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Health Reform and the Bible

in Early Sabbatarian Adventism


© P. Gerard Damsteegt

Adventist Heritage: A Journal of Adventist History, vol. 5, no.2, winter, 1978,


Nineteenth century America experienced a crescendoing emphasis on the subject of healthful living which resulted in a health reform movement. Among: the reasons for this phenomenon were a growing concern for health due to a general dissatisfaction with the medical profession, and an increasing agitation of various Christians against health destroying practices. In the eighteenth century, Methodists and Quakers expressed concern with regard to intemperance. The influence of John Wesley, Dr. Benjamin Rush and Lyman Beecher was especially noticeable. The health reform movement was turned into a moral crusade by Sylvester Graham, one of its greatest leaders. Other personalities who played a major role were the medical doctors Russell T. Trall, James C. Jackson, Larkin B. Coles, William A. Alcott, Isaac Jennings, John Bell:, and Arthur H. Grimshaw, and laymen like Dio Lewis and Horace Mann. Some results of this movement were the establishment of the American Temperance Society (1826), the American Temperance Union (1836), the American Physiological Society (1837), and the American Vegetarian Society, (1850).

In analyzing various specimens of health reform literature during the period of the Second Advent movement and the early Sabbatarian Adventists (pre-1863), one notices the frequent use of Biblical arguments to impress people with the importance of healthful living. The following discussion illustrates the importance of the Biblical and moral dimensions for health reformers in general and Sabbatarian Adventists in particular.

At a time when Christians in general viewed disease as a divine punishment for sin, health reformers indicated that disease was generally caused by man himself. They had adopted the rationalistic principle of cause and effect. Whatever one sows he shall reap, both morally and physically.

Health reformers attributed the major cause of man's suffering to transgression of God's law&emdash;the moral law in the Decalogue and the physical law of nature. William A. Alcott felt that it was even of more importance to obey the latter law than the former:

There is no known atonement for our transgressions of physical law. As surely as we transgress, we must, sooner or later, suffer the penalty. . . . If we do it in ignorance, it makes no known difference. The punishment must come on ourselves or our posterity; perhaps on both. For the sins of parents, physically as well as morally, may be visited upon their children to the third and fourth generation, if not to the thousandth.

Longevity and perfect health, therefore, could only be achieved by strict obedience to God's laws. The famous Lord Palmerston remarked that "the Maker of the universe has established certain laws of nature for the planet in which we live, and the weal and woe of mankind depend upon the observance or neglect of those laws." Larkin B. Coles asserted that "nineteen-twentieths" of the physical infirmities are the result of "willing ignorance and disregard of the laws of health" and added that whoever "violates the laws of life and health, sins against God as truly as though he break the ten commandments." He concluded that obedience to "natural law is in direct line with the path which leads to heaven, " resulting in enjoyment in this life and a foretaste of the glory to come. Sylvester Graham defined "true religion" as consisting of "perfectly obeying all the constitutional laws of human nature, for this would be fulfilling our two fold relationship to God; our duty to ourselves and our relation to our fellow creatures."

In this light it is not surprising that John Bell went so far as to suggest that those whose life style conflicted with general health principles must also be unsound in their religious beliefs. Similarly Coles asserted that a healthy soul is dependent on a healthy body as both its medium of development and their mutual sympathy. Asenath Nicholson criticized the spiritual leaders and ministers for having failed to admonish their flock to obey God's natural laws, adding that "their physiology, as well as their theology, should be after the standard of truth." The current ignorance of the masses on health reform was directly ascribed to the little knowledge of the metaphysicians on these subjects.

Another frequently used argument by health reformers was the significance of eating and drinking to the glory of God. Promoting the gloria Dei and preserving the human body in the greatest possible degree of health and vigor for this purpose was seen as a major responsibility of Christians. Yet strong language was directed against those Christians who neglected this aspect of living. William Goodwell gave up all hope of a present reformation of the world and a purification of the church "until all Christians learn to keep the body under, and eat and drink for the glory of God." Coles questioned whether we could glorify God in the Spirit "while living in the known violation of the laws that belong to our spiritual being set forth in Scripture." He supplied his own answer: "Certainly not. Nor can we in any possibility, suitably glorify God in our bodies while we violate the laws which God has attached to them." Both liquor and tobacco, he said, destroy sense of moral responsibility, and lead "its devotes to spend money more cheerfully for its debasing sensualism than for the glory of God." Tea drinking William Alcott felt, conflicts with Biblical principles.

The concept of the relationship of the body to its, Creator was a favorite motivation for observing health principles. Coles brought out that our bodies belong to God on the basis of His creatorship, making it "the duty of every individual, for his own sake and the sake of God, to inform himself of the laws of organized life, and religiously obey them." He maintained that "it is as truly a duty to read and be informed on this Subject, as it is to study the precepts of the Bible. The study of the Bible first, and the study of the laws of life next. " Ignorance on this subject, he felt, was one of the greatest causes of human suffering.

Alcott denied that people could use their bodies as they please. He said that all our powers and faculties are the Lord's. "We are only his stewards; or, at most, the borrowers of his property. " As Christians, therefore, we have not the right to waste God's property which He has merely lent us. Others made reference to the parental responsibility of educating the children given on loan to the parents by God.

Attention was also focused on the body as an acceptable and living sacrifice. Coles recalled the Apostle Paul's admonition that Christians present "their 'bodies a living sacrifice' upon the altar of Christ." He wrote, "If the physical system is subjected to habits which are antagonistic to its laws, then it wars against the soul." Considering current conditions among Christians, he wondered "if the bodies offered upon Christ's altar were examined by the scrutiny to which Jewish sacrifices were subjected, what would be the result? How many would be left upon the altar accepted?"

Health-impairing indulgences were categorized as idolatry. Coles referred to the unnatural appetites as "idol lusts" which, at the present time, did more damage than lusts condemned by the seventh commandment. He saw tobacco as the greatest "idol god in Christendom," requiring the largest sacrifice upon its altar. It wasted physical and moral energies as well as time and money.

Consideration for others was another argument for good health drawn from Paul. A. H. Grimshaw insisted: "we are to avoid all habits, customs, &c. which may lead our neighbor into temptation, or 'put a stumbling block' or an occasion to fall, in our brother's way." There was little doubt that this pertained to substances like tobacco, alcohol, tea, and coffee. Referring to the pollution effects of tobacco smoke, Alcott posed the question: "Does he love his neighbor, who gradually, though it may be very slowly, poisons him? . . . And do they love their families as they ought, who poison them by inches?"

An important motive for health was being "temperate in all things." Coles defined temperance as "moderation in the use of right things, and total abstinence from wrong things." For example: "temperance in the use of bread is moderation; temperance in regard to strong drink is total abstinence." One of the most elaborate Biblical arguments for temperance was Bacchus, written by Ralph Barns Grindrod and dedicated to the American Temperance Societies.

Health reform also had its place in the quest for human perfection. Graham pointed to the original perfection of man and the present obligation to achieve a nature perfect in its kind. He advanced the idea that it was man's natural, civil, moral, and religious duty to cultivate the physical symmetry and beauty because of its important relationship to the perfection of our whole nature. Reference was made to Saul, Daniel and his three friends.

In view of current detrimental influences of erroneous appetites, Coles called for a change in lifestyle and "perfecting holiness in the fear of God." Nicholson argued that the eating and drinking pattern of ministers as well as their talking and preaching ought to be to God's glory because "all are required to make the perfect man in Christ Jesus." It was said that many pious individuals, due to their lack of knowledge, could not be the perfect men and women they would like to be, signifying the importance of understanding and observing the laws of nature.

The concept of the nearness of the millennium&emdash;the dawn of a new age&emdash; was employed as health reform motivation. Graham predicted an increase in longevity if people would reform their living habits. He supported his reasoning with a prophecy in Isaiah 65:20, 22, which mentioned a period in earth's history "in the Gospel dispensation when the law of God shall reign in the hearts and govern the actions of mankind, during which "human life shall be greatly prolonged" and "there shall be no more thence an infant of days, nor an old man that hath not filled his days but their days shall be as the days of a tree." Nicholson emphasized that in these last days a holy church was being prepared "where Christ can take up his abode," putting an end to infant mortality and illness. This was not to be done by "miracles" nor by "any change in the laws of nature," but by a "simple turning to the primitive state of things; by going back to first principles; by fulfilling God's laws [natural and moral], and making them honorable." Obedience to the natural laws of health prepared the way for Christ's coming. An end to the continuous consumption of flesh foods would hasten the millennial dawn.

Having presented the subject of health reform in various churches on Sunday for about three years, Coles was strongly convinced that it was the responsibility of every Gospel minister "to study the laws of physical life, and their bearings on the soul" so that "he may be able to speak on this subject correctly; and, by an example of obedience to physical law, to preach it forcibly to his people. " He thought certain people should first be helped physically before approaching them spiritually. As a result of certain stimulants and narcotics, he said, addiction to the "enervating and deadening influence on the intellect and the heart . . . must be broken before the Gospel and the Spirit of God can convince of sin and lead to the Cross."

The consumption of health destroying substances was seen as a waste. Quoting the yearly amount of money spent for tea, Alcott bemoaned the good the redirected expenditure might have done. Thirty thousand Gospel ministers could be supported and fifty to sixty times the foreign missionaries could be sent. It was strange to "waste, every year, over our tea cups, nearly sixty times as much as we pay for the support of foreign missions!" Considering the money spent for tobacco, Coles calculated that the annual "robbery on the Savings Bank of Christ" was such that the churches were "serving that 'earthly sensual, devilish' idol with more than five times as much zeal and devotion as they are the Savior of the world." The American church was spending "5,000,000 for annual consumption of tobacco, and less than one million for Christ and His cause abroad."

When Adventism came upon the scene in this environment, it was inevitable that a number of its followers were influenced by health reform concepts. In analyzing the early publications of the Sabbatarian Adventists, one discovers a growing emphasis on the significance of health as it is related to the individual religious experience the imminent coming of the Lord, and the mission thrust of the church. The reason for this growing interest cannot alone be attributed to the contemporary health reform movement, but credit must also be given to the impact of Ellen G. White's 1848 vision, her views on the relation of health and religion, and the attitude of some of the leadership on the subject. Mrs. White's vision drew attention to the "injurious effects of tobacco, tea, and coffee." Soon after, Joseph Bates, who had had an active career in the temperance movement, alerted the early believers to this vision and reminded them of their current backslidings from their self-sacrificing practices during the significant year of 1844. He, therefore, urged them to refrain from health destroying habits.

Among Sabbatarian Adventists, one of the first Biblical arguments used to appeal for a concern for healthful living was that of idolatry. Already in 1851 Ellen White called the use of tobacco an "idol." This was further elaborated in the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald by James M. McLellan who stated that those who use tobacco are covetous and that covetousness was idolatry. J. H. Waggoner appealed to believers to keep themselves from idols by abstaining from unhealthful habits. A little later Mrs. White included tea and coffee as idols also.

The complete development of our spiritual powers, it was argued, required the full cooperation of all our mental facilities. The conclusion was made that truly good Christians would not use unhealthful products because unhealthful habits impair the mental powers.

Adventists increasingly viewed the transgression of physical laws as a moral issue and thus a sinful act. It was reasoned that God is the Author of "man's organic structure," implying that "God's will is as manifest in this organism as in the ten commandments." Those who injure this "divine workmanship" through unhealthful things take a position in conflict with the will of God which signified rebellion against God, and "sin." Sin, therefore, was seen as "the transgression of the law, written by the finger of God in the whole organism of a man, as well as in the Bible." Unconscious violation of physical laws was considered a sin of ignorance with conscious violation a moral sin.

Daniel T. Bourdeau approached the theological dimension of health from a slightly different way by associating the use of tea and tobacco with the transgression of the Decalogue, not just with transgression of the laws of the human organism. He argued that "if tea and tobacco are injurious to our health, as far as we use these herbs, we violate a principle of the sixth commandment, which says, 'Thou shalt not kill.' And let us remember that we profess to show a respect for all of God's commandments."

There was a growing preoccupation among Sabbatarian Adventists with the human body. The physical dimension of man's nature was related to the spiritual dimension as was the case with most other Christians, but it was seen as the habitat of God's Spirit. This view, therefore, elevated the temporal bodily structure to the category of a temple in which the divine Presence dwells. In this light, James White asserted that it was quite unlikely that the Holy Spirit would dwell in those who used unhealthful substances like tobacco, snuff, and tea.

Health was also associated with the Pauline concepts of Christian perfection, the glorification of God, and the idea of the body as a living sacrifice. Moreover, bad health prompted Paul's sin of gratification.

Among Sabbatarian Adventists, health was closely associated with Christ's return. Healthful living was seen as an indispensable facet of the believer's preparation for the Second Advent. Bates, therefore, stressed the necessity of cleansing body and spirit, and perfecting holiness because continuation of unhealthful defiling practices would prevent entrance into the New Jerusalem.

Ellen White indicated that the use of unhealthful substances would prevent the final sealing of the individual with the seal of the living God. She also associated the concept of Christian perfection with the Second Advent, for "Christ will have a church without spot, or wrinkle or any such thing to present to his Father." Mrs. White urged greater "cleanliness among Sabbath-keepers" as preparation for Christ's return because "God would have a clean and holy people, a people that He can delight [in]." She also said that "our souls, bodies, and spirit are to be presented blameless by Jesus to the Father, and unless we are clean in person and pure in heart, we cannot be presented blameless to God. "

In referring to health destroying practices, J. N. Andrews stated: "Deceive not yourself. If you would stand with the Lamb on Mount Zion, you must cleanse yourself from all filthiness of flesh and spirit, and perfect holiness in the fear of God." In view of the imminent return of Christ, McLellan urged people to live healthfully and "crucify the lusts of the flesh" because otherwise it will be impossible to stand before the Lord at His coming. One correspondent of the Review and Herald pointed out that to preserve a healthy body was an indispensable part of the preparation for the latter rain, the special final outpouring of the Holy Spirit just before Christ's return.

As a result of the rapidly expanding mission work, there was an ever growing demand for financial support. It was Ellen White who called for a denial of unhealthy appetite so that money could be saved for the work of the Lord. In one of her appeals she employed arguments of economy, healthful living, and divine favor, stating that "if all would study to be more economical in their articles of dress, and deprive themselves of some things which are not actually necessary, and lay aside such useless and injurious things as tea, &c., and give what they cost to the cause, they would receive more blessings here, and a reward in heaven."

James White estimated that if Sabbatarian Adventists would donate their yearly expenses they formerly used for the purchase of tea and tobacco, the money "would be sufficient to sustain thirty Missionaries in new fields of labor."

In surveying the health principles and religion of nineteenth century American health reformers and Sabbatarian Adventists, researchers have found that health was intimately related to man's spiritual perceptions, his relationship to God, his preparations for the millennium or Christ's return, and his participation in God's mission to mankind.

The Biblical motives for healthful living seen among health reformers were found to be somewhat similar to those used among Sabbatarian Adventists. The major difference was noticed in arguments employed in reference to the coming millennium and Second Advent. It seems that many health reformers had post millennial convictions and envisaged the dawn of an earthly millennium in which the state of mankind would be considerably improved. Such a condition, they felt, could only come about when a reformation would take place, not only of man's moral but also his physical powers. Sabbatarian

Adventists, however, were convinced that the event of the Second Coming demanded a thorough preparation for perfecting the physical as well as moral powers of man so that they would receive the seal of the living God.


Selected Sources


Alcott, William A. The Laws of Health: or, Sequel to "The House I Live In". Boston: John P. Jewett and Co., 1859.

Beecher, Lyman. Six Sermons on the Nature, Occasions, Signs and Evils and Remedy of Intemperance. New York: American Tract Society, 1827.

Bell, John. On Regimen and Longevity . . . Philadelphia: Haswell & Johnson, 1842.

Coles, L. B. Philosophy of Health: Natural Principles of Health and Cure, or, Health and Cure without Drugs. Also the Moral Bearings of Erroneous Appetites. rev. and enl. Boston: Ticknor, Read, & Fields, 1853.

Graham, Sylvester. Lectures on the Science of Human Life. London: Horsell, Aldine Chambers, 1849.

Grimshaw, A. H. An Essay on the Physical and Moral Effects of the Use of Tobacco as a Luxury. New York: William Harned, 1853.


Various articles from the Review and Herald: January, 1854-November, 1870.

Letters and Other Manuscripts

Daniels, Dexter to U. Smith. Review and Herald, Feb. 5, 1857.

White, E. G. to Barnes, Letter 5, 1851.

White, E. G. Manuscript 1, 1854.

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