Spring Break 1899: Who needs MTV when you have the Battle Creek Sanitarium

Emily Clark

Spring break is upon the Florida State University campus. Many of the undergraduates will embark on journeys of “rest” and “relaxation” to tranquil towns like Panama City Beach. Graduate students like myself will enjoy a quieter Tallahassee and catch up on our reading and grading with a cup of coffee – or when things get real crazy, a refreshing and hoppy pale ale. Taking a break to rejuvenate is not a novel idea. If this were this spring break 1899, I might go cleanse my mind and body at Battle Creek Sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan. Founded on the ideas of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (of Kellogg's cereals) became the institute’s lead doctor and head-honcho in 1876. Kellogg was a prolific writer, as a simple Google Books author search demonstrates, and his writings center on health and the relationship between health and religion.

Health reform and improving the physical condition of American bodies was a focus of Kellogg’s, as he strove to remedy “the harmony” of “bodily functions.” Kellogg was especially concerned with digestion, noting how “the miracle of digestion” reflected a well-tuned body. He was a big fan of enemas, and the Sanitarium contained a fecal and urine lab which analyzed the waste products of residents as a means to track holistic improvement. If the body worked at the ideal natural state – as God intended – it would show in digestion. In the words of my graduate colleague Adam Park who has studied Kellogg, “poo had theological significance.” In an aptly named book about the body, The Living Temple, Kellogg laments, “Departing from the way of life marked out for him by his Creator, man has sought out many inventions, the soul- and body-destroying influences of which are clearly evident to the thoughtful observer.” The cure for these physical and spiritual ailments was a new way of living, eating, exercising, and sleeping – all of which one could learn during her or his stay at the Battle Creek Sanitarium. This quest for perfection was not neutral however, for Kellogg was a eugenicist who looked unfavorably upon those not white, middle-class, and Protestant.

Always striving for improvement and eventual perfection, Kellogg’s utopian aspirations remained, even after he strayed from the Seventh-day Adventist Church and Ellen White’s direct tutelage. In addition to the fecal lab, Kellogg developed other scientific methods to examine a person’s body and to monitor her or his progress. A calibrating machine, the Universal DynamoMeter, measured the bodies of incoming residents; due to poor lifestyle, many residents failed to maintain the proper angles and proportions of slimness and posture. The Universal DynamoMeter was merely one of Kellogg’s many life-improving inventions. Another key problem of city living (on top of bad nutrition and lack of exercise) was the poor city air. Kellogg believed in the reviving quality of crisp, cold, Michigan air but recognized the foolishness of sleeping outside in the harsh Michigan winters. Problem solved with attaching sleeping hoods to one’s window to funnel the clean air directly to the top of one’s bed. Exercise was another key element to life at the Sanitarium. Kellogg’s instructions reflected the larger emerging fitness culture, and residents took full advantage of the Sanitarium’s large outdoor gymnasium.

Preaching on the relationship between religion and health was not unique to Kellogg. Around when Kellogg took over Battle Creek Sanitarium, Mary Baker Eddy published her classic Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, which explains how disease and pain were really just misguided thinking and a false understanding of matter/spirit. This text remains foundational in the Church of Christ, Scientist. Eddy and Kellogg's focus on the body, health, and spirituality are part of a much larger trend in American religion. R. Marie Griffith's Born Again Bodies: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity elucidates the centrality of the body - its maintenance and discipline - throughout American religious history. Firm bodies and firm souls, Kellogg was not alone.

But back to my dream spring break of 1899, I would have been in interesting company. The list of visitors to the Battle Creek Sanitarium for body and mind rejuvenating is noteworthy. Mary Todd Lincoln, Warren G. Harding, Henry Ford, Amelia Earhart, Richard Haliburton, and everyone’s favorite Kingdom of Matthias follower Sojourner Truth all spent time at Battle Creek, righting the wrongs American society had done to their bodies.


Anonymous said…
Great post! Don't forget Catherine L. Albanese's work on this kind of physical religion, too, in her book "Nature Religion".
Anonymous said…
Interesting, but you need to learn to spell the church's name correctly: Seventh-day Adventist, with a lower-case "d." This is in accord with the rules for capitalizatioin in English, when in hyphenated words in a title or name, the second word is capitalized only if it is a proper nounc that would be capitalized regularly.
Paul Harvey said…
Corrected. Since you're dispensing grammar lessons, you might work on your spellings of "capitalization" and "noun."
Anonymous said…
Any chance this entry title was based on the Murder by Death song of the same name?