Cornflake Crusade


Reviewed by Charles Stahler

Since we are a minority in society, vegetarians tend to be individualistic. I think if the rest of society would finally stop eating meat, some people would start eating meat just to be different. However, for most people this is not true. Their vegetarianism stems out of strong convictions of health, animal rights, religion, environmental concerns, and ethics.

Because there are so many reasons for being vegetarian, we may disassociate our-selves from others who are vegetarian for different reasons. This is probably especially true of people who are vegetarian for animal rights reasons, or people who are health vegetarians for scientific reasons and do not want to be thought of as trendy health people or "nuts among the berries." Yet, outsiders studying us probably tend to see all of us as one broad movement (just as Europeans would look at all Americans as the same, whether you are a cowboy from Lubbock, Texas, a coal miner from West Virginia, or a computer programmer from Manhattan, New York).

In order to understand ourselves better, and the direction of our movement, we need to look at our historical roots, even if it means seeing some of our ancestors as flakes (having off-the-wall ideas). The Cornflake Crusade, by Gerald Carson, is a fascinating book that talks about vegetarianism in the late 1800's and early 1900's, and the resulting changes in American society. We need to look closely at what happened to the past vegetarian move-ment, and analyze whether our work will result in a changed society which still eats meat, or a vegetarian nation.

Carson states that "Saints, backwoods visionists, inventors, and dreamers, creators of industries, are seldom well-adjusted people... In these pages, then, appear much singularity, a passionate attachment to truth and half-truth, many instances of vanity, high and low motives, the will to power, the urge to improve the erring brother even if it kills him. Many in the cast of characters were called cranks... The cause of Right Living is never lost, never won. Its advocates left a heritage of broad social significance, and some memories not without their entertaining aspects."

Though writing about a period over 100 years ago, Carson surely describes the vege-tarian and animal rights movements today. Though we want to bring changes to the world for the better, being an individualist and ahead of your time often takes its toll. We may be seen as cranks and troublemakers. Like all people, we are not saints. We do things that we know are wrong, and we take actions we do not realize are wrong. Yet our passion for change, if not enough to create a utopia for today, we hope that passion will push the world in that direction when our wiser descendants will be able to continue the battle for a more just and healthier world.


Towards the end of the eighteenth century, Reverend William Cowherd was in a dilemma "that was likely to cost him his living." In addition to studying science, after reading his bible closely, he decided to stop eating meat. He took ser-iously the sixth commandment that stated thou shalt not kill. (This is usually thought to mean thou shalt not murder, i.e., referring only to human beings.) After leaving the Church of England, Cowherd started a church of his own, with vegetarianism as its cornerstone. William Metcalfe, who also gave up meat for ethical reasons, became a follower of the new church, and in 1817 led a flock of Christians to America, where he became the first public advocate of vegetarianism in this country.

Metcalfe established his vegetarian church in Philadelphia, where he served without compensation, similar to the leaders of most vegetarian groups today. For his support, he opened a school, as well as treated patients with homeopathy. The church continued on for about 100 years, and the American Vegetarian Society even met there, and published a vegetarian magazine. One of their vegetarian feasts was attended by Susan B. Anthony and Horace Greeley, who presided.

Unfortunately, the group went out of business in a few years because of the inability to pay printing bills. The church struggled for about 100 years before expiring, but not before many years of singing this hymn in church:

No flocks that range the valley free to slaughter we condemn.
Taught by the Power that pities us
We learn to pity them.

We often think that the vegetarian movement was always health based. However, it appears that historically,
we always had strong underpinnings of health,
ethics, and a spiritual belief.

After the demise of the American Vegetarian Society (the first vegetarian group), the Reverend Henry Stephen Clubb, a successor of Reverend Metcalfe, put together a new national society of vegetarians, and called the group the Vegetarian Society of America. Clubb was its president, and edited their official publication, called Food, Home and Garden. Clubb believed that the early Christian Church was vegetarian, and was later corrupted by Constantine.

Clubb was in contact with many vegetarians around the country. Though they had common ground, like today, there were many subgroups. Some vegetarians would not eat tubers, but only foods grown in the light of the sun. Some would eat only plants grown in virgin soil. Others put their faith in nuts and milk. One group ate only raw food. Fruitarians abstained from all food obtained by inflicting pain. Some people would not wear leather shoes, because they were made from skins of animals, and sent off for Dutch wooden shoes. Does this all sound familiar?

The poet Shelley wrote:

No longer now
He slays the lamb, who looks him in the face,
And horribly devours its mangled flesh
Which, still avenging Nature's broken law
Kindled all putrid humors in his frame

Other famous people who were involved with vegetarianism included Thomas Edison, Emerson, and Thoreau. However, Edison had a healthy diet only when his kidneys kicked up, but returned to his former habits when they calmed down. Many people, then, as today, had the same problem of consistency.

Another famous vegetarian, who lived from 1794 to 1851, was Reverend Sylvester Graham. As you might have guessed, he invented the forerunner of the graham cracker. He pushed whole wheat products, denounced white bread, and pointed to the unpleasant problems of excessive drinking and a high protein diet. Graham's ideas were discussed throughout the popular newspapers of the day.

Vegetarians, one hundred years ago, as today, worked closely with other groups, from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to theosophists, from those against vaccination to Indian mystics. "The vegetarian frame of reference included agitators and fighters in all the liberal causes which stirred the social conscience of idealistic men and women." Back in the 1860's, there was a group of "Alcott ladies" who would not use cotton because it was the product of slave labor, and stayed away from wool because it deprived sheep of their property. Even Clara Barton was involved with vegetarians.

Out of the early health and church movements grew the Seventh-day Adventist religion and its pro-vegetarian stance on diet. Carson gives a fascinating history of the rise of Ellen White, a Seventh-day Adventist prophet, and the eventual interplay between science, religion, and commercialism. In 1866, the Adventist Western Reform Health Institute opened for business in Battle Creek, Michigan, without the blessing of the American Medical Asso-ciation. As the sanitarium floundered in the 1870's, Ellen White felt they needed a medical person to run the place. She was responsible for sending a young Seventh-day Adventist, John Harvey Kellogg, to college.

Thus began the medicalization of religious teachings. For example, Laws of Life, a Seventh-day Adventist magazine, was eventually taken over by Dr. John Kellogg. He changed the name of the magazine to Good Health, broadened the appeal, and played down the Old Testament hygiene in favor of reports on German bacteriological research, and world-wide developments in surgery, nutrition and chemistry. The Seventh-day Adventist sanitarium run by Kellogg, though still vegetarian, started to downplay natural cures, and rely more on men and women who had medical training. Kellogg started to exper-iment with new vegetarian foods such as nut meats, and granola, and even started a small mail order business.

According to Carson, Kellogg never tired of emphasizing the antisocial behavior of the meat eaters. While Kellogg was a skilled surgeon, administrator, and publicist, a follower of scientific truth, and in good repute with the American Medical Associ-ation, he still stuck closely to the Seventh-day Adven-tist — Sylvestor Graham line of think-ing. "The doctor's spiritual vegetarianism was a heritage which he could not slough off. It brought him into relation with a strange crew: anti-fur wearers, Rosicrucians, and Indian swamis, Buddhists and antivivisectors, alfalfa-tea men, nudists, raw fooders, assorted bird lovers and New Thoughters." (Today, 80 years later, it sounds like some vegetarian conferences a few of us have attended.)

Like vegetarians of today, Kellogg went to great lengths to justify some of his beliefs. He proved that a dog could be kept healthy on a cereal diet, and then tried to convert a wolf to a more progressive view of eating. On one Thanksgiving day, the sani-tarium guests were served something which looked like roast turkey and tasted like roast turkey, but wasn't. In the dining room Dr. Kellogg had placed a live turkey on a stage with a legend that said, "A Thankful Turkey." According to spectators, the turkey ate his grain ration like all the other guests, flapped his wings and gobbled his appreciation.

However, according to Carson, Kellogg was also very practical. While he believed in his nut and cereal meats from a nutritional viewpoint, he realized it was a lot cheaper to serve patients vegetarian items than expensive meat. Creating appetizing foods that would keep patients at his sanitarium, yet keep costs down, brought Kellogg's to corn flakes.

As Dr. Kellogg developed his small empire, he wanted to downplay his religious con-nections with the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The church was upset because Kellogg taught young men "spurious scientific theories," i.e., evolution. Also involved was economics. The church depended on free will offerings, but the medics had a better source of revenue because their work was income producing. While Kellogg was set up by the Church, he had begun to keep his funds out of the reach of the Church.

The cooperation and rivalries between Kellogg and the Church, and other spiritual/ economic entrepreneurs; Kellogg's brother's founding the Kellogg's Company; and the evolution away from health food into the cereal empires of Kellogg's, Nabisco, and Post all add up to a story line rivaling that of the old television show, Dallas. Whether you like novels or history, the Cornflake Crusade is worth reading.

Charles Stahler is the co-founder and co-director of The Vegetarian Resource Group.

This article appears in Vegan Handbook, published by The Vegetarian Resource Group.