Eugenics and the American Religion of Wellness

Jules Evans
10 min readJul 8, 2022
Morning callisthenics at the Battle Creek Sanitarium

‘Do you really want to be perfectly well?’ So begins a tantalizing advert in Good Health magazine in 1905. It invited the reader to the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan, where countless specialists are ‘studying this one thing alone — how to get well and how to stay well.’ For $85 a week ($1,200 in today’s money), you could stay in one of the San’s 400 rooms, each with private bathrooms and hot running water. You could use the San’s gymnasium, and play volleyball or badminton; you could visit its massage rooms, and pick a masseur or a vibrating chair; you could go for a course of hydrotherapy, in one of the Russian, Turkish or Greek baths; then descend to the basement for an enema of water, or yogurt if you wanted to improve your colonic probiotics.

Fully cleansed, you could take your seat in the 800-person dining room, and eat dinner to the sound of the San orchestra. You would be served your own personalized diet, mainly consisting of vegetables, with healthy portions of two of the San’s inventions: corn flakes and peanut butter. After dinner, you could practice aerobics on the roof to a brass band, then attend an evening lecture, possibly by the director of the Sanitarium, Dr John Henry Kellogg, resplendent in his all-white suit.

Dr Kellogg’s parents had come to Battle Creek in the mid-19th century as part of a new religious movement called the Seventh Day Adventists. They were a Christian sect that emerged out of the Second Great Awakening, the same ecstatic revival that produced the Oneida Cult. The Adventists were led by a prophetess called Ellen White, who claimed to receive direct messages from God. The Lord ordered the Adventists to stop eating meat, smoking tobacco, or drinking alcohol, and instead to adopt new health techniques like hydrotherapy, calisthenics, and massage. These would help prepare the Adventists’ bodies and souls for the Second Coming of Christ and the new Millennium, which was due any day now. These health commandments have turned the Adventists into the healthiest demographic in the U.S., with a life expectancy five to seven years above the American average.

If we had to pinpoint when the modern ‘religion of wellness’ really took off, and spas and gyms became the modern temples, we could point to this moment in the mid-19th-century, when Protestant movements…

Jules Evans