The Rev. Sylvester Graham
Sylvester Graham, probably best known today for the Graham Cracker, is a historic forerunner to the modern day vegan health movement. Graham was vegetarian but I cannot help but believe if he lived today his message would be vegan.
Graham was born in 1794 and, after a sickly start to life, would eventually go into the ministry. He followed in the clerical footsteps of his father, the Rev. John Graham, and other men in his family. Sylvester was ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1826. His parish ministry would be relatively short lived but in it he developed his ideas related to health.
Rev. Graham believed animal flesh, alcohol, and spices led to lust. People, Graham believed, should eat a relatively bland diet in order to lull sexual urges but, just as importantly, for better health. Animal flesh, Graham recognized, made one sluggish. It was difficult to digest and was poor in nutrient value. He encouraged people to greatly increase their intake of fruits and vegetables.
Graham also focused on bread. The bread of his day was becoming very commercialized. Nutrients were being taken out of bread in order to make it whiter; fewer people were baking bread at home, and they were instead purchasing it from bakeries. He felt so strongly about this he wrote a book titled Treatise on Bread and Bread Making emphasizing coarse, whole-wheat bread made at home.
His ideas on bread eventually led to the conception of the Graham Cracker which could be eaten easily when homemade bread was not available. It should be noted the cracker Graham recommended was much like his bread, made from coarse grain and without a great deal of taste. The good reverend would not endorse the cracker that uses his name available for purchase in stores today. Nor would he, it is safe to say, approve of s’mores – whether vegan or not.
Rev. Graham became so popular that some of his followers, known as Grahamites, created boarding houses which specialized in the type of foods Graham advocated and eliminated those he discouraged. In this way, temptations were taken off the menu and boarders were propped up by the support of other believers.
In 1850 Graham was instrumental in the founding of the American Vegetarian Society. It was modeled after a similar organization in Britain and lasted about 15 years.
When the Rev. Sylvester Graham died in 1851 — of what history records only as “illness” — he was only 57 years old. His death caused a great deal of controversy. How could a health advocate so renowned die at such a young age? Those who adhered to Graham’s message immediately began looking for ways to blame the man’s shortcomings for his shortened life. Those who ridiculed Graham’s ideas used his death as proof the clergyman did not understand true health.
What we do know is the Rev. Sylvester Graham was an advocate for abstaining from animal flesh. He encouraged people to eat more nutritiously and live a healthier life. He was limited by his time and place and some of his ideas would be considered inaccurate today. If he is remembered at all today it is because of a cracker he would not condone. He is, nonetheless, one of our historic heroes who influenced the people of his day to abstain from eating animals.
The Rev. Russell Elleven, DMin, VCLE is an ordained minister and graduate of the Main Street Vegan Academy. You can follow his vegan tweets on Twitter and sign up for his occasional health reflections through his website at www.ministerofhealth.org.