By the spring of 1831, Graham began delivering a series of lectures at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia on what he labeled “the Science of Human Life,” including instruction on meat-free living, temperance, and the dangers of masturbation.
April 1, 1831
Lectures on the Science of Human Life by Sylvester Graham
Within this growing temperance environment the Pennsylvania Society for Discouraging the Use of Ardent Spirits was founded in 1827. The name of the organization says much about its methodology, its attempt to discourage the use of alcohol through lectures, pamphlets, and education rather than advocating for the ban of spirits through legislation. Fear of alcohol abuse, including its medical, spiritual, and social eff ects, was widespread among members of Philadelphia’s medical elite, who saw the abuse of spirits as the primary cause of mortality and poverty in the 1820s and 1830s.
Though reticent to legislate absolute prohibition, the society worked with 19 local magistrates to prosecute public drunkenness, gambling, and Sabbath violations. The group warned against the destructive lives of both the “habitual drunkard” as well as the equally pernicious “occasional drunkard.” The society advocated for stiff punishments under existing laws and believed in the need for internment in hospitals, almshouses, and prisons to reform alcohol abuse. In addition to its published reports, the Pennsylvania Society aimed to curb alcohol consumption through a network of agents and lecturers sent out to spread the gospel of sobriety, temperance, and clean living.
In June 1830, Sylvester Graham set out to reach the masses, lecturing throughout Pennsylvania connecting alcohol consumption with both physical and spiritual debasement. Graham peppered his speeches with compelling evidence, anecdotes, and scientific reasoning, all under the umbrella of religious imagery. This methodology was part of Graham’s attempt to avoid “mere declamation against drunkenness” and instead provide his audiences with “the reasons why they should not use intoxicating drinks.” During this period Graham became fascinated with studying human physiology, connecting physical health with ethical development. Not surprisingly, given his existing preoccupation with the connections between alcohol and physiology, Graham eventually turned his attention to dietary habits.
While Graham lectured throughout Philadelphia in 1830, he was introduced to members of the Bible Christian Church, beginning a correspondence with William Metcalfe that continued for most of their lives. Graham later claimed that his dietary decisions were “neither . . . founded on, nor suggested by, the opinions of others who have taught that vegetable food is the proper aliment of the human species,” though this was more a rhetorical device aimed at building personal credibility. The growing Bible Christian movement undoubtedly infl uenced Graham’s own dietary conversion, given his connection to Metcalfe.
Graham’s specious claim that his vegetable diet was based purely on experimentation refl ected his methods as a lecturer, emphasizing rational science rather than loyalty to a mere philosophy. Graham’s time working solely on temperance was short-lived, and he resigned from his post aft er just six months. But his life as a public reformer and lecturer was established. By the spring of 1831, Graham began delivering a series of lectures at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia on what he labeled “the Science of Human Life,” including instruction on meat-free living, temperance, and the dangers of masturbation. Despite these other concerns, Graham’s philosophy of healthy living hinged on the adoption of a meatless diet; of the twenty-four lectures included in the Lectures on the Science of Human Life , fourteen focused on food, digestion, and the benefits of avoiding flesh foods. At the core of this lecture series—which Graham delivered in New York City immediately after lecturing in Philadelphia— was the notion that the human body could be controlled and maximized through the mechanism of deep self-awareness. In this sense Graham’s lectures offered a democratic notion of personal health care, arguing that it was the individual’s responsibility to understand how the human body functioned and to react by initiating the healthiest path of living.
Graham presented a vegetable diet as “ the diet of man,” proven by a combination of anatomical and historical study. The fact that most Americans lived omnivorous lives was not proof of the dominant diet’s validity; rather, it reflected a general disconnect between humans and their natural, physiological state. Graham recognized the potentially controversial nature of his dietetics. A vegetable diet was not antireligious, he assured his audiences. Rather, there was “the most entire harmony between the Sacred Scriptures, and the dietetic and other principles” that he advocated. While Graham’s ideas about meat were radical, the traditional awareness of the need to keep the humoral body in balance provided some familiarity and legitimacy to Graham’s dietary dictates, as he claimed that meat overheated the body.
In the Science of Human Life lectures Graham presented the first unified theory of a meatless diet to general audiences, expunging the notion from the purely religious and placing it within the temporal and physical. Even though Graham’s dietary principles were controversial, they offered practical advice and reasoning on how to improve day-to-day life. Connecting the benefits of a vegetable diet to a variety of social changes, Graham successfully exploited the social reform spirit of the 1830s.