Dietary Reformer Sylvester Graham

Sylvester Graham is best known for his emphasis on vegetarianism, the temperance movement and his emphasis on eating whole-grain bread

Sylvester Graham is best known for his emphasis on vegetarianism, the temperance movement and his emphasis on eating whole-grain bread

On July 5, 1794, American Presbyterian minister and dietary reformer Sylvester Graham was born. Graham is best known for his emphasis on vegetarianism, the temperance movement and his emphasis on eating whole-grain bread; he did not invent graham flour, graham bread, or graham crackers, but those products were inspired by his preaching.

Sylvester Graham worked as a farm hand, cleaner, and teacher. His relatives ran a tavern where Graham also worked and as a result, Graham developed a strong aversion against alcohol. Later on, he decided to become a minister and joined Amherst Academy. Unfortunately, Sylvester Graham was forced to leave when a scandal was created that he improperly approached a woman.

In 1828, Graham started working as an itinerant preacher in New Jersey. He was offered a position at the Philadelphia Temperance Society. The society was led by doctors who  were primarily concerned about health effects of alcohol. There he met William Metcalfe, an English minister who established a vegetarian church in Philadelphia, and William A. Alcott, a Philadelphia doctor who wrote extensively about vegetarianism and wrote the first American vegetarian cookbook. Graham was highly influenced by the society and came to the conclusion that meat was just as much an expression and spur to gluttony as alcohol was, and that both corrupted both the body and soul of individuals and harmed families and society. It is believed that the book written by François-Joseph-Victor Broussais, ‘Treatise on Physiology’ highly influenced Graham, next to the works of the German chemist Friedrich Accum.

After six month at the Philadelphia Temperance Societ, Graham quit in order to focus on his preaching on health. Around 1829, Sylvester Graham developed the Graham diet. It consisted of mostly fresh fruits and vegetables, whole wheat and high fiber foods, and excluded meat and spices altogether. Further, fresh milk, cheese, and eggs were permitted in moderation. Apparently, Graham believed that this diet would prevent people from having impure thoughts and in turn would stop for instance masturbation. Graham’s diet had a moderate response and it was even strictly imposed on students of Oberlin College by David Campbell until it was dropped in 1841 due to a public outcry.

When cholera took ots toll in Europe, Americans were terrified that the epidemic would reach America. Back then it was believed by many that eating plenty of meat, drinking port wine, and avoid vegetables were the best way to prevent contracting cholera and that cholera was a plague sent by God in order to publish people. Sylvester Graham’s preaching included topics as patriotism, religion, lifestyle, health, and diet. When the epidemic finally reached New York in 1832, Graham received a lot of fame. His successful book ‘Treatise on Bread and Bread-Making’ appeared in 1837 and his lectures were always full. Grahamism became a widely spread movement and inspired by his preaching, graham flour, graham bread, and graham crackers were produced.

Graham’s followers became known as Grahamites, they practiced abstinence from alcohol, frequent bathing, daily brushing of teeth, vegetarianism, and a generally sparse lifestyle. However, some Grahamites lost faith when their mentor died at the age of fifty-seven. His doctrines found later followers in the persons of Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and his brother Will Keith Kellogg. Their invention of corn flakes was a logical extension of the Grahamite approach to nutrition.

References and Further Reading:

Megan Hodges

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