by Jim Walters | 1 August 2022 |
“Happy Sabbath! How would you like your coffee?” That, or a similar Sabbath morning greeting, is now heard in some congregations across Adventism:
- At the avant-garde Crosswalk (CW) church in Redlands, California, or at its secondary campuses in Los Angeles, Portland, Chattanooga, Sacramento, or Massachusetts—where CW Coffee is a signature brand
- At the growing Madison Adventist church in Nashville
- At several Orlando-area churches
- At Glendale City church
- At the Anthem service for young adults at the Loma Linda University Church
- At the young adults Sabbath School group of Newbold church, 60 miles outside London, UK
The Adventist world is split on coffee-use. I asked friend and long-time Adventist Bill Garber, AT’s board chair, if he knows of any Adventist churches that serve coffee. He didn’t—which suggests to me that while coffee drinking is happening in some church congregations, it’s still exceptional.
To external observers this coffee split, if it were known, would be thought a bit silly. But to the thoughtful Adventist, the issue isn’t coffee per se: it’s health. In our tradition, “health reform” is a core belief. At best, that means not accepting old ideas about health, but being open to new research. The Adventist question should be, “What is most healthful for us?”
Contemporary medical science on coffee
For the last 10-15 years evidence has been mounting that drinking coffee is healthful.
This isn’t to deny that caffeine can cause dependency, or that it interferes with sleep if drunk close to bedtime. But, overall, it appears that it’s more good for you than not.
A recent headline in the AARP (American Association of Retired People) newsletter, distributed to millions, caught my attention:
“Six Surprising Health Benefits of Coffee: Evidence is pouring in that drinking a cup of joe—or three–can help everything from managing blood sugar to getting more from a workout.”
These benefits of coffee-use were expanded in the full article, with impressive medical references such as the New England Journal of Medicine, Journal of the American College of Cardiology, and the Journal of Internal Medicine.
The benefits included:
- Heart protection
- Brain health
- Bodily endurance and strength
- Longer life
- Less type-2 diabetes
- Mood enhancment
Adventist health professionals and coffee
Precisely because of Adventism’s commitment to health, some of its leading healthcare professionals don’t discourage coffee drinking any longer.
But there are exceptions.
The church’s General Conference healthcare leadership generally disfavors coffee. However, it’s noteworthy that the church’s 28 fundamental beliefs say nothing about it, and the church’s top leaders have been interestingly silent as evidence of health benefits has accumulated.
While Gary Fraser (director of the Adventist Health Study II) considers some claims for coffee’s benefits as inconclusive, he nonetheless observes that the “strongest scientific conclusion” is that coffee-drinkers have a moderately lower risk of diabetes and mildly lower mortality.
And yes, there are downsides: very high coffee consumption during pregnancy is associated with low birth-weight babies, and caffeinated coffee can be addictive.
Ted Hamilton, senior vice president of AdventHealth, sees coffee as non-objectionable overall, citing its presence in all the 50+ hospitals in the AdventHealth orbit and in his home church, the bustling Madison Campus Church in Nashville.
Patricia Johnston, former dean of the School of Public Health at Loma Linda University (LLU), points to these benefits: it helps a weak heart pump blood and enhances alertness. She notes but one harm: the potential for dependency. Her bottom line: “Each person must study and be informed, looking at positive and negative aspects and decide for themselves.”
As for Ellen White’s writings on the topic, Patricia accurately observes that they’re not “direct quotes from God.”
Why the taboo?
If a principled assessment, based on the best medical evidence, favors coffee use, why the Adventist taboo? Patricia identified the correct reason: Ellen White.
Ellen White vehemently criticized coffee, which she linked with tea, tobacco, and even opium. In the Comprehensive Index to White’s writings, the heading “coffee” has five columns of over 500 references—all negative! These are divided into several categories of “ill effects”: physical, mental, moral, and spiritual. She writes, for example, that with coffee use, “moral character [is] perniciously influenced.”
Another example is this 1902 letter:
All should bear clear testimony against tea and coffee, never using them. They are narcotics, injurious alike to the brain and to the other organs of the body…. these things hinder the best development of the physical, mental, and spiritual powers.
Popular Adventism—and that’s most of us—has for over a century treated Ellen White’s writings as inerrant and infallible. A.G. Daniells, longest-serving General Conference president, was denied a new term in 1922 because conservative church leaders accused Daniells of disbelieving Ellen’s prophetic gift. Church historians such as Michael Campbell, Gilbert Valentine, and George Knight are doing their church a great service by demonstrating how Ellen White and those who knew her best rejected the claims of inerrancy advocated by Ellen’s devotees.
Although today some Adventists reject the notion of Ellen’s infallibility, the popular sentiment across Adventism today is that if Ellen said it, it’s gospel for all time.
That was the view of the late Georgia Hodgkin when I interviewed her early in 2023. Long-time professor of nutrition and dietetics at Loma Linda University, Hodgkin adamantly opposed coffee, based on Ellen White’s disapproval of “coffee, tea, and opium.” Regarding research that shows positive effects of coffee, Hodgkin diagnosed confirmation bias: the researchers themselves likely imbibed coffee.
(For unexplained reasons, Hodgkin didn’t agree with White’s opposition to bicycle-riding.)
I interviewed two other church members, both in their late seventies and reared in conservative Adventist homes that banned coffee. One, a registered dietitian, felt that pro-coffee research is incomplete, but still insisted it’s “bad for health” due to its acidity. The other, a physical therapist, says coffee causes her to be jittery, hinders sleep, and may increase osteoporosis.
I grew up in a Postum family. Mom and dad religiously drank their morning brew, but it never tempted me.
So, what is an Adventist like me, with no morning brew habit, to make of the accumulating evidence that coffee drinking is beneficial overall? Against my life-long practice, ten years ago I began to regularly drink straight black coffee—for health reasons. I still gain little culinary pleasure, although I try to get the finest bold coffee I can find. (I think I like Peet’s the best, but I’m not sure I could pass a taste-test against my usual Kirkland “100% Colombian.”)
Am I addicted and wakeful? No, I can take it or leave it. For me, drinking coffee is based on scientific principles. If science changes, I will change—because science deals with life’s how, and my religion addresses life’s why.
Coffee as symbol
The Adventist attitude toward the morning cup of coffee is a contemporary, if rather mundane, symbol for how church members view their Adventism—at least on secondary issues.
When talking about coffee, it seems to me we’re not talking about anything of the importance of the seventh-day Sabbath or the advent hope. But I’ve noticed that openness to coffee tracks with openness to reconsidering other traditional Adventist taboos—e.g., the General Conference’s ban on women’s ordination. Coffee-drinking Adventists tend to be younger, more open-minded, and more forward-looking. Those among us who shun it tend to be more exclusive, anchored to the past, and accepting of hierarchical authority.
In our church of 22-plus million members, some theological positions are clearly held by many. But on matters such as coffee drinking there is room for principled questioning of a popular taboo.
- Personal email, 2/3/2023. Gary Fraser, MD, PhD, Distinguished Professor, School of Medicine and School of Public Health, LLU. ↑
- Personal conversation, 5/8/2023. Ted Hamilton, MD. ↑
- Personal email, 1/20/2023; Patricia Johnston, DrPH, MS, MPH, Professor Emeritus of Public Health, School of Public Health, LLU. ↑
- Comprehensive Index to the Writings of Ellen G. White, vol. 1 (of 3), pp. 640-642 (Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1962). ↑
- Counsels on Diet and Foods, p. 402. ↑
- Michael W. Campbell, 1922: The Rise of Adventist Fundamentalism (Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2022), pp. 99-109. ↑
- For example, Michael W. Campbell, 1922: The Rise of Adventist Fundamentalism (Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2022); Gilbert Valentine, Ostriches and Canaries (Oak and Acorn Publishing, 2022); and George Knight, Ellen White’s Afterlife (Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2019). ↑
- Personal interview, 4/10/2023; Georgia Hodgkin, EdD, RD, FADA, sadly, passed away a month later. ↑
James W. Walters is professor emeritus of ethics at Loma Linda University.