Perhaps nothing outwardly sets Mormons apart from the rest of society more than our adherence to the Word of Wisdom. And for insiders, as someone once said on this site, the Word of Wisdom just *feels* important. I’m far more likely to offend the Sabbath day, forget a fast, skip hometeaching, use inappropriate language, break the speed limit, or commit dozens of other sins of omission and commission than I am to join my friends sipping tea at a Chinese restaurant.
As a missionary, one of the big issues of contention between the mission and stake leaders was how long a prospective convert needed to be following the Word of Wisdom before baptism. The bishop would counsel us to make sure it “takes” — to put off baptism until the investigator has quit smoking for at least a couple weeks. The missionaries would respond that the investigator needed the gift of the Holy Ghost to have the strength to abstain. It was always a major disappointment for everyone when a new convert slipped back into old habits soon after baptism. Of course, many eager investigators didn’t even make it that far because of Word of Wisdom issues. There are doubtless many people that would be members of the the Lord’s church but for the fact that they are addicted to nicotine, or coffee, or alcohol.
This is all to say that the Word of Wisdom is quite important in the our current culture and practice. This is somewhat odd, given the fact that what is now section 89 was basically irrelevant to most Mormons (or at most, a “principle with a promise”) until the early 1900s, and even then there was never a specific revelation transforming it into a commandment. I won’t recount the history and confluence of forces that led to our current understanding of the Word of Wisdom; for that, see Thomas Alexander’s concise account in _Mormonism in Transition_. But it is undeniable that what was really a fringe principle has swiftly and surely been made an integral part of the lives of the Saints.
I’m curious about everyone’s views on how and why the WoW seems to be so important to us. Nate, and others, have accounted for the WoW as “a reminder or an instantiation of the covenant that I make with God.” Following some of Jim’s writing, one might say it is a way we always remember God without consciously recalling Him at all times. I think I agree with that account. But I wonder how it came to be that this particular principle became so emblematic of and central to our covenant. Here are some very preliminary guesses:
–The WoW replaced polygamy as something that sets us apart and makes us a peculiar people. Feeling like an outsider is, in some ways, integral to Mormon culture, and WoW adherence fosters this feeling.
–There is a perception that the WoW vindicates Joseph Smith’s status as a prophet and seer. It is often the missionaries’ exhibit A when someone asks, “well, what did Joseph Smith prophesy that came true?” Making the WoW central shows that we give concrete value to the content of continuing revelation.
–Because the WoW does not have scientific justification for each of its prohibitions, we exemplify the priority we give to faith over rationalism through adherence to its teachings.
Please enlighten me. Do we make a fetish of the Word of Wisdom? And if so, why?