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Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and the Religion of Biologic Living

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Purveyors of spiritualized medicine have been legion in American religious history, but few have achieved the superstar status of Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and his Battle Creek Sanitarium. In its heyday, the "San" was a combination spa and Mayo Clinic. Founded in 1866 under the auspices of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and presided over by the charismatic Dr. Kellogg, it catered to many well-heeled health seekers including Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller, and Presidents Taft and Harding. It also supported a hospital, research facilities, a medical school, a nursing school, several health food companies, and a publishing house dedicated to producing materials on health and wellness. Rather than focusing on Kellogg as the eccentric creator of corn flakes or a megalomaniacal quack, Brian C. Wilson takes his role as a physician and a theological innovator seriously and places his religion of "Biologic Living" in an on-going tradition of sacred health and wellness. With the fascinating and unlikely story of the "San" as a backdrop, Wilson traces the development of this theology of physiology from its roots in antebellum health reform and Seventh-day Adventism to its ultimate accommodation of genetics and eugenics in the Progressive Era.

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1. Battle Creek Beginnings

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Battle Creek Beginnings

In the summer of 1940 at the age of eighty-eight, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, seeking to record on paper some of the essential facts of his long life, cast his thoughts back to 1863, a time when Battle Creek, Michigan, was “a very small village of a few hundred inhabitants” and the great Battle Creek Sanitarium was still many years in the future. His mother, Kellogg remembered, had just asked the young boy what he wanted to be when he grew up, to which he had promptly replied, “Anything but a doctor!” Apparently, shortly before his mother’s question, John Harvey and some other boys had pressed their faces against a neighbor’s window to witness the bloody spectacle of a local sawbones practicing his art on one of their playmates lying on the kitchen table. In the wake of this episode, Kellogg remembered, “I abhorred the medical profession, did not like bad medicine and the bloody surgery.” That just a few years later that young boy would find himself a famous doctor—and a surgeon at that—must have given the elderly Kellogg a chuckle, for in addition to his childhood disgust at the sight of blood, he had been at the age of eleven nothing more than an undersize boy working in his father’s Battle Creek broom factory, distinguished only by his exceptional manual dexterity sorting broom corn and the fact that his family belonged to a struggling apocalyptic sect.1

 

2. The Rise of the Temple of Health

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The Rise of the Temple of Health

In 1865 Ellen White had another important health vision. In this case, God commanded her to create a hydropathic facility in Battle Creek. Although Battle Creek boasted a water-cure establishment at nearby St. Mary’s Lake as early as 1858, White said that she first learned about the water cure in 1863 in a newspaper article detailing Dr. Jackson’s hydropathic treatment of diphtheria. When her own children were stricken with the dread disease, White used hydropathy to treat them.1 Inspired by their recovery, the White family made an extended visit to Dr. Jackson’s Our Home on the Hillside in upstate New York the following year.2

So impressed were the Whites with Dr. Jackson’s methods that when James White suffered a stroke in Battle Creek in the summer of 1865, Ellen White rushed him there for treatment. However, this visit would not be so successful. Not only did James not respond to Dr. Jackson’s treatments, but after several weeks in residence at Our Home, Ellen White became increasingly irritated by the doctor’s religious views. Not only was Dr. Jackson an ardent postmillennialist, but, even more problematically, he believed that when it came to saving souls, health reform should take precedence over preaching.3 As he put it, “The proper obedience of the laws of nature would so far affect the conditions of human creatures” that “regeneration, or what is called a ‘change of heart,’ would be so silently accomplished, the transformation being made in so unobservable a way, that the recipients would seldom know the dividing line in their lives.” In other words, health reform would replace revivals for the conversion of souls, for according to Dr. Jackson, all the “Christian force as is habitually made from pulpits and platforms, from prayer circles and missionary rooms,” is utterly ineffective “until Christians shall intelligently perceive and conscientiously comprehend how important purity of body is to purity of soul.” 4 As important as health reform was to Ellen White, it would always be an adjunct to the preaching of the Word, not a necessary preparation for it. Prioritizing health reform as Dr. Jackson did must have struck her as not a little blasphemous. What’s more, Dr. Jackson discouraged Bible reading and preaching at his institution in favor of what Ellen White termed “worldly amusements,” such as singing, dancing, and card playing.5

 

3. The Theology of Biologic Living

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The Theology of Biologic Living

Photographs of Dr. John Harvey Kellogg taken during the 1880s and ’90s show an avuncular figure with a full beard, still exuding the unbounded confidence of his youth. These were indeed decades of spectacular success for Kellogg, with the Battle Creek Sanitarium growing in popularity and fame, both nationally and internationally. Yet because of his success, Kellogg the physician and Kellogg the Seventh-day Adventist came under increased scrutiny from both the medical profession and the church. Kellogg was sensitive to both, and he apparently felt increasingly pulled in two directions: toward either scientific respectability or religious allegiance.

In 1886, in what was the gravest threat yet to his professional reputation, Kellogg was brought to trial by the Calhoun County Medical Board for, among other things, promoting ideas “unbecoming to a regular physician,” that is, biologic living. The trial ended in a hung jury, and the charges were dropped, only to be revived the following year by the Michigan Medical Board, with the charges withdrawn just before trial.1 After this harrowing experience, Kellogg redoubled his efforts to protect his status within the medical field, and this in part accounts for why he began to insist on the nonsectarian mission of the San. It was perhaps also not coincidental that during this period, Dr. Kellogg began to move decisively away from many of the specific dogmas of Seventh-day Adventism and to equip his biologic living with a more modernist theological rationale. Kellogg was not about to abandon the religion behind biologic living; as the product of the Adventist subculture, he retained too much of the Yankee sectarian spirit to be bullied out of religious belief, yet the doctor did become increasingly anxious to make his beliefs appear “scientific.” It must be said, however, that although Dr. Kellogg’s professional problems accelerated this process of theological reformulation in the 1890s, it had already begun in his youth.

 

4. The Living Temple

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The Living Temple

By the late 1890s Ellen White became deeply concerned about the growing worldliness of the Battle Creek Sanitarium, lamenting that it had “been perverted from its original design, until it resembles a grand hotel rather than an institution for the treatment of the sick.”1 White saw the concentration of so many of the church’s major institutions in Battle Creek as threatening to become “like Jerusalem of old—a powerful center” beset with the sins of “pride, self-exaltation, neglect of the poor, and partiality to the wealthy.” She began predicting privately that a great calamity was about to overtake the city due to what she saw as the widespread corruption of Adventism there. Later she would report that in a vision, she had seen “a sword of fire stretched out over Battle Creek.”2

This calamity long predicted by Ellen White finally struck early in the morning of February 18, 1902. A fast-moving conflagration roared through the wooden frames of both the main sanitarium building and the hospital. Well-honed emergency procedures helped to evacuate safely all but one of the patients, but the two buildings were a total loss, with barely the foundations remaining. Some Adventists saw in this disaster the fulfillment of Ellen White’s prophecy, but Dr. Kellogg, who was on his way to California when he got the news, rejected this interpretation and hurried back to Battle Creek to assure everyone that the sanitarium would rise again. Despite the outright opposition of some of the church leadership to rebuilding, and despite some hesitancy on the part of the city, Kellogg managed to wangle a three-year tax holiday for the sanitarium and then set about securing loans and raising funds from Adventists and city boosters alike. Within three months an architect had been engaged, plans drawn up, and the cornerstone for the new sanitarium laid.3

 

5. Dr. Kellogg’s Break with the Seventh-day Adventist Church

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Dr. Kellogg’s Break with the Seventh-day Adventist Church

May 31, 1903, was a gala day for Battle Creek. A little more than a year after the fire that had destroyed the original sanitarium building, thousands of people were drawn to the dedication ceremonies of the rebuilt Battle Creek Sanitarium. In its new incarnation the sanitarium boasted a graceful Italian Renaissance building six stories high and the length of three and half football fields. Everything was bigger and grander than before: more guest rooms, a bigger gymnasium, a bigger palm garden, a state-of-the-art operating theater, more hydrotherapy rooms, a grander dining room, and seeming miles of open-air loggias and porches where patients were required to take the air. Some twenty thousand barrels of Portland cement and seven hundred tons of structural steel went into the construction of the building, making it, according to the front-page story in the Battle Creek Morning Inquirer, “Strictly Fire-proof” (the paper went on to report that a huge bonfire was kindled in the basement of the main building to test this claim).

 

6. Dr. Kellogg and Race Betterment

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Dr. Kellogg and Race Betterment

Despite John Harvey Kellogg’s very public spat with his brother over the cereal business, the reputation of the Battle Creek Sanitarium continued to grow, attracting even more of the rich and famous to its doors in the 1910s and ’20s. Other rival sanitariums had arisen in town to challenge the San’s dominance, such as Dr. Phelps’s across the street and, of course, La Vita Inn, but these could not compete and closed their doors after a couple of years.1 In 1907 Bernarr Macfadden, famous for his advocacy of a muscular America, decided to compete with the Battle Creek Sanitarium by establishing one of his “healthatoriums” in Dr. Phelps’s elegant fieldstone building.2 Two years later he was out of business, and Kellogg simply absorbed his facility lock, stock, and barrel. Business was good at the San.

Dr. Kellogg, now a portly gentleman sporting a natty Van Dyke moustache and chin whiskers, continued to be a familiar figure bustling around town, instantly recognizable in his trademark white suit, adopted because it allowed the body to absorb more sunlight, especially the ultraviolet rays that Kellogg believed were a particularly “precious source of light and energy.”3 Not one to brood over troubles, past or present, Dr. Kellogg maintained the confidence and drive that had characterized him as a youth. He basked in his now international fame; none other than Leo Tolstoy himself was an appreciative reader of Good Health, and Kellogg maintained an active correspondence with a number of prominent European physicians and scientists, including the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, who would set up a small research facility at the sanitarium.4

 

Conclusion: The Fall of the Temple of Health

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Conclusion

The Fall of the Temple of Health

As the Race Betterment Foundation faded from view in the 1960s, the Battle Creek Sanitarium was also heading toward a similar fate. Kellogg’s sanitarium had remained in a thriving condition throughout most of the 1920s, but by then the doctor was spending much of his time in Florida and the active management of the Battle Creek Sanitarium had passed to a board of directors under the leadership of Dr. Charles Stewart.1 In view of the continued popularity of the Battle Creek Sanitarium and its potential for growth, Dr. Stewart and the board embarked on a major expansion of the sanitarium’s main building, adding the massive twin Italianate towers that still form a distinctive landmark on the Battle Creek skyline. Significantly, however, Dr. Kellogg opposed the expansion, concerned that it signaled the shift of the sanitarium toward pure commercialism and away from the spiritual and humanitarian mission of the institution upon which he had always insisted. Although in many ways a business success, Kellogg consistently denounced the corrupting influence of commercialism throughout his career, both because he felt it compromised his credentials as a physician and because he refused to compromise his principles and sense of mission simply to make a profit.2 Dr. Kellogg, of course, was always happy to make money and lived well, but he spent the bulk of his profits on the sanitarium and other projects all in an effort to promote biologic living and, later, race betterment.3 Even at the height of the Roaring Twenties, Dr. Kellogg was still unwilling to subordinate his sacred mission to simple money getting. In this he was completely out of step with the utilitarian spirit of the rest of the nation.

 

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