Human sexuality was a popular topic amongst American “Health reformers” in the 19th century. One of the first publications on the subject was Sylvester Graham’s Lecture to Young Men on Chastity published in 1834. Most other popular health reformers: Alcott, Coles, Trall, Jackson etc also wrote on this subject. The focus for most of these reformers was the danger of “excessive” or abnormal sexual activity—with a particular emphasis on the evils associated with masturbation.
In order to understand 19th century views of sexuality, we need to understand the concept of “vital force”. Seventh-day Adventist leader John Loughborough wrote in 1868 that vital force was, “that power placed in the human body, at its birth, which will enable the body, under favorable circumstances, to live to certain age.” (Handbook of Health, 1868, 14-15).
As the amount of “vital force” each person possessed was limited—and since each sexual activity used up an irreplaceable amount—every individual should keep their sexual activity to a minimum so that they would not die prematurely. To illustrate this concept, many nineteenth century authors compared it to money in a bank account gradually depleted by repeated withdrawals over the years until none remained.
Ellen White is no exception—the phrase “vital force” occurs quite frequently in her writings:
“Those who acquire and indulge the unnatural appetite for tobacco, do this at the expense of health. They are destroying nervous energy, lessening vital force and sacrificing mental strength.” (Signs of the Times, January 6, 1876.)
“Those who make great exertions to accomplish just so much work in a given time, and continue to labor when their judgment tells them they should rest, are never gainers. They are living on borrowed capital. They are expending the vital force which they will need at a future time. And when the energy they have so recklessly used is demanded, they fail for want of it.” (Christian Temperance and Bible Hygiene, 1890, 64.)
Ellen White—like many of her contemporaries—does use the phrase in relation to human sexuality. In regard to what she terms “self abuse” (masturbation—we’ll come back to this topic later), Ellen White states:
“They sacrifice physical strength and reason upon the altar of lust, and can they think that God will accept their distracted, imbecile service, while they continue their wrong course? Such are just as surely self-murderers as though they pointed a pistol to their own breast, and destroyed their life instantly. In the first case they linger longer, are more debilitated, and destroy gradually the vital force of their constitution, and the mental faculties; yet the work of decay is sure.” (An Appeal to Mothers, 1864, 24.)
“Females possess less vital force than the other sex, and are deprived very much of the bracing, invigorating air, by their in-doors life.” (An Appeal to Mothers 1864, 24.)
Health reformers in the 1800s considered sex to be very draining upon the vital energies. Well-known Seventh-day Adventist physician John Harvey Kellogg wrote in 1877: “The reproductive act is the most exhaustive of all vital acts.” (Plain Facts for Old and Young, 119.)
Ellen White believed the same:
“They do not see that God requires them to control their married lives from any excesses. But very few feel it to be a religious duty to govern their passions. They have united themselves in marriage to the object of their choice, and therefore reason that marriage sanctifies the indulgence of the baser passions. Even men and women professing godliness give loose rein to their lustful passions, and have no thought that God holds them accountable for the expenditure of vital energy, which weakens their hold on life and enervates the entire system.” (Testimonies, Vol. 4, 472.)
During the 1800s it was believed that the ideal spiritual woman manifested little interest in sexuality. Writing in 1871, German neurologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing pronounced, “Woman, …if physically and mentally normal, and properly educated, has but little sensual desire.”
John Harvey Kellogg has a similar quote in his 1877 book: “I should say that the majority of women, happily for them, are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind….The best mothers, wives, and managers of households know little or nothing of sexual indulgences. Love of home, of children, of domestic duties, are the only passions they feel. As a general rule, a modest woman seldom desires any sexual gratification for herself.” (Plain Facts for Old and Young, 473.)
Ellen White writes that it is the duty of the ideal wife to restrain the desires of her husband:
“It is not pure, holy love which leads the wife to gratify the animal propensities of her husband at the expense of health and life. If she possesses true love and wisdom, she will seek to divert his mind from the gratification of lustful passions to high and spiritual themes by dwelling upon interesting spiritual subjects. It may be necessary to humbly and affectionately urge, even at the risk of his displeasure, that she cannot debase her body by yielding to sexual excess. She should, in a tender, kind manner, remind him that God has the first and highest claim upon her entire being, and that she cannot disregard this claim, for she will be held accountable in the great day of God.” (A Solemn Appeal, 1870, 175.)
“Sexual excess will effectually destroy a love for devotional exercises, will take from the brain the substance needed to nourish the system, and will most effectively exhaust the vitality. No woman should aid her husband in this work of self-destruction. She will not do it if she is enlightened and has true love for him. The more the animal passions are indulged, the stronger do they become, and the more violent will be their clamors for indulgence. Let God-fearing men and women awake to their duty. Many professed Christians are suffering with paralysis of nerve and brain because of their intemperance in this direction.” (A Solemn Appeal, 1870, 175.)
We should note that Ellen White never defined exactly what excessive meant. The term marital excess was however used by the other health reformers of her day. In 1834, Sylvester Graham favoured a maximum of once a month. (Lecture to Young Men, on Chastity, 144-148.) Orson Squire Fowler stated, “to indulge, even in wedlock, as often as the moon quarters, is gradual but effectual destruction of both soul and body. (Hereditary Descent, 1843, 206.) [Since the moon quarters every seven-and-a-half days, Fowler was saying that engaging in sex at a frequency of once a week was too frequent!] Adventist physician John Harvey Kellogg seemed to agree with Graham by suggesting marriage partners “limit indulgence to the number of months in the year.” Kellogg considered daily sex to be dangerous for both partners: “Another case came under our observation in which the patient, a man, confessed to having indulged every night for twenty years. We did not wonder that at forty he was a complete physical wreck.” (Plain Facts for Old and Young, 487, 468.)
Ellen White did not employ the word “masturbation” in her writings—instead she used euphemisms such as “solitary vice”, “secret vice”, and “self-abuse.” Her first reference to this subject appeared in a 64-page pamphlet, An Appeal to Mothers, (quoted above) that was published in April 1864. Primarily devoted to masturbation, pages 5 to 34 were from her own pen; the remainder consisted of quotations from medical authorities. An Appeal to Mothers was reprinted in 1870 as part of a larger work, A Solemn Appeal Relative to Solitary Vice and Abuses and Excesses of the Marriage Relation.
In the 18th century the concept of harm to the body brought on by masturbation came to the fore in the United States. A European physician, Dr. S. Tissot took up the cause and brought to America his theories, which included not only the harmfulness of masturbation, but of some sexual conduct between husbands and wives as well. The list of disorders following such sexual behaviours were said to cause problems all the way from “acne to suicide.” Parents were alerted to this proclaimed evil to every body system. Much energy, time and money were spent on “cures” to put an end to this activity. These consisted of preventive measures which included mechanical devices and surgical procedures, many of which would now be considered abusive.
Above are examples of Anti-masturbation devices for men.
In her booklet, An Appeal to Mothers, Ellen White writes:
“I feel alarmed for those children and you who by solitary vice are ruining themselves…you listen to numerous complaints of headache, catarrh, dizziness, nervousness, pain in the shoulders and side, loss of appetite, pain in the back and limbs…and have you not noticed that there was a deficiency in the mental health of your children?” (p11)
“Secret indulgence is, in many cases, the only real cause of the numerous complaints of the young.” (p13)
“The state of the world is alarming. Everywhere we look we see imbecility, dwarfed forms, crippled limbs, misshapen heads and deformity of every description… Corrupt habits are wasting their energy, and bringing upon them loathsome and complicated diseases… Children who practice self-indulgence…must pay the penalty.” (p. 14)
“The results of self-abuse in them [females] is seen in various diseases, such as catarrh, dropsy, headache, loss of memory and sight, great weakness in the back and loins, affections of the spine, the head often decays inwardly. Cancerous humor, which would lay dormant in the system their life-time, is inflamed, and commences its eating, destructive work. The mind is often utterly ruined, and insanity takes place.” (p24)
“I have been shown that children who practice self-indulgence previous to puberty, or the period of merging into manhood and womanhood, must pay the penalty of nature’s violated laws at that critical period. Many sink into an early grave, while others have sufficient force of constitution to pass this ordeal. If the practice is continued from the ages of fifteen and upward, nature will protest against the abuse she has suffered, and continues to suffer, and will make them pay the penalty for the transgression of her laws, especially from the ages of thirty to forty-five, by numerous pains in the system, and various diseases, such as affection of the liver and lungs, neuralgia, rheumatism, affection of the spine, diseased kidneys, and cancerous humors. Some of nature’s fine machinery gives way…there is often a sudden breaking down of the constitution, and death is the result.” (p18)
“Moral pollution has done more than every other evil to cause the race to degenerate. It is practiced to an alarming extent and brings on disease of almost every description. Even very small children, infants, being born with natural irritability of the sexual organs, find momentary relief in handling them, which only increases the irritation, and leads to a repetition of the act, until a habit is established which increases with their growth. These children, generally puny and dwarfed, are prescribed for by physicians and drugged; but the evil is not removed. The cause still exists.”
“Parents do not generally suspect that their children understand anything about this vice. In very many cases the parents are the real sinners. They have abused their marriage privileges, and by indulgence have strengthened their animal passions. And as these have strengthened, the moral and intellectual faculties have become weak. The spiritual has been overborne by the brutish. Children are born with the animal propensities largely developed, the parents’ own stamp of character having been given to them. The unnatural action of the sensitive organs produces irritation. They are easily excited, and momentary relief is experienced in exercising them. But the evil constantly increases. The drain upon the system is sensibly felt. The brain force is weakened, and memory becomes deficient.” (Testimonies Vol. 2, 390.)
It was common for health reformers of the time to see a link between diet and sexuality.
John Harvey Kellogg wrote in 1886, “flesh, condiments, eggs, tea, coffee, chocolate, and all stimulants have a powerful influence directly on the reproductive organs. They increase the local supply of blood; and through nervous sympathy with the brain, the passions are aroused.” (Plain Facts for Old and Young, 178.)
For Kellogg, the solution was simple: “Nothing tends so powerfully to keep the passions in abeyance as a simple diet, free from condiments, especially when coupled with a generous amount of exercise.” (Plain Facts for Old and Young, 179.)
Ellen White took a similar stance to Kellogg:
“Our food should be prepared free from spices. Mince pies, cakes, preserves, and highly-seasoned meats, with gravies, create a feverish condition in the system, and inflame the animal passions. (An Appeal to Mothers 1864, 19-20.)
“Children who eat improperly are often feeble, pale, and dwarfed and are nervous, excitable, and irritable. Everything noble is sacrificed to the appetite, and the animal passions predominate. The lives of many children from five to ten and fifteen years of age seem marked with depravity. They possess knowledge of almost every vice. The parents are, in a great degree, at fault in this matter….They tempt their children to indulge their appetite by placing upon their tables flesh meats and other food prepared with spices, which have a tendency to excite the animal passions.” (Spiritual Gifts Vol. 4, 132-133.)
Ellen White did not say that all of the serious consequences she associated with masturbation would be visited upon any one given individual; nor did she indicate that the worst possible degree of any of these consequences would be experienced by any particular person. However, no link has been found between masturbation and any of the conditions Ellen White discusses. In fact modern medical advice is generally that masturbation in both males and females is a normal part of human behaviour without adverse (and possibly even beneficial) consequences.
Studies show that over 90% of adult males masturbate and around 65% of females. Possible beneficial consequences include:
Decreased levels of depression
Decreasing the chance of prostate cancer (for males).
It has been suggested that there is a possible link between masturbation and physical illness:
“The amount of zinc in semen is such that one ejaculation may get rid of all the zinc that can be absorbed from the intestines in one day. This has a number of consequences. Unless the amount lost is replaced by an increased dietary intake, repeated ejaculation may lead to a real zinc deficiency with various problems developing, including impotence….It is even possible, given the importance of zinc for the brain, that 19th century moralists were correct when they said that repeated masturbation could make one mad!” (David F. Horrobin, Zinc, 8.)
It should be pointed out that if this were correct, the same problem would theoretically arise in consensual sex between a married couple. Would this also mean that masturbation was OK provided one took zinc supplements? And what about women who masturbate and do not lose zinc via semen?
“I believe that God’s ideal for sexual expression is an act to be consummated between a loving wife and husband in a committed, exclusive, and till-death-do-us-part relationship. Anything else in the way of sexual behaviour falls short of that ideal. But I also believe that by using scare tactics to prevent masturbation as almost the unpardonable sin, we have turned off many young people and have actually turned some away. I would rather see a balanced look at this issue.” (Alberta Mazat, Questions You Have Asked About Sexuality, 1991, 24.)
It is quite clear that early Seventh-day Adventist views on human sexuality were shaped primarily by Ellen White and John Harvey Kellogg—noting that Kellogg in particular had a very negative view of sex—even with marriage, seeing it as a destructive activity intended solely for reproductive purposes. Gradually however, change in attitudes have however occurred within the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
- In 1931, the 2nd edition of The Home Physician and Guide to Health was published—still advocating sexual restraint within marriage. However, for the first time in Seventh-day Adventist history, the idea was expressed that sex was a divine gift, and that viewing it as solely for reproductive purposes was untenable.
- In 1949, Harold Shryock published Happiness for Husbands and Wives, stating, “Sexual expression represents the culmination of all the desirable features of the family situation—the ultimate in marital happiness.”
- In 1974 Charles Wittschiebe published God Invented Sex which was concerned with sexual pleasure within marriage.
- Similar books were published in 1979 by Nancy Van Pelt: The Complete Marriage, and Alberta Mazat, That Friday in Eden. Van Pelt’s statement that, “Husbands and Wives should aim to be imaginative, creative, and willing lovers. God designed that sex…be exciting, enjoyable, and fulfilling” clearly indicates that some major shifts had taken place in Seventh-day Adventist views of human sexuality
Seventh-day Adventists still strongly discourage both pre- and extra-, marital sex:
A 1990 survey in the US showed that about two-thirds supported the Church’s traditional view.
A 1993 survey in Australia found that 79.9% of Seventh-day Adventist youth believed that “Sex should only occur within marriage”.
HOWEVER, actual practices are somewhat different:
A 1991 American survey found that 27% of Seventh-day Adventist youth surveyed were sexually active in school.
Roger Dudley surveyed a group of America 25-26 year-old Seventh-day Adventists of which 65% were sexually active.
Malcolm Bull and Keith Lockhart, Seeking a Sanctuary 2nd edition. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007).
Alberta Mazat, Questions You Have Asked About Sexuality (Boise: Pacific Press, 1991).
Ronald Numbers, Prophetess of Health (New York: Harper & Row, 1976).