The Reverend Sylvester Graham (July 5, 1794 – September 11, 1851) was a 19th-century Presbyterian minister and American dietary reformer who was known for his emphasis on vegetarianism, the temperance movement and his emphasis on eating whole-grain bread. His preaching inspired the use of graham flour, graham bread and graham cracker products.
Graham was born in 1794 in Connecticut, to a family with seventeen children; his father was 70 years old when Graham was born and his mother was mentally ill. His father died when Graham was two, and he spent his childhood moving from one relative's home to another. One of his relatives ran a tavern where Graham was put to work and his experience with drunkenness there led him to hate alcohol his whole life and forswear drinking.
He was often sick, and missed a great deal of schooling. He worked as a farm hand, cleaner and teacher before deciding on the ministry as an antidote for his poor health. He entered Amherst Academy in his late twenties to become a minister as his father and grandfather had been, but was forced to leave when his schoolmates created a scandal by claiming he had improperly approached a woman.
Graham suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of his expulsion and moved to Rhode Island to recover, where he met a woman he married who nursed him back to health.
He studied theology privately, and in 1828 began working as an itinerant preacher in New Jersey. In 1830 Graham was offered a position at the Philadelphia Temperance Society and accepted it, but quit after six months to focus his preaching on health.
When the European cholera pandemic struck in 1829-1851, he converted to vegetarianism. Americans were terrified that it would reach their shores and the accepted medical opinion at the time was that eating plenty of meat, drinking port wine, and avoiding vegetables was the best way to prevent contracting cholera. People also believed that cholera was a plague sent by God to punish people.
The Philadelphia Temperance Society was led by doctors who were concerned about health effects of alcohol. Graham moved in their circles and may have met William Metcalfe, an English minister who established a vegetarian church in Philadelphia and William A. Alcott, a Philadelphia doctor who wrote extensively about vegetarianism.
Graham taught himself about physiology and apparently arrived at the conclusion that meat was just as bad as alcohol. Graham's interest was also captured by the books written by the German chemist, Friedrich Accum, in which he denounced the use of chemical additives in food and especially those used in bread.
Like other members of the temperance movement, Graham viewed physical pleasure and especially sexual stimulation because they lead to behavior that harmed individuals, families and societies. He believed that people should eat only plants, like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and believed that plague and illness were caused by living in ways that ignored natural law. From these views Graham created a theology and diet aimed at keeping people healthy:
- Drinking pure water
- Eating a vegetarian diet anchored by bread made at home from flour coarsely ground at home so that it remained wholesome and natural, contained no added spices or other "stimulants"
- A rigorous lifestyle that included sleeping on hard beds and avoiding warm baths.
In 1834 he published On Self-Pollution which contributed to the masturbation scare in antebellum America. He believed youthful masturbation was dangerous to children's health because of the immaturity of their reproductive organs.
His sermons centered on patriotism, theology, diet, lifestyle and temperance outraged bakers, butchers and even the medical establishment. When the cholera epidemic reached New York in 1832, people who had followed his advice appeared to thrive and his fame was enhanced and he lectured in New York and Boston that year.
As his fame spread, "Grahamism" became a movement, and people inspired by his preaching began to develop and market graham flour, graham bread, and graham crackers. He neither invented nor endorsed any specific product, nor did he receive any money from their sale.
In 1850, Graham and several other founded the American Vegetarian Society in New York City. He died the following year at the age of 57 at home in Northampton, Massachusetts. Graham influenced other Americans including Horace Greeley and John Harvey Kellogg, founder of the Battle Creek Sanitarium.