While I was reading The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier I also happened to be listening to an episode of Backstory with the American History Guys, a podcast that deals with themes in American History. This particular episode detailed the history of nutritious eating the United States, and during the course of the podcast the topic of abolitionism came up. I had never been fully aware of the link between Abolitionism and Vegetarianism before and did a bit more of my own research into the topic, specifically the role of Quakers and how the character of Honor Bright would have linked the abolitionist cause to her diet.
In 1850 William Alcott, a well-known abolitionist (And father of Louisa May Alcott) founded The American Vegetarian Society. Alcott believed “There is no slavery in this world like the slavery of a man to his appetite. Let man but abstain from the use of the flesh and fish, and the slavery of one man to another cannot long exist.”
While Alcott explicitly linked the consumption of meat and fish to slavery, the larger idea that meat caused individuals to become violent and corrupted, was more popular. The names of Graham and Kellogg are household names today, but all these men got their start in the 19th century.
Sylvester Graham, a Presbyterian Minister from New Jersey, developed then Graham diet around 1829 to suppress “unhealthy carnal knowledge.” As part of a sexual panic at the time (this is where the myth that masturbation could cause blindness took hold), Graham believed that eating very bland foods could curb sexual urges. This included fresh fruits and vegetables, and whole wheat and high fiber foods. Meat and spices were excluded altogether but very fresh milk, cheese, and eggs were permitted “in moderation.” Thus the Graham Cracker was born. Originally the Graham Cracker was made with whole-wheat flour and was unsweetened; drastically different that our modern version.
Will Keith Kellogg also subscribed to this line of thinking. As a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Kellogg practiced vegetarianism, but was also somewhat obsessed with the health of American people. He saw breakfast, which was traditionally meat and eggs especially troubling and sought to provide a healthier alternative. He promoted corn flakes as a healthy breakfast, producing it with whole grains and no sugar.
I was looking for some more information about the links between Vegetarianism and Quakers and came across this article written by Kenneth L. Carrol titled “Early Quakers and Fasting.” The article mentions that Quaker attitudes towards fasting was most likely inspired by polemic writings of the 1650s which stressed that fasting could make one more in tune with spiritual knowledge. While the article does not specifically mention vegetarianism as it has been linked to abolitionism, it does mention that many Quakers refrained from eating meat and rich foods as a way to encourage communication with the Holy Spirit.
Quakers, as pacifists, are historically known for their opposition to slavery, (although some Quakers did hold slaves). This also sometimes affected consumer habits of Quakers and what we can call a very early iteration of advocating for “labour free” goods. John Woolman, well known for his role in shaping eighteenth century Quaker abolitionism, was vehemently opposed to Caribbean slavery and urged everyone to boycott all products produced by slaves including sugar, rum, molasses, tea, and cotton. Instead he urged Quakers, (Woolman was a travelling preacher) to produce their own food and clothing so as not to live of the labour of slaves. Andrew White writes, “One becomes what one east: by ingesting the sweetener the consumer actively participates in the barbaric, cannibalistic violence committed against the body of the slave that produces it.” While not all Quakers would have listened to Woolman, just as not all Quakers were abolitionists, or vegetarian, this is an interesting perspective on eating habits and consumerism, and how food could become a very political thing.
After the Civil War and emancipation the vegetarian movement began to fall apart without the cause of slavery to hold it together. It was soon taken up again however by the spirit of the early 19th century and focus on reforming one’s self, including health reform. Vegetarianism however still remained closely tied to religious movements with various Church founders having recommended vegetarianism. (Ellen G. White – Seventh Day Adventists) Historically many Quakers were supporters of the vegetarian movement due to its ties to abolitionism, and some members still practice vegetarianism or veganism as a reflection of the Peace Testament, extending non-violence towards animals. A Christian Vegetarian Association was founded in 1999 as a non-denominational organization promoting respect for God’s creation through abstaining from eating meat.
Today many people are vegetarian for a variety of reasons including but not limited to ethical, environmental, and health. Many, like me, also are not aware that vegetarianism has religious roots and was often intimately tied to political issues of the day like Abolition.
There is a good chance that Honor Bright, in Tracy Chevalier’s The Last Runaway would have practiced vegetarianism, even if her husband’s family did not necessarily approve of her abolitionist ways, and ate things like Oat Cakes made from the recipe below.
Oat Cakes (As served at Mackenzie House)
3 cups fine oatmeal (rolled outs ground in a blender)
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup butter, cut into bits
2 cups boiling water
Pour boiling water over butter and salt, stir to dissolve. Pour the mixture over the oats and stir thoroughly. Leave bout 1/2 hour, until doughy and cool enough to handle. Press into shallow, engrossed pans and press down with hands until it is like thick card-board. Roll flat with rolling pin. Cut into triangles and bake at 250 degrees for 2-3 hours until hard. Do not roll out too thinly or they will break. Serve with butter or preserves. Store in airtight container.
Alcott, Vegetable Diet Defended
Alcott, Young Housekeeper: or, Thought on Food and Cookery
Carrol, Kenneth, “Early Quakers and Fasting,” Quaker History, vol. 97, no. 1 (Spring 2008) pp. 1-10.
Frost, Willaim, “Quaker Antislavery: From Dissidence to Sense of the Meeting,” Quaker History, vol/ 101, no. 1, (Spring 2012), pp. 12-33.
White, Andrew, “A “Consuming” Oppression: Sugar, Cannibalism, and John Woolman’s 1770 Slave Dream,” Quaker History, vol. 96, No. 2, (Fall 2007), pp. 1-27.