the third stage, 1915 to 1980; and the recent period, the one with which I am most familiar, 1980 to the present.
The Early Period, 1850-1866
This period is totally unlike all the others. Here the Adventist woods almost entirely lack trees of health and healing. Health concerns simply are not a part of the new movement. Church pioneers Joseph Bates, James and Ellen White, and others are busy with doctrinal formulation, busy with building up the little flock of scattered believers. Health—their health—is a concern because they are frequently sick; but health doesn’t enter into their theology or preaching.
Bates, who had given up the bottle and become a vegetarian, might be considered someone who would advocate a health message, but he does not; nor do the Whites. Ellen is a heavy meat eater, and when some Adventists advocate abstinence from swine’s flesh, James and Ellen see no reason to join their cause. Even with regard to tobacco and alcohol the believers take no clear stand. In 1853 the Review comes out firmly against tobacco, but the stand meets with strong resistance.
Walking through the early Adventist woods, then, provides no hint of what would follow. Health wasn’t a factor in the thinking of the Millerites, from whom our spiritual forebears sprang, nor was it significant for the first Sabbathkeeping Adventists.
The Second Period, 1866-1915
At the beginning of this period Adventists had no principles of healthful living, no theology of health, and no health-care institutions. By its close, we had all three. Health had become an inseparable component of who we are and what we believe. We had begun to speak about “the health message.” We had established a premier health institution, one to which presidents, business magnets, and society’s elite flocked.
The change boggles the mind. What brought it about?
Poor health, of course. The state of public health was appalling. Treatment of sickness, heavily dependent on dangerous drugs such as arsenic, mercury, and strychnine, was of dubious value. Almost everyone was afflicted, the Adventists included. The Whites lost their son Henry to pneumonia in 1863.
But members of other churches, who suffered along with Adventists, didn’t develop a health message. Why did we?
The answer centers in a person—Ellen White. In 1863 while in Otsego, Michigan, she received a vision from the Lord. The counsel, broad in scope, ranged from principles of healthful living, including diet, to simple remedies and treatment of the sick. The basic ideas of the vision, propagated by word and by pen, in time transformed the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
The Review reveals the change. Between 1866 (“Our Late Experience,” about James’s health) and 1912 (“The Duty of Workers to Care for Their Health”), Ellen wrote 80 editorials dealing with health. In some of them health was not the main topic but was related to whatever subject she took up: the family, finances, work, witness, and so on. From June 1899 to February 1900 she also wrote a series of 22 articles entitled “Disease and Its Causes.”
In 1893 Ellen sent comments about health to be read to the delegates of the General Conference session. These comments were later published in the Review. In 1897 she did the same, writing from Australia, and these comments likewise were published in the Review. In 1901 at the General Conference session, Ellen White spoke four times about the importance of health and health reform. All the addresses subsequently appeared in the Review.
It seems indisputable that Ellen White’s strong advocacy by voice and by pen of the health message was the decisive reason for the transformation in the Adventist Church that occurred between 1866 and 1915. Without her leadership the church today would be vastly different.
The ripple effects from the 1863 vision spread ever wider, even to establishing an institution for treating sickness—an amazing undertaking for the fledgling movement. This in turn led in time to the Battle Creek Sanitarium, with its famous Dr. John Harvey Kellogg. And he at length developed healthful foods that would change the American breakfast.
Only 50 years: 1866 to 1915. What a transformation! It all started with a vision, an acorn of a vision. But that acorn was destined to grow into a mighty oak.
The Third Period, 1915-1980
During these years the health message expanded far and wide. Adventists established hospitals around the world. Many provided the highest quality of health care available to the host nation and gained international standing. This was the era of Harry Miller, the “China Doctor”; of Leo Halliwell with his launch on the Amazon; of Skodsborg Sanitarium in Denmark; and of the growing prestige of Loma Linda University and Medical Center.
Slowly, gradually, Adventist health principles began to permeate society. Our stance against tobacco began to be applauded; we developed a plan to help people quit smoking. Even our advocacy of a vegetarian diet became part of the American mainstream as society changed.
In the Review the outstanding figure of the period was editor Francis D. Nichol. Among other health-related topics he wrote a three-part series of editorials: “Why Adventists Conduct a Health Work” (August 1949), and a feature article, “A Century of Our Health Message” (January 1964). Nichol helped the church find its way through the controversy as our institutions in America, responding to changing times, morphed from sanitariums into acute care hospitals.
The Recent Period, 1980-Present
This was the period of my watch. I joined the Review staff in 1980 and took over the editorship in 1982. I leave it to others to evaluate the church paper’s role vis-à-vis health and healing during these years. Let me simply state some facts.
Check old copies of the Review, and in any year of this period you will find several articles dealing with health and healing. You will also see “health nuggets,” “health news notes,” as well as material on health fairs, health evangelism, and news about Adventist hospitals and clinics. The health message is woven into the fabric of the church paper.
Seven special issues stand out during this period, issues in which we gave over the whole magazine to a health-related topic:
- Temperance issue (February 25, 1982; Kenneth Wood, editor)
- Adventist Health System (February 13, 1986)
- “Fit for Eternity” (January 30, 1997)
- “Live Longer, Live Better!” (January 31, 2002)
- “Adventists and Addiction” (July 31, 2003)
- “All Things Well” (December 30, 2004)
- “Transforming Lives” (March 31, 2005, Loma Linda University centenary issue)
I am proud of these banner issues. I take even greater satisfaction from the monthly feature that began with the February 14, 2002, issue. “Ask the Doctors,” by Drs. Allan Handysides and Peter Landless, director and associate, respectively, of the General Conference Health Ministries Department, answers readers’ questions with informed, evidence-based, and upbeat material. This feature realizes a long-standing dream of this editor and epitomizes, in my view, the surprising and amazing story of the Adventist health message.
William G. Johnsson, PH.D., was editor and executive publisher of Adventist Review from 1982-2006.