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The Origins of the Battle Creek Health Reform Movement

By Stanley Cottrell, Pastor/Director, Historic Adventist Village


The health practices of the early 19th century advocated the use of calomel, antimony, opium, alcohol, mercury and bleeding in the treatment of disease.  Patients were denied the simple natural remedies of water, sunlight, fresh air and exercise.  Dr. John Harvey Kellogg wrote in 1876, regarding the old method of reducing fevers, “Twenty years ago, when a man had a fever, the doctors thought he had too much vitality – too much life – and so they bled him, and purged him, and poisoned him with calomel, and blue mass, and sundry other poisons, for the purpose of taking away from him a part of his vitality – his life – in other words, killing him a little.” [i]


The Adventists who lived in the west end of Battle Creek were not exempt from the illnesses that afflicted the general population.  Grave concern was expressed that during the year ending in the spring of 1866, “instead of increases of laborers, many of the more efficient ones then in the field” had “been entirely prostrated or afflicted in some way calculated to dishearten and cripple them.” [ii]  For several months official church business could not be conducted by the committees due to the sickness of the majority of the members.


The Seventh-day Adventist Church was officially organized at a General Conference Session in Battle Creek at the Second Meeting House, May 21-23, 1863.  Two weeks later, June 5 & 6, James and Ellen White were visiting in the home of Aaron Hilliard at Otsego, Michigan.  During that visit, Ellen White wrote, “the great subject of health reform was opened before me in vision.” [iii] But the outstanding feature of the vision was the presentation to Ellen White of the relation between physical health and spiritual health.


The Whites, as leaders of the church, had the responsibility of educating the people, who were preparing for eternal life, regarding the reforms they should make in their daily living.  Under the date of June 6, 1863, Ellen White wrote, “I saw that it was a sacred duty to attend to our health, and arouse others to their duty … We have a duty to speak, to come out against intemperance of every kind – intemperance in working, in eating, in drinking, in drugging – and then point them to God’s great medicine: water, pure soft water, for diseases, for health, for cleanliness, for luxury … I saw that we should not be silent upon the subject of health, but should wake up minds to the subject.” [iv]


On the morning of August 16, 1865, James White, aged 44, suffered a stroke of paralysis.  For five weeks everything possible was done for him at their home in Battle Creek.  But with no signs of improvement in sight, they decided to visit “Our Home on the Hillside” – a water cure establishment located at Dansville, New York – operated by Dr. James C. Jackson.   The Whites, who had been patients here previously, were now accompanied by two other physically and mentally fatigued (at age 33) church leaders, John N. Loughborough and Uriah Smith, editor of the Review and Herald.


After a stay of three months, the group left “Our Home” to attend a meeting of the Adventists in Rochester, New York, forty-five miles from Dansville.  Here they would stay for three weeks.  Their departure from Dr. Jackson’s cure was due to disagreements with his philosophy and principles.  The use of salt and all physical, mental and spiritual activities were forbidden.  The physicians especially disapproved of the prayer sessions for James White which were held three times each day in his room.  Amusements were a supposed necessity as a diversion from serious thoughts, because it was assumed by the physicians at “Our Home” that such thoughts were detrimental to the recovery of health.  This became an open issue between the Whites and the staff.


Ellen White wrote, “When Dr. Jackson and other physicians advanced and sought to sustain ideas that we could not receive from our religious standpoint, especially in regard to amusements and pleasure, dancing, card-playing, theater-going, etc., we could not see harmony between his religious teachings, and the teachings of Christ recorded in the New Testament.” [v]


She also stated, “We did not feel that the three months passed at this institution was in vain.  We did not receive all the ideas and sentiments and suggestions advanced, but we did gather many things of value from those who had obtained an experience in health reform.  We did not feel that there was any necessity of gathering the chaff with the wheat.”  [vi]


During their stay at Rochester, Ellen White received another vision on December 25, 1865, regarding health reform with added instruction.  “I was shown that our Sabbathkeeping people have been negligent in acting upon the light which God has given in regard to the health reform;  that there is yet great work before us; and that, as a people, we have been too backward to follow in God’s opening providence, as He has chosen to lead us. … While some feel deeply and act out their faith in the work, others remain indifferent and have scarcely taken the first step in reform.  … I was shown that we should provide a home for the afflicted and those who wish to learn how to take care of their bodies that they may prevent sickness. … Our people should have an institution of their own, under their own control, for the benefit of the diseased and suffering among us, who wish to have health and strength that they may glorify God in their bodies and spirits which are His.”  [vii]


This instruction was presented to the General Conference Committee during a four-day season of fasting and prayer early in May 1866.  The committee pledged to follow the instruction even though they questioned how they could obtain and control a health institution with limited funds.  John Loughborough went first to John Preston Kellogg, the father of John Harvey and W K. Kellogg, who pledged $500.  He assured Loughborough that he would venture this much in the enterprise whether it should succeed or not.  “Understand,” he said, “that five hundred dollars is a seed to start the institution, sink or swim.”  [viii] This pledge was matched by Ellen White.  Other pledges brought the total raised at the Church’s headquarters to $1,825.  John N. Andrews led the church at Olcott, New York, in pledging $800.  So, with $2,625 raised in the two churches, the campaign was launched.


A site of five acres, with a residence building, on North Washington Street in the city of Battle Creek was purchased from Benjamin Graves, a judge of the Michigan Superior Court.  A few weeks later an adjoining plot of two acres and another cottage were added.  During the summer a two-story addition was built onto the rear of the residence building.  A reservoir to hold water was on the second floor.  The treatment and bath rooms were on the first floor.  A windmill was erected on the property, which was capable, with a moderate breeze, of pumping water from a well to an elevation of eighty feet at the rate of one barrel every three to five minutes.  The water pumped into the second floor receiving tank could be drawn into a smaller heating tank and through pipes from both tanks to the bath rooms below.  This made it possible to temper the water to any degree of heat required for the various baths to be given.  [ix]


The Adventists were informed that the only state law in Michigan under which they could incorporate was one that included mining and manufacturing enterprises and made provision for the payment of dividends to stockholders.  This led to the plan of selling dividend-bearing shares.  The majority of the shares were later donated outright.  The Western Health Reform Institute was legally incorporated on April 9, 1867.  [x]


The institution opened on September 5, 1867.  Two doctors, Horatio S. Lay and Phoebe Lamson, constituted the medical staff.  There were “two bath attendants, one nurse (untrained), three or four helpers one patient, any amount of inconveniences, and a great deal of faith in the future of the institution and the principles on which it was founded.” [xi]


The opening of the Western Health Reform Institute (the designation “Western” would be dropped within a year) marked a new era in SDA history.  The building was situated on high ground in Battle Creek, a flourishing manufacturing town of about 5,000 people.  Screened from the street in front by a grove of trees, the Institute looked out in the rear on a landscape of hill, valley and stream.  It was in a location suitable for inculcating the principle of right living as a means of recovering and preserving the health through the “correct application of water, the right use of air, and a proper diet.” The equipment was meager, but adequate for the immediate work.  [xii]


Two months after the opening, Dr. Lay reported that the prosperity of the Institute was “far beyond our most sanguine expectations.” [xiii]  Patients had come from Canada, Vermont, Rhode Island, New York, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa.  Additional rooms nearby were secured for those who were able to walk a short distance, leaving the rooms in the main building for the accommodation of the more feeble patients.


By January 1867, just four months after the opening, Dr. Lay reported that not only was every room in the three buildings occupied, as well as neighboring homes, but “We do not dare to advertise the institution to any great extent for fear we shall not have place for those that may wish to come.” He urged that another large building be erected at once at a probable cost of $25,000 or more. [xiv]


Expansion plans were put on hold, however, since by September 1869, there were only eight paying patients and the institution had a debt of over $13,000.  How could something that started out so well be on the verge of closing its doors?  The answer lies in poor fiscal management, poor economy, the number of charity patients and the lack of public confidence in the medical staff who had not graduated from the best medical schools.


That all changed when John Harvey Kellogg, M.D., the son of J. P. Kellogg and a graduate of Bellevue Medical College in New York City, joined the staff in 1875.  He agreed to stay for a year, but the next year, at age 24, he was appointed medical superintendent, a position he maintained until his death at age 91, on December 14, 1943.  By 1877 patients were again filling the rooms and the Institute had been renamed the Medical and Surgical Sanitarium.  When someone remarked tat the work “sanitarium” was not in the dictionary, Dr. Kellogg replied that it soon would be.


With the increase in patients and public confidence, expansion of the facilities was necessary.  A four-story brick veneer building, 136 feet in length, was dedicated in April 1878.  In 1884 a five-story addition containing a gymnasium, dining room seating 400 people, serving room and kitchen and a storeroom was built to the south at a cost of $50,000.  A separate five-story hospital, 60’ by 100’, built for surgical and charitable work, was dedicated in 1888.  Two years later another five-story extension was added to the north end of the main building at a cost of $50,000 and the original section was raised one story.  A brick dormitory, 90’ by 100’, was erected in 1894, for the 150 or more women nurses.  In 1895 further additions were made, the hydrotherapy space was enlarged and a chapel seating about 400 was added.


By the end of the century, the “San” as it was affectionately known, employed more than 900 workers.  They not only provided health care, but also operated that farms that supplied produce, milk and eggs for the patients.  The original seven acres had grown to nearly 1,000 acres and included a farm of 150 acres northwest of the San, a 150 acre farm northeast of the San devoted entirely to vegetables and fruit, and another of 120 acres on the south side of Goguac Lake.  [xv]


The Battle Creek Sanitarium achieved international reputation under the direction of Dr. Kellogg.  It grew from one patient in 1866 to 1200 patients in 1929.  It was the largest health care institution of its kind in the world.  The original buildings burned to the ground on February 18, 1902.  Just 14 months later, on May 31, 1903, the new five-story brick structure was dedicated.  The building, now the Federal Center, still stands today on the original location on Washington Street.


From this small beginning in 1866, the Adventists have established more than 500 health care centers around the world that teach and practice abstinence from alcohol and tobacco, the use of natural remedies – nutrition, exercise, water, sunlight, temperance, air, rest, and trust in God – as well as cutting-edge modern medical science.  These institutions include the Charles F. Kettering Medical Center in Dayton, Ohio;  Hinsdale Sanitarium and Hospital in Hinsdale, Illinois;  Florida Hospital in Orlando, Florida; and Loma Linda University Medical Center in Loma Linda, California.


Adventists believe in caring for the whole body physically, mentally, and spiritually in order that total health may not only be achieved, but maintained.  This is our legacy.  And it all began in Battle Creek.



[i] The Health Reformer, January 1876, Battle Creek, MI

[ii] Review and Herald, April 17, 1866, Battle Creek, NI

[iii] Ibid, October 8, 1867

[iv] E. G. White Letter 4, 1863

[v] Review and Herald, February 20, 1866

[vi] E. G. White MS 1, 1867

[vii] Testimonies for the Church, vol. 1, pp. 485-492

[viii] Medical Missionary, May 1899, Extra

[ix] Review and Herald, October 2, 1866

[x] Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia, vol. 10, second revised edition, 1996, p. 174

[xi] The Story of Our Health Message, Dores E. Robinson, p. 153

[xii] SDA Encyclopedia, p. 174

[xiii] The Health Reformer, November 1866

[xiv] Review and Herald, January 8, 1867

[xv] SDA Encyclopedia, p. 175