Material History of American Religion Project

Christian Diet Restrictions

Almost every religious community has had rules and regulations regarding food and food--what to eat, how to eat it, with whom to eat. Kosher in Judaism and vegetarianism in Hinduism are just two examples. Christianity is no exception; until recently, for instance, Catholicism forbade meat-eating on Fridays.

Even Protestants have gotten into the act, although in the Protestant world it is guidelines offered by individual believers rather than church-wide rules. Reformers like Presbyterian minister Sylvester Graham argued that certain kinds of food--whole-wheat flour, vegetables, cold water--were an important element in a Christian diet. Adventist John Harvey Kellogg invented breakfast cereals for healthy bodies and healthy souls. These ideas came out of a complex mixture of faith, science, and gentility. A truly Christian person, it seemed, should not behave--or eat--in an unseemly way.

Almost inevitably, the Women's Christian Temperance Union got into the act. The W.C.T.U., founded in the 1870s and still active, was the leading organization for temperance and other reform measures for decades at the end of the nineteenth century. While focused on the evils of drink, the Union--under the leadership of its president, Frances Willard--concerned itself with a variety of efforts meant to create stronger homes and a more Christian (and genteel) society. The Union concerned itself with a variety of food issues, ranging from the far-fetched--including the idea that ketchup was a stimulant to be avoided—to ideas congenial to modern health foodists--like avoiding overly processed white flour for bread. In fact the Union was involved in the crusades that led to early twentieth century pure food laws. The Union believed that men who are well-fed at home are less likely to be tempted by the saloon’s free lunch--and booze.

In this article, from the Union's paper, the Union Signal, in 1896, an author signing herself Mother Experience encourages mothers to offer their children food that will build up the temple of their bodies, rather than destroying it. Christian diet programs, tips, books, Bible study about dieting plans and restrictions: her concern is for health, but more importantly for the over-indulged appetite. Her article suggests that it is dangerous for children (and, most likely, husbands) to get everything they want. Her goal is to encourage discipline, which will prevent drunkenness, preserve health, and strengthen the family and society is her dietary advice.

Dear Co-Worker: Moving quietly along, side by side with other reforms, the matter of the relation of food to moral and spiritual, as well as to physical well-being, is being brought before the people in numberless ways, and winning friends on every hand.

As I sat at my table the other day I could not forbear a smile at the contrast between my bill of fire and such a one as our hearty English mother used to spread before us decades ago.

As a man drinketh in his heart so is he, and—as men and women eat and drink so are they in physical, moral, mental and spiritual characteristics in far greater measure than they realize.

I sat at the dinner table din of an earnest white-ribboner, and by my side was the youngest child in the home, a bright, finely-organized, highly-strung; girl of about seven. Strong coffee, pickles—green and hot and sharp, sauce unlimited, ice-cold water by the side of the hot coffee cup, meat, potatoes and other vegetables, rich cake and luscious pie. The little lassie’s measure for the consumption of these edibles was simply her capacity—stretched.

My mind traveled into the future as I watched the child eating--that is, building up the future temple of God—and I saw a distressing vision. The beautiful skin sallow and wrinkled; the clear eyes—the soul-windows--dimmed; the nerves, those fine strings of the many-toned instrument called the body, strained, jarred, broken, maybe; the whole organism, shattered and despoiled by disease, induced by an entirely avoidable cause--injudicious eating, and the noble spirit made querulous and inefficient by reactionary causes.

Our bodies are not vile, to be fed on anything that comes along, or denied the very best creatures of God for their nourishment. Neither are they mere storehouses for the packing away of that which we desired because of its pleasant taste. They are nothing less than temples—shrines, wherein abides temporarily the God-man. Shell they be built up carelessly? Shall any stone enter into their walls that is not sound, symmetrical, perfect? Shall we put therein hay and stubble?

We have begun well when we have laid a forbidding hand upon our lips, and said to Alcohol and cigarettes, Thou shalt not enter to destroy this temple of the God-man, but it is only a beginning.

In the Annual Leaflet for 1896--have you seen a copy?--on page 29, under the head of Preventive, I find a paragraph reading thus:


This department of scientific and economic cookery aims to teach the relative nutritious values of foods and the most sanitary and economic methods of their preparations. So close is the relation existing between the alcoholic habit and lack of proper nutrition that when this department is fully grasped and its principles everywhere practiced, it will prove a most powerful ally in the work of temperance and all other reforms.

What have you as local unions done with this new department during the past year? How are your home tables? How is your own intelligence on the matter of foods? Do your children eat when, as, how and what they please? Are pleasure, appetite, fancy, convenience, habit, custom, dictating what you daily build into the temple walls, rather than the very highest reason and most scientific choice? Are you handicapped? Are you trying to find liberty?

But be careful. Mrs. A. may advise you to eat no bread; Mrs. B. would make bread your main article of diet; Mrs. C. will talk vegetables and fruit; Mrs. D., fruit and meat; Mrs. E. will say that nature makes no mistakes, and you may eat anything you crave; one periodical advertises this prepared food as the one sure and only cure for certain Ills, and the next one you take up speaks as positively for another. Each is paid well, however, for advertising space.

An individual study of truly scientific statements alone is sure. Know for yourself, and get your knowledge from other than Madam Say So or Doctor Prejudice. Study the effect of body upon mind and you will be surprised to find how you may control certain conditions that hitherto seemed to exist outside of any power of doctors to regulate them.

Watch carefully for the distinction between nourishment and stimulation--the real sound, live limb that will carry you safely about and the clumsy crutch. There are many stimulants outside of alcohol, nicotine, caffeine and tobacco.

Find out what it is that is obscuring the windows of your House Beautiful, making foul the air of its lofty apartments, setting every hinge of its strange doors creaking, and undermining the great foundations built for threescore years and ten.

Be a wise, determined, conscientious architect and builder and set about repairing the living structure and it will do its best to respond to every move you make.

Mother Experience, Local Union, Union Signal, 15 October 1896, 3.

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