John Harvey Kellogg: The Most Famous Adventist

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John Harvey Kellogg: The Most Famous Adventist

Worldwide Health Reformer

Corn flakes cereal is what John Harvey Kellogg is most famous for. But few realize that breakfast foods are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Kellogg’s influence in the world of health.

Before many understood the benefits of a vegetarian diet, before many understood the importance of gut health, and before many understood the importance of lifestyle when it comes to chronic diseases, J. H. Kellogg was on the cutting edge of wellness practices.

As the Battle Creek Sanitarium leader in Michigan for over 60 years, John attracted many famous people to the institution. Henry Ford, Amelia Earhart, and former President William Howard Taft were just a few of the big names who registered as patients of Dr. Kellogg.

As a Seventh-day Adventist, Kellogg also helped the church transform its outlook on evangelism. The phrase medical missionary work probably wouldn’t be so popular in Adventism today if it weren’t for this man’s relentless zeal. The worldwide reach of the church today owes a lot to the development of its medical ministry.

Kellogg’s achievements make it that much sadder that he eventually ended up having a hard fallout with the Adventist church his parents had raised him in. His story is a rollercoaster ride of triumphs and tragedies that deserve to be studied.

The Boy Who Never Wanted to be a Doctor

As an early child, John had the opportunity to get a sneak peek at a surgery performed on one of his best friends. The doctor operated right on the kitchen table of the boy’s house while young John and his friends watched from the window. Richard Schwarz’s biography of John Harvey Kellogg comments on this story: “The sight of blood sickened John. Several days later, Ann Kellogg chanced to inquire what her son planned to be when he grew up. Immediately the reply came, ‘Anything except a doctor.'”[1]

Teaching was what the youthful Kellogg wanted to do. But before he made it to school to study, he was called to learn a different trade. James White stopped by the Kellogg family’s home in Michigan in the year 1864 and ended up offering the then 12-year-old John to come and work at the Review and Herald and learn the printing trade.

Ellen White had received a vision the year before that outlined the importance of practicing good health principles. By the time John got to learn how to set type for the various Adventist publications, there were plenty of writings from the health reformers of the day being printed by the church to help others live better lives. This was his first exposure to the health principles that he would champion for the rest of his life.

Converted to Becoming a Doctor

Kellogg soon put into practice the things that he learned about healthful living. As a teenager, he became vegetarian, and never in the rest of his life did he find a reason to change that diet. Although John enjoyed the information and the positive changes it brought to his life, he still had no intentions of becoming a doctor. His career plans didn’t change until he was 20.

The Adventists had opened up the Health Reform Institute in 1868 to begin treating patients with health reform practices, but by 1872 it was going through some tough financial struggles. James and Ellen White asked John’s older brother, Merritt, to help out at the institute. When he realized that he needed to redo a medical course previously taken, he recommended that John also go with him to learn. Reluctantly, Kellogg went along with his brother and both of the White’s sons, Edson and Willie, to Dr. Russell Trall’s Hygieo-Therapeutic College in New Jersey.

It was evident after this 6-month course that more education was going to be needed to bring health reform principles successfully before the public. “James White, probably more than most Adventist leaders, recognized that in the changing climate of medicine, any attempt to secure a hearing for Adventist health principles would require as a base a sound knowledge of anatomy, physiology, and chemistry.”[2] James and Ellen White, convinced that John was a perfect candidate to receive such learning and use it for God, loaned Kellogg $1,000 to complete his education “at the best school possible.”[3]

Kellogg went on to graduate as an M.D. at Bellevue Hospital Medical School, in New York, in 1875. In his graduation thesis, he “stressed the physician’s duty to seek out the cause of a particular disease, of correcting it rather than administering palliatives [drugs].”[4] Throughout his illustrious career, Dr. Kellogg would continue to preach lifestyle as the primary pathway to health.

Leading the Battle Creek Sanitarium to Fame

24-year-old J. H. Kellogg finally agreed to lead the struggling Health Reform Institute in 1876, “provided they allowed him a free hand in restructuring the institution so that it might have what he considered to be both a rational and scientific basis.”[5]

One of his first significant changes was to rename the institution the Battle Creek Sanitarium. Sanitarium was a word created by Kellogg himself, based on the word sanitorium. The new term was meant to signify a place where people learned how to maintain good health. In a small way, Kellogg fulfilled his boyhood dream of being a teacher by instructing thousands of people how to live in a way that promoted vigor and strength rather than disease.

John worked tirelessly to develop various inventions meant to aid people in healthy living. He produced exercise equipment to help people stimulate different muscle groups. His strength tester, called the dynamometer, was used by cadets at the famous U. S. Naval Academy at Annapolis for close to 25 years.

Food products took up the bulk of his time spent in innovative enterprises, though. Peanut butter, something most people believe was invented by George Washington Carver, was actually patented by Kellogg. He thought it would make a good protein source for those who had trouble chewing or digesting nuts.

Other foods introduced by Kellogg were Granola, nut-based meat alternatives, and nut-based milk substitutes. Most of his food inventions were primarily meant to serve the sanitarium patients to help with their diet transition. With such an innovative mind and the resources to carry out his ideas, it is no wonder that influential people started to take notice of this health center in Michigan.

The Creation of Cornflakes

Kellogg believed that most diseases could be traced to poor digestion and began in the gut. He created granola to help patients start their big meal in the morning with something that required them to chew more so that enough saliva would be produced to assist the digestive process. When a woman cracked her false teeth in the sanitarium following this advice, he started experimenting to find something an even better food item for his patients to begin their mornings with.

Eventually, John and his brother Will perfected a process that turned each grain of wheat into a flake of toast. In 1894 they filed for a patent on “flaked cereal and process of preparing the same.”[6] Despite the patent, many people found loopholes, and the breakfast cereal business started to boom soon after.

The popularity of cereal caused the business to get highly competitive. John hadn’t created the new food to get rich. He saw it mainly as an aid to continue to propagate his teachings on healthful living. While Kellogg’s focus remained on his patients and teaching sound health principles, his brother Will would go on to make the Kellogg name unforgettable in the breakfast food industry.

Fallout with the Adventist Church

One of Kellogg’s most challenging problems throughout his decades of proclaiming the truths of healthful living was watching the slow progress of the acceptance of these principles in the church. He became impatient with church leaders whom he thought weren’t living up to the wellness standards outlined by himself and Ellen White.

On the other side, the ministers of the church accused Kellogg, saying, “he continually used all kinds of attractions to get the most talented Adventists, including energetic young ministers, to leave their work in order to become doctors or nurses.”[7]

On top of his verbal battles with the church’s leading ministers, Kellogg began to have a problem with Ellen White. She had been very supportive of his work as a medical professional and had rebuked ministers for going against Kellogg in the past. But when her testimonies pointed out errors on Kellogg’s side as well, he began to resent it.

John was especially irked by Ellen’s disapproval of the Battle Creek Sanitarium being rebuilt in the same place after the great fire of 1902 destroyed it. She had warned over a decade earlier that too much of the church’s work was centered in Battle Creek and that Adventists needed to spread out from there. In 1901 she said to Kellogg and other church leaders that the sanitarium “should be moved into the country and not be so large. Unless there is a change, God’s hand will be laid heavily upon you.”[8]

When Kellogg and others still decided to rebuild the institution in Battle Creek, John tried to get church members to buy sanitarium security bonds to provide money for the new structure. “Ellen White publicly stated that Adventists should not purchase sanitarium bonds… Much to his exasperation, most Adventists followed her counsel, with the result that few of the bonds sold.”[9]

The crisis between Kellogg and the church came to a head with the controversy over his book entitled The Living Temple. John wanted to use this book’s sales to pay for the sanitarium debts, but when the church reviewed it, many thought that some statements in the book were teaching pantheistic ideas (the belief that God is in everything in nature). “Individuals such as William A. Spicer, newly returned to the United States from mission service in India, saw in Kellogg’s emphasis on the divine presence in human beings and animals similarities to the pantheistic aspects of Hinduism.”[10]

Church leaders and Ellen White believed that this idea went against the churches teaching regarding the heavenly sanctuary. Instead, it emphasized the human body as the temple and achieving salvation through a proper lifestyle.

The battle went back and forth between the ministry and Battle Creek for years, with Kellogg eventually voicing strong opinions even against Ellen White’s writings, which in the past he often quoted to back up his advice on healthful living. On November 10, 1907, the church officially disfellowshipped him. The main reasons for the dismissal were that “Kellogg was antagonistic ‘to the gifts now manifest in the church’ [the gift of prophecy] and ‘was allied with those who were attempting to overthrow the work for which this church existed.'”[11]

Kellogg, through intelligent planning, was able to maintain his leadership over the new Battle Creek Sanitarium. “Kellogg confided to an old associate in 1905 that he had anticipated the probability of an eventual break between himself and the church 15 years earlier, and that he had been preparing for the possibility for the previous 10 years.”[12] The church eventually moved its medical headquarters to Loma Linda, California.

Fallout with Will Kellogg and the Breakfast Food Controversy

John’s brother Will was instrumental in helping Kellogg develop his popular cereal. Will managed the food company, which was at first called Sanitas, and received a fourth of the profits as compensation. It was definitely in his financial interest to make John’s food inventions into something extraordinary.

When Will realized that adding some sugar to the malt and corn greatly enhanced the cornflakes’ flavor and marketability, he knew he had a product that could dominate. By 1905 the cereal was making enough money to help pay off the new sanitarium’s rebuilding.

Will became dissatisfied with John’s input into running the food industry side of things and finally convinced his brother to allow him to make a separate and independent food company. This company would be run by Will, have the right to produce the now popular breakfast foods, and bear the Kellogg name.

It seems the doctor may have regretted his decision soon after because he changed the name of the Sanitas company to the Kellogg Food Company. Will then accused him of trying to ruin his ability to market Kellogg’s Cornflakes properly because now people would be confused. John also had a statement put on the Sanitas Toasted Wheat Flakes that made it seem as though they were the only healthy flaked cereal.

Will finally filed a lawsuit against his brother in 1910. Legal battles went back and forth between the two for 10 years, but Will came out victorious in 1920. The court awarded him the legal rights to the Kellogg name in the food industry, and John ended up having to pay back all of the profits he had earned from fraudulently using “Kellogg” on his products.

Health Reformer for Life 

Kellogg’s break with the church and brutal outcome over his most famous food idea never stopped him from proclaiming health reform principles. He remained in a leading position at the Battle Creek Sanitarium for almost the rest of his life.

Financial difficulties struck the sanitarium hard during the Great Depression that began in 1929, and in 1933 it went bankrupt. It was able to emerge from bankruptcy in 1938, but with new management that didn’t have the same zeal for the health principles that Kellogg favored.

In 1942-43 John attempted to regain control of the sanitarium, even as he was now in his 90s. He eventually lost that struggle as well and died of pneumonia during the final legal proceedings at the age of 91.

Positive Lessons from John Harvey Kellogg


The story of the Good Samaritan must have been Kellogg’s favorite in the Bible. He constantly poured his own money back into the sanitarium projects and patients. He even paid the medical bills of some patients himself. He also encouraged medical students not to get into the profession for the sake of money alone, but to do God’s work.

When he and his wife found that they were unable to have children of their own, they turned their house into an orphanage that housed up to 42 children at one time. He showed no partiality when it came to the children he chose to adopt either. Many of them came from challenging backgrounds.

He was also responsible for starting up the Medical Missionary and Benevolent Association, which supervised the church’s philanthropic activities. This organization built orphanages, ran farms to donate produce to the poor, and led to the Chicago Medical Mission. In Chicago, a structure was built that provided free showers, laundry services, and healthy meals for the city’s needy.

Kellogg believed that Christianity was a calling to do good for others. When combined with the presentation of theological truths, his focus on benevolent activities gave practical power to Adventist evangelism.

Mistakes We Can Learn From

Fell Away from Bible Truth

An excerpt from Schwarz’s biography says this of Kellogg after he had left the church:

By the 1920s considerable evidence had accumulated that Dr. Kellogg had seriously modified some of the religious beliefs in which his parents had reared him. For several years he had been sponsoring ‘quiet’ Sabbath recreational activities for sanitarium guests. He also began with increasing frequency to cite evolutionary theories in support of his system of biologic living. Old Adventist associates reported that the doctor no longer professed belief in certain parts of the Bible, such as the stories of Jonah and Job; denied the virgin birth and divinity of Jesus and the need for an atonement; constantly joked about the personal appearance of God; and expressed the view that it was possible for human beings to work out their own salvation through a program of eugenics and biologic living.[13]

There is ample evidence that these tendencies were developing in him long before he left the Adventist faith. When the arguments first started over the questionable statements in The Living Temple, Kellogg tried to say that his teachings were no different than Ellen White’s in her book Education. She vehemently denied his claims and “recalled that, even before her husband died in 1881, Dr. Kellogg had discussed with her some of the same erroneous views of God in nature that he was now teaching, and that she had strongly advised him not even to talk about such things.”[14]

Jesus healed many people as He walked the earth. He firmly believed in doing good for others, but He never downplayed people’s need to understand the truth. “For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth.”[15] “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”[16] “Sanctify them by your truth. Your word is truth.”[17] These are just a few instances where Jesus emphasized knowing and living by the truth of the word of God.

Kellogg seemed to place healthful living on a higher level than biblical living. We would do well to learn from his example, and present to the world a Christianity that is set free by the truth to do good works, and be unafraid to spread the distinctive message of the gospel the world needs to hear.

Click here to read the rest of this series on the Adventist pioneers!



[1] Richard W. Schwarz, John Harvey Kellogg: Pioneering Health Reformer, p. 19.

[2] Ibid, p. 32.

[3] Ibid, p. 33.

[4] Ibid, p. 35.

[5] Ibid, p. 64.

[6] Ibid, p. 117.

[7] Ibid, p. 179.

[8] Jerry Moon, W. C. White and Ellen G. White: The Relationship Between the Prophet and Her Son, p. 276.

[9] Richard W. Schwarz, John Harvey Kellogg: Pioneering Health Reformer, p. 184.

[10] Ibid, p. 188.

[11] Ibid, p. 193.

[12] Ibid, p. 72.

[13] Ibid, p. 194.

[14] Ibid, p. 189.

[15] John 18:37, all scriptures are taken from the New King James Version.

[16] John 8:32.

[17] John 17:17.

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About the author

Tony Dennis

Tony Dennis is from Sacramento, California, and spent most of his life as an atheist. He was converted to Seventh-day Adventism when he was 21 years old by reading the book Steps to Christ. He has served as a teacher of Daniel, Revelation, and Sanctuary classes at the evangelism school Souls West. His passions are education and history.