In the 19th century, American cereal tycoons and literary giants found themselves embroiled in a dietary spat. Sylvester Graham, Presbyterian minister and inspiration for the crackers he inspired, and his friends John Harvey Kellogg, of cornflakes fame, and physician William Alcott advocated for a biblically inspired vegetarian diet. Meanwhile, American author Walt Whitman wrote no fewer than 13 essays advocating for a “manly” all-meat diet. A few years earlier Herman Melville took a side swipe at vegetarianism in Bartleby, the Scrivener. And, somewhat awkwardly, 20 years later William Alcott’s child, the novelist Louisa May, wrote a satirical essay that was, in essence, a protracted subtweet trashing her father’s experimental vegan commune. You can imagine what Thanksgiving was like at their house: Bringing a Turkey would have been an act of war.
Both sides of this Victorian debate recognized that there might, under certain circumstances, be something spiritual about vegetarianism. Whitman himself expressed admiration for a “Spanish convent of monks” whose diet of vegetables and water gave them “a lustre, a spiritual intelligence to the countenance, that has something saint-like and divine.” There is something spiritual, the carnivore Whitman conceded, about vegetarianism. It is an admission that reflects thousands of years of religiously grounded dietetics.
For Graham, the “father of American vegetarianism,” the building blocks for the Christian diet can be found in the biblical creation story. In Genesis 1:29-30 God tells Adam that: “given you every seed-bearing plant that grows throughout the earth, along with every tree that grows seed-bearing fruit. They will produce your food.” Dr. Catherine L. Newell, an associate professor of religion and science at the University of Miami, told me “This text has been interpreted by some Christian—as well as some Jewish—groups to mean that God doesn’t sanction the eating of the animals, birds, and fishes over which he just gave humans dominion in the previous verses.”
To be sure, after the Flood, God later gives Noah and his family permission to eat animals, but this wasn’t God’s initial intention. So, Newell notes, many Biblical interpreters see Gen 1 as “a purer interpretation of God’s intention for humanity and the rest of the creation.” Other biblical stories—for example Daniel’s refusal to eat “the King’s meat” in the Book of Daniel also figure in the mix—but fundamentally it is the paradisaical diet to which people want to return.
Ideas about a plant-based diet were also common among Greek and Roman philosophers. Dr. Robyn Walsh, the author of The Origins of Early Christian Literature, told me that, for ancient philosophers, vegetarianism often revolved around the question of reincarnation. It was precisely because of the transmigration of souls that Pythagoras—philosopher and mathematician—prohibited the consumption of meat (although one student, a wrestler, is alleged to have consumed 20 pounds of meat a day). One might find oneself inadvertently chowing down on the soul of one’s parent. Meat was less troublesome than beans, however: according to Aristotle, Pythagoras worried that someone might fart out their soul. Ever since Pythagoras has been vegetarianism’s poster boy, it was the name recognition that he lent to the diet that helped buoy it to renewed popularity in the Renaissance and Enlightenment.
In antiquity, Pythagoras was not alone. Walsh told me that the Jewish philosopher Philo quotes Heraclitus, who advises against consuming meat and “extols the virtues of what we might call a vegetarian diet, including leafy greens, jams, and even flowers. Elsewhere, he makes a similar reference when discussing the ascetic group, the Therapeutae, noting that their diet was primarily made of bread, relish, salt, and water.” Not everyone agreed. The famous Greek physician Hippocrates, she added, railed against “what we what call a ‘raw food diet’.” If we eat like rabbits (Hippocrates would say an ox or a horse) we “will be exposed to strong pains and diseases.” Hippocrates would find supporters among modern anthropologists, who note that we are not built exactly like our vegetarian primate cousins. Jon Marks, professor of anthropology at UNC-Charlotte, told me that “if God meant us to be vegetarians, he would have given us procumbent incisors.”
Broadly speaking, vegetarianism is most commonly associated with the Eurocentrically named “Eastern religions” of India; in particular, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. There’s some disagreement here. Hinduism encourages vegetarian diets because of the principle of nonviolence (ahimsa). The Yajurveda reads, “You must not use your God-given body for killing God’s creatures, whether they be human, animals, or whatever” (12.32.90). Killing animals is bad for your karma. The oldest Vedic text, however, the Rigveda has numerous accounts of animal sacrifice and references to humans eating meat.
The same tension can be found in a variety of forms of Buddhism. Generally, Buddhism strongly encourages vegetarianism, but it does not require it of laypersons. Except for Japan, vegetarianism is expected of East Asian Buddhist clerics. Clerical vegetarianism was legally mandated in the sixth century CE by Liang dynasty emperor Wu. The legislation around this persisted for centuries. The origins of this dietary habit, however, have been traced to as early as the third century AD and are often tied to Chinese funerary culture and the influence of Indian Buddhism. Jains, who share the principle of ahimsa with Buddhists and Hindus, has the most rigorous proscriptions about nonviolence and diet. Vegetarianism is compulsory and many modern Jain thinkers advocate for veganism. The most rigorous Jains abstain from root vegetables like potatoes as harvesting them might kill small insects.
Among Christians, the principles of vegetarianism flourished among those, like monks, who avoid luxury and gastronomic indulgence of all kinds. As a subspecies of asceticism, the avoidance of meat—luxury goods for the wealthy—was a form of self-denial. In the Christian West the “Pythagorian Diet” (i.e., avoiding meat) influenced several monastic orders including the Carthusians. The Catholic church of the Middle Ages and early modern periods was reluctant to ban the consumption of meat in toto: monastic self-denial and periodic fasting (e.g., for Lent) was one thing, but devoted vegetarianism was another.
While we generally associate vegetarianism with either asceticism or animal welfare, there are a variety of spiritual reasons for avoiding meat. Not least of these is the idea that plants themselves have a particularly sacred status. In one Vedic primordial narrative, for example, the lotus was the womb of the origin gods. In A Cultural History of Plants Dr. Divya Kumar-Dumas, a historian of South Asian art and architecture, notes that, “The deep respect for trees and plants evidence in such diverse, early cosmogonic, sacred, and heroic narratives survived into the first centuries ce as a variegated Pan-Indic preoccupation spanning diverse ethnic and social groups.” A respect for plants like the lotus and banyan trees helped cultivate a spiritual ethic of vegetal consumption.
Among Victorian Christian vegetarians, the practice was less about animal cruelty than the “clean living movement.” Before Graham, Newell told me, vegetarianism was a species of Christian asceticism, after Graham it was “conflated with personal health and Christian morality in an entirely new way.” This helped contribute to the outright dangerous and ableist view that as one Grahamite put it—“it is a sin to be sick.” As a result, Newell said, “Being unhealthy or following an unhealthy lifestyle—which included eating meat, drinking coffee or tea, and using any kind of spices (to say nothing of alcohol or tobacco)—was viewed as a spiritual failing that inevitably led to illness or poor health.”
Where Graham “lucked out” as it were was in the arrival of a new terrifying foreign disease to the Americas. Cholera arrived in 1833 and Sylvester Graham claimed that his abstemious vegetarian diet would provide immunity against the disease. It worked. But not because vegetarianism or abstention from alcohol and coffee saved people. Alongside his proscriptions about food, Graham instructed his followers to drink only pure rainwater and, naturally, many of his followers avoided getting sick. (As Newell observed, the bacterium v. cholorae wouldn't be theorized as living in water until 1854). Graham published the letters of gratitude he received in a small anthology known as The Asclepian Tablets alongside his special recipe for brown bread. Unlike the Nabisco crackers named in his honor, however, the bread isn’t very good. “I haven’t tried the recipe myself,” said Newell, "but the consensus among modern taste testers is that it’s horrible.”