top of page

Pastor Glenn McDonald: Rev. Graham's Crackers

Indigestion, headaches, poor circulation, tuberculosis, spinal diseases, epilepsy, and insanity.

And that’s just for starters. What’s the source of all these maladies?

According to a celebrated Protestant minister almost 200 years ago, it was “aching sensibility” or “excessive excitement.”

Translation: People thinking way too much about sex.

What was the cure for this soul-threatening condition?

Graham crackers.

That at least was the conviction of the Rev. Sylvester Graham, an eccentric Presbyterian minister who invented a special vegetarian diet for the purpose of curbing lust. Its centerpiece was “Graham bread,” which was concocted from whole wheat flour. Graham crackers first appeared on store shelves in 1829.

A lot of people thought Graham was on to something.

He opened boardinghouses along the East coast where people could pursue his lifestyle regimens. Convinced that Adam and Eve ate nothing but plants, he became an earnest proponent of a bland, vegetable-based diet. When a deadly cholera epidemic hit New York City in 1832, and those who followed his advice appeared to be spared, he became a national sensation.

Graham advocated daily tooth-brushing (a radical idea at the time), regular exercise, bathing more frequently than once a week, and seven hours of sleep every day.

A lot of other people thought he was crazy.

That included butchers and bakers, who didn’t take kindly to his fervent rhetoric that eating meat and refined white flour were direct assaults on the morality of America’s youth. In one city he was assaulted by a mob of knife-wielding meat cutters.

Vegetarianism might be healthy, but preaching about it could get you into trouble.

Ultimately Graham retreated from the spotlight and his movement faded.

But with time it became obvious that he had gotten a lot of things right. Modern health experts celebrate his concerns about red meat, tobacco, alcohol, sugar, and stimulants. And there’s continuing applause for the virtues of whole wheat.

But what about Graham crackers? Do they really cure “aching sensibility?”

To date there’s no empirical evidence that one of America’s favorite options on the grocery store cracker aisle is the culinary equivalent of a cold shower.

So what, if anything, does have an impact on our all-too-human struggles with sensuality?

The religious default setting seems to be expressed in three words: Just Say No. Most ancient pagans regarded the body as a dirty, embarrassing wrapper, and couldn’t wait to dispose of it. Historically, a number of Christians have felt a mixture of shame, disgust, and fear concerning physical desires – a perspective reinforced by pastors and priests who feel called to preach, “No, no, no.”

But most people in most generations have found that “No” doesn’t do much to cultivate purity. Nor does it do much to eliminate guilt.

Deeper wisdom may be found in three other words: Just Say Yes. Say yes to Someone beyond yourself.

In other words: Worship God.

That’s not so much a prescription for attending worship gatherings as giving your heart away, serving others instead of fixating on your own agenda, and above all entrusting your deepest feelings, hardest questions, and fiercest struggles to the God who will never abandon you.

When we’re hurting, confused, and feel defeated in the realm of sexuality – and most of us will feel that way at one time or another – a strong Yes seems to have much greater redemptive effect than a strong No.

It’s amazing how choosing to direct our focus beyond ourselves – especially in the company of others who are on the same journey – helps us walk away from that old lie we tell ourselves: that satisfying our personal desires is the most important thing in the world.

Make no mistake: The problem is not that we have bodies. Bodies are God’s idea, and they are wonderful.

It’s hard to overstate how significant it is that when God arrived in this world, he took on a human body – a body that we may presume was just like ours in every regard.

Our best selves emerge as we go through life motivated not as much by fear-based restrictions, as by grateful joy that we get to live in the bodies that God has given to us under God’s own leadership.

And once we get a taste of that, we’ll always want s’more.


Would you like to explore previous reflections, and learn more about this ministry? Check out

10 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page