Pre-Ellen White Health Reformers: Was Ellen White Really Ahead of Her Time?
By Dirk Anderson
Many Adventists are surprised to learn Mrs. White brought few, if any, new health reforms to the world. Other popular health reformers were promoting most, if not all of her teachings on health, before she began teaching them.
Influence of Methodist Founder John Wesley1
Having been raised up in the Methodist church, Mrs. White was most likely familiar with the writings and practices of church founder John Wesley. Wesley believed that health and healing were an integral part of the gospel message. In 1746, as a young evangelist Wesley studied medicine and began visiting the sick. He prescribed various natural remedies for their health problems. By 1753, he was testing the curative powers of electricity, which he described as the "most efficacious medicine, in nervous disorders of every kind, which has ever yet been discovered."
He authored a number of books on health reform. Here are some of the health reforms he practiced and advocated in the 1700s:
In addition to his many books and tracts on health, Wesley founded a system of Methodist hospitals that is one of the largest private healthcare systems in the world today.
Influence of Elder Joseph Bates
Health reform was an important subject amongst some Adventist pioneers, particularly Captain Joseph Bates. There is no doubt that Bates had a strong influence on the Whites and the development of the early SDA Church. Bates was a health reformer who quit using tobacco in 1821 and crusaded against "tobacco and snuff boxes, and pipes." He further decried the use or trafficking of "alcoholic drinks, from brandy to cider, and beer."2 According to the White Estate, "He later quit using tea and coffee and in 1843 became a vegetarian."3 Dr. Ronald Numbers advises us that Bates also stopped using "butter, cheese, greasy foods, and rich pastries."4 Thus, by 1843, Bates had already laid the foundation for the SDA "health message" even before he met Ellen and James White.
Health Reforms of Mrs. Marie Louise Shew5
In 1844, a full 19 years before Mrs. White's first "vision" on health reform, Mrs. M.L. Shew published the third edition of an 156-page book on health reform entitled Water Cure for Ladies: a Popular Work on the Health, Diet, and Regimen of Females and Children, and the Prevention and Care of Diseases. In it she teaches the following:
Fellow Prophet Joseph Smith
In 1833, thirty years before Ellen White's first health reform "vision", the Prophet Joseph Smith received his health reform vision. Smith wrote out following health reforms:6
Today Mormons proclaim that Joseph Smith was "years ahead" of modern-day science. As further proof of the divine origin of Prophet Smith's revelation they point to the fact that the average Latter Day Saint outlives the average American by approximately 7 years.7
Health Reforms of Sylvester Graham
Sylvester Graham was a minister and a prominent health reformer. In 1849, Graham promoted the following reforms in a book:8
Furthermore, Graham was opposed to both marital excess and solitary vice (masturbation). Graham believed that stimulating foods aroused the sexual passions. Therefore, he concluded that one of the best ways to control sexual urges was to adopt a vegetarian diet and forsake condiments, spices, alcohol, tea, and coffee.9
Two-Meals-a-Day from Dio Lewis
In the 1850s, Dio Lewis became a nationally recognized lecturer on health reform in the United States. He taught many of the same things as Graham, but he added the reform of eating only two meals a day. The Whites were well acquainted with Dr. Lewis. In Mrs. White's biography, grandson Arthur notes that in the early 1860's:
"The Review and Herald, edited by James White and Uriah Smith, occasionally carried items on rest, fresh air, exercise, et cetera, selected from other journals or from the writings of a Dr. Dio Lewis. Quite often articles and admonitions discouraging the use of tobacco, tea, and coffee were included."10
Not only were the Whites familiar with Dr. Lewis' health writings, but in 1871, they actually visited his home in Boston and held a private discussion with him.11
Dr. William A. Alcott
Health reformer and author William Alcott proposed many of the reforms that Ellen White later adopted:12
Millerite Reformer Larkin Coles
Larkin B. Coles was less known than Graham or Lewis. However, he is of special interest to Adventists because he was a Millerite preacher-physician. Before his death in 1856, he authored two books on health. In his books he advocated fresh air, exercise, a vegetarian diet, non-use of stimulants, reform in dress, sexual purity, and drugless medicine. Mrs. White obtained a copy of Cole's book on health, and a large number of her health writings appear strikingly similar to Coles' writings. She rarely disagrees with Coles on any health subject, and nearly every health reform that Coles proposed in his book, later showed up in her books.
Coles not only warned against meat eating because it increased the animal propensities, but he also discussed the connection between meat-eating and disease. He was noteworthy for sounding a warning (which others health reformers had already voiced) that there was a relationship between tobacco use and carcinomas.13
Ellen White and Health Reform
Ellen White was a "late-comer" to health reform. She did not receive her first "vision" on health reform until 1863, a full 30 years after Prophet Joseph Smith's vision. While Mrs. White was still feasting on pork in the early 1850s, the health reform movement was in full swing in America. Health and temperance lecturers traveled throughout the country, speaking in churches and halls, promoting the vegetarian diet, and warning against alcohol, tobacco, and corsets. A full decade before Mrs. White received her "vision" on health reform, all the major tenets of her health teachings were being taught by nationally-known non-Adventist Christian health crusaders.
Her First Attempt at Health Reform
Mrs. White's first attempt at health reform was to write a book called Appeal to Mothers, published in 1864. Like Sylvester Graham's efforts two decades earlier, Mrs. White warned her church members about the terrible health dangers of masturbation. On the first page she warns of the astonishing numbers of deaths caused by masturbation:
"Have you observed the astonishing mortality among the youth?"14
According to Mrs. White, not only does masturbation cause death and a wide range of physical ailments, it also causes mental health problems:
"The mind is often utterly ruined, and insanity takes place."15
Needless to say, Appeal to Mothers is no longer available in print. Like many of her other writings and visions that were proven to be false, this book was withdrawn from publication.
While she never achieved the fame in the health reform arena attained by fellow prophet Mary Baker Eddy--whose first book Science and Health, published in 1875, sold over 10 million copies--Mrs. White's later efforts proved more successful. With the assistance of her staff of professional writers and editors, she was able to produce a much better health reform book which is still available today: Ministry of Healing.
Perhaps Mrs. White had the opportunity to read Mrs. Eddy's book: