Ellen G. White, American author and co-founder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Credit: Courtesy of the estate of Ellen G. White

While it’s been common in Hindu and Buddhist countries for centuries, vegetarianism and veganism have only become commonplace in western nations within about the past 150 years — and a 19th-century Maine woman played a huge role in popularizing it.

Ellen G. White, born in Gorham in 1827 and raised in Portland, was one of the founders of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. She also was a major influence on American attitudes on vegetarianism, taking it from an extremely niche, often ostracized, practice to a mainstream way of eating.

Today, plant-based brands such as Impossible and Beyond Meat are found at fast food restaurants and in most grocery stores. Dairy substitutes are as common as cow’s milk in coffee shops across the country, and most restaurants have at least one — if not many — vegetarian entrees on the menu.

Approximately 5 percent of U.S. adults say they are vegetarian or vegan, according to a 2018 Gallup poll, though that number is higher among people ages 18-54, at 7 percent. Others try to lessen the amount of meat they consume by choosing a day of the week to eat vegetarian, or by abstaining from specific meats such as beef or pork.

White’s vegetarianism was tied to her larger life as a religious thinker and, as Seventh-Day Adventists believe, a prophet. After a head injury at 9 years old, she claims she began experiencing spiritual visions, which persisted into adulthood and formed the basis of many of the church’s beliefs.

In 1863, she said she had a vision that a vegetarian diet was the correct one for humanity, and soon after, the church began recommending all its members stop eating meat, though it is not a requirement for membership.

By the 1890s, two of White’s followers, Michigan-based brothers John and William Kellogg, put her beliefs on vegetarianism into practice by developing an array of meat-free products, including Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, the first widely popular and available breakfast cereal to hit the market.

This Feb. 1, 2012, file photo, shows Kellogg’s cereal products, in Orlando, Fla. Credit: John Raoux / AP

It revolutionized the way Americans would eat, with breakfast cereals such as Corn Flakes and, later, Grape-Nuts, Wheaties and Rice Krispies taking the place of daily meals of eggs, sausage and bacon.

Adventists later invented things like the first widely available soy milk and the meat substitutes, such as those made by Loma Linda and Morningstar Farms.

Maine has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to vegetarianism. In the 1840s, Maine journalist and Quaker missionary Jeremiah Hacker founded a journal called “The Pleasure Boat,” which was published in Portland and promoted vegetarianism, among other radical-at-the-time concepts like women’s suffrage and the abolition of slavery. It was one of the earliest American publications to espouse eating a meat-free diet.

In the 20th century, Maine again would set the stage for changing the way people eat. By the late 1960s, the rise of the counterculture movement and newfound popularity of eastern religions brought about an increased interest in vegetarianism.

In 1975, the two-week World Vegetarian Congress was held at the University of Maine in Orono, featuring keynote speakers Helen and Scott Nearing, the Hancock County residents who founded The Good Life Center in Brooksville and wrote the back-to-the-land bible “Living the Good Life.”

What came out of that conference had reverberations nationwide. In addition to the publicity generated by the event that teased vegetarianism into the mainstream consciousness, it also helped galvanize nascent movements about local foods and animal rights, and improved the availability and taste of meat-free products around the country.

We often take such development for granted, but 150 years ago, it was a Maine woman who helped set the stage for the wide variety of meat-free food we have access to today.

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Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.