Battle Creek is a city of some 50,000 inhabitants in southwestern Michigan situated at the point where the Battle Creek River flows into the Kalamazoo River. The name Battle Creek traces back, according to local lore, to a skirmish between U.S. soldiers and Native Americans in the winter of 1823-1824.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Battle Creek was the Silicon Valley of the time: entrepreneurs, investors and workers poured in, companies were started, fortunes were made. As the local Daily Moon observed in 1902, “Today Battle Creek is more like a boom town in the oil region than a staid respectable milling center.” A new industry had taken over the town: “There are … large establishments some running day and night” and all were churning out the new product that launched this gold rush.
Even before the boom, Battle Creek was something of a manufacturing center producing such things as agricultural equipment and newspaper printing presses. But this was different. Battle Creek was now known as “Health City.” So what was this new miracle product? Mystère.
Well, it was dry breakfast cereal, corn flakes and all that. By 1902, more than 40 companies were making granulated or flaked cereal products with names like Vim, Korn-Krisp, Zest, X-Cel-O, Per-Fo, Flak-ota, Corn-O-Plenty, Malt-Too; each labeled as the perfect food.
And how did Battle Creek come to be the center of this cereal boom? Again mystère?
For this, things turn Biblical and one has to go back to the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation; the first is a prophetic book of the Hebrew Bible, the second a prophetic book of the New Testament. Together, the books offer clues as to the year when the Second Coming of Christ will take place. Belief in the imminence of this time is known as adventism. No one less than Isaac Newton devoted years to working on this. Newton came to the conclusion that it would be in the year 2060, although sometimes he thought it might be 2034 instead; superscientist though he was, Newton could have made a mistake – he also invested heavily in the South Sea Bubble.
The First Great Awakening was a Christian revival movement that swept England and the colonies in the 1700’s; among its leaders were John Wesley (of Methodism) and Jonathan Edwards (of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”). During the Second Great Awakening in the first part of the 19th century, in the U.S. the adventist William Miller declared the year of the Second Coming to be 1844. When that passed uneventfully (known as the Great Disappointment), the Millerite movement splintered but some regrouped and soldiered on. One such group became the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Another became the Seventh Day Adventists.
The “Seventh Day” refers to the fact that these Adventists moved the Sabbath back to its original day, the last day of the week, the day on which the Lord rested after the Creation, the day observed by the Biblical Israelites and by Jews today, viz., Saturday. The early Gentile Christians, after breaking off from their Jewish roots, moved their Sabbath to Sunday because that was the day of rest for the non-Jewish population of the Roman Empire; they likely also wanted to distance themselves from Jews after the revolts of 66-73 AD and 132-136 AD, uprisings against the power of Rome.
The Seventh Day Adventists do not claim to know the year of the Second Coming but do live in anticipation of it. Article 24 of their statement of faith concludes with
“The almost complete fulfillment of most lines of prophecy, together with the present condition of the world, indicates that Christ’s coming is imminent. The time of that event has not been revealed, and we are therefore exhorted to be ready at all times.”
In 1863, in Battle Creek, the church was formally established and had 3,500 members at the outset. So the plot thickens: “Battle Creek” did you say?
Their system of beliefs and practices extends beyond adventism. They are basically pacifists and eschew combat. Unlike the Quakers, they leave the decision to serve in the Armed Forces to the individual and, typically, those who are in the military serve as medics or in other non-combatant roles. They are also vegetarians; they proscribe alcohol and tobacco – coffee and tea as well; they consider the health of the body to be necessary for the health of the spirit.
It is their interest in health that leads to a solution to our mystery. As early as 1863, Adventist prophetess Ellen White had visions about health and diet. She envisaged a “water cure and vegetation institution where a properly balanced, God-fearing course of treatments could be made available not only to Adventists, but to the public generally.” Among her supporters in this endeavor were her husband James White and John and Ann Kellogg. The plot thickens again: “Kellogg” did you say? The Kelloggs were Adventists to the point that they did not believe that their son John Harvey or their other children needed a formal education because of the imminence of the Second Coming. In 1866, the Western Reform Institute was opened in Battle Creek realizing Ellen White’s vision. By then the Whites had taken an interest in the self-taught John Harvey Kellogg which eventually led to their sending him for medical training with a view to having a medical doctor at the Institute. He finished his training at the NYU Medical College at Bellevue Hospital in New York City in 1875. In 1876, John Harvey Kellogg became the director of the Institute and he would lead this institution until his death in 1943. In 1878, he was joined by his younger brother Will Keith Kellogg who worked on the business end of things.
John Harvey Kellogg threw himself into his work. He quickly changed the name to the Battle Creek Medical Surgical Sanitarium; he coined the term sanitarium to distinguish it from sanatorium to describe a place where one would learn to stay healthy. He described the Sanitarium’s system as “a composite physiologic method comprising hydrotherapy, phototherapy, thermotherapy, electrotherapy, mechanotherapy, dietetics, physical culture, cold-air cure, and health training.” Physical exercise was thus an important component of the system; somewhat inconsistently, sexual abstinence was also strongly encouraged as part of the program
Kellogg’s methods could be daring, if not extreme; what web sites most remember him for is his enema machine that involved yogurt as well as water and ingestion through the mouth as well as through the anus.
Through all this, vegetarianism remained a principal component of the program. The Kelloggs continually experimented with ways of making vegetarian foods more palatable and more effective in achieving the goals of the Sanatarium. In 1894, serendipity struck: they were working to produce sheets of wheat when they left some cooked wheat unattended; when they came back they continued processing it but produced flakes of wheat instead of sheets – these flakes could be toasted and served to guests at the Sanitarium. They filed for a patent in 1895 and it was issued in 1896. For an advertisement for Corn Flakes from 1919, click HERE .
John Harvey Kellogg showed this new process to patients at the Sanitarium. One guest, C. W. Post grasped its commercial potential and started his own company, a company that became General Foods. See what we mean by Silicon Valley level rewards – that was “General Foods,” which was the Apple Computer of the processed food industry, with an industrial name modeled after General Electric and General Motors. (The name is gone today; the company eventually merged with Kraft.) Post’s first cereal product in 1897 was Elijah’s Manna later rechristened Grape-Nuts Flakes – in the name, only Flakes is accurate as the ingredients are wheat and barley. But the Gold Rush was on.
In 1906 Will Keith Kellogg founded the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company; this company was later named Kellogg’s and, to this day, it is headquartered in Battle Creek and continues to bless the world with its corn flakes and other dry breakfast cereals
Through all this, the Sanitarium continued on and, in fact, prospered. Its renown spread very far and very wide and a remarkable set of patients spent time there. This list includes William Howard Taft, George Bernard Shaw, Roald Amundsen and Sojourner Truth.
Perhaps the simplest proof of the efficacy of the Kelloggs’ methods is that both brothers lived past 90. For another proof, let us go from the 19th and 20th centuries to the 21st century and let us move from Battle Creek Michigan to Loma Linda California.
Loma Linda is the only place in the U.S. that made it onto the list of Blue Zones – places in the world where people have exceptionally long life spans. (The other places are in Sardinia, Okinawa, Greece and Costa Rica). The reason is that this California area has a large population of Seventh Day Adventists and they live a decade longer than the rest of us. They follow the principles of their early coreligionists: a vegetarian diet, physical exercise, no alcohol, no tobacco – to which is added that sense of community and purpose in life that their shared special beliefs bring to them.
For the unserious among us, much of the goings on at the Sanitarium could be the stuff of high comedy. In fact, it inspired the author T. Coraghessan Boyle to write a somewhat zany novel The Road to Wellville which was later made into a movie. The characters have fictitious names except for Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (played by Anthony Hopkins in the movie). The title itself comes from the booklet written by C.W. Post which used to be given out with each box of Grape-Nuts Flakes.
In the 1930’s a group broke off from the Seventh Day Adventist church and eventually became known as the Davidian Seventh Day Adventists. In turn, in the 1950’s there was a split among them and a new group, the Branch Davidians, was formed; so we are at two removes from the church founded in Battle Creek. In the 1982 Vernon Wayne Howell, then 22 years old, moved to Waco Texas and joined the Branch Davidians there; he subsequently changed his name to David Koresh: Koresh is the Hebrew ( כֹּרֶשׁ ) for Cyrus (the Great), the Persian king who is referenced in the Book of Daniel and elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible; Cyrus is the only non-Jew to be named a Messiah (a person chosen by God for a mission) in the Hebrew Bible (Isaiah 45:1) and it was he who liberated the Jews from the Babylonian Captivity. As David Koresh, Howell eventually took over the Waco Branch Davidian compound and turned it into a nightmarish cult. There followed the horrifying assault in 1993 and the deaths of so many. To make an unimaginable horror yet worse, this assault has become a rallying cry for paranoid militia people – its second anniversary was a motivation for Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols when they planned the Oklahoma City bombing.