For various reasons I once attended a talk by Tim Noakes, the sport scientist-turned-diet guru. I use the world ‘guru’ deliberately. Although many of his arguments are thought-provoking and, to some extent, compelling – essentially, he suggests that we should switch to a low-carbohydrate, protein-based, high fat diet – much of what he said was undermined by the manner of his delivery.
He presents his findings in the manner of a big tent evangelist. In a room packed to capacity by the middle classes anxious to discover the elixir of thinness, Noakes spoke for almost two hours, painting himself as a champion of natural eating, maligned by Big Food companies hell bent on making us eat more sugar and carbohydrates. If the back row had leapt to its feet, shouting ‘hallelujah!’ I would not have been surprised.
As I sat there, my mind wandered to a contemplation of diets eaten and advocated by other evangelicals. The leadership of the nineteenth-century Dutch Reformed Church in the Cape Colony were all evangelicals, who, during the American Civil War, refused to eat sugar in solidarity with the struggles of that country’s slaves. In doing so, they were part of an international boycott, supported by Christian churches all over the world.
These Christian evangelicals believed that their faith should manifest itself in every aspect of their day-to-day lives. In other words, piety was not to be kept for Sundays. Not drinking and refusing to gamble, avoiding debt, and becoming involved in good works were all manifestations of leading good Christian lives. Partly because many of the new middle classes produced by industrialisation were members of these churches, up until around the middle of the century evangelicals managed to exert a profound influence over public life in Britain, and parts of Europe, North America, Australia, and South Africa.
Although as far as I can see, none of South Africa’s evangelicals were particularly interested in shaping their or their congregants’ diets, it was certainly not unusual for evangelicals and Christians who were members of smaller, splinter groups to embrace restricted diets as manifestations of their piety. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, some Christian sects practiced forms of vegetarianism for a variety of reasons: because a diet containing fewer animal products was ‘purer’ than those that did; or because killing animals was sacrilegious. Roger Crab, a seventeenth-century vegetarian believed that meat eating was a consequence of the Fall, as Alan Rudrum explains:
By the age of twenty he was restricting himself to a diet of vegetables and water, ‘avoiding butter, cheese, eggs and milk’, that is, he was what we now call a vegan. As time passed he became more austere, dropping carrots and potatoes as luxuries, though in old age (he lived to be 59) he allowed himself parsnips. Crab’s vegetarianism seems partly to have been dictated by a self-administered vow of poverty; living on dock-leaves and grass, he claimed to live on three farthings a week. But he argued that ‘Eating of Flesh is an absolute Enemy to pure Nature’.
the Bible Christians … had hoped to create a new form of Christian church with its unique rituals and dietary regulations. For the adherents to this group, meat eating was conceived of as the most vivid symbol of man’s fall from grace, as well as being a source of social evil. William Cowherd (1763-1816) ran the Bible Christian chapel at King Street, Salford, attracting a large following of working-class people, who were encouraged not least by offers of hot vegetable soup, medical help, and a free burial ground.
Crab and Cowherd may appear to be fairly extreme examples, but their influence was felt far beyond their immediate communities. The Vegetarian Society was established in Ramsgate in 1847. Its founders were a motley collection of socialists and other progressives, many of them heavily influenced by the thought and pedagogy pioneered by Bronson Alcott (father of the more famous Louisa May), as well as by representatives of the Salford Bible Christians. One of these, James Simpson, was elected the Society’s first president.
As Ian Miller argues, in its early years, the Vegetarian Society used markedly religious language to promote and explain vegetarianism to an otherwise sceptical audience. One contributor to the Vegetarian Messenger wrote that
abstinence from meat appeared to supply man with important pre-conditions for the perception, understanding, application, and obeying of the teachings of Christ while removing some of the difficulties which lay in the way of the carnal man’s submission to his rule and governance. Vegetarianism alone, it seemed, could not bring about a more spiritual outlook by itself but could at least act as a starting point given that the individual was situated within the right conditions.
the early writings of the vegetarian movement regularly emphasised a vegetarian world that had existed prior to the Fall that was to be restored following the end of the present age of spiritual and social progress…
This was a vegetarian propaganda which would have been palatable, so to speak, to non-vegetarian evangelicals who shared a similar world-view. However, other, more mainstream, Christian groups have long been sympathetic to vegetarianism, and particularly the Quakers and the Seventh Day Adventists. The latter’s commitment to lifelong, healthy eating has, in fact, influenced the ways in which many of us eat: the Adventist-owned Australian and New Zealand food company Sanitarium produces muesli, granola, and, most famously, Weet-Bix.
John Harvey Kellogg was an Adventist too. Other than breakfast cereals, the Kellogg company also popularised graham crackers – biscuits invented in the 1830s by the deeply pious Presbyterian minister Sylvester Graham from Connecticut, who believed that the passions and emotions could best be mastered by eating plain, bland food.
Noakes’s preaching uses, probably unwittingly, the same techniques employed by evangelicals since the end of the eighteenth century. I think, though, that are other similarities between his enthusiasm for a high-fat diet and the Christians involved in the early Vegetarian Society. They all believe that changing eating habits will be better for the whole world – that the transformation of the individual will lead to the remaking of society more generally. After all, the subtitle of Noakes’s new book is ‘Changing the World One Meal at a Time.’
Ian Miller, ‘Evangelicalism and the Early Vegetarian Movement in Britain, c.1847-1860,’ Journal of Religious History, vol. 35, no. 2 (June 2011), pp. 199-210.
Alan Rudrum, ‘Ethical Vegetarianism in Seventeenth-Century Britain: Its Roots in Sixteenth-Century Theological Debate,’ The Seventeenth Century, vol. 18, no. 1 (2003), pp. 76-92.
Colin Spencer, The Heretic’s Feast: A History of Vegetarianism (Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 1995).
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