Back in the Zoo: The Hidden History of Battle Creek

ellen white at gc session 1901

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie writes about finding history in her own backyard.  –JF

Rumor has it, if you walk around in downtown Battle Creek you can smell cereal wafting through the streets. Home to Kellogg’s, Post, and Raltson foods, Battle Creek well-deserves the nickname “Cereal City.”  Battle Creek is also home to Binder Park Zoo, where you can feed giraffes pieces of lettuce in the summer or go trick-or-treating at the annual “Zoo Boo” in the fall. It also has my favorite grocery store, Horrocks, and an indoor water park where kids used to have their birthday parties.

I usually don’t advertise that I’m from Battle Creek. In fact, in the very name I chose for this column, I pledge my allegiance to Kalamazoo, not “Cereal City,” which lies about 25 miles to the east. In reality, I live in Augusta which is half-way between the two towns. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against Battle Creek. My church, my school, my grandma’s house were all in Kalamazoo, so I just have a lot more memories there. And, after a year studying at Messiah College I’ve discovered most people haven’t heard of Battle Creek, much less know where it is. Plus, you have to admit that “Out of Battle Creek” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

So, as you can imagine, I was pretty surprised when Battle Creek came up in my “Origins Controversy” class last Friday. It was my first Zoom session of the day, and my professor Dr. Ted Davis was lecturing on the history of scientific creationism. A few slides into his presentation, Dr. Davis introduced us to Ellen G. White, who co-founded the Seventh-day Adventist church and was one of the first to vocally advocate for the young-earth, 24-hour day creation view held by Ken Ham and his team at Answers in Genesis today. While her ideas didn’t really take off outside Seventh-day Adventist circles until George McCready Price and later Henry Morris wrote about them, she remains an important figure in American religious history. Not only that, she was a strong and influential female leader in a time when women still hadn’t gained the right to vote. 

Next,  Professor Davis showed us the black-and-white photograph reciprocated above, of E. G. White at a podium, Bible open, speaking to a congregation of men. He asked us to read the description to find out where it was taken. Much to my surprise, the caption read “Battle Creek Tabernacle,” and I excitedly told my class that Battle Creek was only 30 minutes away from my house. Professor Davis continued by explaining that Battle Creek played an important role in the development of the Seventh-day Adventist church, and that the denomination had even founded a college in Michigan. Davis went on to mention that the Kelloggs were also Seventh-day Adventists who first produced cereal as a vegetarian alternative to a traditional breakfast–many Adventists back then chose not to eat meat. 

I finished class that day excited about all the history that took place practically in my backyard. I couldn’t believe that I had grown up twelve miles from Battle Creek and had no idea who Ellen G. White was. My house is even closer to the Kellogg Manor House, yet I had never bothered to learn much about the family’s history. I was blind to the rich history my community had to offer. 

Every community, big or small, has a history. It has a history because it has people–people who lived and worked and impacted other people in a world far different from our own. Sometimes that history is not easy to find, but I challenge you to look for it. You don’t have to live in Gettysburg or New York City or Paris to dig up some fascinating information about your community’s past. There’s history all around you. Sometimes you just need to open your eyes.

The Religious History of Corn Flakes


Last night I was reading some old posts at The Way of Improvement Leads Home and I was reminded about that time in the 2016 presidential campaign when Donald Trump attacked Ben Carson for being a Seventh Day Adventist.

Politics aside, do you know about the connection between Seventh-Day Adventism and Kellogg’s Corn Flakes?

Howard Markel explains at

Fewer still know that among the ingredients in the Kelloggs’ secret recipe were the teachings of the Seventh-day Adventist church, a homegrown American faith that linked spiritual and physical health, and which played a major role in the Kellogg family’s life.

For half a century, Battle Creek was the Vatican of the Seventh-day Adventist church. Its founders, the self-proclaimed prophetess Ellen White and her husband, James, made their home in the Michigan town starting in 1854, moving the church’s headquarters in 1904 to Takoma Park, outside of Washington, D.C.  Eventually, Seventh-day Adventism grew into a major Christian denomination with churches, ministries and members all around the world. One key component of the Whites’ sect was healthy living and a nutritious, vegetable and grain based-diet. Many of Ellen White’s religious experiences were connected to personal health. During the 1860s, inspired by visions and messages she claimed to receive from God, she developed a doctrine on hygiene, diet and chastity enveloped within the teachings of Christ.

Read the rest here.

Randall Balmer on Ben Carson’s Faith

Here is the latest piece on Ben Carson’s Seventh-Day Adventist faith.  It comes from Dartmouth religion professor Randall Balmer in the Concord (NH) Monitor.

Balmer argues something similar to what I did last week in response to statements from David Corn of Mother Jones and Donald Trump. Voters should treat Carson in the same way that they treat all the GOP candidates who apply their faith to their vision for the United States.

Here is a taste:

Do voters have anything to fear from Ben Carson’s affiliation with the Seventh-day Adventists? On balance, the answer is no. Carson’s practice of comparing everything he doesn’t like – health care, abortion, gun control – to slavery or the Holocaust may be annoying and ahistorical, but it doesn’t derive from his religious beliefs.
Seventh-day Adventists may not be part of the mainstream of religion in America, or even evangelicalism (evangelicals remain somewhat suspicious of the seventh-day worship), but this nation has a long and noble tradition of living up to the principles of its charter documents and enlarging the bounds of acceptability, albeit belatedly.
John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, was deemed by many unfit for the White House because of his faith, but he won the presidency. Americans elected a divorced man in 1980, an African-American in 2008 and Mitt Romney, a Mormon, probably would have fared better in 2012 had he been willing to talk about his faith.
Carson, moreover, has indicated that he sometimes wears his faith lightly, especially some of the lifestyle expectations. He told the Des Moines Register that he veers occasionally from a vegetarian diet, although he feels sick afterward (an odd concession from a physician; as a longtime vegetarian, even I know the body loses the enzymes needed to digest meat after a time). Carson would not be the first teetotaler in the Oval Office; the most recently example is George W. Bush, who foreswore alcohol after a Colorado ski trip bender in 1986.
Although there is nothing inimical about Seventh-day Adventism, voters may want to ask a couple of questions, both relating to Carson’s claim to literal interpretation.
Read the rest here.

Ben Carson’s 7th Day Adventism Is Not a Big Issue

Donald Trump and Mother Jones seem to be making a big deal about Ben Carson’s 7th Day Adventist Faith,  Here is David Corn of Mother Jones, appearing last night on Hardball with Chris Matthews:

And here is Trump on Carson’s faith:

I would love to ask Trump what it means for him to be a Presbyterian and what has attracted him to this church over others.  I am convinced he knows nothing about religion.  Is this enough to convince evangelicals to abandon their support for him? I’m not sure. I spend a lot of time with evangelical Christians, but don’t know many who like Trump.

Meanwhile, Corn says that because Carson believes in “end times prophecies” he is dangerous.  More on that below.

I agree with both Trump and Corn on the fact that few Americans are familiar with Seventh Day Adventism. Those who want to split theological hairs can certainly come up with 7th Day Adventist beliefs that are uncommon in the long history of Christian orthodoxy or 20th century evangelicalism. The belief in the 7th Day Sabbath come to mind on this front.  So do a few others. I do not want to downplay these differences, but they are more theological and ecclesiastical than political.

From a political standpoint, the 7th Day Adventist Church should be treated by the press and the American people the same way they treat the evangelicalism of Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, or any other Christian Right candidate.  If Corn or Trump have a problem with the way evangelical GOP candidates  apply their faith to their politics they are free to express their disagreements.  Secularists have been criticizing the Christian Right on this front for a long time.  But let’s not paint Carson as something worse than a conservative evangelical because he is a member of the 7th Day Adventist Church. His beliefs about religion and politics, and his commitment to the idea of America as “Christian nation,” like them or not, are the same as the other evangelical candidates and Carson should be treated as one of them.

Those who want to single out Carson for his faith need to also attack the others on the same grounds. (And they have).  But this specific attack on Carson’s faith is purely political.  If he was not leading in Iowa no one would care.

And just a word for David Corn.  There is nothing unique about a GOP Christian candidate believing in the “end times.”  As  Matt Sutton has recently reminded us, evangelicals also believe in “end times prophecies.”  Why single out Carson?  I am sure some of the other evangelical candidates have similar views about the rapture or the imminent return of Jesus.

If you want to critique Carson’s Christian approach to politics then stick with his comments about Islam or the Christian nation rhetoric found in his new book One Nation.  There is a lot to criticize there.

Are 7th Day Adventists evangelicals?  The church seems to be divided over this issue.  (Just Google the question).  The denomination is not connected with the National Association of Evangelicals and, according to Christianity Today, will not be joining any time soon.  But there has been a long history of cooperation between 7th Day Adventists and evangelicals,.  According to the Seventh Day Adventist wikipedia page (for what it’s worth–you can follow-up on the footnotes) Billy Graham welcomed the leaders of the denominations into his evangelistic campaigns. Famed evangelical Presbyterian Donald Gray Barnhouse accepted them as Christians. And evangelicals have been in dialogue with them since the 1950s.

Do 7th Day Adventists believe that evangelicals are going to hell unless they accept the seventh-day Sabbath and other doctrines?  (This is what Corn suggests here).  I don’t know.  Most of the Adventists who I know do not believe this.

Theologically and socially, Carson has more in common with the evangelicals than he does with Donald Trump’s very nominal Presbyterian identity.  I would even say that conservative evangelicals had more in common with Mitt Romney’s Mormonism in 2012 than they do with Donald Trump’s Presbyterian identity in 2015.

Carson is just your average, run of the mill, Christian Right candidate.

Ellen White and the Seventh Day Adventists

I am in Huntsville, Alabama tonight for a lecture on the coming of the American Revolution. The cab driver who took me from the airport to my hotel was a native of Antigua and a graduate of Oakwood University, a historically black Seventh Day Adventist school here in Huntsville.

When the driver learned that I was a historian he started waxing eloquent about the history of his denomination. I don’t know much about the Seventh Day Adventist Church, but I have been learning some things from a few recent posts at Religion in American History on church founder Ellen White. Check out Randall Stephens’s recent post on an Ellen White conference that just took place in Portland, Maine.