The Most Important Announcement since Christ: The ‘No Breakfast Plan’ Between Science and Religion

By Layla Koch

black and white photograph of Edward Hooker Dewey.
Edward Hooker Dewey (1837-1904)

In 1895, the physician Edward Hooker Dewey published The True Science of Living, in which he argued that the secret to a healthy life for the American citizen was quite simple: abstain from breakfast. Bolstered by an introduction by theologian George Frederick Pentecost, Dewey confidently proclaimed his message in the subtitle as The New Gospel of Health. It was well received. An enthusiastic reader described it as “the most important announcement made to the world, since the angels proclaimed the birth of Christ” (Whorton 1982: 267). While the practice of abstaining from breakfast itself sounds like a new dietary fad by Gwyneth Paltrow (Mahdawi 2013), this synergy of medical and theological messaging may seem unusual to our twenty-first-century ears. However, it is wholly characteristic of its historical context: the Progressive Era.

This essay considers Dewey’s The True Science of Living as emblematic of discourses surrounding the body in the Progressive Era. It demonstrates how closely interrelated the work of a medical doctor and theologian could become, which pushes against the science-versus-religion myth. This further illustrates the historical contingency of bodily concepts, practices, and realities. As the philosopher Susan Bordo aptly summarizes, “Our bodies, no less than anything else that is human, are constituted by culture” (2008: 165).

The Progressive Era

Spanning from the 1890s to the First World War, the Progressive Era was characterized by optimism. A quarter-century after the Civil War, the U.S. had developed into a strong economic power through rapid industrialization, urbanization, and the uncontrolled concentration of capital. This had also led to social problems such as poverty and alcoholism. Equipped with new scientific findings, Progressive reformers – the majority of them Protestants – felt confident to resolve these issues. However, they disagreed on what their reforms should look like. It all boiled down to the question: What makes people who they are and (how) could experts influence this (Gould 2001: xi, 3)? In the search for the answer, the Progressive Era focused on the body. Whether from a physiological, religious, or social Darwinist perspective – in the “body projects,” the body became an indicator of success and failure, of belonging and exclusion (Jou 2019: 423).

Many of these body projects sought to both rationalize and moralize the body. One example of this is nutritional science, a product of the modern nation-state (Kamminga and Cunningham 1995: 2-4). The industrialization of food production, the growing middle-class, the rise in food prices and the shift from manual labor to primarily desk work rapidly changed the understanding of nutrition in the nineteenth century. In 1824, the calorie was defined as a unit of energy; in 1844, so were the three nutritional groups of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. It was not until 1910, that scientists distinguished between malnutrition and undernutrition (Veit 2013: 1-4, 25, 46, 49).

Contrary to the materialism controversy in 1840s Germany 1 (Milles 1995: 75), nutritional science in the U.S. quickly became enmeshed with Protestantism. By the late nineteenth century, most Protestants no longer upheld a fatalist concept of illnesses as divine punishment that patients simply had to accept. Increasingly, they considered it their Christian duty to understand infirmities to treat and heal the body and retain its original divine state of health. This perfectionist approach did not oppose ‘religion’ and ‘science.’ Instead, both merged to create new movements (Whorton 1982: 30). One example of this is New Thought, a self-help philosophy born out of the 1880s. Proponents believed that diseases were caused by a mental imbalance and could be healed through the power of thoughts and faith, just as Jesus had. While believers did value the materia medica, they rejected the (excessive) use of medication (Barnett 1995: 6; Teahan 1979: 63-70). The movement was based on a radically optimistic anthropology – a continuity of American transcendentalism, which had attempted to overcome physicality altogether (Shelden 2010: 247).

The preoccupation of the Progressive Era with the body was also the product of demographic shifts. By the 1880s, Black Americans, women, and immigrants broke into the public discourse with what seemed like unprecedented force. As a result of the failed Reconstruction, many Black workers moved to the North while immigration to the USA sharply increased and women fought for their civil rights. These developments provoked much anxiety and violent counter-reactions, such as the restitution of White supremacy in the South, severe immigration restrictions, and the limitation of women to the domestic sphere – all in an effort to restitute the White, male, American body as the norm (Kimmel 2018: 72, 77; see also Brumberg 1997). This illustrates the ambivalence of the Progressive Era. Although characterized by optimism about social progress and human potential, its policies often served an exclusive understanding of what a healthy, strong, morally sound body ought to look like.

Dewey’s The True Science of Living

Cover of The True Science of Living (1895)

The True Science of Living: The New Gospel of Health was published in 1895 by the doctor Edward Hooker Dewey (1837-1904) in London, England, and Norwich, Connecticut, by The Henry Bill Publishing Company (Whorton 1982: 263). George Frederick Pentecost (1842-1920), a former missionary to Asia and Presbyterian pastor, wrote the preface. Dewey only knew him through letters (Pentecost 1895: 6, 8; New York Times 1920). By 1908, the book had gone through at least four editions (Griffith 2004: 114).

The True Science of Living is divided into two parts. After an introduction by Pentecost, Dewey outlines what he deems the catastrophic initial situation of Americans’ nutrition. His thesis is simple: Diseases are signs of excessive consumption of food and alcohol, which makes the body sluggish. In the second part, he argues that the best preventative and reactive measure for any ailment is therefore to consume less food and what better meal to skip than breakfast. Dewey aims separate chapters at four professional groups: railroad workers, school directors, pastors, and doctors. This essay will focus on the introduction and chapter for pastors.

A dichotomous understanding of the body emerges in the excerpts: that of the sick body and the healthy body. The sick body is the sinful body. Whoever fails to care for their body, sins against God, themselves, and their fellow human beings. Citing 1 Corinthians 6:19, Pentecost considers the body a temple of the Holy Spirit. Deliberately and gluttonously neglecting it stems from “unholy desires and unrighteous inclinations” (4). Dewey adds that it demonstrates a lack of self-respect. The sick body therefore functions as a marker for a lack of piety, discipline, and responsibility (305).

The healthy body is diametrically opposed to the sick body. Pentecost claims that physical health leads to more efficient worship and spiritual health (3). A healthy person is better able to fulfill their social duties, live in harmony with God and nature, and fulfill their potential. This is crucial for pastors, who Dewey lauds as the “salt of the earth,” the peak of civilization, and teachers of a “perfect physical manhood.” He encourages them not to ask for miracles but instead resort to his fasting cure so that they can concentrate better on their spiritual work. “It is yours, gentlemen, to walk more by faith; to teach the law of God manifest in the soul,” he writes, “mine to walk more by sight, to teach the law of God manifest in the flesh.” He claims there can be no conflict between science and religion because both sides need each other (305-10).

What Was Progressive About The True Science of Living?

In The True Science of Living, Pentecost and Dewey delve into the three aforementioned trends of the Progressive Era: nutritional science, New Thought, and anxieties surrounding masculinity.

Dewey’s theory was based on the late-nineteenth-century nutritional consensus that health was determined by a balanced caloric intake of the three dietary groups (Kamminga and Cunningham 1995: 9). His approach was quasi-materialistic, as he inferred the bodily output – health – directly from the input – nutrition. However, despite following some findings of his time, Dewey was an eccentric. His ‘No Breakfast Plan’ was one of many dietary fads that circulated. Other examples were vegetarianism, fruitarianism, nutarianism (consuming mostly nuts), fletcherism, (excessive chewing of food), and rawism (eating mostly uncooked foods). While these diets remained marginal phenomena, their proponents did not consider them marginal, but part of a comprehensive dietary reform movement made possible by scientific findings. This caused a big stir in the medical establishment as doctors struggled to disprove them while others openly endorsed them (Barnett 1995: 155).

Before and after photos of a seven-day fast by Dewey’s contemporary Bernarr MacFadden. Photo by Bernarr Mc Fadden via archive.org.

Undeniably, Dewey was also influenced by New Thought philosophy. In his depiction of the sick body, he conceptualizes illness as the result of a spiritual imbalance. Although his physiological understanding is materialistic, he thus adds a moral dimension. A man’s health and faith are not mere products of his circumstances but of his morally sound decisions. However, despite his strong mystical influence, Dewey is only representative of some aspects of New Thought. His fasting cure is not based on the mere power of thought, but on a materialistic understanding of excessive consumption. He also positions himself firmly against the faith healers of his time, writing, “There will be no miracles by which you will escape, […] for science is never absurd” (310). Dewey did not consider fasting itself as salvific. Rather, he saw it as a tool towards achieving physical health, which – in a second step – favored spiritual health.

Finally, as two White men themselves, Dewey and Pentecost also engaged with the perceived crisis of masculinity. While they believed that all Christians could perfect their physical and spiritual health by abstaining from breakfast, they highlighted pastors – all of them men – as particularly capable. Dewey describes the healthy body of pastors as “perfect physical manhood” (306). Through this androcentricity, he codes characteristics of the healthy body – piety, self-discipline, and a sense of responsibility – as masculine. As Marie Griffith argues, the practice of fasting also reflected Progressive-era masculine attributes: In controlling their body, American men restored the self-determination they believed to have lost (2000: 602). This molding of masculinity, self-discipline, and Protestantism led to movements such as Muscular Christianity, aiming to re-emasculate the American Church (Kimmel 2018: 108, 54; Putney 2001).

A recent re-interpretation of Muscular Christianity by the New Yorker, collage by Jesse Lenz.

A New Gospel of Health?

In The True Science of Living, Dewey and Pentecost present themselves as representatives of two “close” but different “tracks”: ‘science’ and ‘religion’ (Dewey 1895: 306). They encourage the fusion of both by claiming that morality and piety can be measured by quantifiable, visible, and rational indicators. While their project was influenced by nutritional science and New Thought, it was not completely aligned with either. Rather, it is emblematic of what historians have called the “therapeutic turn” of religion (Rakow 2013: 485). Fittingly, yet without direct reference to Dewey, Pamela Klassen calls this fusion of science and religion the “gospel of health,” a meticulous balancing act of the body-mind-soul triad (2011: xvii, 31, 60). This has continued until today: As Eva Illouz argues, self-help culture did not replace American religion but rather became closely intertwined with it (2008: 8). Dewey and Pentecost thus illustrate that ‘religion’ and ‘science’ neither were, nor are, separate, antagonistic entities but rather closely linked.

Many of the issues discussed by Pentecost and Dewey lead us back to unresolved questions of what impacts human behavior and characteristics. In the Progressive Era, this split the reformatory camp into those who believed that humans could be changed through social measures, and those who believed that innate characteristics – such as gender, race, or class – predetermined social behavior. This discussion still exists today as the nature-nurture debate2. Particularly in the late-nineteenth-century context, however, Nick Williams criticizes dualistic narratives, as many reformers did not fall linearly on one of the two ‘sides’ but believed that bodies were both predetermined and controlled. Instead, Williams argues for an “emerging-but-not-yet-solid binary of biological and social explanations of behavior” (2019: 442-44, 49). It is this porous binary that also emerges in The True Science of Living and reminds us to question the historical contingencies of the religion-science binary as well as trendy dietary fads, whether it be from Progressive Era reformers or Gwyneth Paltrow.


1. The so-called „Materialismusstreit“ in nineteenth-century Germany was a debate about the philosophical and religious consequences of natural sciences. Exemplarily, materialist understandings re-conceptualized the body as a machine or pure matter. The debate tended to pit religion against natural sciences.

2. The nature-nurture debate is most prevalent in psychology and epigenetics. It boils down to the question whether human behavior is dictated by genetics (nature) or environment (nurture). Find an introduction here (YouTube video) or here (article).


About the Author

Layla Koch is a doctoral student at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies under the supervision of Jan Stievermann. She received her B.A. in American Studies and her M.A. in Christianity and Culture from the University of Heidelberg and spent two years abroad at the University of Uppsala and Yale Divinity School. Her Ph.D. thesis explores discursive constructs of childhood in the American foreign mission movement. Evidently, she is also interested in questions of health, body politics, Whiteness, and sexuality at the intersection with religion.

You can reach her on LinkedIn or via email: lkoch@hca.uni-heidelberg.de.


References

Primary Sources

“Rev. G. F. Pentecost, Evangelist, Dead.” New York Times (New York), 9. August 1920.

Dewey, Edward Hooker. “Lecture XXV. Special Needs of Pastors.” In The True Science of Living. The New Gospel of Health, 305-10. London; Norwich, CT: The Henry Bill Publishing Company, 1895.

Pentecost, George F. “Introduction.” In The True Science of Living. The New Gospel of Health, edited by Edward Hooker Dewey, 1-18. Norwich, CT; London: The Henry Bill Publishing Company, 1895.

Secondary Sources

Barnett, L. Margaret. “‘Every Man His Own Physician.‘ Dietetic Fads, 1890-1914.” In The Science and Culture of Nutrition, 1840-1940, edited by Harmke Kamminga and Andrew Cunningham, 155-78. Atlanta, GA: Clio Medica, 1995.

Bordo, Susan. “Anorexia Nervosa. Psychopathology.” In Food and Culture. A Reader, edited by Carole Counihan and Penny van Esterik, 162-86. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2008.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. An Introduction. New York: Vintage, 1980.

Gould, Lewis L. America in the Progressive Era, 1890-1914. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2001.

Griffith, Marie R. “Apostles of Abstinence. Fasting and Masculinity During the Progressive Era.” American Quarterly 52, no. 4 (2000): 599-638.

———. Born Again Bodies. Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity. Berkeley, CA, et al.: University of California Press, 2004.

Illouz, Eva. Saving the Modern Soul. Therapy, Emotions, and the Culture of Self-Help. Berkeley, et al.: University of California Press, 2008.

Jacobs Brumberg, Joan. The Body Project. An Intimate History of American Girls. New York: Random House, 1997.

Jou, Chin. “The Progressive Era Body Project. Calorie-Counting and ‘Disciplining the Stomach’ in 1920s America.” The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 18 (2019): 420-40.

Kamminga, Harmke, and Andrew Cunningham, eds. The Science and Culture of Nutrition, 1840-1940. Atlanta, GA: Clio Medica, 1995.

Kimmel, Michael. Manhood in America. A Cultural History. 4 ed. New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Klassen, Pamela E. Spirits of Protestantism. Medicine, Healing, and Liberal Christianity. Berkeley, CA, et al.: University of California Press, 2011.

Lamb Shelden, Mary. “Health and the Body.” In The Oxford Handbook of Transcendentalism, edited by Joel Myerson, Sandra H. Petrulionis and Laura D. Wallis, 241-48. Oxford et al.: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Mahdawi, Arwa. “The truth about Gwyneth Paltrow’s diet? It is as strange as you’d expect.” The Guardian, March 21, 2023.

Milles, Dietrich. “Working Capacity and Calorie Consumption. The History of Rational Physical Economy.” In The Science and Culture of Nutrition, 1840-1940, edited by Harmke Kamminga and Andrew Cunningham, 75-96. Atlanta, GA: Clio Medica, 1995.

Putney, Clifford. Muscular Christianity. Manhood and Sports in Protestant America, 1880-1920. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Rakow, Katja. “Therapeutic Culture and Religion in America.” Religion Compass 7, no. 11 (2013): 485-97.

Teahan, John F. “Warren Felt Evans and Mental Healing. Romantic Idealism and Practical Mysticism in Nineteenth-Century America.” Church History 48, no. 1 (1979): 63-80.

Veit, Helen Zoe. Modern Food, Moral Food. Self-Control, Science, and the Rise of Modern American Eating in the Early Twentieth Century. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2013.

Whorton, James C. Crusaders for Fitness. The History of American Health Reformers. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1982.

Williams, Nicholas J.P. “Becoming What You Eat. The New England Kitchen and the Body as a Site of Social Reform.” The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 18 (2019).

Images

Edward Hooker Dewey – The No-Breakfast Plan and the Fasting-Cure. Meadville, Pennsylvania, 1900.

Bernarr Macfadden, Macfadden’s Fasting, Hydropathy and Exercise: Nature’s Wonderful Remedies for the Cure of All Chronic and Acute Diseases (London: Bernarr MacFadden, 1903), 74.

A recent re-interpretation of Muscular Christianity by the New York Magazine. Getty Images/DeAgostini (last supper); Getty Images (Lin, Pacquiao, Hamilton); Duncan Williams/Cal Sport Media/Zumapres.com (tebow); Barry King/WireImage (body); Getty Images/Superstock Rm (jesus head). Photo-illustration by Jesse Lenz. In Miller, Lisa. “Manliness is Next to Godliness.” New York Magazine,  August 31, 2012.




Cite this blog post
The Editors (2024, May 8). The Most Important Announcement since Christ: The ‘No Breakfast Plan’ Between Science and Religion. HCA Graduate Blog. Retrieved June 17, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/11nm2

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