This article was originally featured in an issue of Adventist Review (December 2004) entirely devoted to health and wellness. It is a wonderful summary of the Seventh-day Adventist health message. You may also enjoy watching this short video. Click here.—Editors.
Seventh-day Adventists are known the world over for the message of health and wholeness that has been a key part of the denomination’s identity since its founding. Perceived by critics as “radical” and “unbalanced” when Adventists began to practice and teach these principles in the 1860s, these concepts quickly won confirmation in the wider public as their health-giving effects became apparent to all. Today, both biblical principle and hard science line up behind the key elements of the Adventist health message.
Seventh-day Adventists believe that the church was divinely guided to important new understandings of health through the ministry of Ellen G. White, one of the church’s cofounders. When she first reported insights given to her in visions near the middle of the nineteenth century, tuberculosis, typhoid, typhus, cholera, measles, cancer, stroke, and heart disease limited the average life span to the early 30s. Scientific evidence-based medicine was in its infancy, and practiced only in the largest cities. In fact, the minimally trained doctors and nurses available to most of the American public didn’t yet understand that germs and bacteria caused disease.
This deplorable state of public health gave rise to strange healing models, including the following:
On June 6, 1863, less than one month after the church’s General Conference was organized during the American Civil War, Ellen White reported that God had revealed to her that following a few healthful lifestyle principles would significantly improve the quality and quantity of life.
Ellen White first wrote about these insights in a 31-page article entitled “Health,” published as part of her book Spiritual Gifts, volume 4, pages 120-151, printed on the Adventist-owned steam press in Battle Creek, Michigan. Her complete health vision was never printed in full in any one book or article, as she added details throughout her life. It’s clear, however, that the original chapter in the book Spiritual Gifts contains a comprehensive summary of the major tenets she expanded into the Adventist health message and ministry. A brief summary of these significant principles reveals both their value and their timelessness.
PRINCIPLE 1: Adam and Eve, our first parents, suffered because they allowed appetite to control reason, and poor food choices continue to cause obesity and many diseases.
UPDATE: STILL TRUE. Two out of every three Americans are now overweight or obese, most of them because of poor food choices in a vastly expanded food market.
PRINCIPLE 2: Tree-ripened fruits and nuts and sun-drenched grains comprised the original diet recommended in the Garden of Eden. Later, God gave humans the fruits of the ground—vegetables—and the fruit of the cattle—milk and other dairy products. When this counsel was repeated in 1864, fruits and vegetables were in short supply much of the year for anyone who didn’t grow and can their own. Not until the transcontinental railroad was completed after the Civil War did fresh produce grown in California during winter months begin to be shipped East for city dwellers.
UPDATE: STILL TRUE. The Adventist Health Study-1 and many other large population studies have shown the health benefits of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, and low-fat dairy products.
PRINCIPLE 3: The flesh of swine was prohibited as food by God. It was not God’s ideal plan for humans to take the life of animals to provide food. Other types of meat are not the most healthful food. Many people die from diseases caused wholly from meat-eating.
UPDATE: STILL TRUE. In 1997 the American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund reviewed the research reported in medical literature and concluded that cooked and barbecued meats were associated with many types of cancer, and that fruits and vegetables were the most cancer preventative of commonly consumed foods.
PRINCIPLE 4: Tobacco is poisonous, malignant, addictive, and the cause of premature death. Secondhand smoke is poisonous to the nonsmoker.
UPDATE: STILL TRUE. Exactly 100 years later, the first U.S. Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health confirmed the deadly effects of smoking tobacco. It took another 20 years, however, before researchers could prove that secondhand smoke was also deadly.
PRINCIPLE 5: Wine and liquor injure health, confuse and destroy the brain, and destroy the user’s spirituality. Consuming beer and wine leads to stronger drinks, such as liquor.
UPDATE: STILL TRUE. The disastrous medical effects of alcohol fill the scientific literature of the twenty-first century.
PRINCIPLE 6: Tea and coffee are stimulating and addictive.
UPDATE: STILL TRUE. We now know that the dizziness, headache, numbness, nervousness, and irritability experienced by those who stop their tea or coffee habits are symptoms of caffeine withdrawal.
PRINCIPLE 7: Highly seasoned gravies and sauces, and rich desserts filled with butter, cream, and sugar keep their consumers from appreciating wholesome fruits, breads, and vegetables.
UPDATE: STILL TRUE. Today, the high fat, sodium, and calorie content of highly-seasoned fast foods is a major health concern in America and around the world.
PRINCIPLE 8: Opium, nux vomica, strychnine, mercury, calomel, quinine, and other poisonous compounds were indicted.
UPDATE: STILL TRUE. With the exception of quinine for malaria, the drugs she warned against are no longer used by licensed medical doctors. They bear the skull-and-crossbones logo today.
PRINCIPLE 9: Drink pure water freely, bathe daily, and wash your clothes frequently. This counsel was given long before most homes had running hot and cold water, when people typically bathed no more often than weekly, and when laundry was a difficult, time-consuming task accomplished on a scrub board.
UPDATE: STILL TRUE. Clean water around the world could prevent many deadly diseases and save millions of lives each year.
PRINCIPLE 10: Breathe pure air. Ellen White stressed the importance of pure, clean air flowing into bedrooms and homes.
UPDATE: STILL TRUE. More than 100 years later, the Environmental Protection Agency regulates outdoor air pollution levels, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration mandates indoor air safety. The atmospheric conditions deemed acceptable by urbanized Americans in the nineteenth
century would not be tolerated today.
PRINCIPLE 11: Clear away all trees and shrubs next to the home so the sunlight can shine in to kill germs.
UPDATE: STILL TRUE. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria make the old remedies of sunlight and cleanliness as appropriate today as they were more than 100 years ago.
PRINCIPLE 12: Exercise in the out-of-doors. Inactivity causes disease.
UPDATE: STILL TRUE. Medical scientists now believe, based on research, that inactivity is correlated with most of the major chronic diseases.
PRINCIPLE 13: Some forms of mental illness can be prevented by cheerful labor, good diet, outdoor exercise, and avoidance of harmful drugs.
UPDATE: STILL TRUE. A poor diet, alcoholism, drug addiction, and isolation have proven to be related to poor mental health.
PRINCIPLE 14: There is a body, mind, and spirit connection. Our minds and bodies are God’s temples, and we should honor and respect God by doing our best to care for them. Ministers and doctors are to minister to the soul as well as the body.
UPDATE: STILL TRUE. The body-mind connection is now taught in most medical schools, and featured prominently in both professional and popular journals.
PRINCIPLE 15: Temperance in all good things and prohibition of all harmful things promote good health.
UPDATE: STILL TRUE. Overeating, drug addiction, and work addiction are prescriptions for disability and disease, and incapacitate or kill tens of thousands each year.
PRINCIPLE 16: Intemperance and poor lifestyle choices are related to spirituality.
UPDATE: STILL TRUE. Research into this principle is ongoing, and represents one of the most intriguing areas of contemporary medical investigation.
In a Sabbath sermon at the General Conference in May 1866, Ellen White emphasized the importance of setting up a medical institution. On September 5, the Western Health Reform Institute of Battle Creek was ready for patients. The major objective was to “improve the health of the body that the afflicted may more highly appreciate eternal things.”
In the same year the health journal, Health Reformer, was launched. Ellen White wrote, “The Health Reformer is the medium through which rays of light are to shine upon the people. It should be the very best health journal in our country. It must be adapted to the wants of the common people, ready to answer all proper questions and fully explain the first principles of the laws of life and how to obey them and preserve health” (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 1, p. 552).
About 1870, while Mrs. White was away from Battle Creek nursing her husband, James, back to health, a Dr. Trall and other health extremists contributed to the Health Reformer articles in which these writers took extreme positions on certain issues. Their articles stated that salt, sugar, butter, milk, and eggs were harmful, and that a true health reformer would not use them. Ellen and James White quickly set the journal on the right course again. Many of the statements we read today in the compilations are records of Ellen White trying to balance these extreme positions with common sense. There were tensions between the extreme health reformers and regular church members that she continually sought to moderate while encouraging all to follow important basic health principles. She urged members to take the middle path and avoid the extremes of fanaticism and indifference.
The American Health and Temperance Association was organized. One year later the members signed an anti-rum, anti-tobacco pledge. In 1889 the organization was renamed the International Health and Temperance Association.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church began to highlight the importance of medical missionary work. In 1893 Dr. Merritt Kellogg, cofounder of the St. Helena Sanitarium and half-brother to John Harvey Kellogg, traveled to the South Sea Islands as a medical missionary for the church.
Dr. John Harvey Kellogg applied for and received a patent on multigrain flaked cereal. During the 1890s he and his staff created peanut butter, granola, meat analogs, cereal coffee, cornflakes, and a host of other plant-based foods.
Early Adventists were movers and shakers who acted quickly. In June they voted to establish their first medical college, and by July, had a charter for the American Medical Missionary College. The school opened its doors on dual campuses at Battle Creek, Michigan, and Chicago, Illinois, in October.
The year 2005 was the 100th anniversary of these important developments:
Diet had played an important role in health ministry since Mrs. White’s 1863 health-reform vision, leading the church to recommend a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet (a diet consisting of plant foods supplemented by a moderate amount of milk and eggs). But it wasn’t until 1922 that an undergraduate course in dietetics was established at what is now Loma Linda University.
The Seventh-day Adventist Dietetic Association was founded.
In collaboration with the National Cancer Institute, Loma Linda University researchers demonstrated a significant correlation and causal link between tobacco and lung cancer.
1970s and 1980s
Funded by the U.S. government, Loma Linda University surveyed the California membership of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and was able to show a strong link between consumption of beef and chicken and several major chronic diseases; a link between white bread and heart disease; and a protective link between nuts, fruits, vegetables, and beans and the prevention of heart disease and cancer.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
The General Conference Health Ministries Department and the medical hospitals operated by the church recognize the continuing importance of that chapter of Spiritual Gifts, volume 4, written by Ellen G. White more than 160 years ago. As church members and communities practice this counsel, we will significantly reduce our risks of cancer, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, and obesity.
We can’t work our way into heaven by following a wholesome lifestyle, but we can work our way into an early grave if we ignore this counsel. Think of the untold suffering and premature death that millions of men and women have needlessly suffered since 1863 because this counsel was either unknown or ignored by them. Dr. John Harvey Kellogg said at the 1897 General Conference: “There is not a single principle in relation to the healthful development of our bodies and minds that is advocated in these writings of Ellen White which I am not prepared to demonstrate conclusively from scientific evidence.” Hundreds of scientists, Adventist and otherwise, echo that same confidence today. A mountain of scientific evidence continues to highlight the importance of the health principles first shared by Ellen G. White in that long-ago vision.
Stoy Proctor, M.P.H., was an associate director of the Health Ministries Department of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in Silver Spring, Maryland, when this article was written.