The Grace-filled Health Message
Comprehensive health ministry in action
By Peter N. Landless
The end of the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth century found health care in the United States in turmoil! Bloodletting1 was a standard treatment, as was the liberal use of heavy-metal derivatives (mercurials), arsenicals, alcohol in diverse concoctions, tobacco, and opiates. Calomel, a mercury compound, was a standard treatment for many ailments, including yellow fever. It was given to patients as a purgative (laxative), often to the point that their hair and teeth fell out from mercury poison.
This was indeed the age of “heroic medicine,” representing aggressive methods and practices used well into the nineteenth century. The already-weakened bodies of the ailing were further stressed by these dangerous and unproven methods, resulting in more harm than good—albeit well intentioned and even well accepted by the medical community of the time. D. E. Robinson in his informative book The Story of Our Health Message terms these years as “the times of ignorance.”
Debates raged within the “medical fraternity” of North America, Britain, and Europe about the effectiveness of such treatments. The pendulum swung between the attempts of “heroic” medicine to decrease excessive vitality, which may have manifested as a fever, to the use of stimulants, as well as alcohol, in order to replenish vitality (which had been thought to cause the fever in the first place!). Diet and sanitation were all but ignored as being important for a patient’s well-being and restoration to health. At this time, movements of therapeutic reform also were arising.
While we as a church often claim “health reform” as an Adventist invention, that’s not really the case. “Health reform” described the process of change occurring in response to the dismal “therapies” being used at the time. Long before the Great Disappointment in 1844, Joseph Bates, a sea captain, who subsequently became a cofounder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, abandoned the use of tobacco in 1823. In 1824 he gave up all forms of alcohol, and before 1838 he had discarded the use of tea and coffee. Of the latter he’s reported to have said: “It is poison. It had such an effect on me that I could not rest or sleep until after midnight.” In 1845 he was convinced of the seventh-day Sabbath truth, and in 1846 he joined James and Ellen White in proclaiming this and other fundamental beliefs now held by the Adventist Church. It’s interesting that in 1843 he ceased eating meat, and previously he had stopped using butter, grease, cheese, and other such foods. He was gratified when others followed his example.
A much more strident advocate of health reform was Sylvester Graham. Born July 5, 1794, he became a Presbyterian minister. He grew interested in nutrition, and in 1837 wrote his ideas in The Graham Journal. He advocated that the chief foods should be fruits and vegetables, that bread should be unrefined, cream should be used instead of butter, and flesh meat and fish should be avoided, as well as tea, coffee, wine, and tobacco in all forms. Graham also advocated the taking of a daily bath/shower, and exercise in the open air.2
Instruction From the Lord
"Caring for our health enables us to better serve God and our fellow beings."
In 1848 the Lord revealed to Ellen White the harmful effects of tobacco, tea, and coffee. In 1860 the fledgling “movement of destiny” formally adopted the name “Seventh-day Adventist.” It wasn’t until 1863 that Ellen White received the major vision on health, which she did not write out until 1864. In its principal content it focused on the need for James White to guard his health. The vision was given in Otsego, Michigan, United States, on June 6, 1863, at the home of Brother A. Hilliard. It occurred at the opening of the Sabbath, reinforcing the importance and interconnectedness of Christ-centered spirituality and health. Of the vision she wrote: “I saw that now we should take special care of the health God has given us, for our work was not yet done.”3
In the ensuing months, because of increasing work pressures, Ellen White delayed writing out the contents of her vision. It was not until the following year that she was able to write the chapter “Health” in Spiritual Gifts, volume 4, followed by six tracts titled Health: or How to Live in 1865. The ideas expressed were very close to those espoused by Sylvester Graham, Trall, and Jackson, but when asked whether she had gleaned ideas from them, she stated: “I had not, neither should I [have] read them till I had fully written out my views, lest it should be said that I have received my light upon the subject of health from physicians, and not from the Lord.”4
Finding concordance with her ideas and those of others expressed in The Laws of Life by Trall, Jackson, and others, she then published the book How to Live, incorporating into it material “largely extracted from the works referred to.”5 We can therefore trace the beginning of Adventist health ministry to 1863.
Although others emphasized aspects of health reform, the Otsego vision brought the clarion message that it’s a spiritual duty to care for the body temple and clearly revealed the wholistic integration of body, mind, and spirit. Additionally, the principles of sufficient rest; sunshine; balanced nutrition; temperance; trust in God; exercise; water; and breathing pure, fresh air have stood the test of time and scientific scrutiny.
Another important emphasis that emerged from the Otsego health vision is that caring for our health enables us to better serve God and our fellow beings. Although it’s a wonderful blessing to enjoy good health, this health is not the end in itself. We are saved to serve. Both James and Ellen White needed to make important changes in their lifestyle in order to maintain and enhance their ability to serve, and this too was revealed in the 1863 vision.
On Christmas Day 1865 the Lord gave Ellen White another health vision. This time, far more than the health of her husband and specific individuals was outlined. The social and mission aspects of health ministry were emphasized.
The philosophy for operating health-care institutions was now enunciated. Adventist institutions would address not only physical needs but also spiritual and moral ones. The “whole person” care so pivotal to Adventist mission was emphasized. A few weeks after the 1866 General Conference session Ellen White again wrote of the need for ministers and members to lay hold of the message of health reform and urged Adventists to establish an institution of their own. This served as the impetus for a health-care initiative that now has a footprint throughout much of the globe.
Some years later she wrote: “We have come to a time when every member of the church shall take hold of medical missionary work. The world is a lazar house filled with victims of both physical and spiritual disease. Everywhere people are perishing for lack of a knowledge of the truths that have been committed to us. The members of the church are in need of an awakening, that they may realize their responsibility to impart these truths.”6 This is a call to comprehensive health ministry—personally and corporately as a church—graciously sharing, caring, preaching, teaching, healing, and discipling.
As a church, we have been blessed with a privileged revelation of how to live life to the full. It’s a sacred duty for us to care for the body temple and to spend and be spent in service to a broken world that is crying out for a grace-filled revelation of Jesus Christ through His followers and the precious truths entrusted to them. Let us answer that call and honor Him in body, mind, and spirit in order to “preserve every power in the best conditions for highest service to God and man.”7
1 The withdrawal of usually small quantities of blood from a patient to cure or prevent illness and disease.
2 George Knight, Lest We Forget (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2008), p. 65.
3 Ellen G. White, Selected Messages (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958, 1980), book 3, p. 279.
4 Ibid., p. 277.
6 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 7, p. 62.
7 Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1905), p. 319.
Peter N. Landless, a board-certified nuclear cardiologist, is director of the General Conference Health Ministries Department.