Avondale study details the Seventh-day Adventist church’s 150-year relationship with modern science
When it comes to health, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has been consistently on the forefront. Worldwide, the church operates 175 hospitals and sanitariums, 269 clinics and dispensaries and 21 health-food industries—all of which rely significantly on scientific technology. And the Complete Health Improvement Program (CHIP), a lifestyle medicine intervention operated by the church in the South Pacific, has had ground-breaking research reported in numerous medical journals since its introduction.
But though health is one of the church’s core values, Adventism’s relationship with modern science has not always been favourable. Dr Lynden Rogers, Head of Discipline (Science) at Avondale College of Higher Education, explores the changing attitudes over the church’s 150-year history in his paper, “Science: Once rejected by the prophet but now pro ting Adventist health?”
While Adventists “have always been on the side of evidence-based, scientific medical practice,” this was not fashionable in the mid-1800s.
According to Rogers, the young church, influenced largely by its Methodist roots, took an ambivalent view toward the science of the day. Although practices such as blood letting were on the decline, conventional medicine gave little priority to the so-called “rational methods” of healing—water intake, fresh air and exercise. Instead, physicians often focused on phrenology—studying the head to determine a person’s character—and prescribed drugs and medicines that were poorly tested and often had harmful effects. Physicians were also poorly trained—as Rogers states in his paper, one medical school graduate stated that before his graduation in 1895, he had “never dressed a serious wound, never given a hypodermic, had never been present when a baby was born, and had never attended a bedside in a professional capacity.”
The scientific methods of the time left much to be desired, and the church as a whole avoided many of the more harmful of its practices.
In 1866, Adventism’s early founders, including James and Ellen White, founded the Western Health Reform Institute amid a health crisis within church leadership. The institute took its principles from White’s Health or How to Live as well as books by other health reformers and emphasised the use of “rational methods” and water as remedies for disease. It also employed John Harvey Kellogg, the church’s first fully trained doctor, as medical director.
“We became satis ed that our Health institute could not rise to eminence and the full measure of usefulness without thoroughly educated physicians to stand at the head of it,” James White later wrote. Dores Robinson, who married White’s eldest granddaughter and served on the staff at the White Publications, reveals the reason for this was two-fold—highly trained physicians would not only improve the quality of care the institute provided but also give the institute credibility to those who had typically sought only traditional medical treatments. “It was impossible to make a strong appeal [on behalf of rational methods] to the more educated and cultured classes of society until there was a leadership whose scientific knowledge could command respect,” Robinson, whom Rogers quotes, wrote.
That respect soon followed, and medicine within the church expanded rapidly. Adventists have consistently been early adopters of modern scientific equipment—in 1990 the first proton therapy treatment facility was established in the United States at Loma Linda University, the church’s flagship medical institution.
For Rogers, this embracing of modern medicine is an attitude far from the “staunch stand taken against conventional medical practice” in the mid-1800s. “Medical science has prospered in the church because it is demonstrably based on physics, chemistry and biology,” he says. “Modern Adventist medicine has a much stronger commitment to scientific ideology and practice than might have been anticipated from the attitudes of the church pioneers to the science of their day.”