Just as Graham claimed that the benefit of a vegetable diet was scientifically observable, his new followers attested to the natural life’s ability to ward off disease. These stories—often similar to Graham’s own account of his moral and physical ascension—presented common narratives of the evolution from darkness to light, all thanks to a meatless diet.
December 13, 1834
A Defence of the Graham System of Living
Just as Graham claimed that the benefit of a vegetable diet was scientifically observable, his new followers attested to the natural life’s ability to ward off disease. These stories—often similar to Graham’s own account of his moral and physical ascension—presented common narratives of the evolution from darkness to light, all thanks to a meatless diet. They used language similar to that of the conversion narratives of born-again evangelicals swept up in the period’s Second Great Awakening. The difference was that the Grahamites’ conversions occurred at the table, rather than at a revival meeting or church.
These narratives outlined a timeline of sickness, transformation, and finally conversion that led the individual to advocate for a Grahamite diet. Nicholas Van Heyniger, a promoter of Grahamism, explained: “For some time previous to my adopting your plan of living, my health was a good deal impaired; and I was afflicted with many bodily pains; and particularly troubled with impaired sight.” Conversion stories connected a wide variety of physical maladies with meat consumption, while a meat-free diet was claimed to produce instantaneous improvements. Van Heyniger adopted a Graham diet and reported that his “bodily pains are gone, and my sight is perfectly restored, so that I can read all the evening without the least inconvenience.”
Asenath Nicholson presented her own conversion story, recounting that until age sixteen she consumed tea, coffee, meat, and alcohol to the extent that her “nerves became so completely unstrung that the sight of a book put me in an universal tremor.” After attending a Graham lecture Nicholson was overcome by an almost spiritual rapture. She wrote that she “heard and trembled: the torrent of truth poured upon me, effectually convinced my judgment, and made me a thorough convert.” A regimen of fresh air, Graham bread, and vegetables cured Nicholson, making her “entirely exempt from pain or weakness.” In the process, everything from her sleep to her singing voice improved. Nicholson believed her life was saved: “Nearly four years have passed, and not the slightest indisposition, except a trifling cold, has ever returned, to remind me I was mortal. Good bread, pure water, ripe fruit and vegetables are my meat and drink exclusively.”
Conversion narratives were oft en published in volumes of Graham’s writings. In the closing pages of A Defence of the Graham System of Living, a series of testimonials from “respectable individuals” is offered, all following the pattern of the conversion narrative. Years of abuse and woe were followed by multiple visits to doctors who did little to alleviate their suffering. But the adoption of a Graham diet cured all ills. Lavinia Wright, a teacher in New York’s rough Bowery neighborhood, reported the end of “physical and mental lethargy” caused by “the injustice and cruelty of destroying animal existence” and “the injurious eff ects produced by the undue stimulation resulting from the use of animal food.”
Amos Pollard, a medical doctor, said that after living meatless for five years “my health is much better, and my strength far greater, than when I used a mixture of animal food.” Pollard used his personal example to encourage the universal adoption of a vegetable diet to benefit all of mankind. William Goodell, an influential abolitionist, suffragist, and early temperance reformer, claimed a vegetable diet cured him from chronic diarrhea that no doctor ever alleviated. Goodell also said that his “wife is relieved from her headaches, my child from summer complaints, and all of us in a good degree, from nervous irritability.” An early conversion testimonial from December 13, 1834, came in the form of a letter that called for “a total abstinence from all artificial stimuli. . . . The general adoption of a vegetable diet would tend, in a remarkable degree to meliorate the condition of mankind, both physical and moral.” Included in the group of thirty-one cosignatories was Horace Greeley, who that year met his wife Mary Chency while living in the Beekman Street Grahamite boardinghouse in New York City.
While much changed about movement vegetarianism during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, one constant feature was the use of the conversion narrative in order to justify the diet. Conversion narratives simultaneously reached out for converts and created a sense of community among dietary reformers. The conversion narrative also reflected the dedication and self-righteousness felt by Grahamites, compelled to share their personal stories of change. Grahamites also faced external social forces that reinforced feelings of inferiority, forcing meat abstainers to justify their life choices in order to gain credibility and create self-confidence.
These competing forces of self-rectitude and external mockery pushed Grahamites to seek each other out, build communities, and formulate a common lifestyle around meat abstention. With boardinghouses in place in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, Grahamites created supportive, localized communities. It was the printed word, however, that expanded the community of Grahamites beyond the local and into a larger movement throughout the United States.