Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

“John Harvey Kellogg (1852-1943) and the Magazine ‘Good Health’: Medical and Religious Rhetoric in the Popular Promotion of Eugenics,” By Dennis L. Durst

John Harvey Kellogg

Paper presented to the American Association for the History of Medicine, April 24, 2009


Introduction: Historical Background

The Progressive Era was a period of unprecedented faith in the improvement of humanity, and of Western “civilization” in particular. But the rhetoric of optimism of the period is at least matched by, and must be framed in terms of, the rhetoric of fear. For many, this fear took the specific form of the theory of degeneration.[1] “Degeneration Theory,” traced to the French thinker Benedict Morel in the mid-nineteenth century, doubtless had theological and biblical antecedents, including variations on the doctrine of original sin. Morel believed that if two individuals who were sufficiently degenerated in physiology mated, their descendants would deteriorate into a subhuman status and eventually become sterile.[2]

Often mentioned in histories of the American eugenics movement is John Harvey Kellogg. Less explored are the religious dimensions of Kellogg’s ideology. Here I argue that John Harvey Kellogg popularized eugenics by means of blending religious and scientific rhetoric increasingly dehumanizing to minorities and the mentally challenged. I then connect such rhetoric with the concept of “othering,” as developed by Yale theologian Miroslav Volf, to help us see that humans of our own era are not yet immune to the negative impulses we find in Kellogg’s rhetoric.

Intellectual Formation of John Harvey Kellogg

John Harvey Kellogg was born February 26, 1852, in Livingston County, Michigan. In the year of John Harvey’s birth, his father, John Preston Kellogg, converted to the fledgling Seventh Day Adventist faith. At age 12, young John Harvey began to learn the printing trade at the Adventist publishing house in Battle Creek. The influence on Kellogg of Seventh Day Adventism’s founder, Ellen G. White, a prominent advocate of health reform and dietary regulation, is also undeniable. Kellogg eventually received a conventional medical degree from Bellevue Hospital Medical College in New York City in 1875. While yet a student, Kellogg became editor of the Adventist periodical, Health Reformer. In 1879 the periodical was renamed Good Health, and Kellogg continued to contribute articles and editorials up to his death, at 91, in 1943—a staggering editorial career of 64 years.[3] Kellogg boosted the organ’s circulation to a peak somewhere beyond 20,000 per month.[4]

In 1866 the Adventists established The Western Health Reform Institute as an institution devoted to health reform.[5] In 1876 the trustees made Kellogg its superintendent. Renamed The Battle Creek Sanitarium in 1877, it was expanded to 700 patients by the turn of the twentieth century.[6] The Sanitarium eventually drew in celebrities such as President Taft, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Alfred DuPont, J. C. Penney, Montgomery Ward, Edgar Welch, Will Durant, and numerous state and federal government officials.[7] Kellogg also interacted with common folk and spoke widely in such venues as Women’s Christian Temperance Union meetings, Chautauqua lectures, on university campuses, at trade association meetings, at women’s clubs, and at the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City. He authored nearly fifty books, though their content overlapped to a considerable degree. He also inaugurated the first “Race Betterment Conference” in 1914. And Kellogg’s contributions of flaked cereals, peanut butter, soymilk, and other nutritive innovations have undeniably left an indelible mark on the American diet.

Despite removal from his denomination after a doctrinal dispute in 1902, Kellogg’s unique mixture of religion and science continued to flow from his prolific editorial pen. In many respects, Kellogg never ceased functioning as an unorthodox religious social reformer complete with intense missionary zeal. A mixture of prophetic passion and constant appeals to the authority of science were equally essential to Kellogg’s particular appropriation of eugenic thought in the early years of the American eugenics movement. Central to Kellogg’s increasing embrace of eugenics were his oft-expressed fears over the deterioration of the human race in general, and the Anglo-Saxon race in particular.

John Harvey Kellogg on the Problem of “Race Degeneration”

Kellogg’s popular journal, Good Health, contained numerous editorials and articles sounding the alarm of “race degeneracy.” This rhetoric tapped into a burgeoning public discourse reflecting deep fears in the body politic over the eventuality of “race suicide” for whites. President Roosevelt openly addressed this fear and called for what Alan Graebner has colorfully labeled “patriotic fecundity” on the part of old-stock Americans. He has noted the existence of more than thirty-five essays in the general press from 1905‒9 on the theme of race suicide.[8]

In an editorial entitled “The March of Degeneracy,” Kellogg registered alarm over recent statistics emerging from the census of 1900. Death rates from certain key diseases had markedly increased since the census of 1890. Apoplexy, diabetes, kidney disease, and cancer had all seen dramatic increases. Tapping into a widespread discourse, which by then had the status of truism, Kellogg asserted: “Diseases of degeneration are rapidly increasing. The world is getting sicker every day, and there is an increasing demand for the help which well-trained doctors and nurses are able to give.”[9] The ultimate causes for these diseases comprised a litany that would become familiar to Kellogg’s readership: meat eating, tobacco, alcohol, tea drinking, and coffee drinking.

By 1910, Kellogg’s rhetoric of fear had escalated. No longer were such behaviors merely the causes of individual deaths, but they become far more sinister:

Alcohol, tobacco, opium, tea and coffee, all recognized narcotic poisons, have within the last fifty years come into such general use in all countries and by all classes of people as to be properly designated “race poisons”; and the effects of this wholesale poisoning are apparent in every civilized land in the obvious race degeneracy which is taking place. (Kellogg, “Race Poisons,” Good Health 45 [1910]: 929)[10]

Such a clearly environmental etiology for the problem of “race degeneration” was favorable to Kellogg’s agenda in a host of ways. The advice and ministrations of doctors and nurses enhanced the cultural authority of Kellogg’s chosen medical profession. Further, shifting the American diet from the food items Kellogg decried, and toward the diet prescribed by his Sanitarium at Battle Creek, Michigan, would financially benefit his growing health empire. Lest this analysis appear overly cynical, however, there is no indication that Kellogg did not passionately believe what he wrote in these editorials. Kellogg perceived his health empire as a genuine social reform, a salvific or redemptive enterprise with deep roots in his own Adventist ethos. The shift from “spiritual” to “physiological” solutions, however, marked a continuation of America’s cultural move away from a revivalist, otherworldly tradition and ever further into a reformist, this-worldly direction.[11] Yet the rhetorical flourishes of revivalist preaching clearly left their mark on Kellogg’s own mindset. In reflecting upon the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and its horrific death toll, Kellogg used the opportunity to warn about the dire effects of unhealthy living as the cause of preventable disease:

ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND PERSONS WILL DIE TO-MORROW! Reader, try to comprehend the terrible meaning of this. An army of corpses large enough to people a great city! And the real awfulness of this is that half of these people need not die; possibly nine-tenths of them might be readily saved. Ignorance, neglect, wrong habits, wrong eating, pernicious fashions, —a thousand preventable causes are all working this terrible slaughter. Earthquakes are bound to come; there is no way of preventing them. But they do not come often, and they do little damage when compared with the awful harvest of death that results from preventable disease. (Kellogg, “Health Lessons from the Quake,” Good Health 41 [1906]: 292)

“Race” and “Race Degeneration”

The pages of Good Health exemplified the tension between a confidence in the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race and fears about the erosion of the vigor of that race. Kellogg devoted much attention to alarming statements by British intellectuals concerning this problem. He also offered his own concurrence in that assessment. In 1904, he wrote: “Even a casual visitor to London must be struck with the great number of inferior, deteriorated looking people whom he meets upon the streets. This great center of civilization seems to be also a center of human degeneracy.”[12] Notwithstanding concerns about Anglo-Saxon deterioration, within the pages of Good Health, as editor, Kellogg emphasized the racial purity of the body politic. Kellogg included an address delivered by William W. Hastings before the American Physical Education Association in Indianapolis, Indiana, on March 3, 1910. Hastings espoused a eugenic solution to the rise of immigrant populations seen as dysgenic. “The hope of the race today,” he averred, “lies in allegiance to the doctrines of eugenics.” What this entailed was “the practice of hygienic habits,” coupled with “the exaltation of the home and marriage for the perpetuation of the race.” He continued, “The hope of Teutonic peoples lies in cross breeding among themselves, Swede, Norwegian, German, English and in preserving the vigor of the Teutonic stock.” In phrases eerily prescient of the rise of the Third Reich in Germany, “If the Teuton has the finest characteristics of any race on the globe, then why cross the blood with that of inferior races?”[13]

Kellogg on Heredity

Inclusion of eugenically themed articles evoked an implicit “theology of heredity” in Kellogg’s discussion of the topic. In an editorial entitled, simply “Heredity,” Kellogg asked “How is it possible that the microcosmic speck of life, which constitutes the earliest beginning of a human being, can contain all the potentialities of a king or a philosopher?” He found the answer “in the law of continuity.” This law in turn was implied by the very nature of God: “The divine mind is ever consistent in all its processes . . . . And why? Because infinite consistency will not permit confusion. God’s laws are not arbitrary enactments, but simply his habit of doing things.” Evoking the familiar image of Adam and Eve, Kellogg expressed his view of heredity in monogenetic terms: “The whole human race is simply an extension of the first pair.”[14] Citing the Davidic phrase “In thy book were all my members written,” Kellogg concluded, “Heredity is God’s method of book-keeping.”[15]

In a revealing instance of the rhetorical slippage possible between the “religious” and the “scientific” views of human heredity, six years later Kellogg used the same metaphor, in a discussion of Mendel’s theories of inheritance. This time, however, the active agent was not “God” but “Nature.” While for many eugenicists, the implication of Mendel’s theories was a decided de-emphasis upon the causal efficacy of environment or on human choices, for Kellogg, the opposite was true. For Kellogg, “Nature” just like God, kept track of human habits:

These facts show that heredity is not a freakish or haphazard principle but a great and immutable law, as positive and certain in its action as the law of gravitation. The lesson which we desire to draw from the knowledge of this great biologic principle is the fact that in all civilized lands heredity is taking note of every condition, every habit, every act which results in the deterioration of the stamina of the race. Nature is a good bookkeeper; nothing escapes her notice. (Kellogg, “Mendel’s Law of Heredity and Race Degeneration,” Good Health 45 [1910]: 736)

Eugenics and Euthenics

In 1927, on the eve of the Third Race Betterment Conference, Kellogg included in Good Health a preliminary program that listed participants and topics of the conference. The article promised “a study by Dr. Aldred Scott Warthin, Director of the Pathological Laboratory of the University of Michigan, who will formulate a biologic philosophy of life or religion as a necessary foundation for race betterment.”[16] The notion of a “biologic religion” conformed well with Kellogg’s ideals of mental, moral, and physical hygiene, and granted to such an even weightier authority for having both scientific and religious credentials.

In the course of the history of Good Health, the journal occasionally included a discrete section called the “Department of Eugenics.” What had earlier been only a sporadic theme became by the late 1920s a sustained drumbeat. The person responsible for this section was Luther S. West, Professor of Biology and Eugenics at Battle Creek College. West was an important protégé of Kellogg. With West’s cooperation, the aging Kellogg could promote his ideas on eugenics in a more systematic fashion.

In 1928, West opened the revival of the Department of Eugenics section with a discussion of “Eugenics and Euthenics.” Eugenics (good heredity) and euthenics, or good environment, were both important. Because he saw the evidences of the power of heredity increasing every day, West could not but acknowledge that power in ever-starker hereditarian terms. But working under the tutelage of a reformer of the human environment—in everything from advising exercise regimens, sleeping outdoors, hydrotherapy, and a regimented vegetarian diet—West could hardly espouse a pure hereditarianism. Thus, he tried to balance eugenics and euthenics.

The pessimism of leading eugenicists toward environmental reform, however, did seep into the pages of Good Health, particularly when it came to the “feeble-minded.” Like Charles Davenport and others, West and Kellogg at times saw charity toward such “defectives” as itself something to be eschewed. “Euthenics alone is helpless as a permanent policy for race betterment,” West wrote. “By it we have made life so comfortable for all, that the weak, the physically defective, the feeble-minded, the criminally insane are able to survive as never before.” Going further, he warned that “they not only survive, but succeed in reproducing themselves in great numbers, for the most part at public expense.” Constructing such persons in such a way as to distance himself from them even further, he fulminated: “Thus we water and cultivate the weeds, whose roots actually steal energy from the flowers, and under such circumstances it is not strange that the weeds appear to flourish the better of the two, at least so far as numbers are concerned.” West pointed out the eugenicist’s claim that only those equipped by nature to cope with ordinary problems should be born. Mingling the rhetoric of science and religion, West labeled this stance “the gospel of the eugenicist.”[17]

By 1928, Kellogg’s conversion to eugenics as a religious ideology was complete. Kellogg combined heredity and environment, Mendelian and Lamarckian notions of inheritance, in a way few hard-core eugenicists would have done by 1928. Kellogg’s moral vision for humanity blended religious and scientific reformist impulses to such an extent that he, like Galton and Davenport before him, perceived eugenics in explicitly religious terms. He delivered the address “Habits in Relation to Longevity” before the Third Race Betterment Conference. His concluding remarks indicate this conversion:

A new program of right living is needed; a program based on physiology and biology. A scientific conscience must be developed. Respect for the human body and for the noble human race must be cultivated. Eugenics, race hygiene as suggested by Galton, and euthenics, individual hygiene, must be made a religion, or rather a supplement to all other religions. (Kellogg, “Habits in Relation to Longevity,” Proceedings of the Third Race Betterment Conference, January 2-6, 1928 [Battle Creek, MI: Race Betterment Foundation, 1928], 347)

Through his editorials, and through his inclusion of prominent eugenicists in the pages of Good Health, John Harvey Kellogg sought to blend science and religion as a two-pronged attack on ignorance and immorality. The mutual reinforcement of the two leading ideological sources of Progressive-era authority, science and the Bible, gave a remarkable impetus to Kellogg’s longevity on the American scene, and to his undoubted popularity as a social reformer and health advocate. At the same time, however, his applications of both science and scripture lacked depth and failed to take into account the necessary tentativeness of the hermeneutical task, either in applying a newly emerging science, such as genetics, or an ancient sacred text, such as scripture, to complex social-policy problems. Reading science through the lens of scripture, or scripture through the lens of science, without the proper humility or sensitivity that historical awareness can inculcate, led in Kellogg’s case to an embrace of toxic ideologies. Such ideologies perpetuated categories of oppression for non‒Anglo-Saxon persons, or for “mental defectives,” or for meat-eaters, or casual drinkers, etc. Such “others” comprised, in essence, a growing list of “outsiders” to fear, opposed by a shrinking roster of “insiders” to retain, all under the aegis of misappropriated sources of authority.

Conclusion: The Problem of “Othering”

I think a helpful conceptual frame for our evaluation of eugenic thought, both religious and scientific, is the concept of “othering” developed by Yale theologian Miroslav Volf, a survivor of the Balkan conflict.[18] Whereas the genocidal legacy of eugenics’ more virulent strains manifested themselves throughout the twentieth century, and across the geopolitical spectrum, perhaps eugenics is only one possible manifestation of the ways in which we distance ourselves from, then demonize, the “others” who challenge, frighten, or offend us. By 1935, Kellogg’s rhetoric manifested the quite literal dehumanizing of the regressive “other.” He excoriated a system of public institutions which “permit these defectives to breed more and worse lunatics, idiots, criminals and paupers.” Merely by allowing human beings to reproduce, whose intelligence quotient had been measured by highly dubious methods, Kellogg accused the body politic of promoting “race degeneracy by our neglect, by creating a new and horribly depreciated species of human kind, physical and moral monsters who are corrupting the blood of the race and threatening its very existence.”[19]

By turning the other into a monster, however, we eventually demean ourselves. Underlying such rhetoric is the fear that we ourselves might become “feebleminded” and thus “mentally defective” one day. Recently expressed fears over the rise of artificial intelligence may put humanity in just such an awkward predicament. Such fear underwrites our unwillingness to identify with and have compassion toward those who are evidently vulnerable and those of diminished mental capacity within our society. Yet an oft-quoted first-century document espouses a counter-cultural vision whose irony is still intact: “Those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor.”[20] If we implement such a view, the chasm between “self” and “other” can diminish, and we all can reaffirm the nobility of our shared humanity.


Dennis L. Durst is



[1] For Morel’s influence, see Jean-Christophe Coffin, “Le Théme de la Degénerescence de la Race autour de 1860,” History of European Ideas 15 (1992): 727‒29. Coffin states, according to one student of Morel’s thought, “Morel founded his concept of degeneration on a theological conception of creation and on an ethical conception of the moral law” (my translation); cf. Alex Liégeois, “La Théologie et L’éthique sous-jacentes à la Psychiatrie de B. A. Morel,” Ephemerides Theologicae Lovaniensis 65 (December, 1989): 330‒57; and Charles E. Rosenberg, No Other Gods: On Science and American Social Thought (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 43‒53. See also Stuart C. Gilman, “Degeneracy and Race in the Nineteenth Century: The Impact of Clinical Medicine,” Journal of Ethnic Studies 10 (1983): 30‒35. See Martin W. Barr, Mental Defectives: Their History, Treatment and Training (Philadelphia: Blakiston’s Sons, 1904), 23.

[2] Benedict A. Morel, Traité des Dégénérescences Physiques, Intellectuelles et Morales de l’Espèce Humaine (1857; repr., New York: Arno Press, 1976), 683.

[3] Dictionary of American Biography: Supplement Three, 1941‒1945, s.v. “Kellogg, John Harvey”; American National Biography, s. v. “Kellogg, John Harvey.”

[4] Richard W. Schwarz, John Harvey Kellogg, M. D. (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1970), 92.

[5] On the tumultuous early years of this institution, see Ronald L. Numbers, Prophetess of Health: A Study of Ellen G. White (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), 102‒28.

[6] American National Biography, s. v. “Kellogg, John Harvey.”

[7] James C. Whorton, Crusaders for Fitness: The History of American Health Reformers (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982), 204; Schwarz, John Harvey Kellogg, M. D., 73‒81.

[8] Alan Graebner, “Birth Control and the Lutherans: The Missouri Synod as a Case Study,” Journal of Social History 2 (1969): 309.

[9] John Harvey Kellogg, “The March of Degeneracy,” Good Health 39 (1904): 279.

[10] In another editorial, citing Ellen H. Richards of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Kellogg condemned “rich starchy foods” as “the real explanation of the evil commonly called race suicide” (“The True Cause of Race Suicide,” Good Health 46 [1911]: 248).

[11] See Kellogg, “Physical Hygiene and Moral Purity,” Good Health 41 (1906): 683‒85. Kellogg concluded that “The keeping of the Living Temple physically clean and pure means much for not only human moral purity, but also the mental ability and physical strength of humanity.”

[12] Kellogg, “Deterioration in Great Britain,” Good Health 39 (1904): 332; see Kellogg, “The Race Growing Old,” Good Health 41 (1906): 668; Kellogg, “Recent Facts Regarding the Growing Prevalence of Race Degeneracy,” Good Health 48 (1913): 123; Kellogg, “Mendel’s Law of Heredity,” 737. To Kellogg’s dire predictions of race suicide may be contrasted the more positive view of Herbert William Conn, in the pages of the 1913 volume of Methodist Review. Conn spoke of “social heredity,” (i.e., cultural evolution) as a critical component in passing on the elements of civilization. “Race suicide is simply a confession that the members of the race who are open to the accusation of diminishing reproductive powers have not been able to adapt themselves to the very society that they have created.” To Conn, even a dying race leaves its mark for posterity through its influence of the “laws of social heredity.” See Herbert William Conn, “Eugenics Versus Social Heredity,” Methodist Review 95 (1913): 715‒17.

[13] William W. Hastings, “Racial Hygiene and Vigor,” Good Health 45 (1910): 526‒27.

[14] Kellogg, “Heredity,” Good Health 39 (1904): 169.

[15] Ibid., 170.

[16] Kellogg, “Preliminary Program of the Third Race Betterment Conference,” Good Health 62 (December, 1927): 6.

[17] Luther S. West, “Eugenics and Euthenics,” Good Health 63 (October, 1928): 36. Similar rhetoric pervades an article the following month by Henry Wharton, “Here’s a New Word, Euthenics, Which Deals with the Controllable Environment of the Human Race,” Good Health 63 (November, 1928): 19-20.

[18] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996), passim.

[19] Kellogg, “Race Degeneracy and Improvement,” Good Health 70 (June, 1935): 179.

[20] 1 Cor. 12:22‒23 (New International Version); cf. Ps. 8.

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