Adventists and Health Care

The Seventh-day Adventist Church is known for its health message. Health care is the right arm of that message; the church has good health care facilities and hospitals around the world. Pastor Reinder Bruinsma explores the history of these institutions, and points to a new chapter in their development.

Text by Ps. Reinder Bruinsma

Ellen White’s husband, James White, suffered a stroke in 1865. Together they took up residence in Our Home on the Hillside in Dansville, New York, so that he could recover. The Whites had read several articles by Dr. James C. Jackson, the founder of Our Home, and had briefly visited the institution already. They were impressed by his approach. Jackson was part of a growing movement of American health care reformers in the second half of the nineteenth century, who encouraged naturalistic treatments like hydrotherapy and healthy eating. These treatments quickly drew a lot of interest in the fledgling Adventist community, especially because several of its pioneers had developed serious health problems from exhaustion.

Making Health a Theme

Ellen White’s experiences in Our Home on the Hillside had a profound effect on her, and ‘health’ became a theme that would keep her busy for the rest of her long life. Some of her inspiration certainly resulted from her contact with the health care reformers of her day, and she read many of the many things they wrote. Several extensive visions following her stay in Danville showed her the direction this reform should take, however. ‘Health reform’ was already a household term, and would soon become the mantra of the Adventist church.

From the end of the 1860s, Ellen White would repeatedly pick up her pen to raise the subject of health reform. Often you can see a clear link between her writings and the other sources of her time. That isn’t strange in itself – after all, Ellen White did not live in a vacuum. At many points, however, she didn’t just borrow other people’s ideas. She also criticised the views held by Jackson and other contemporaries, and added her own thoughts. Her most ground-breaking contribution was the way she linked health with faith, religion, and Christian stewardship.

The Beginning

In 1866, Ellen White had a vision that Adventists should set up their own health institute, where she could apply her insights into health reform. Several months later, the Western Health Reform Institute was founded. After a very slow start this institution eventually grew into the large and famous Battle Creek Sanitarium, where John Harvey Kellogg would rule the roost from 1876.

Kellogg was a White family protégé, and was brilliant in many ways. In other things, however, he was a quite eccentric, and definitely a bit quirky. The larger the Battle Creek institute (located in Michigan) grew, the more independently Kellogg was able to operate. Between that and Kellogg’s allegedly pantheistic tendencies, by 1906 ‘the doctor’ and the church had parted ways. If you visit Battle Creek today, you will still see a few giant buildings that once formed part of the old Battle Creek Sanitarium, and which now belong to the American government. What you will likely find much more striking, though, is the enormous factories where Kellogg’s corflakes and related products are still made. John Harvey’s brother, Will Keith Kellogg, was the founder of this cereal empire.

To California

The first Adventist health institution in California, where Adventism was slowly but surely putting down roots, was the Rural Health Retreat. It received its first patients in 1878. This institution was in Northern California, some 200 kilometres from San Francisco, and would later be rechristened St. Helena Sanitarium. When Ellen White moved to California later in her life, she urged church leadership to begin work on three more health institutions in the state. Thanks to her unflagging insistence, vision, and several unexpected donations, one institution – now called the Glendale Adventist Medical Centre – was opened in 1905, in the Los Angeles area. Around the same time the Paradise Valley Sanitarium opened its doors just southwest of San Diego, though not without considerable difficulties. It remained open until 2007, under the name Paradise Valley Hospital.

Loma Linda

By far the largest adventure in faith the Adventist church would embark on in the field of health care was the Loma Linda project. A ‘sanitarium’ (or health resort) opened in 1905, in the small, Southern California town of the Loma Linda, around 150 kilometres from Los Angeles. Medical training was quickly linked to the project, and now, more than a hundred years later, Loma Linda University and Loma Linda Medical Center have become the flagship institutions of the Adventist church. The hospital in this centre has more than a thousand beds, and employs some 14,500 people. In 1984, the medical centre received international media attention when surgeons performed the first ape-human heart transplant on Baby Fae. Since 1990, Loma Linda has also become famous for its use of proton therapy to treat prostate cancer, which quickly attracted patients from the far corners of the country and the globe.

A Pattern Emerges

As Adventism began to spread around the world, it followed a familiar pattern. ‘Bringing the message’ went hand in hand with the establishment of schools, printers and publishing houses, and health care institutions. According to the 2015 church yearbook, there are now 193 Adventist hospitals and ‘sanitariums’, around 160 health care facilities like orphanages and retirement homes, and roughly 300 clinics. We can group the hospitals into two categories. First you have the Western hospitals, or the hospitals where everything is outfitted to Western standards. Then you have the other, often smaller institutions in developing countries, which offer basic health care in regions where no other kind of medical help is available for miles.

Outstanding Care

The first category often involves relatively large institutions, where patients receive outstanding levels of care, with all available modern amenities. You won’t just find these hospitals in North America. They also exist in some South American countries, and in places like Bangkok, Saigon, and Sydney. In Europe, a number of factors have forced many Adventist hospitals to close their doors. Many Adventists in Scandinavia remember the dramatic downfall of the Skodsborg Badesanitorium, a comprehensive medical spa north of Copenhagen, as though it were yesterday. The only ‘real’ Adventist hospital that remains in Europe is the Krankenhaus Waldfriede, which is located in a suburb of Berlin. The hospitals in this category are financially independent. Often it takes great effort for these institutions to keep their Adventist identity, since virtually none of the patients are Adventist, and most of the staff must also be recruited from outside the church.
Most of the institutions in the second category, located in the developing world, still fall under the heading of ‘medical Adventist mission’. Though they often have great difficulty making ends meet, finding adequate equipment, and attracting qualified staff, the work they do remains hugely important. They are a very concrete example of that old slogan, ‘health care is the right arm of the Adventist message’!

A New Chapter

In many Western countries, individual members and groups of leaders ask themselves whether it might be the time to rediscover the past. They are investigating new opportunities to offer contemporary treatments, but are also developing new initiatives based on the natural cures developed in the nineteenth century. We are rediscovering many of the values of these treatments today, and it is certainly worth continuing to follow these developments! Who knows – it could represent a new and exciting chapter in the annals of the origins and growth of the worldwide Adventist network of health care institutions.

Ps. Reinder Bruinsma is a retired pastor with the Adventist church. He is also on the editorial board of Advent and @vent. is the official website of the Seventh-day Adventist church

Seventh-day Adventists are devoted to helping people understand the Bible to find freedom, healing, and hope in Jesus.