This article examines discourses in early Seventh-day Adventist health publications with particular attention to the ways that disability played into discussions of vegetarianism. In the nineteenth to twentieth centuries, the Adventist church was at the forefront of conversations in western countries about the value of a meat-free diet. During this time, Adventist health publications made or echoed a variety of arguments in support of vegetarian eating. Pervasive in these arguments were ableist tropes calculated to show how vegetarianism equated to youth, physical stamina, beauty, and intellectual superiority. This rhetoric effectively used disability to craft a vision of vegetarians as white, upwardly mobile people who conformed to traditional gender roles. Disability thus served to demarcate insiders from outsiders by underlining perceived differences between genders, races, and classes of people.


In June 1863, a woman named Ellen Gould Harmon White recounted a vision she had received instructing the fledgling Seventh-day Adventist church on the importance of health reform. White went on to write about the vision in 1864, when she cautioned church members against intemperance, including consumption of alcohol, seasonings, and flesh foods or meats. She described the gradual decline of the "kind husband and father" who begins by eating "highly seasoned animal food" and then succumbs to "a feverish state of the system" characterized by "impure" blood, "not equalized" circulation, chills, and fever. Ultimately, these men are "degraded…to beasts." In a series of writings that spanned the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, White continued to urge church members to abstain from eating meat in order to avoid the kind of dysregulated body she had described after her first vision (1864b, 125.2).

It is no coincidence that Ellen White introduced the church's new health message by calling on discourses about disability. The early Adventist church assumed as a core belief the understanding that the body is the "temple of the Holy Spirit" (English Standard Version Bible, 2001, 1 Cor. 6:19) and should, therefore, manifest health and purity. The church ascribed many disabilities—physical and mental limitations—to the consequences of sin and maintained a strong belief in the individual's ability to achieve strength, health, and mental vigor through rigorous attention to spiritual principles such as chastity outside of wedlock, abstention from alcohol and drugs, and vegetarianism. Writing in 1864, White instructed church members to carefully avoid vices like masturbation because succumbing to these sinful practices had produced what she regarded as physical and mental aberration. As she wrote in An Appeal to Mothers:

Everywhere I looked, I saw imbecility, dwarfed forms, crippled limbs, misshapen heads, and deformity of every description. Sins and crimes, and the violation of nature's laws, were shown to me as the causes of this accumulation of human woe and suffering. (1864a, 17.1).

This theological context meant that disability, or deviation from perceived physical and mental norms, emerged in the Adventist church as a frequent fear, fixation, and measure of community belonging.

White's writings constitute one piece of the larger health movement in the United States and western Europe, and as such, they exemplify a growing desire to construct community belonging on the basis of clear bodily evidence. As Ellen Samuels (2014) has argued, the rise of urbanization, industrialization, colonialism, and increased class mobility resulted in a crisis in the west regarding "identifiability and governability of the individual bodies making up the bodies politic" (pg. 1). Specifically, reformers, cultural creators, and authority figures became increasingly concerned about "embodied social identities" that deviated from a perceived "natural" or "normal" ideal that was "historically defined in opposition to disability" (Samuels, pp. 1, 14-15). In this context, western nations were drawn to "fantasies of identification" often constructed using disability as an undesirable counterpoint or a "trope of physicality" that demonstrated "an inherent and incontrovertible difference" (Samuels, p. 31). These narratives found a basis in the idea that a "tide of disability from without and within threatened to swamp the nation" (Welke, p. 119).

This article uses Samuels' intersectional framework to examine vegetarian discourses in Adventist publications dating from 1880 to 1910. In these publications, writers repeatedly represent vegetarians as healthy, strong, and able-bodied in contrast to the degraded, disabled other. These discourses served to demarcate boundaries around church identity but they were also constructed to suggest that vegetarianism was a favorable condition in that it aligned with racial purity, upward class mobility, and "natural" separation of gender roles. Adventist health publications thus celebrated whiteness, class refinement, and social structures that made women responsible for the family's nutritional, moral, and physical well-being.

Significantly, disability provided a logic for these boundaries. It was a condition to be cured, corralled, or hidden away and, therefore, provided a rationale for separating people on the basis of gender, class, or race. Meat-eaters (often identified as either underperforming white people or low-class people of color) were classified as mentally unwell and physically maimed. As a result, they were presented as exotic or grotesque "others" to be missionized and healed by church members—including white women, who themselves were relegated to the kitchen and the home where soft, weak bodies could be kept safe.

Female church members like Ellen White occupied an especially conflicted space within these discourses, in that they were both empowered by their authority in the home and limited by their narrow gender roles (see Walden, 2018, for more on women's rhetoric in food-centered spaces). Even though they were complicit participants in racist, classist discourses, women were assigned roles on the basis of their own perceived ability. Thus, vegetarianism provided a logic for placing people in their proper or "natural" places as determined by their ability/disability. In the end, early vegetarian discourses—while novel—did little to overturn traditional hegemonic structures privileging able-bodied white men and women who asserted their physical and moral fiber by denying themselves meat and further by missionizing, caretaking, or rehabilitating community outsiders.

History of Vegetarianism and Health Reform

Seventh-day Adventists were not the first to advocate vegetarianism but this Protestant movement did emerge at a time when health reform was of particular interest in western countries. In the United States, Sylvester Graham led reforms in the 1830s when he began advocating against processed breads, alcohol, meat consumption, and "impure" practices such as masturbation. Graham influenced other health reformers who, in the intervening years before the Civil War, connected vegetarianism to broader reform efforts such as abolitionism, women's rights, and pacifism (Shprintzen, 2013, p. 7).

In the years following the Civil War, vegetarianism took up a more mainstream status thanks in part to efforts by John Harvey Kellogg, the Adventist doctor who drew wealthy and influential people from across the country and the world to pursue healing at Battle Creek Sanitarium. Shprintzen has argued that Kellogg marked a transition toward a more corporate, more upper-class rendition of vegetarianism in which restaurants, medical facilities, and companies touted manufactured health goods (p. 8). Indeed, Kellogg and others in the postbellum period responded to portrayals of vegetarians as "enfeebled faddists," by insisting that vegetarianism produced "morally and socially industrious individuals" (pp. 7-8). These reformers, in effect, sought to normalize the experience of abstaining from eating meat and, in the process, summoned various arguments that will be analyzed in this paper.

Health-reform narratives like the ones propagated by Kellogg have been examined by researchers who were interested in how Americans sought to formulate national identity around the turn of the century. For instance, Joan Burbick (1994) argued that authors, physicians, and asylums in the United States all helped construct fictional narratives about health and national identity. By controlling bodies, these narratives effectively constructed authority and control on the basis of health and wellness. Katharine Vester (2010) similarly read the emergence of dieting practices in the nineteenth century as a strategy constructed to demonstrate one's belonging in middle-class society. By dieting, men could visibly register their own mastery over their physical bodies and, as such, the "biological superiority of men over women, class privilege, and white supremacy" (p. 39). According to Vester, women later embraced dieting in order to access greater power in society. They, in effect, "subjected the body to hegemonic cultural norms" that "allowed individuals to claim privileges and rights linked to self-optimization" (p. 40).

This article will likewise consider the ways in which Adventist health publications constructed community belonging on the basis of physical markers such as strength, mental ability, and perceived attractiveness. These publications used the kinds of justifications that Douglas Baynton (2001) identified when he argued that discourses about disability have been used historically not only to exclude disabled people but also women and minority groups. Like Samuels, Baynton argued that notions of "naturalness" were invented as a "fundamental way of constructing social reality" with the result being the exclusion of certain groups on the basis of their supposed disability (p. 18).

This article also responds to a call by Elaine Gerber (2007) for more research regarding intersections between food and disability studies. Gerber remarked that further work is needed considering how "societies around the globe structure inclusion/exclusion, citizenship, and personhood through rules about food and eating, and ways in which local and global food systems, their politics and proscriptions, highlight the very cultural nature of 'disability'" (Gerber, 2013). By considering nineteenth- and twentieth-century health journals, this article intends to follow the lead of Gerber, Samuels, Baynton and others to consider how notions of disability and ability were used to draw clear boundaries between insiders and outsiders in the health-reform community and, further, how these narratives were constructed with reference to gender, class, and race.


For this article, I chose to examine health publications disseminated by the Adventist church between 1880 and 1910. While Adventist health publications were my focus, I acknowledge that vegetarianism has been practiced throughout history by groups including Buddhists, Jainists, and other religious communities in particular. I have chosen to focus on Adventist periodicals in large part due to John Harvey Kellogg's significant role in shaping vegetarianism as a movement in western countries. In addition, the Adventist church has been prolific in publishing apologetic materials and this content has proved useful for analysis

To begin, I conducted keyword searches in the more than 100 periodicals collected in the Online Archives hosted by the Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research for the Seventh-day Adventist church (2020). I collected all articles that in some way described, defended, or explained vegetarianism, excluding only a handful of cookbook and product advertisements. Ultimately, I selected 132 passages from approximately 13 periodicals, which were distributed by various publishing arms of the Adventist church such as the Review and Herald Publishing Association, the International Tract Society, the Good Health Publishing Company, and the Pacific Press Publishing Co. It should be noted that John Harvey Kellogg was closely associated with the Good Health Publishing Company and remained a Seventh-day Adventist until midlife, when he and White parted ways over a disagreement. Despite the rift between these two health reformers, Kellogg's writings are nonetheless examined in this article.

After collecting passages that made reference to vegetarianism, I used thematic data analysis to identify, analyze, and report patterns within the data (Braun & Clarke, 2006, p. 6).

Initially, I familiarized myself with passages by reading them in their totality. Next, I took notes observing common themes and the frequency with which they appeared in the selected articles. After that, I developed codes describing themes and compared those codes with the original passages to see if I had overlooked or overemphasized anything. Finally, I solidified themes, adding new themes or sub-themes as needed, and identified key passages and quotations that represented the larger narrative arcs that I saw at play in the passages. This work is summarized in the remainder of this paper.

Unnatural Foods, Unnatural Bodies

In the years between 1880 and 1910, Adventist health publications set out to distinguish vegetarianism as a "natural" lifestyle in contrast to "unnatural" and "unhealthful" ways of living that distinguished meat-eating. A frequent claim, often reiterated, was that unnatural eating resulted in alcoholism and a concomitant decline in the person's physical and mental health. D.H. Kress summarized this idea in Life and Health by writing, "So long as man feeds on un-natural foods, he will cultivate bacteria, and the poisons formed will create an unnatural thirst, which will lead the mentally defective to alcohol for relief" (1909, p. 394).

Kress drew a clear connection between "unnatural" food and "unnatural" bodies, suggesting that mental deficiencies and alcoholism coincided with use of meats and alcohol. This idea had been in use for some time, expressed by others outside of the Adventist church. For instance, the matron of the Inebriates Home run by the Salvation Army was quoted in Life and Health and the Youth's Instructor as saying that her "inmates" were "lazy, vicious, bloated, gluttonous, bad-tempered women" until they were put on a vegetarian diet and "recovered" (Paulson, 1907, p. 7; Kress, 1909, p. 393). In making this report, the matron emphasized the "unnatural" state the women were once in. She explained that some suffered from "delirium tremens" while others were "morphia maniacs" who experienced cravings "at times amounting to madness" (Paulson, 1907, p. 7). The matron added that the women's "bodies exhaled impurities of every description" until they became vegetarian and then they "assum[ed] a fairly normal condition in about ten days to a fortnight" (Paulson, 1907, p. 7).

Portrayals like these tied together unnatural diets and unnatural bodies, suggesting that meat-eaters could be easily identified by an array of physical and mental disabilities. H.H. Burkholder connected these representations of "natural" bodies to Adventism by noting that people with deformed bodies could return to a natural state through conversion. Specifically, by adhering to ideas preached by "God's messengers," meat-eaters and alcoholics could turn away from their "perverted appetite" and resume a natural state (1910, p. 1). Burkholder positioned Adventism and "natural" living in contrast to perverse or unnatural lifestyles. This idea signaled a demarcation between insiders and outsiders while providing an avenue for conversion or "healing" through individual action.

The Vegetarian Aesthetic

Adventist journals drew again on discourses about "natural" bodies when advocating vegetarianism on aesthetic grounds. Specifically, they portrayed sites related to meat consumption as ugly, perverse, and cruel in contrast to the unadulterated beauty of scenes involving fruits, vegetables, grains, and nuts. In August 1899, the Gospel of Health begged readers to "turn away from viewing death and corruption, and behold the beauty and life-giving qualities of grains and fruits" that came "directly from the hand of God, with a fair face and a spotless reputation" (Vegetarianism from an Esthetic Standpoint, p. 136). In contrast to aesthetically pleasing vegetarian foods were scenes from crowded cities like Chicago, where sickly cattle were shipped off to be gruesomely slaughtered (Vegetarianism from an Esthetic Standpoint, p. 136).

In describing these scenes, the Gospel of Health implied connections between vegetarianism and racial purity by pointing out the "fair face" of vegetarian food and casting aspersions on cities that were, at the time, crowded with immigrants and racially diverse people. The journal likewise played to classist ideas while insisting on the superior aesthetic qualities of fruits and vegetables. As the Gospel of Health asked its readers, "What woman of refined tastes and delicate sensibilities does not instinctively shrink from handling the bloody remains of some unfortunate cow or sheep?" (Vegetarianism from an Esthetic Standpoint, p. 136). The article proceeded to tie meat-eating to racist and classist anxieties as it noted, "How like the cannibal's hut is that kitchen where the hacked-up pieces of animals, in their general structure closely resembling man, are sizzling in a frying-pan" (Vegetarianism from an Esthetic Standpoint, p. 136). By equating meat-eating with the habits of a sub-human, racial "others," this article defended vegetarianism as a practice for cultured, white readers. In addition, by centering a certain "sublime" visual aesthetic as a mechanism for judging a person's health, the journal also reiterated ableist assumptions underlying the value of vegetarianism.

In a similar vein, other journals laid out guides for women to raise their family's class and standing through the careful preparation of "aesthetic" vegetarian meals. Dr. Kellogg's wife, Mrs. E.E. Kellogg, provided a thorough set of instructions for setting up "company dinner" to communicate high standing in the absence of meat. She advised creating:

"…a mound of violets arranged in moss; a jardiniere filled with white lilacs, snow-balls, golden rod, or asters; a clump of some low-growing plant, as pansies or forget-me-nots, arranged in a glass dish on a bed of feathery asparagus vine; a block of ice wreathed in ferns with an outer circle of water lilies" (1900, p. 428).

Mothers were further instructed to take great care to present appetizing, attractive foods to their family members because, if children were tempted astray and chose to eat meats, they would be afflicted with a range of maladies: "drunkenness, debauchery, crime…ill temper, despondency, and even insanity." (Eating and Drinking Damnation, 1902, p. 58). In a story published in Good Health, a woman dubbed "wily Mrs. Robinson" showed how clever cultivation of a particular aesthetic could keep a family in line with health reform. Mrs. Robinson successfully compelled her husband and son to join her in eating sanitarium foods by introducing "the most enticing pies" and the "most appetizing-looking concoctions" (Chapman, 1905, p. 128). So-called wily actions on the part of Mrs. Robinson were introduced as a way of normalizing associations between vegetarianism and an aesthetic of wealth, health, and beauty.

These associations between vegetarianism and the healthful, high-class life were further underlined by suggesting that the inverse lifestyle produced physically grotesque bodies. In 1895, the Present Truth described the habit of eating larks in London by noting that the "ghouls" responsible for this practice had "silenced song" and "murdered music" (Murdered Music, p. 812). This description conjured up a vision of meat-eaters as twisted, inhuman creatures that inspired a "thrill of disgust" (p. 812). In a similar vein, Mrs. Le Favre, organizer of the Chicago, New York, and Boston Vegetarian Societies, was quoted by Good Health saying that "Ladies who want to look pretty and be charming should religiously avoid flesh foods" because meat had an "uglifying" effect "of a low order" (Vegetarian Diet, 1893, p. 201). Le Favre noted that these "uglifying" effects included a "shiny and sticky face" and, further, that eating meat "retards the higher evolution of our race" (p. 201). In this way, she presented a vision of the "aesthetic" of vegetarianism that was simultaneously able-bodied and white.

Along similar lines, the Review and Herald claimed in October 1902 that vegetarians were the "healthiest people in the world" and, further, that they had the most amiable dispositions and "most beautiful complexions" (A Testimony for Truth, p. 24). The journal was less explicit about coding whiteness as the standard in beauty but it clearly positioned disabled, "unappealing" people as the undesirable "other" to be rejected or, at best, cured.

Building Better Bodies

An interest in eugenics often pervaded the health journals, presenting itself in suggestions that westerners follow health principles in order to "breed out" mental and physical disability. As the publisher of Good Health, Kellogg was known for his interest in these ideas. In 1891, he indicated in Ladies' Guide in Health and Disease that he had serious concerns about the declining condition of white women in England and America and the consequences of this decline on the future of the human race. As he wrote, "Notice how few possess shapely bodies, a strong, elastic, vigorous step, well developed waists, plump arms, broad backs, and a full chest" (p. 224). He went on to say that the "only hope for the race" was improving the health of these unshapely women and girls. As Sabrina Strings has argued in Fearing the Black Body, Kellogg's attitudes reveal a fixation on racial superiority through "perfection" of white women's bodies (2019). Kellogg thus joined many Darwinians and eugenicists of 19th- and 20th-century America in suggesting that white women needed to fix their bodies in order to perpetuate a race of stronger, fitter, smarter, less "diseased" white people.

Concerns about the physical and mental condition of westerners pervade the health journals alongside calls for improvement via vegetarianism. For instance, while insisting on the physical "otherness" of meat-eaters, the health journals often conflated meat-eating with mental illness. This class of disability again acted as an undesirable counterpoint to be roundly rejected by pro-vegetarian writers. Good Health made a number of these arguments from 1898-1906. In 1898, the journal identified meat-eating as a common practice in "inebriate asylums" (Beef and Beer, pg. 376). In January 1902, it suggested that meat-eating made matters worse for "insane patients" and produced a plethora of physical ailments including insomnia, convulsions, and "various conditions which aggravate the mental disturbance" (The "Chicago American" Mistaken, p. 57). In March 1902, the journal suggested that vegetarianism was an ideal solution for "ridding the race of 'neurotics,' 'cranks,' and 'fanatics," thus securing "the survival of the fittest" (Vegetarianism and Evolution, p. 152). Although the journal implied a skeptical stance on the theory of evolution, it assumed that meat-eaters and vegetarians alike would regard "neurotics, cranks, and fanatics" as people to be avoided and rejected at all costs. The journal maintained this point in 1906 when it described opponents to vegetarianism as "degenerate" and "lunatic" in their tendencies (Undoing of the Cooks, 1906, p. 544). In this way, Good Health cited mental disabilities as a clear sign demonstrating people's "outsider" status—their lack of belonging in the vegetarian Protestant community.

The health journals not only pointed to "grotesque" human bodies to signal the inferiority and "otherness" of non-vegetarians, they also drew similar contrasts between "pure" vegetables and "diseased" animals. The journals suggested that people are physically tainted by the foods they eat and that vegetables possess healthful, "natural" qualities in contrast to diseased animal flesh. In January 1900, Good Health published an article noting that fruits and vegetables are "fed by the winds of heaven…pure, pellucid…kissed and blessed by the glorious sunshine" while animal bodies are a "factory of poisons" (Pigarians, p. 52). This article revived the old contrast between the pure countryside and the polluted cities, where racial mixing was more pronounced. The journal further implied that fruits and vegetables are so ethereal as to be nearly incorporeal in substance while animal bodies are clearly defiled, laden with disease. This contrast recalls discourses that position healthy, "normal" people as the disembodied default while disabled people are defined by their corporal failing.

The Gospel of Health drew on a similar discourse in 1899 when it portrayed beef cattle as "half dead with fright and fatigue" and "affected with that dreadful disease, tuberculosis" (Vegetarianism from an Esthetic Standpoint, p 136). Good Health was more specific in July 1900 when it informed meat-eaters that their chosen foods may have suffered from a range of illnesses and physical impairments. Writing for the journal, Mrs. E.E. Kellogg noted:

The animals we eat suffer from disease as we do; your chop may have belonged to a consumptive sheep; your steak to a scrofulous ox; your pork tenderloin to a gouty pig; your breast-cut of wild fowl to a lunatic canvasback; your dainty wing to a dyspeptic prairie chicken; and your mayonnaise cutlet to a salmon with incipient paralysis (pp. 426-429).

By underlining the diseased and disabled state of animals, health journals could thus suggest that people "became" what they ate—in this case, similarly corrupted, twisted, disabled—and that all good westerners should discipline their eating to eliminate these conditions.

The Virile Vegetarian

Health further suggested that vegetarianism was allied with labor and productivity, and thus improved capital output for nation states. Vegetarianism purportedly caused older people to become youthful once more and feeble people to become strong and industrious. While privileging strong, "virile" bodies over enfeebled ones, the journals again presented disability as the undesirable "other" condition to be feared and loathed.

L.S. Haskew of the Oriental Watchman underlined the point that vegetarianism was the "natural" diet embraced by people with able, industrious bodies. Writing in 1908, Haskew suggested that meat-eating caused "free-living, lassitude, excitability, selfishness, harshness, epicurism, animalism, torpidity, extravagance, intemperance, nervousness, and gluttony" while vegetarianism caused people to become "vigorous, economical, generous, easy, temperate, amiable, rational, imperturbable, athletic, natural, and sympathetic" (p. 34). Haskew continued by noting that anyone "striving to gain the mastery over their bodies" should realize that "Flesh-eating tends to degrade, while Vegetarianism tends to regenerate mankind" (p. 34). William Noyes similarly observed in 1907 that vegetarianism was practiced by the "gentle, industrious, persistent races" of the world, while Margaret Evans assured readers in 1903 that the physical feats of gladiators, Roman soldiers, and enslaved Brazilians were all accomplished on a meatless diet (Noyes, p. 27; Evans, pp. 259-260). These writers enthusiastically recounted examples of vegetarians achieving high levels of industry regardless of the context in which that labor took place. Left uninterrogated was the fact that some of these people were enslaved while others used their particular industry to conquer and enslave others. The ethics of each situation were not relevant when considered alongside the quantity of work accomplished while abstaining from meat.

The health journals not only argued that vegetarians were more industrious than meat-eaters but also that they were more economical and efficient. Several publications implied that vegetarians were able to accomplish a great deal while living the low-cost lifestyle of a near-ascetic. For instance, the Signs of the Times described how a vegetarian man once "drank two coffee cups of hot water, and on the strength of that bill of fare did a healthy man's regular forenoon's work" (An Ostrich in Harness, 1906, p. 478). Good Health asserted in 1884 that vegetarians enjoyed "health, cheerfulness, and strength" while subsisting on "less than half the expenditure incurred by the flesh-eater and consumer of spirituous drinks" (Vegetarianism by Ueber Land and Meer, p. 257). The journal added that members of the Carthusian, Trappist, and Camaldolite monastic communities had already demonstrated how "health, strength, and vigorous old age" could result from eating little and working hard (pg. 258). The article concluded that vegetarians received all the benefits of "perfect health" despite having insults hurled at them by "dyspeptic, diseased carnivorants" (pg. 259). These observations again defined value around capacity to labor, identifying vegetarians as a superior class based on their improved efficiency and productivity. The key factor by which some were excluded from the vegetarian community was the ability of their bodies, with meat-eaters being identified as prime examples of those who lacked laboring potential.

As a further proof of their heightened productivity, health journals also spoke at length about the youth of vegetarians. In 1889, Good Health explained that an ascetic, vegetarian life caused people to "far outlive the allotted age of man, besides suffering few of the ills humanity is heir to" (pg. 198). In 1905, Good Health also celebrated a group of "Octogenarian Vegetarians," noting that they had committed themselves to living a "long, happy, useful life" (Octogenarian Vegetarians, p. 224). In 1906, Good Health called attention to a vegetarian who was 93 years old and "capable of keen judgment, strong sympathy, or quick indignation" thanks to her "intelligent obedience to physical law" (R.O.E., p. 239). In essence, the journals argued, vegetarianism would result in above average longevity, health, and stamina, which naturally resulted in heightened productivity.

Vegetarianism for Racial Uplift

Along with these reports of youth came stories often drawn from international sources that seemed designed to prod white readers toward vegetarianism. In 1899, Felix Oswald recounted a story about an "old Hindoo athlete" who supposedly had leapt over "three elephants standing side by side," landing on his feet with the "gracefulness of a ballet-dancer" (p. 97). In 1898, Good Health reported that "laborers in Roumania work twelve and fourteen hours a day, carrying on their shoulders sacks of wheat weighing one hundred and fifty pounds" (Through the Good Health Spyglass, p. 152). Not only that, the journal enthused, but these laborers did all that work while eating nothing more than a "loaf of bread and half a kilogram of grapes" (p. 152). Similarly, certain "country women" reportedly ate only "fruit and yams" and walked "fifteen to twenty-five miles a day in the sun, with burdens on their heads which must sometimes weigh not less than fifty pounds" (Vegetarianism in the Tropics, 1898, p. 175). These "ladies" were "never in the least tired" but the journals had other examples to offer as well: The Romans, while eating only "coarse brown bread" built "wonderful roads" under a "weight of armour and luggage that would crush the average farm hand" (Vegetarianism in the Tropics, p. 175; Vegetarianism by Melbourne Age, 1897, p. 47). The "Spanish peasant" purportedly worked all day and "danced half the night on black bread, onions, and watermelon" (p. 47), while the "coolie, fed on rice, c[ould] endure more fatigue than the negro fed on fat" (p. 47). On a similar note, the young women of Pitcairn Island were supposedly capable of carrying military people bodily up hills with "the utmost facility." (Wharton, 1900, p. 210). The "damsels" of Pitcairn were said to be "objects of attraction, being tall, robust, and beautifully formed." They possessed "physical hardihood unsurpassed if not unequaled by any flesh-eating community known" (Wharton, p. 210). Unacknowledged in these stories were the systems underlying many of these experiences—slavery, privation, and poverty that forced people to accomplish the feats that the journal regarded as laudatory, entertaining or inspiring.

Taking into account the bent toward eugenics in at least some of the health journals, these stories can be read as praise for "model" people of color but, more importantly, as a call for white westerners to literally shape up. The racist intention behind this argument almost certainly varied from one journal and article to the next. Admittedly, some church members may have had more egalitarian attitudes toward race than the general American population. For instance, Ellen White and other church leaders advocated for abolitionism in the lead-up to the Civil War with White indicting the "high crime of slavery" in her writings (1948, pg. 264). Nevertheless, as Strings argues in Fearing the Black Body, discourses degrading bodily difference and blackness became entangled in 19th-century America. Frequently, conversations about bodies entailed the "synchronized repression of 'savage' blackness and the generation of disciplined whiteness" (pg. 6). This kind of entanglement seems to be at work in the health journals, with the implication being that unhealthy white readers should be ashamed for lagging behind their racial "inferiors."

Indeed, the previously noted stories of non-Anglo vegetarians included a range of racial stereotypes as they ranked races according to their desirability. The "Hindoo" received accolades despite being exotic enough to cross gender lines and resemble a female "ballet dancer." The Chinese laborer outranked Black peasants working at home, and the women in the South Pacific made perfect objects to be admired by male colonizers. This taxonomy served to objectify the people of color described by the journals—their traits analyzed, categorized, and laid out for consumption by white people who selected habits to imitate on the basis of their own aspirations after wealth, class, and status. A common theme enabling these analyses was the relative ability or disability perceived as endemic to particular races. By being perceived as strong, agile, and industrious, some races earned the status of the desirable "other"—a foil by which disabled bodies could be measured and classified as wanting.

Race and disability were frequently intertwined in racially charged defenses of vegetarianism. Health journals pointed to "impairments" in meat-eaters to demonstrate how particular diets determined—or increased—racial inferiority. For instance, Felix Oswald explained in 1899 how "Eskimaus" ate meat almost exclusively and were essentially sub-human. Specifically, he noted that they were only "four feet and ten inches tall" with "features…combining all the repulsive expressions of animalism" (p. 33). He added that they were not only physically "abnormal" but also lacking in "mental development….not only ignorant but decidedly unintelligent" (p. 33). Mrs. M.A. Steward echoed this sentiment in 1905 when she insisted that people who lived "almost exclusively on meat…like the Patagonians" were "smaller, weaker" and possessed "less mental power" than vegetarians (pp. 278-279). In these cases, the health journals tapped into an existing discourse that insisted on the inferiority of particular races as revealed by their physical and mental incapacities. The journals contributed to this hierarchical ranking of races the argument that infirmity and racial inferiority are at least partially dictated by one's dietary choices.


The discourses in Adventist health journals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries thus circled around disability as a key signifier of inclusion or exclusion. As signs of the vegetarian lifestyle, the journals celebrated youth, whiteness, sexual vigor, and beauty or a "natural" visual aesthetic. On the flipside, they grouped those with physical and mental "deformities" as the antithesis of the vegetarian lifestyle to be disdained or, at best, redeemed by community insiders. The journals acknowledged that people have agency in moving from one status to another—that, for instance, it was possible for housewives to perform a kind of natural aesthetic at the dinner table and in the kitchen. However, while implying that anyone could ascend to privileged status through vegetarian eating, the journals also reaffirmed hierarchical designations around race, class, gender, and ability. Ultimately, they underlined the point that disability was both undesirable and avoidable should a person take proper responsibility for health practices.

It should be noted that this paper is not intended as a critique exclusively of either Seventh-day Adventism or vegetarianism. The discourses in Adventist health journals were common at the time period in question. In some cases, editorials in Adventist publications were recycled from other newspapers or journals, suggesting an affinity for the arguments in question even if Adventist writers were not specifically involved. In short, the views espoused in these journals were not unique to Adventist communities.

Similarly, vegetarianism as a lifestyle is not inherently oppressive. As a movement, it has in some ways exerted a positive influence on the lives of marginalized groups. For instance, otherwise disenfranchised white women like Ellen White gained prominence in part through their work with health reform. Similarly, white women in the Progressive Era developed greater agency when they took a lead in dietetic reforms. However, as was often the case in the Progressive Era, these gains too often came at the expense of communities of color, whom white men and women often objectified, exploited, or excluded.

With that said, in the present day, vegetarianism may play a crucial role in addressing climate change, and as a result, may promote well-being in vulnerable communities throughout the world. When used as a practice to equalize access to resources, cultivate diversity, and protect the environment, vegetarianism can align with the needs and values of communities of color and disabled communities (Harrabin, 2019; NAACP, 2020).

Yet despite these positive impacts of vegetarianism, early health journals interested in promoting the lifestyle appealed to damaging discourses that reinforced divisions on the basis of race, class, gender, and ability. By centering and upholding ableist ideals, these journals helped perpetuate narratives suggesting that minorities merit scorn on the basis of their supposedly inferior mental and physical status. The journals further insisted that health and ability are "earned" and that individuals found wanting have merely failed to exert appropriate self-control and moral refinement. Vegetarianism was thus positioned as a lifestyle choice embraced by people within a meritocracy. The healthy and successful few were seen as individuals who had earned their privileges through hard work, asceticism, and self-denial. These ideas, unfortunately, continue to crop up in vegetarianism and associated health movements (see, for instance, Cazaux, 2019). Ideally, by identifying the ableist roots of these discourses, this article will invite greater interest in constructing representations of vegetarianism that do not exclude on the basis of ability, age, productivity, race, gender, or class. After all, the ability to change and grow has always been celebrated by Adventists and health reformers alike. These values are worth taking forward into the future.


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