Possibly one of the most profound ways that Adventism has influenced the wider culture has been through healthful living. From breakfast cereals, courtesy of the Kellogg brothers, to cutting edge surgeries such as when Leonard Bailey transplanted a baboon’s heart into a human infant known as “Baby Fae,” to proton treatments, Adventists are recognized for their innovations that have changed everyday lives, whether people realize it or not, in significant ways. Even more recently, National Geographic recognized those Adventists living in the Loma Linda area as one of the “blue zones” of longest living people groups on the planet.

While perusing the archives recently, I came across a series of letters from I. H. Evans, the first president of the North American Division (1913-1918) who, during his leadership, was responsible for several initiatives. One of the most significant was the need for a site for physicians and nurses connected to the College of Medical Evangelists at Loma Linda (today, Loma Linda University) for clinical training. But since the institution was in the rural San Bernardino area with not enough people to support such a facility (hard to imagine today!), it was decided that it was an imperative necessity that such a hospital be built in downtown Los Angeles.

In a newly discovered letter by G. I. Butler, former church president, he expressed his strong support for naming the institution after Ellen G. White, as the White Memorial Hospital (an Adventist healthcare facility that continues to exist in Los Angeles, California). He described it as the “crowning feature” of the Adventist medical training work that showed the rest of the world that Adventists care for and desire to uplift “suffering humanity.” He added: “Sister White has been the apostle of this health movement among our people and the world. Light from heaven came through her to our people on this stupendous subject.” He recounted what a blessing this health message has been in the development of the church as many other health institutions have been and continue to function around the globe.

So, what was the health message?

Adventist historians have, for many years, recognized that there were many health reformers in the nineteenth century. And so it is not surprising that a movement that was birthed in the crucible of reform would recognize how important it is to live a healthy and whole life. In fact, one of my favorite books is a book highlighting the supposed “good ‘ol days” that were indeed terrible! In addition to shortened lifespans, which was typically dependent on the region and decade, one could, if you were fortunate, live into your 30s or maybe your 40s. This is approximately half of what it is today. Dangerous drugs were regularly prescribed, and American physicians were generally perceived as some of the most backward in the world. Oliver Wendell Holmes once famously quipped: “I firmly believe that if the whole materia medica could be sunk to the bottom of the sea it would be all the better for mankind and all the worse for the fishes.”

Ellen G. White, in a series of visions, would come to increasingly recognize the significance of health reform. Her most far-reaching vision on the subject occurred at the home of Aaron and Lydia Hillard, Adventists living in Otsego, Michigan, when on Friday evening, June 5, 1863, Ellen G. White had a health reform vision. During those 45 minutes, as she later recounted, she discovered eight “true remedies” (as found in Ministry of Healing, pg. 127): pure air, sunlight, abstemiousness, rest, exercise, proper diet, use of water, and trust in divine power.

What is not as well known is that this prescriptive use of natural remedies was far from unique to Adventists. As already pointed out, there were many other health reformers of her day, but what did, in fact, make it unique was the spiritual and holistic emphasis. The notion that we are a whole person composed of body, mind, and spirit (or spiritual). This holistic emphasis was reflected in how Adventists understood the state of the dead (as a sleep until the resurrection) to other aspects of Adventism such as the unique nature of Adventist education (once again, most Adventist school logos and mottos will often reflect these three aspects of body, mind, and spirit). In other words, Adventist health reform was unique and significant because of this spiritual component and emphasized the composition of the whole person.

Every person has a sacred responsibility to observe health laws, or natural laws, just as they take seriously the law of God, such as the seventh-day Sabbath, and keep it out of love. This latter part was especially important because some people might view it as some sort of legalistic obligation, but as early Adventist health reformers (and especially Ellen G. White) emphasized, following these natural laws contributed to a happier and longer life. God knows what is best for us and wants us to be in relationship with Him to the best of our ability.

Gerald Wheeler has noted that these early understandings about what was right and wrong were “strongly conditioned by cultural, as well as time factors.” During this time “the white middle-class population felt threatened by their own declining birth rate and a rising tide of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe. They saw political control slipping from their grasp. The authors of the popular health articles saw in the eight laws of health a means of keeping the women of the white middle class in good health so they could have more children. They believed that the future of the nation literally rested on the health and fertility of the Anglo-Saxon Protestant women.” 1 In other words, through the prophetic gift, Ellen G. White was able to select from culture what was valuable and timeless from that which was not helpful.

Ellen G. White also recognized that the health message had strategic value, not only for living a healthier life, but also for helping to improve the lives of others. “The medical missionary work is as the right arm to the third angel’s message which must be proclaimed … They awaken spiritual joy and melody in the hearts of those who have been free from suffering, and thanksgiving to God arises from the lips of many.” 2 Elsewhere she wrote: “The health reform, I was shown, is a part of the third angel’s message, and is just as closely connected with it as are the arm and hand with the human body. I saw that we as a people must make an advance move in this great work.” 3

Another Adventist pioneer, J. H. Waggoner, wrote in 1866 about how “we do not profess to be pioneers in the general principles of health reform.” Instead, “we do claim that by the method of God’s choice it has been more clearly and powerfully unfolded and is thereby producing an effect which we could not have looked for from any other means.” 4 In other words, through the prophetic gift, God was helping our spiritual forebears to realize that he truly does love and care for us. In fact, as a group recognized as a “blue zone” or some of the longest living people on earth, this knowledge is a blessing meant to be both experienced and shared with others. The true test of Adventist health reform is that it should make us live healthier and happier lives. It is therefore only fitting that in 1916, as Adventist church leaders wrestled with what to name the new hospital, that they named it after Ellen G. White herself.

The Adventist understanding of healthful living, along with many creative innovations in its wake, continues to undergird one of the largest medical systems in the world. And arguably, continues to be one of the most profound ways that Adventism has and continues to shape the culture around them.

Michael W. Campbell, PhD, is director of archives, statistics, and research for the North American Division of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. He has spent over a decade teaching in higher education in schools in Texas and the Philippines. Previously he pastored in Kansas and in the Rocky Mountain Conference. He is married to Heidi, a PhD candidate at Baylor University, and they have two teenage children, Emma, and David.

1  Wheeler, G. “The Historical Basis of Adventist Standards,” Ministry, Oct. 1989, pg. 10-11.

2  White, Ellen G.  Testimonies for the Church, vol. 6, p. 229.

3  White, Ellen G.   Counsels on Diets and Foods, p. 74.

4  Waggoner, J.H.  Review and Herald, August 7, 1866.