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CHIPS Program, Hope, British Columbia – Dec, 1-3, 2000 © 2000 Herbert E. Douglass, Th.D.


Talk #3: Vegetarianism-- principle or policy?

by Herbert E. Douglass, Th.D.

I. We begin with our core theme: the main purpose of the gospel is not our forgiveness but our restoration. Why, our restoration? Because God will have a redeemed people from this earth who will be safe to save. They will be people who have completely cooperated with the Holy Spirit’s job description for their lives. They have permitted their neural pathways to become so settled into the truth, intellectually and spiritually, that they will never be moved. They will forever be saying, and gladly, "Yes" to God, not a rebel among them.

II. Our health message is a vital component of getting these people sealed forever. EGW had a nice way to say this:

"Let it ever be kept before the mind that the great object of hygienic reform is to secure the highest possible development of mind and soul and body. All the laws of nature—which are the laws of God— are designed for our good. Obedience to them will promote our happiness in this life, and will aid us in a preparation for the life to come."

III. But before we let EGW speak to us, we should listen to her ground rules:

"Many men take the testimonies the Lord has given, and apply them as they suppose they should be applied, picking out a sentence here and there, taking it from its proper connection, and applying it according to their idea. Thus poor souls become bewildered, when could they read in order all that has been given, they would see the true application, and would not become confused."

IV. Ellen White set forth certain guidelines that would help everyone to make positive and progressive decisions, especially in health reform.

A. The first principle, which applies to all areas of Christian responsibilities, is that everyone knows for himself what "known duty" is. To balk at "known duty," little or much, reveals the heart of a rebel—a deeper problem than a matter of diet.

1893: "No one can believe with the heart unto righteousness, and obtain justification by faith, while continuing the practice of those things which the Word of God forbids, or while neglecting any known duty."

B. The second principle is that we should do the best we can under all circumstances. For example, in the days when nutritional supplements were not available, or when various vegetables and fruit were not easily obtainable, Ellen White suggested that grape juice in the best form available was appropriate as a food supplement for medicinal purposes. Obviously she was not suggesting that wine be used as a recreational beverage or as a feature of one’s regular diet.

1. When she advised "domestic wine" for medicinal purposes, she knew that the sick person needed the nutritional properties of the grape, nutrients that could be assimilated quickly by the body. Under the circumstances, if the domestic wine contained a little alcohol, it still would have provided more benefit than not taking it. In 1868, in one of his question/answer articles, James White wrote:

"During the past year, Mrs. W. has, at three or four times, had feelings of great debility and faintness in the morning. . . . To prevent distressing faintness at these times, she, immediately after rising, had taken an egg in a little pure, domestic, grape wine, perhaps a spoonful at a time, and never thought that this had to do with drugs, as she uses the term in her writings, more than with the man in the moon. During the past year, she may have used one pint of wine. It is only in extreme cases that the use of wine is justifiable, and then let it be a ‘little wine,’ to gently stimulate those in a sinking condition."

2. In Australia during the 1890s, finding a quality diet was difficult and meat was the cheapest food available. On one occasion when sickness was in a neighbor’s home, Mrs. White recalled that "there was nothing in the house suitable to eat. And they refused to eat anything that we took them. They had been accustomed to having meat. We felt that something must be done. I said to Sara [McEnterfer], ‘Take chickens from my place, and prepare them some broth.’ . . . They soon recovered."

The lesson? "Although we did not use flesh foods ourselves, when we thought it essential for that family in their time of sickness, we gave them what we felt they needed. There are occasions when we must meet the people where they are."

3. Common sense is needed: the first and second principle taken together should give wisdom to the health-care provider and to the ill.

C. The third principle is to avoid "everything hurtful," and the fourth is "to use judiciously that which is healthful."

D. The fifth principle focuses on self-control. "Excessive indulgence in eating, drinking, sleeping, or seeing is sin." Self-indulgence is often displayed in "dressing" and "overwork," thus indicating that the mind is not under the "control of reason and conscience."

E. The sixth principle is that we should "not mark out any precise line to be followed in diet." Obviously, clear and precise warnings were given on certain unhealthful foods. But in turning to the diet that should take the place of injurious foods, Ellen White stroked out broad lines, such as "grains, fruits, nuts and vegetables." Why the broad strokes without "precise lines"? Because she recognized that a healthful diet must recognize individual differences in climate, occupation, and physical characteristics.

F. The seventh principle reveals caring and compassion: a non-flesh diet should not be urged until appropriate substitutes for protein are available and the reasons for the replacement understood.

G. The eighth principle focuses on the motivation behind health reform: health reform is not a set of duties by which we impress God and earn His love (legalism). Rather, it is one more revelation from a loving Lord as to how best to avoid sorry circumstances that result from bad decisions. Health reform contains those insights that will hasten character development and a life of service—the object of redemption and the purpose of living. Health reform embodies a system of choices that is understood progressively through experience. For this reason, meat eating, for example, has never been a "test of fellowship" in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.


H. The ninth principle is best expressed in Ellen White’s simple formula: "I make myself a criterion for no one else." She did not attempt to be conscience for others; neither did she make "a raid" on the tables of those who were slower to follow advancing light.

I. The tenth principle permeates the previous nine: We must reason from cause to effect, perhaps best expressed in Paul’s counsel: "God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap" (Gal. 6:7).

V. Let’s see how all this worked out in the lives of James and Ellen White,"step by step."

A. Both James and Ellen White realized that it took time for them to respond "step by step" to advancing truth. Experience, common sense, and divine insight prompted her often-repeated principle: "The diet reform should be progressive." God has always used this principle in revealing truth.

B. Visions in 1848 and 1854 emphasized the injurious effects of tobacco, coffee, and tea. In the second vision such health-related issues as lack of bodily cleanliness, and the need for appetite control were noted.

C. In 1863 : "The Lord presented a general plan before me," including the concept that caring for one’s health is a spiritual duty. Six months later she wrote: "Our plain food, eaten twice a day, is enjoyed with a keen relish. We have no meat, cake, or any rich food upon our table. We use no lard, but in its place, milk, cream, and some butter. We have our food prepared with but little salt, and have dispensed with spices of all kinds. We breakfast at seven, and take our dinner at one. . . . My food is eaten with a greater relish than ever before."

D. 1870, Mrs. White revealed further how health principles were working in her home. She referred to her "well-set table on all occasions." Visitors, expected and unexpected, came frequently. She set before everybody "simple, healthful food" and "if any want more than this, they are at liberty to find it elsewhere. No butter or flesh meats of any kind come on my table. Cake is seldom there. I generally have an ample supply of fruits, good bread, and vegetables." Sugar was not placed on the table although sometimes it was used in kitchen preparation.

E. When traveling on the railroad in 1870 the Whites ate at their usual hour, 1:00 P.M., "of graham bread without butter, and a generous supply of fruit."

VI. Did Ellen White eat meat after 1863? Yes, but not as a regular part of her diet. She practiced the general principles we reviewed earlier, such as that one must use the best food available under the circumstances. When away from home, either while traveling or camping in austere conditions, decades before frozen foods were invented, finding an adequate diet was often difficult. Not always able to obtain the best, for whatever reason, she at times settled for the good—the best under the circumstances.

A. In 1873 while on a working vacation high in the Rocky Mountains, the White party had no choice but to hunt and fish for food. She wrote in her diary: "Our provisions have been very low for some days. Many of our supplies have gone. . . . We expected supplies three days ago certainly, but none have come. Willie went to the lake for water. We heard his gun and found he had shot two ducks. This is really a blessing, for we need something to live upon."

B. A few weeks later, after arriving in California, she reported that they no longer ate meat, although they "bought meat once for May Walling while she was sick, but not a penny have we expended for meat since."

C. During the rainy, foggy January of 1884, Ellen White spent some time at the St. Helena Health Retreat where there was more sunshine and warmth. But the physician, manager, and cook did not favor a vegetarian cuisine. She wrote of her experience: "When I came to the Retreat, I determined not to taste meat, but I could get scarcely anything else to eat, and therefore ate a little meat. It caused unnatural action of the heart. I knew it was not the right kind of food. . . .

"The use of meat while at the Retreat awakened the old appetite, and after I returned home, it clamored for indulgence. Then I resolved to change entirely, and not under any circumstances eat meat, and thus encourage this appetite. Not a morsel of meat or butter has been on my table since I returned. We have milk, fruit, grains, and vegetables.

"For a time I lost all desire for food. Like the children of Israel, I hankered after flesh meats. But I firmly refused to have meat bought or cooked. I was weak and trembling, as everyone who subsists on meat will be when deprived of the stimulus. But now my appetite has returned. I enjoy bread and fruit, my head is generally clear, and my strength firmer. I have none of the goneness so common with meat eaters. I have had my lesson, and, I hope, learned it well."

D. In 1888 Mrs. White wrote that she had not bought "a penny’s worth of tea for years." However, she would use some tea "as a medicine" at times for "severe vomiting."

E. In 1890, after two years of traveling in Europe, she observed: "Where plenty of good milk and fruit can be obtained there is rarely any excuse for eating animal food. . . . In certain cases of illness or exhaustion it may be thought best to use some meat, but great care should be taken to secure the flesh of healthy animals. . . . When I could not obtain the food I needed, I have sometimes eaten a little meat; but I am becoming more and more afraid of it."

F. Ellen White, with her heavy writing program and frequent public appearances, needed the help of a cook to care for her extended family. She was not always able to secure the services of a cook trained in health reform principles. In Australia during the 1890s, where fruit, vegetables, grains, and nuts were not easy to obtain or affordable, meat was the standby for most people. Two weeks after arriving in Australia, she penned her plea: "I am suffering more now for want of someone who is experienced in the cooking line, to prepare things I can eat. The cooking in this country is in every way deficient. Take out the meat, which we seldom use—and I dare not use it here at all—and sit at their tables, and if you can sustain your strength, you have an excellent constitution. . . . I would pay a higher price for a cook than for any other part of my work."

G. While in Australia, she came to the place where she "absolutely banished meat from my table." For a time, she had allowed some meat to be served to workers and family members. From that time on [January, 1894] it was understood "that whether I am at home or abroad, nothing of this kind is to be used in my family, or come upon my table. I have had much representation before my mind in the night season on this subject."

H. It is also important to note that Ellen White distinguished between "meat" and "fish." In 1876 she wrote her traveling husband: "We have not had a particle of meat in the house since you left and long before you left. We have had salmon a few times. It has been rather high [in price]."

1. In poverty-stricken Australia during the mid-1890s, she recognized that fish would be an appropriate part of the diet of the workmen who were building Avondale College. In a letter to her son Willie, she wrote: "We cannot feed them all, but will you please get us dried codfish and dried fish of any description—nothing canned? This will give a good relish to the food."

2. Two years after her personal no-meat pledge at the Brighton (Australia) camp meeting, Mrs. White wrote to her non-Adventist niece, Mary Clough Watson: "Two years ago I came to the conclusion that there was danger in using the flesh of dead animals, and since then I have not used meat at all. It is never placed on my table. I use fish when I can get it. We get beautiful fish from the salt water lake near here. I use neither tea nor coffee. As I labor against these things, I cannot but practice that which I know to be best for my health, and my family are in perfect harmony with me. You see, my dear niece, that I am telling you matters just as they are."

VII. What was Ellen’s dietary practice at Elmshaven after her return to America in 1900? A number of letters reveal the daily routine of that busy home with many workers and members of the family eating together. Among the dietary features of the White home were:

  • Breakfast at 7:30 A.M. and dinner at 1:00 P.M., the most convenient time decided by the extended family;
  • No meat, no butter, no cheese, no "greasy mixtures of food"; "all are satisfied" with the cream from their two cows;
  • Ellen White preferred vermicelli and canned tomatoes cooked together, which she ate with zwieback; stewed fruit of various kinds augmented her main meal. Other items used occasionally included dried corn cooked with milk, and lemon pie;
  • All members of the extended family ate items that best served their needs. (Ellen White said that she did not hold herself up as a criterion for them);
  • Anyone desiring to eat in the evening was free to do so;
  • A variety of food—simple, wholesome, and palatable—was always provided.

VIII. What shall we make of this "step-by-step" journey?

  • Ellen White’s major health visions of 1863 and 1865 encompassed broad principles and certain applications of the health reform message that she emphasized until her death. Changes in certain emphases through the years only refined those principles, they did not add or subtract from them. As time passes, even prophets must take time to assimilate revealed principles—time for theory to become practice in their own lives. She constantly advocated the principle, in practice as well as in teaching, that everyone who is committed to truth will move from the bad to the good, from the good to the better, from the better to the best. Such was her experience.
  • Ellen White saw the difference between patently injurious substances (alcoholic beverages, pork, tobacco, tea, and coffee) and those items of diet that were not healthful in immoderate amounts (clean meat, milk, eggs, salt, and sugar). Some of this divine insight, especially regarding pork, came as a surprise to her. Other items were being discussed in the nineteenth century, but nowhere else were all the principles she advanced integrated into a practical program. Nowhere else were these principles put in terms of preparing a people for the coming of the Lord.
  • What may appear to be lapses in her journey from the good to the best (in incorporating into her life-practice divinely-revealed health principles), can well be understood by those who remember their own journey from the good to the best. Circumstances beyond one’s control and the absence of the best often dictate selections that are not always one’s preferred choice. Those who understand the gospel, those who realize that God asks only for our best under the circumstances that prevail, those who realize that obedience to known duty is not done to impress God (legalism) but to honor Him—such people will understand why on rare occasions and unusual circumstances Ellen White ate some meat.
  • Ellen White followed the principle of the Great Controversy Theme that was reflected in Christ’s example—truth should never be coerced. She conveyed to others, whenever she had an appropriate opportunity, the principles of health reform as she had received them—an integrated, coordinated system of principles that promises health of mind and body and soul. She was clear and forceful regarding the relationship of health to one’s spiritual growth and eternal destiny. But she did not compel, threaten, or coerce others to do what she knew they should do—she would not be conscience or criterion for others. That fact, in itself, reveals the truth about God and our responsibility for each other.

IX. We are now better able to understand what Ellen White meant when she said at the General Conference session of 1909: "It is reported by some that I have not followed the principles of health reform as I have advocated them with my pen; but I can say that I have been a faithful health reformer. Those who have been members of my family know that this is true."

A. In modern attempts to understand history, too frequently we judge the past by the present, most often unknowingly. Individuals of the past must be judged in the context of their circumstances, not ours. In a day without refrigeration, when obtaining fresh fruit and vegetables depended on where one lived and the time of the year, when meat substitutes were rarely obtainable before the introduction of peanut butter and dry-cereals (mid-1890s), on some occasions one either ate meat or nothing at all. In our day, at least in developed countries, meat eating is rarely a necessity.

B. For Ellen White a vegetarian was not necessarily a "teetotaler," that is, a total abstainer, but one who did not eat flesh foods as a habit. Here we have a clear example of the difference between a principle and a policy. Vegetarianism was a policy based upon principle: we should eat the best food obtainable under the circumstances. Principles are clear statements, always true under all circumstances. Policies may change, due to time, place, and circumstances. Policies work out the principles by always doing the best possible under the circumstances. Only the individual’s conscience knows when those decisions of doing "one’s best" have been made.

C. For Ellen White, the two basic principles in health reform are to "preserve the best health," and "to eat the food which is most nourishing" in any given set of circumstances.

In applying these principles, she said on many occasions: "In countries where there are fruits, grains, and nuts in abundance, flesh food is not the right food for God’s people."

She frequently used the term, "principle," when stating her views on health reform. She credited her much improved personal health to "the principles of health reform." She noted that her instruction on health reform dwelt "upon general principles."

Toward the end of her life, reflecting back on the years since 1863, she penned: "It is reported by some that I have not lived up to the principles of health reform, as I have advocated them with my pen. But I can say that so far as my knowledge goes, I have not departed from those principles."

For this reason Ellen White counseled church members "to avoid meat eating, not because it is regarded as a sin to eat meat, [that is, not a principle] but because it is not healthful [but a good policy]."

X. She understood clearly the difference between unchangeable principles and the conditionality of policies. Note this wisdom:

"Those who understand the laws of health and who are governed by principle, will shun the extremes, both of indulgence and of restrictions. Their diet is chosen, not for the mere gratification of appetite, but for the upbuilding of the body. They seek to preserve every power in the best condition for the highest service to God and man. . . . There is real common sense in dietetic reform. The subject should be studied broadly and deeply, and no one should criticize others because their practice is not, in all things, in harmony with his own. It is impossible [in matters of diet] to make an unvarying rule to regulate everyone’s habits, and no one should think himself a criterion for all."

A. Prior to the 1901 General Conference session, a few leaders met with Ellen White concerning dietary practices. Her remarks were recorded by C. C. Crisler, her secretary: "Oh, how it has hurt me to have the [road] blocks thrown in the way in regard to this subject. Some have said, ‘Sister White eats cheese, and therefore we are at liberty to eat cheese.’ I have tasted cheese once or twice, but that is a different thing from making it a diet. Once when at Minneapolis, I sat down at a table on which there was some cheese. I was quite sick at the time, and some of my brethren told me that they thought if I ate a little cheese, it might do me good. I ate a small piece, and from then it has been reported in large assemblies that Sister White eats cheese.

"I have not had meat in my house for years. But do not give up the use of meat because Sister White does not eat it. I would not give a farthing for your health reform if that is what it is based upon. I want you to stand in your individual dignity and in your individual consecration before God, the whole being dedicated to Him. . . . I want you to think of these things. Do not make any human being your criterion."

B. Ellen White understood clearly the difference between principle and policy. Her common sense in regard to health reform made her a physically stronger, more productive person as she became older—not a common experience for many in her day. Far from being a hypocrite, she led the way in assimilating principle into practice. Dietary practices were not a form of penance, nor a ritual by which to earn salvation.

C. Understanding the basic difference between principles and policies will help one avoid misusing either the Bible or the writings of Ellen White. The following example, among many we could cite, illustrates the need to place Mrs. White’s counsel in the context of time, place, and circumstances.

1. Teaching girls to harness and drive horses. In outlining a school curriculum, Ellen White wrote that "if girls . . . could learn to harness and drive a horse, and to use the saw and the hammer, as well as the rake and the hoe, they would be better fitted to meet the emergencies of life."

2.Is this a principle or a policy? Obviously, the principle is clear: girls should be "fitted to meet the emergencies of life." The policy today would have something to do with automobiles, such as Driver Education Classes and basic auto maintenance.

Copyright © 2000 Herbert E. Douglass.  All rights reserved.




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