By Colleen Tinker


Kellogg’s Cornflakes, a breakfast staple for the last century, are as American as apple pie—and as Adventist as Ellen White and her health message. In fact, John Harvey Kellogg, who co-invented corn flakes with his brother Will, became the darling of James and Ellen White when he was only 16 years old. He edited the Adventists’ monthly magazine The Health Reformer in which Ellen White’s visions against tobacco, coffee, tea, alcohol, spices, pickled foods, any kind of drug, “self vice”, and “excessive sexual intercourse” were distributed to the Adventist faithful. Eventually, the Whites financed John Harvey’s medical training in order to provide professional oversight at their newly-founded Western Health Reform Institute in Battle Creek.

Now, a new biography by Howard Markel tells the story of John Harvey and his brother Will Keith. The book, entitled The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek, gives little-known background details about these brothers whom he calls, “The Cain and Abel of America’s Heartland”.

Reviews of Markel’s new book have appeared within the last week in various publications including the Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe, and Bloomberg Businessweek. While each review stresses different details from the book, they all include one common denominator: the Kelloggs’ connection with and their influence from Seventh-day Adventism.

John and Will’s parents became involved with Adventism after their move to Michigan from Massachusetts in 1834. As John later edited The Health Reformer as a 16-year-old, he apparently learned, endorsed, and adopted Ellen White’s prohibitions against all forms of stimulation, and these restrictions became lifelong practices. In 1867 the Whites underwrote John’s medical education, and when he returned to Battle Creek, he began, as Michael Upchurch of the The Chicago Tribune says, “to create a spa/hospital/spiritual retreat/publishing empire that was world famous by the turn of the century”.

In fact, in 1876 Kellogg’s father, a wealthy broom manufacturer, gave a large donation to the Adventists to launch their new health center and asked that, in return, John be named a staff physician. John ran with it; he renamed their Western Health Reform Institute, calling it the Battle Creek Sanitarium, or “the San”—and by 1890 it employed 1,000 staff  and each year “served nearly 10,000 patients, who feasted on vegetables and fiber-rich foodstuffs grown on the San’s 400-acre farm.”

It was Will Kellogg, however, who became the business manager of The San. Matthew Price of The Boston Globe summarized Will and John’s relationship this way: “[Will] was an ombudsman crossed with an accountant. He managed the books, dealt with repairs and upkeep, and myriad other tasks. He handled patient complaints with supreme tact. Yet the doctor treated him as his valet—every morning, Will would trim John’s white beard and polish his shoes. The younger Kellogg complained that hew was merely ‘J.H.’s flunkey.’”

The brothers’ internal conflicts eventually spilled over into their most famous and enduring legacy: flaked cereal. John told people the idea for the new breakfast food came to him in a dream, but the reality was that it developed out of a long process of trial and error in which both brothers played a part. In 1896 the U.S. Patent Office granted John a patent for “Flaked Cereal and Process of Preparing the Same.”

Will wanted to market the product, but John did not. Will continued to tweak the recipe, however, and eventually changed the grain from wheat to corn and added sugar, malt, and salt so it would taste better. He finally bought out John’s interest in 1906, but John continued to use the Kellogg brand to sell his own cereals. The two eventually entered a nine-year legal battle over brand infringement. Will eventually won the legal battle and launched the billion-dollar Kellogg enterprise. The conflict between the two, however, was never resolved, and they died estranged from each other.

Meanwhile, John’s medical practices conflicted with the White’s “visionary leanings”, and he and the Whites parted ways. In fact, Ellen White accused John Kellogg of pantheism, an accusation he denied. Kellogg also disagreed with Ellen’s vision for the Adventist health mission. Kellogg wanted to focus on one large, world-famous center, and Ellen White advocated many smaller centers spread out in many areas. In 1907 Kellogg removed the Battle Creek Sanitarium from Seventh-day Adventist ownership, and the Adventists cut him off from their organization.


Father of Wellness

Susan Berfield of Bloomberg Businessweek draws an interesting parallel in her book review between the practices of John Harvey Kellogg and the modern wellness movement. She says, “Before Deepak Chopra and Dr. Oz and Goop, there was Dr. John Harvey Kellogg. In 1878 he opened the Battle Creek Sanitarium, the Canyon Ranch of its time, and began promoting his rules for ‘biologic living,’ a near-religion then…his most devoted followers were known as the Battle Freaks. He sold them special foods, unusual treatments, exercise machines, books, and albums. For 60 years, Kellogg—prescient and kooky—was the most famous doctor in America.”

The San was “a secular temple to wellness” and drew the rich and famous: Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and John D. Rockefeller were repeat customers. Moreover, Kellogg generated publicity by inviting other celebrities to enjoy free treatments: Harvey Firestone, J.C. Penney, Alfred du Pont, and John Philip Sousa.

Kellogg’s “biologic life” is reminiscent of food writer Micahel Pollen’s advice, Berfield observes. He advocated “regular, vigorous exercise, plus massage, enemas, fresh air and sunlight, spirituality, laughter, sleep, and lots of pure water. He cam up with an early, less-edible version of peanut butter and a fiber-rich mix of grains he called granola. He sold psyllium as a laxative (hello, Metamucil) and treated Richard Byrd with acidophilus soy milk—a probiotic—after the admiral’s 1929 expedition to the South Pole.” Moreover, Kellogg’s custom-made “exercise albums with a brass band” foreshadowed Richard Simmons. At the same time, Kellogg’s treatments hinted at some of his own repressed impulses. Berfield says,

Kellogg promoted some dubious ideas as well: Food should be chewed down to its atomic level; his patients should have four odor-free bowel movements a day; and women should receive pelvic massages, from him, a treatment whose medical purpose no doctor since has been able to explain. The benefits of electrotherapy exercise beds, vibrating chairs, and mechanical horses now seem a little suspect, too.

Berfield concludes her review:

“Many of his sounder concepts of wellness remain sage prescriptions written out millions of times each day,” Markel concludes. Yet when most people hear Kellogg, they think corn flakes.


The rest of the story

On August 7 of this week, the Adventist News Network (ANN) ran a brief press release stating “Kellogg’s Corn Flakes Featured in Smithsonian Magazine’s Official Website”. The article opens with these words:

The breakfast cereal that put the Adventist health message on a national stage in the 19th century was highlighted by the world’s largest museum, education, and research complex. The Kellogg’s Corn Flakes were featured July 28 on the Smithsonian Magazine’s official website.

The brief article emphasizes the Smithsonian’s coverage of Adventism’s influence on John Harvey Kellogg and states “the church’s health message” that advocates “abstinence from meats and greasy, fried, and spicy food in the late-1800s and continues to uphold that principle today.”

ANN did not mention that the article on the Smithsonian site is written by the author of the new Kellogg biography, Howard Markel, and provides a link to buy the book. In fact, the Adventist news story capitalizes on the prestige of the Smithsonian as a way of boosting Adventism’s importance and promoting its health message.

Another thing ANN does not mention is a more obscure fact about John Harvey Kellogg which some of the reviews do mention: he was a major promotor of eugenics. In fact, Susan Berfield says this in the final paragraph of her review in Bloomberg Businessweek: “Kellogg’s legacy might have been more enduring had he not left his entire estate to his Race Betterment Foundation, which promoted eugenics.”

By contrast, Will Kellogg’s philanthropic legacy eclipses John’s commitment to eugenics. In 1925 he purchased a 377 acre ranch in Pomona, California, where he established a widely-known Arabian horse ranch. In 1932 Will donated the ranch to the University of California, and in 1966, the now much-expanded acreage became the home of California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. The Arabian horse breeding program and weekly horse shows which are open to the public continue to this day.

Additionally, some of Will Kellogg’s property near Battle Creek was donated to Michigan State University and is now the Kellogg Biological Station. His philanthropy was also instrumental in founding Kellogg College, Oxford.

The Wikipedia entry for Will Kellogg cites the Kellogg Foundation’s quote of Will Keith: “It is my hope that the property that kind Providence has brought me may be helpful to many others, and that I may be found a faithful steward.”

The Notable Names Data Base contains this in its entry on John Harvey Kellogg:

A best-selling author of health books, Kellogg argued that coffee was unhealthy for the liver, that indigestion was the leading cause of Americans’ deaths, that spices from mustard to salt were unhealthy, and that vinegar was “a poison, not a food.” He lectured on the advantages of celibacy, and proudly claimed that he and his wife (they were married more than forty years) had never had sex. He also sponsored “Race Betterment Conferences” in support of eugenics programs, and advocated racial segregation for “preservation of the human race”.

Kellogg sponsored three conferences at his Race Betterment Foundation in the years 1914, 1915, and 1928. According to the University of Vermont website, these conferences were primarily for the purpose of influencing people in the state of Michigan to “support positive eugenics programs in which citizens deemed to have beneficial traits were encouraged to marry and have large families.”

Moreover, in 1913, J.H. Kellogg and Victor C. Vaughan “were able to leverage the state [of Michigan] legislators to pass a compulsory sterilization law in 1913.” At that time, people targeted for sterilization included the “feeble-minded”, the criminally insane, the congenitally deformed or ill with diseases such as “migraine, deaf mutism”, and even those who had “color blindness, astigmatism, fragile bones, cases of phalangeal ankylosis…food idiosyncracies, polydactylism, blood groupings, hemophilia,” and more.


Kellogg and the health message

As the Kellogg brothers are brought to the attention of the world with Markel’s new biography, the Adventists’ legacy of an ascetic health message is once again framed as a contribution to an ignorant society that needed solutions to their typically unbalanced diets. Significantly, however, Markel does not refrain from exposing the conflicts that ultimately separated both the Kellogg brothers from each other and the Adventist organization from John.

Also significant is the fact that Ellen White’s advocacy of stringent diets and her condemnation of “excessive” sex even within marriage are directly connected with the decidedly unbiblical but “spiritual” recommendations of John Harvey Kellogg at The San. Furthermore, many of these practices are related to today’s “wellness movement”, as the Bloomberg Businessweek article shows.

A close look at John Kellogg’s strange and ascetic recommendations, at Ellen White’s health message, and at the non-Christian legacy of many of today’s new-age wellness recommendations which attempt to control one’s passions and well-being by beating the flesh into submission reveals a clear parallel.

God’s word has never commanded us to live in ascetic denial. Paul says this in Colossians 2:20-23:

If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.

Only in Christ can we realize freedom from our flesh. A backward glance at one of our Adventist heroes is a profound reminder that the more we attempt to suppress our flesh, the more we find ourselves enslaved by it.

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.



Chicago Tribune: Feuding Kellogg brothers snap, crackle and pop in vivid new biography

The Adventists: A story about body, mind and spirit

The Boston Globe: The warring cereal kings of Battle Creek

Bloomberg: The Man Who Invented Modern Wellness

Smithsonian: The Secret Ingredient in Kellogg’s Corn Flakes Is Seventh-Day Adventism

Wikipedia: Will Keith Kellogg

NNDB: John Harvey Kellogg

UVM: Michigan



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Colleen Tinker

Colleen Tinker

Colleen Tinker, the editor of Proclamation! magazine, and her husband Richard left Adventism in 1998 with their two sons, Roy and Nathanael, who were in grades six and ten. They have co-led the Former Adventist Fellowship since 1999. Colleen, a graduate of Walla Walla University, is a former high school English teacher and also the former managing editor of Adventist Today magazine. Colleen became the stepmother of Roy and Nathanael in 1989, and in 2008 she adopted them. Romans 8:15-17 has assumed new depth and significance for her and Richard since she and her sons chose to claim each other legally and permanently. She and Richard share an office and a commitment to sharing the gospel of the true Jesus with all of those seeking a way out of the bondage of the false gospel of Adventism.
Colleen Tinker

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