Cereal, circumcision and tax evasion: a history of John Harvey Kellogg

At the turn of the 20th century, the landscape of Battle Creek, Michigan, was dominated by a vast wellness complex akin to a Roman bath or maybe Willy Wonka’s factory. Such was the imposing scale of the building on its surroundings. A wide flat road looped around the outside, leading up to the ionic-columned entrance. Tightly cropped lawns were studded with foliage and topiary. Advertisements claimed it to be the largest and most elaborately equipped health resort in the world.

It’s a claim easy to believe. Tennis, golfing, tramping, swimming, motoring and luxury bath facilities were all apparently accommodated within the grounds, as were acres of farmland to grow the vegetarian diet dictated for the residents. This was Dr John Harvey Kellogg’s Sanitarium of biologic living.

The thickly moustachioed man whose name is still synonymous with cornflakes began life in a family of early adopters of Michigan’s Seventh-Day Adventism, making him the natural heir to the health empire being built by the church. Despite little formal education, John – apparently a voracious autodidact – came to the attention of local church founders Ellen and James White and put through medical school under their auspices. It was there John would face a theological quandary that plagued the rest of his life. Unsatisfied by the Christian school’s staunch refusal to teach molecular biology, John matriculated into the mainstream system. Here he confronted the seemingly irreproachable difference between his Adventist beliefs and scientific rationalism. Rather than abandoning either, the doctor ventured to establish his own theology in an effort to unite the two.

This caused a schism with his former mentor, Ellen White, who publicly admonished him, warning of apocalyptic consequences. Blessed with visions, she claimed to see ‘a sword of fire stretched out over Battle Creek’. Not long afterwards, a fire ripped through surrounding woodlands and razed the Sanitarium to the ground. Kellogg energetically set to work rebuilding the Sanitarium planning to use the proceeds of his soon-to-be-published book. In the next mysterious fire to hit the town, the publishing house was burnt down.


More recently, a Pentecostal suburban dad has proposed that faith-based hospitals should have the ability of medical staff to impose their religious beliefs on patients.

An approved example in the amended legislation of what would be newly considered lawful behaviour included psychiatric advice to a depressed patient to ‘look forward to the kingdom of heaven’. This was drawn from a 2013 case where the doctor further told the patient to seek God’s forgiveness for the death of her son following a miscarriage.

As for Kellogg, the religious conception of soul became inseparable from his medical practice.

The soul – that which is resurrected upon the Second Coming of Christ or suffer the eternal licks of the flaming inferno – has a central place in Adventist theism. In Kellogg’s interpretation, this took on a more physical manifestation. He came to believe that it was the indwelling of God in every cell and microbe that sustained and renewed life:

It is God that grows the plant; it does not grow itself; it is divine power, which is in all things and in all matter [and] is the same divine power working in my body that makes me what I am, and that makes you what you are.

The consequences for the human body – the ‘true tabernacle of God’ – is that cellular turnover and autonomic functions were seen by Kellogg as subject to degeneration through sin.

As historically interesting this theological turn is, I can’t imagine that the children he went on to circumcise without anaesthetic, using scalpels and carbolic acid, cared greatly about the differences between an immanent or anthropomorphic god. How small they must have felt in comparison to the surgeons and nurses operating on them. Did they believe it was for their own good? Had the scientific rationalisation by Kellogg been sufficiently convincing that they came to believe with an incision or burn they could excise Satan from their bodies?

Kellogg proposed circumcision as a last resort solution to the sin of ‘self-abuse’, arguing that

the operation should be performed by a surgeon without administering an anaesthetic [to] have a salutary effect upon the mind, especially if it be connected with the idea of punishment, as it may well be in some cases.

Kellog’s writings often make for grim reading. Under his theology, the body was simultaneously an expression of morality, and the care of the body was an act of moral good for the soul. The pursuit of health was a high-stakes game in which babies could imbibe a mother’s lasciviousness through her milk; in which tobacco converted ‘the once chaste and pure youth into a veritable volcano of lust, belching out from its inner fires of passion torrents of obscenity’; in which intestinal worms, constipation and bladder irritation would lead to unchastity; in which brunettes were naturally more sexually precocious; a game, finally, in which nothing was more inhuman than the ‘exhibitions made in satisfying the mania for female pedestrianism’.

There are however clear moments of genuine tenderness towards his patients, notably women suffering the physical impacts of dominant fashions. A study conducted by Kellogg and his colleagues found women wearing bone corsets were only capable of using half their lung capacity. He dedicates many pages to detailing the impacts and remedies for menorrhagia and dysmenorrhoea (endometriosis), and speaks forthrightly against what sounds a lot like marital rape.

But what sticks in the mind is his specific hatred of masturbation:

The sin of self-pollution is one of the vilest, the basest, and the most degrading that a human being can commit. It is worse than beastly. Those who commit it place themselves far below the meanest brute that breathes. The most loathsome reptile, rolling in the slush and slime of its stagnant pool, would not bemean itself thus.

Kellog is dazzling in detailing the divine punishments for those who corrupt the moral natural order, arguing such wretches ought to be punished in a solitary purgatory made seven times hotter than for ordinary sinners.

In their provision of healthcare, Michigan Seventh-Day Adventists – including Ellen White and Kellogg himself – were dogged by a number of lawsuits. Ultimately, they were acquitted of all charges. As one writer surmises: ‘this was not an unusual outcome, juries in Michigan at this time were reluctant to convict any alternative healer on licensing laws, for reasons of both free trade and freedom of religion’.


Emerging as he did from a cultural chrysalis of religious orthodoxy and Grahamism, it feels somewhat inevitable that Kellog should come to view the body as the site of his spiritual enthusiasms. Grahanism took hold from the 1830s, advocating that all disease was caused by overstimulation of the nervous system. Graham also sought to quell sexual urges in his ascetic regime, specifically through non-stimulating foods, and so brought forth the graham cracker. Following Graham’s legacy, Kellogg railed against all so-called stimulating foods, on the grounds that they could excite deviancy.

In a totalising reach, Kellogg banned all meat, condiments, eggs, tea, coffee, chocolate, salt and spices, stating that the irritation done to the nerves and their derangement of the circulatory system had a powerful influence on reproductive organs, causing passions to be aroused.

By the time he became director of the Sanitarium, in 1876, breakfast cereals had taken hold of the market and he jumped on the opportunity to create his own brand of healthful cereal to prevent the spread of moral decay – the cornflake. The success of breakfast cereal led an Adventist baker who had trained under Kellogg at Battle Creek to move to Australia and begin production of the first Sanitarium products in a bakery in Northcote. This would go on to spawn the country’s most iconic, sports-star beloved, wheat-based national hero: the Weet-Bix.

To this day Sanitarium is owned by the Adventist church. Its website’s homepage greets you with a large photo of a freckled faced smiling child whose cheeks are rendered with peeling temporary Weet-Bix tattoos. Owing to its status as a charity – which generously donate proceeds back to the church – the company does not pay tax. In 2016, their overall annual profit was reported to be $410 million.

In the meantime, our legislation will attempt to claw back the apparently restricted religious freedoms in Australia.


Image: Breathing exercises at the Battle Creek Sanatorium

Alice Peart

Alice Peart is a Newcastle-based freelance writer and journalist.

More by Alice Peart ›

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  1. Did not know that about Mr Kellog. What an interesting and well written article. Thankyou for the enlightenment.

  2. I had read elsewhere, though I can’t recall the publication, that Kellogg initiated circumcision in part based on his belief that the exposed glans would rub against cloth, desensitizing it somewhat, and, he theorized, causing a lessening of sexual desire or desire to masturbate.

    Are you aware if that is true?

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