*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***
It is the 5th of July 2022. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.
If I told you that today’s show was about a peculiar American minister in the Northeast in the 19th century, you might guess the themes that we might hit:
American Christianity and the Second Great Awakening created a cauldron of social movements that gave platforms to a new kind of fiery prophet. Today we remember one of these prophets- an itinerant preacher whom Ralph Waldo Emerson called the “prophet of bran bread”: Sylvester Graham.
Sylvester Graham was born on this the 5th of July in 1792. Everything about his life seems extreme, such as he was the 17th son born to a 72-year-old father who died two years later. His mother, understandably busy, suffered from mental illnesses, and Sylvester grew up being shuttled amongst family that lived in the area.
He was a precocious boy who decided to follow his father’s steps and become a minister. He attended Amherst College but did not get along with his fellow students. Dropping out of seminary could be the end of a career in the ministry, but the Second Great Awakening saw the growth of self-appointed itinerant preachers. Graham would preach on the lecture circuit and near his New Jersey home.
He became obsessed with the eating habits of Americans and believed that sin correlated with the amount of meat, spices, and condiments one consumed. He preached on regular bathing and chastity save for procreation.
His popularity can be traced to several factors. One: the American diet was genuinely terrible. Modern mass food production techniques had not caught up to the population growth. Foodstuffs were colored and scented to obscure rot and prolong shelf life. Two: his radical call to vegetarianism fit the faddish zeitgeist with Christian Science, 7th Day Adventists, and other new Christian sects and religious movements.
In the 1830s, there was a cholera outbreak in New York, and stories spread that Grahamites, those who followed Sylvester’s diet, were spared. Whether this is true or not, the story spread, and many flocked to Graham’s austere diet.
In 1837 he was a popular speaker extolling the benefits of vegetarianism- at one of his talks, a group of butchers protested and were met with angry Grahamites, and a brawl broke out.
In 1838, Oberlin College- where many ministers trained- adopted Graham’s principles for their dining hall. One possibly fabricated or exaggerated story is told of an Oberlin professor who was fired for putting pepper on his meal.
And on this show, we have no shortage of treatises written by preachers and theologians, but I believe Graham is the only one to have published “Treatise on Bread and Bread Making.”
And, of course, you may have heard that he believed his coarsely ground flour made into crackers could suppress unholy urges…
But like many self-proclaimed prophets spying on the sins of others, Graham seems to have led something of a double life. Whether it was the strain of mental illness or the weight of his self-imposed laws, he was known to disappear from time to time and disregard his own rules. He claimed that with his diet, one could live to 100. His followers were shocked to hear that he died in 1851 at 57.
His followers would modify his ideas- perhaps most famously at the Western Health Reform Institute in Battle Creek, Michigan, under the leadership of John Harvey Kellog. Kellogg’s graham-inspired cereals are familiar to most Americans today.
He wouldn’t have liked you eating S’mores, but you get to because he invented one of its main ingredients. Happy Birthday, Sylvester Graham, the itinerant preacher turned health food utopian.
The Last Word for today comes from the lectionary for today from Matthew 15- it seemed apropos.
10 Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. 11 What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.”
12 Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?”
13 He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. 14 Leave them; they are blind guides.If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.”
15 Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.”
16 “Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. 17 “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? 18 But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20 These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.”
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 5th of July 2022, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man who ascribes all of his piety to his dietary decisions. He is Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man who could eat a metric ton of Teddy Grahams as a kid. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.