This article presents the development of the understanding of the validity of the Pentateuchal laws regarding clean and unclean food among Seventh-day Adventists.
An integral part of the Seventh-day Adventists’ 28 Fundamental Beliefs is making the distinction between clean and unclean food in order to avoid eating what is unclean, i.e., not fit for human consumption. In Belief No. 22 entitled “Christian Behavior,” one reads among other things: “Along with adequate exercise and rest, we are to adopt the most healthful diet possible and abstain from the unclean foods identified in the Scriptures.” This statement was first included in the Fundamental Beliefs in 1981 but voted in 1980 at the General Conference Session in Dallas, Texas.1 The present study deals with the discussion within Seventh-day Adventism on how they arrived at the conviction to observe the dietary regulations regarding clean and unclean meats given in the Pentateuch.
The biblical clean and unclean food laws (Gen 7:2, 8; 8:20; Lev 11:1–23, 41–47; 20:25–26; Deut 12:15–16; 14:1–21) are built on the following regulations: (1) clean land animals are those who chew and have a split hoofs; (2) unclean birds are only enumerated which means that birds of prey are forbidden to be eaten; (3) fish with scales and fins are permitted for human consumption; (4) all swarmer (including sea food like crabs or oysters) and insects are in the forbidden category except for four kinds of locusts (Lev 11:22).
It took some time for Seventh-day Adventists to recognize the importance and validity of the clean and unclean food laws and accept these dietary regulations as binding. In 1850 James White was opposed to food law regulations related to not eating certain food: “We do not, by any means, believe that the Bible teaches that its [pork] proper use, in the gospel dispensation, is sinful.”2
The earliest statement regarding clean and unclean food from the pen of Ellen White is from October 21, 1858, when she advises Stephen N. Haskell not to teach that it was wrong to eat pork. It is important to note that Ellen White did not advocate, as is sometimes incorrectly alleged, the eating of pork. She insisted that he was wrong to make abstaining from pork a criterion for membership and counseled him not to push the matter because if it is God’s will not to eat pork, He will reveal it to the church. Her approach to this matter was cautious as she states: “I saw that your views concerning swine's flesh would prove no injury if you have them to yourselves; but in your judgment and opinion you have made this question a test, . . . If God requires His people to abstain from swine’s flesh, He will convict them on the matter. . . . If it is the duty of the church to abstain from swine’s flesh, God will discover it to more than two or three. He will teach His church their duty.”3 This wise advice was written five years before she received the major health reform vision of June 6, 1863, which took place less than three weeks after the organization of the General Conference, when she stressed not to consume pork and started to propagate the importance of vegetarianism. In 1866, D. M. Canright mentions Deut 14:8 in his argumentation against eating pork but fails to speak about other unclean food.4 Gage in 1870 refutes those who were against recognizing that pork is unclean, and states: “If the Scriptures fail to settle the question, let reason have her sway. Examine the animal, and see its filthy habits.”5
Our pioneers’ knowledge including Ellen White’s apprehension of these dietary restrictions expanded progressively, and their understanding of the food regulations as presented in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 matured and grew stronger over time—from the tolerance of eating pork to a position against consummation of all unclean food.
In 1864 Ellen White wrote: “God never designed the swine to be eaten under any circumstances.”6 The rationale behind the prescription of not eating pork was not an arbitrary command of God but health. She asserted that a health reason lies behind the prohibition of additional unclean food: “Other animals were forbidden to be eaten by the Israelites, because they were not the best articles for food.”7 She stated it explicitly one year later: “God did not prohibit the Hebrews from eating swine’s flesh merely to show his authority, but because it was not a proper article of food for man.”8 Later she maintained: “God forbade the eating of unclean beasts . . . to preserve the life and health of his people. In order for them to retain their faculties of mind and body, it was necessary that their blood should be kept pure, by eating simple, healthful food. He therefore specified the animals least objectionable for food.”9
Even though Ellen White was a strong propagator of vegetarianism and wrote only sporadically about clean and unclean food, her standpoint on the topic, especially on the prohibition of pork, is clear quite early. Her most elaborate explanation on pork as unfit and injurious for human consumption is in her article on health entitled “Disease and Its Causes” written in 1865.10
Seventh-day Adventists grew in their understanding of abstaining from the consumption of unclean food, particularly in relation to what animals belong to that category, as it is demonstrated below. For example, James White, the husband of Ellen White, liked to eat squirrels. During the convalescence of James White in 1866 at Olcott, New York, Ellen White wrote Edson: “We have killed one wild black squirrel per day. He [James] enjoys it much.”11 There are some indications that Ellen White once ate oyster soup considered in the Bible as unclean when she was sick, as it was recommended to her to calm an upset stomach. According to the testimony of her son Willie C. White, she is said to have tried a spoonful or two, but then refused the rest.12 In 1882, when Ellen White was living at Healdsburg, California, she wrote a letter to her daughter-in-law Mary Kelsey White (Willie’s wife) with the following request: “Mary, if you can get me a good box of herrings, fresh ones, please do so. . . . If you can get a few cans of good oysters, get them.”13
The Review and Herald was generally negative toward oysters in the early years. The first definitive statement about whether they were clean or unclean came from W. H. Littlejohn in 1883. In answers to Bible questions, one was “Are oysters included among the unclean animals of Lev. 11, and do you think it is wrong to eat them?” Littlejohn answered: “It is difficult to say with certainty whether oysters would properly come under the prohibition found in Lev. 11:9-12. It would, however seem from the language, as if they might. If they do, then there would be undoubtedly some natural reason for the discrimination against them. Some have thought that such a reason is found in both their habits in the matter of feeding and circumstances that it is necessary to eat them just as they are found in the native state without separating from them the viscera.”14 So there was ambivalence but a leaning against them. In later years, through the early 20th century there was a growing emphasis on the danger of eating oysters as they were potential carriers of Typhoid and other possible health issues through contamination. In 1891, Kellogg states that oysters were difficult to digest, and that they are the “lowest of scavengers” and warns against them as possible carrier of poisonous tyrotoxicon.15 By 1913, A. B. Olson would describe them as “scavengers of the sea” “because they seem to thrive on sewage, are not infrequently infected with the bacillus of typhoid fever, and are capable of passing it on to man.”16
Rationale Behind and Validity
Uriah Smith criticized adaptation of the unclean food laws for Christians merely on the basis of the Mosaic law, because he thought that the laws of clean and unclean were part of the ceremonial law. He declares in 1883: “We believe there is better ground on which to rest [the prohibition on pork] than the ceremonial law of the former dispensation, for if we take the position that that law is still binding, we must accept it all, and then we shall have more on our hands than we can easily dispose of.”17 In 1890 Ellen White stressed the health rationale and ruled out a cultic reason for the prohibition of not eating unclean meat: “The distinction between articles of food as clean and unclean was not a merely ceremonial and arbitrary regulation, but was based upon sanitary principles.”18 She was quite eloquent already in 1878 in discussing Peter’s vision of Acts 10 that the laws of unclean food were not abolished but stressed mainly the prohibition of pork: “Some have urged that this vision was to signify that God had removed his prohibition from the use of the flesh of animals which he had formerly pronounced unclean; and that therefore swines’ flesh was fit for food. This is a very narrow, and altogether erroneous interpretation, and is plainly contradicted in the scriptural account of the vision and its consequences.”19
In 1889 Ellen White points out: “If you are a Bible doer as well as a Bible reader, you must understand from the Scriptures that swine’s flesh was prohibited by Jesus Christ enshrouded in the billowy cloud [at Sinai]. This is not a test question.”20 She was asked regarding canvassers who travel and eat bread with swine’s flesh in it. She explained the matter in the following way: “I see here a serious difficulty, but there is a remedy. Learn to make good, hygienic rolls and keep them with you. You can generally obtain hot milk . . . and this, with fruit or without it, will nourish the system.”21 She did advise to “every Sabbath keeping canvasser to avoid meat eating, not because it is regarded as sin to eat meat, but because it is unhealthy. The animal creation is groaning.”22
In 1890 she interpreted God’s permission of eating meat of Gen 9:3 as referring to clean animals only.23 She also stresses that Samson’s parents abstained from “every unclean thing.”24 The most elaborate and comprehensive explanation of prohibited food she published in 1905: “The Israelites were permitted the use of animal food, but under careful restrictions which tended to lessen the evil results. The use of swine’s flesh was prohibited, as also of other animals and of birds and fish whose flesh was pronounced unclean. Of the meats permitted, the eating of the fat and the blood was strictly forbidden.”25
S. N. Haskell in 1903 underlined the biblical prohibition of Leviticus 11 in regard to eating unclean food in the following way: “In many things the Bible lays down principles and we are left to exercise our own judgment in the matter, while in many other matters a plain command is given. . . . In His infinite plan [God] appointed a part of the animal kingdom to act as scavengers. . . . In order that we might know those which feed upon clean food, He placed a mark or brand upon them. . . . The eating of these things which God has forbidden is very grievous in His sight.”26 In 1951 Gladys Griffin presented a study on “The Prohibition of Meats” to the Biblical Research Fellowship where it was argued in favor of this teaching from the health perspective and concluded that “with this evidence of the wisdom of the divinely-given laws, we can be assured that time will, without doubt, bring much more evidence that will serve to substantiate the dictum of Deut. 14:8 given by a loving Creator a long time ago.”27
The General Conference Session in Dallas, Texas, in 1980 incorporated abstaining from unclean food into the Fundamental Beliefs. Ron Graybill in his pivotal 1981 article summarized the development of Adventist thinking on clean and unclean food.28 He argued that “nineteenth-century Adventists . . . did not generally accept this distinction between clean and unclean meats based on Levitical law, even though they clearly condemned pork.”29 In the same year, John Brunt was instrumental in stirring Adventist thinking to be more consistent in their interpretation of unclean food.30 William Shea summarized and reasoned in his 1988 exegetical study for harmony between the Old and New Testaments’ teachings on clean and unclean food regulations and their validity.31 In 1991 Gerhard Hasel dealt with the Pentateuchal dietary laws in his insightful article where he maintains that a hygienic rationale lies behind these regulations, and that the distinction between clean and unclean animals is natural. He stresses holiness and redemption motifs as reasons for the observance of these food regulation.32
In 1998, Jiří Moskala in the seminal dissertation The Laws of Clean and Unclean Animals in Leviticus 11: Their Nature, Theology, and Rationale. An Intertextual Study demonstrates that the main rationale behind this dietary regulation is theological, namely respect for the Holy Creator. His exegetical, theological, and intertextual study proves that under this umbrella other important aspects are included like health, respect for life, holiness, natural repulsiveness, and a wall against the infiltration of paganism into Israel’s lifestyle.33 He also demonstrated on the basis of the comparative study of all the Pentateuchal unclean laws that choosing uniquely the dietary regulations regarding clean and unclean food as binding for Christians is well founded in the nature of these laws because the uncleanness of the unclean animals is permanent and falls into the category of the natural uncleanness, thus being a part of the universal law. The same author published in 2015 a crucial article regarding the validity of these dietary requirements in support of making a distinction between clean and unclean food for Christians.34
In 2015 a complementary formative dissertation was written, this time from the perspective of the New Testament by Eike Mueller, demonstrating that the validity of dietary regulations are built on a solid exegesis and are theologically consistent with the overall biblical teaching on this topic, and that there is no substantive argument that Jesus or His disciples abrogated these laws for the New Testament believers.35 Eike Mueller focused on the passage of Mark 7:1–23 and concludes that neither Jesus nor Mark nullifies the clean and unclean food distinction of Leviticus 11. Instead, Mark correctly summarizes Jesus’s position against the new tradition of interpreting koinos (defilement by association with the unclean) established during the Second Temple period which overstretched God’s dietary regulations described in the Pentateuch, and stresses Jesus’s teaching that the real impurity is not external but internal, coming from the heart.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church considers these Pentateuchal regulations to be important because not only careful exegesis and theological reasoning prove that these are God’s requirements and were not revoked but that when observed they express respect for the Holy Creator. The rational for them points to health regulations as well as to maintaining holiness, being holy as our Lord is holy (Lev 11:44–45; 1 Pet 1:14–16). God desires that we give Him glory in life’s everyday activities, including eating and drinking (1 Cor 10:31), because we are accountable to Him due to the fact that we are not our own, our body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, and in our body, we should glorify our Redeemer (1 Cor 6:19-20). Food on our tables should be a silent witness that God and His Word has the ultimate authority in our lives.
Brunt, John. “Unclean or Unhealthful? An Adventist Perspective.” Spectrum 11, no. 3 (1981): 17–23.
Canright, D. M. “The Bible on Meat.” Health Reformer, December 1860.
Gage, W. C. “Pork Unclean.” Health Reformer, February 1870.
Graybill, Ronald D. “The Development of Adventist Thinking on Clean and Unclean Meats.” Shelf Document, Ellen G. White Estate, Washington, D.C., 1981.
Griffin, Gladys V. “The Prohibition of Unclean Meats.” Unpublished Biblical Research Fellowship Paper, 1951.
Hasel, Gerhard F. “Distinction between Clean and Unclean Animals in Lev 11.” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 2, no. 2 (1991): 91–125.
Haskell, S. N. “Pork as an Article of Diet.” Bible Training School, May 1903.
Kellogg, J. H. Household Monitor of Health. Battle Creek, MI: Good Health Publishing Co., 1891.
Littlejohn, W. H. “Oysters.” ARH, August 14, 1883.
Moskala, Jiří. The Laws of Clean and Unclean Animals in Leviticus 11: Their Nature, Theology, and Rationale. An Intertextual Study. Dissertation Series, Vol. 4. Berrien Springs, MI: Adventist Theological Society, 2000.
Moskala, Jiří. “The Validity of the Levitical Food Laws of Clean and Unclean Animals: A Case Study of Biblical Hermeneutics.” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 22, no. 2 (2015): 3–31.
Mueller, Eike. “Cleansing the Common: A Narrative-intertextual Study of Mark 7:1–23.” Th.D. diss., Andrews University, 2015.
Olson, A. B. “Animal Flesh and Disease.” ARH, March 6, 1913.
Seventh-day Adventist Yearbook. Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1981.
Shea, William H. “Clean and Unclean Meats.” Unpublished Biblical Research Institute paper, 1988.
Smith, Uriah. “Meats Clean and Unclean.” ARH, July 3, 1883.
White, Arthur L. “Dietary Witness of the Ellen G. White Household.” Unpublished paper, Washington, D.C., 1978.
White, Ellen G. Acts of the Apostles. Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1911.
White, Ellen G. Counsels on Diet and Foods. Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1976.
White, Ellen G. Counsels on Health. Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1951.
White, Ellen G. “Counsels to Our Colporteurs Regarding Carefulness in Diet.” c. 1889. Manuscript 15, 1889. Ellen G. White Estate.
White, Ellen G. Patriarchs and Prophets. Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1958.
White, Ellen G. Selected Messages. 3 vols. Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1958, 1980.
White, Ellen G. Spiritual Gifts. 4 vols. Battle Creek, MI: Steam Press of the Seventh-day Adventist Publishing Assn., 1864.
White, Ellen G. Testimonies for the Church. 9 vols. Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1948.
White, Ellen G. The Desire of Ages. Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1940.
White, Ellen G. The Ministry of Healing. Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1942.
White, Ellen G. “The Sins of the Pharisees.” Signs of the Times, March 21, 1878.
White, Ellen G. The Spirit of Prophecy. 4 vols. Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1969.
White, Ellen G. The Story of Redemption. Washington, D.C.: Review & Herald, 1947.
White, Ellen G. to James Edson White. September 21, 1866. Letter 3, 1866. Ellen G. White Estate, Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.A.
White, Ellen G. to Mary K. White. May 31, 1882. Letter 16, 1882. Ellen G. White Estate, Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.A.
White, James. “Swine’s Flesh.” Present Truth, November 1850.
“Fundamental Beliefs,” Seventh-day Adventist Yearbook (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1981), 7.↩
James White, “Swine’s Flesh,” Present Truth, November 1850, 87.↩
Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, 9 vols., vol. 1 (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1948), 206–207.↩
D. M. Canright, “The Bible on Meat,” Health Reformer, December 1860, 66.↩
W. C. Gage, “Pork Unclean,” Health Reformer, February 1870, 150.↩
Ellen G. White, Spiritual Gifts, 4 vols., vol. 4a (Battle Creek, MI: Steam Press of the Seventh-day Adventist Publishing Assn., 1864), 124; see also Ellen G. White, Counsels on Diet and Foods (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1976), 392; Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1942), 314; Ellen G. White, Counsels on Health (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1951), 116.↩
White, Spiritual Gifts, 4a:124.↩
Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, 3 vols., vol. 2 (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1958, 1980), 417.↩
Ellen G. White, “The Sins of the Pharisees,” Signs of the Times, March 21, 1878, 64.↩
White, Selected Messages, 2:417; see also Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1940), 617; Ellen G. White, The Spirit of Prophecy, 4 vols., vol. 3 (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1969), 64.↩
Ellen G. White to James Edson White, September 21, 1866; Letter 3, 1866, accessed August 4, 2021, https://egwwritings.org/?ref=en_Lt3-1866¶=3109.1.↩
Arthur L. White, “Dietary Witness of the Ellen G. White Household” (unpublished paper, Washington, D.C., 1978), 15.↩
Ellen G. White to Mary K. White, May 31, 1882, Letter 16, 1882, accessed August 4, 2021, https://egwwritings.org/?ref=en_Lt16-1882¶=4184.1.↩
W. H. Littlejohn, “Oysters,” ARH, August 14, 1883, 522.↩
J. H. Kellogg, Household Monitor of Health (Battle Creek, MI: Good Health Publishing Co., 1891), 131–136.↩
A. B. Olson, “Animal Flesh and Disease,” ARH, March 6, 1913, 229.↩
Uriah Smith, “Meats Clean and Unclean,” ARH, July 3, 1883, 424.↩
Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1958), 562.↩
White, Spirit of Prophecy, 3:327; for the purpose of the vision, see Ellen G. White, The Story of Redemption (Washington, DC: Review & Herald, 1947), 285–286; and Ellen G. White, Acts of the Apostles (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1911), 193.↩
Ellen G. White, “Counsels to Our Colporteurs Regarding Carefulness in Diet,” c. 1889, Manuscript 15, 1889, accessed August 4, 2021, https://egwwritings.org/?ref=en_Ms15-1889¶=4214.1.↩
White, Manuscript 15, 1889.↩
White, Patriarchs and Prophets, 107.↩
White, Patriarchs and Prophets, 562.↩
White, Ministry of Healing, 311–312.↩
S. N. Haskell, “Pork as an Article of Diet,” Bible Training School, May 1903, 186.↩
Gladys V. Griffin, “The Prohibition of Unclean Meats” (unpublished Biblical Research Fellowship Paper, 1951), 11.↩
Ronald D. Graybill, “The Development of Adventist Thinking on Clean and Unclean Meats,” Shelf Document, Ellen G. White Estate, Washington, D.C., 1981.↩
Graybill, “The Development of Adventist Thinking on Clean and Unclean Meats,” 1.↩
John Brunt, “Unclean or Unhealthful? An Adventist Perspective,” Spectrum 11, no. 3 (1981): 17–23.↩
William H. Shea, “Clean and Unclean Meats” (unpublished Biblical Research Institute paper, 1988).↩
Gerhard F. Hasel, “Distinction between Clean and Unclean Animals in Lev 11,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 2, no. 2 (1991): 91–125.↩
Jiří Moskala, The Laws of Clean and Unclean Animals in Leviticus 11: Their Nature, Theology, and Rationale. An Intertextual Study, Dissertation Series, vol. 4 (Berrien Springs, MI: Adventist Theological Society, 2000).↩
Jiří Moskala, “The Validity of the Levitical Food Laws of Clean and Unclean Animals: A Case Study of Biblical Hermeneutics,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 22, no. 2 (2015): 3–31.↩
Eike Mueller, “Cleansing the Common: A Narrative-intertextual Study of Mark 7:1–23” (Th.D. diss., Andrews University, 2015).↩