The church, celebrating its 150th anniversary this month, traces its origins back to a doomsday sect of disillusioned believers in the prophecy of William Miller. The Harold Camping of his day, Miller proclaimed a date for Jesus Christ’s return, and when that didn’t happen, about 3,500 disappointed believers regrouped to form the Seventh-day Adventists in Battle Creek, Mich.
But since then, the Adventists have refocused from certain death and destruction to fitness and a healthy future. In the Adventists’ faith, health is representative of The Creation and healing as part of The Restoration.
“The idea of restoration is what birthed the Adventists’ emphasis on healthy living, wholeness, vitality, life to the fullest,” said Michael F. Cauley, president of the Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.
The Adventists’ theology of healthy living — diet, exercise, rest and fitness — extends to its hospitals. Since the first Adventist sanitarium was founded in 1876 by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg in Battle Creek, the Adventists’ network of hospitals, clinics, fitness centers and sanitariums has become the largest not-for-profit health-care system in the United States.
Headquartered in Altamonte Springs, Fla., the Adventist Health System operates 44 hospitals and 16 nursing homes across the United States.
The hospitals sprang up wherever there were large congregations of Adventists, mostly in the Midwest and South. In Orlando, Fla., the first Adventist hospital opened in 1908. But it wasn’t until 1973 that the hospitals were united under one corporate system, said Don Jerrigan, president of Adventist Health Systems.
The Adventists trace their religious beliefs in health and fitness to church founder Ellen G. White, but their emphasis on exercise and a vegetarian diet goes back to Kellogg, who along with his brother, Will Keith Kellogg, invented the corn flake.
In his day, Kellogg was the health and fitness guru to the celebrities. His sprawling five-story, Victorian-style sanitarium attracted Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Amelia Earhart, John D. Rockefeller and Dale Carnegie.
Today, the tenets of Adventist healthy living — no alcohol, no smoking, no caffeine; regular exercise; a diet of fruits, vegetables and whole grains; drinking plenty of water; small portions of meat; and nuts as the preferred snack food — are the Golden Rules of successful aging.
In carrying out the church’s theology of health, the hospitals were born of health care reform back in the 1860s when the Adventists bucked the prevailing medical thought that cigarettes were good medicine. And that continues today as the Adventists push health and longevity as the antidote to the rising costs of hospital care.
The hospitals’ no-smoking policy predates the ban on smoking in restaurants and bars. Their cafeterias were vegetarian before health food became fashionable. Their earliest hospitals included gymnasiums, the precursors to today’s fitness centers.
But just as the Adventists have influenced society’s ideas about healthy living, modern culture has affected the hospitals. About 10 years ago, the hospitals started relaxing their strict prohibition against meat and caffeine. You can now buy 5-Hour Energy drinks in the hospital gift shops and a hamburger in the cafeteria.
In recent years, the denomination’s preventative-medicine approach has spawned the Healthy 100 initiative based on medical studies that show Adventists have a high percentage of centenarians.
“It produces more people living to be 100 than any other lifestyle,” said Des Cummings, Florida Hospital vice president.
Throughout its history, a denomination once viewed by Protestant churches as less-than-Christian has moved to the forefront of a health-conscious America. Still not traditionally Christian — Adventists believe Saturday, not Sunday, is the Sabbath — the church’s theology of faith and fitness places it in the center of mainstream America.
For most Americans, living a long, healthy life is its own reward. For Adventists, there’s an added benefit: They might live long enough to still be around when Christ returns.