By Mark B. Johnson

I have often been asked why it is that Adventist health- care, which had such a wonderful blueprint for health so early in our history, and was originally so universally admired, has never quite been able to regain our past reputation or obtain the credit we so richly deserve for our unique and inspired views on health reform.

This article provides some thoughts on that question and how Adventist healthcare might fit our blueprint today.

You’re not going to like what I have to say.

The assumptions behind the question are inaccurate— our work in healthcare has never been as exceptional or as innovative as many Adventists believe and Dr. John Harvey Kellogg was a quack.

Please, hear me out.

It can be argued that Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, under the initial guidance of Ellen G. White, was the founding medical authority for the ministry of healing in the Adventist church. Taking over the struggling Western Health Reform Institute in 1876, he almost single-handedly turned it into the most renowned health facility of his time. I’m sure you’ve heard how his Battle Creek Sanitarium attracted many rich and famous luminaries.

What you may not have heard is that most of these celebrities also spent time at the Bernarr Macfadden Sanitorium in Battle Creek, at the Jackson Sanitorium in Dansville, New York, and at many other health spas around the world. In the late 1800s, that’s what rich people did. They spa-hopped.

America in the late 1800s was saturated with ideas on health and fitness. It was a time of great enthusiasm for better living but with very little science on which to base sound recommendations. There were myriad “health faddists” from whom one could obtain “inspirational” guidance, and innumerable quacks, promoting and profiting from “unsubstantiated methods that lacked scientifically plausible rationales for their therapies.”

Orthodox medicine was using “heroic” measures that had no scientific basis and was dispensing useless and dangerous medications, often with high concentrations of alcohol, opium, cocaine and other noxious substances. This made the “natural” philosophies much more appealing. Most Americans felt that nature was the best physician, and the prevalent populist philosophy taught that everyone had the God-given right to care for themselves and their families. It is still a popular feeling today.

Many “medical schools” at that time required no prior education and their courses often lasted only 16 to 20 weeks. Most “medical students” were apprenticed to an established doctor and set out on their own when he (doctors were usually male) thought they were ready. There were no accredit- ing bodies and many states had no medical licensing requirements.

The confused condition of medical education and the haphazard practices of medicine in the United States were so substandard that in 1910, under the aegis of the Carnegie Foundation, Abraham Flexner did an investigation of the 155 medical schools then in operation in America and Canada. He recommended that 124 of them be closed. He also advocated for educational reforms and endorsed state licensure for the practice of medicine.

Ellen G. White and John Harvey Kellogg lived through this time of upheaval in American medical education. Kellogg obtained his training both at Dr. Russell Trall’s Hygieo-Therapeutic College, which specialized in hydrotherapy, and at New York University’s Bellevue Hospital, which practiced more orthodox medicine.

He then became a celebrity, known for his writings on health reform, his food creations and exercise equipment inventions and his status as a surgeon. Many questions have been raised, however, regarding his peculiar views on sex, pantheism, hydrotherapy, the application of electricity and his prodigious use of enemas. He was seen as one of the greatest physicians of his time, but today you will find him referenced almost exclusively in books and articles on quackery.

The practices at both the Western Health Reform Institute and the Battle Creek Sanitarium stemmed, in large part, from two visions Ellen G. White had on health reform which focused on natural cures and lifestyle choices. This has been called our healthcare blueprint: the use of water, air, light, heat, food, rest, exercise and light labor; trust in God; abstinence from alcohol, tobacco and stimulants; and the correct use of the will. These natural remedies are currently reflected in the Weimar Institute’s NEWSTART program (Nutrition, Exercise, Water, Sunlight, Temperance, Air, Rest and Trust), and in AdventHealth’s CREATION Health curriculum (Choice, Rest, Environment, Activity, Trust in God, Interpersonal relationships, Outlook and Nutrition).

These remedies have the advantage of being natural. They use modalities that are free to all. Their judicious use has quantifiable health benefits. None of them requires the use of expensive drugs or technical equipment. You do not need a license to prescribe or practice them. They do not require certification. Anyone can use them. Anyone can train others in their use. Anyone can claim to be an authority in their use.

But none of these natural remedies is unique to Adventist health reform and we were not the first to advocate for the use of any of them.

So, is there anything special about Adventist healthcare?

I believe there is, and I believe it forms a crucial element in the beliefs of a church that claims to have a special interest in end time events.

Ellen G. White and John Harvey Kellogg had a stormy struggle over what course healthcare should take in the Seventh-day Adventist denomination. Ellen White won the initial skirmishes, but the war is far from over. The fight, as I see it, is still being fought along two main battle lines: the role of science in healthcare and healing as an integral part of the Gospel.

Almost all the health reformers of the 1800s eventually went down the path of Vitalism, the belief that there is a mystical, invisible, unmeasurable energy source which is the basis of all life and causes disease when it is out of balance.

In the New Consciousness and in much of holistic health, (this energy) appears under a variety of aliases, such as universal life energy, vital forces, Ch’i, bioplasma, para-electricity, and animal magnetism. We are told that . . . this energy pervades everything in the universe, unites each individual to the cosmos, and is the doorway to untapped human potential. It is at the root of all healing, all psychic abilities, all so-called miraculous occurrences. It is what religions have called God. It is the crucial link between science and religion, and it is awaiting our command.1

Kellogg was on a similar mystical trajectory when Ellen White and the Adventist leadership blocked him. Ellen White, almost uniquely among early health reformers, came to support evidence-based science working together with religion. She feared mystical fanaticism.

There is constant danger of allowing something to come into our midst that we may regard as the workings of the Holy Spirit, but that in reality is the fruit of a spirit of fanaticism. . . . I am afraid of anything that would have a tendency to turn the mind away from the solid evidences of the truth as revealed in God’s Word. I am afraid of it: I am afraid of it. We must bring our minds within the bounds of reason, lest the enemy so come in as to set everything in a disorderly way. (2 Selected Messages, p. 43)

She also warned that in the last days satanic forces would both cause and cure diseases and that there would be many “spurious works of healing,” claiming to be divine. I fear that many Adventists are not prepared to evaluate such supernatural manifestations of healing, but we have been clearly forewarned that they are coming.

I believe our church also continues to struggle along the other battle line over which Ellen White and Kellogg engaged. Kellogg moved more and more to calling health re- form a social good, a way of reaching and helping people in need. He began to avoid talking about the spiritual aspects of health care. Once again, Ellen White directly confronted him. Our medical ministry was not just a social way of look- ing compassionate. Physicians and ministers were to be equal partners in the presentation of the Gospel, and health care was a clear revelation of the Gospel, an allegory that revealed our need for both physical and spiritual healing. I like the way Chuck Sandefur, past-president of the Rocky Mountain Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, described it in a presentation at an Adventist Health System meeting in 2013:

To do health care well and to transform people’s lives is not some sort of marketing ploy for the Gospel; it’s not a (prelude) to the Gospel; it doesn’t lead to the Gospel; it doesn’t help us think about the Gospel; it doesn’t warm people up for the Gospel—it is the Gospel!

We no longer have sanitaria. We now have hospitals. Most of them are very good and are known to be good, but we don’t have anything approaching the reputation of the Battle Creek Sanitarium. I believe this would please Ellen White if she were alive today. Medicine and the care of the sick has changed dramatically since her day. Few people “hospital-hop,” searching for a celebrity physician and a months-long course of diet, exercise, education, and enemas. Our institutions continue to offer well-received educational programs on healthy eating, active living, smoking cessation and other beneficial lifestyle changes, but now with well- documented evidence-based data and no particular concern over who gets the credit.

Our healthcare blueprint should not just be to produce more “blue zones” where old folks live 7 to 10 more years of active life. Our goal should be to help prepare folks to live forever. Our blueprint is not to provide natural “holistic” alternative care but is to provide whole person care for the physical, mental and spiritual aspects of the multidimensional unities that God created us to be. Let us give Dr. Kellogg his due recognition for peanut butter, corn flakes, granola, and the mechanical slapping massage device, but let us be thankful that our healthcare ministry has so far withstood the forces that, on the one hand, wish to take us down the path of mystical Vitalism, or, on the other hand, just want us to be seen as good people doing good things for folks who are ill.

–Mark B. Johnson, M.D.,  has directed Jefferson County Public Health for the past 30 years. He has taught a course on the history of medicine and public health at the Colorado School of Public Health for 10 years. Mark is a member of Boulder Adventist Church, and may be contacted at: [email protected]


1 Paul C. Reisser, M.D., Teri K. Reisser and John Weldon, The Holistic Healers: A Christian Perspective on New-Age Health Care, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1983), pp. 33, 34.