A Word of Wisdom or a Commandment?

The revelation that forms the basis of the Latter-day Saint dietary code refers to its contents as “a word of wisdom for the benefit of the Saints in these last days” (D&C 89:1). The Word of Wisdom was treated like its name implies during much of the nineteenth century—wide advise from God, but not a commandment. Today, however, parts of it are treated as a commandment—one that can result in being barred from the temple and Church callings if not followed. How did the Word of Wisdom become a commandment? It is surprisingly difficult to nail down a specific point in time in which this occurred. Three main options do emerge from my study of the issue, however: it was either always considered a commandment, the Latter-day Saints voted on and accepted it as a commandment, or it became a commandment when it began to be enforced.

The first option is that the revelation was always considered a commandment. Many of the earliest Saints to receive it treated it as such—recollections of Kirtland and the eastern United States during the 1830s include many accounts where people threw their tobacco pipes in the fire or gave up coffee, tea and liquor for life like John Tanner did.  At a meeting of the Kirtland High Council on 20 February 1834, Joseph Smith declared “that no official member in this church is worthy to hold an office after haveing the words of wisdom properly taught to him, and he, the official member, neglecting to comply with, or obey them” which was confirmed by vote.[1] Further evidence exists, such as one rather bizarre incident where a man thought to be possessed with a demon underwent an exorcism in Kirtland and made a covenant that he and his family would observe the Word of Wisdom. When his symptoms returned later, it was blamed on indulging in proscribed substances.[2] Based on evidence like this, BYU professor Paul Y. Hoskisson argued that Latter-day Saints in the Kirtland area treated the Word of Wisdom as a commandment from the start, but when they joined the Saints in Missouri (where it hadn’t been treated as a commandment) and then fled to Nauvoo, strict enforcement of the principle lapsed until the early 20th century.[3]

There are two main reasons early Saints may have treated the Word of Wisdom as a commandment rather than advice. The first three and a half verses of the revelation’s text (the section of the revelation that calls it a word of wisdom) were not always presented as a part of the revelation.[4] When they functioned as an italicized introduction (as in the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants), the text begins with “behold verily thus Saith the Lord unto you”, and goes straight into saying what is good and not good. That makes it sound very much like a commandment from God with a human-added introduction. Second, early Church leaders like Hyrum Smith and Brigham Young argued that if it is good advice from God Himself, it should be treated as more than just good advice.[5] In either case, the Word of Wisdom can possibly be considered a commandment from the very start.

The second option for the Word of Wisdom becoming a commandment is that a vote occurred in which the general membership of the Church accepted it as such. When Church leaders at the turn of the twentieth century wanted to enforce the principle more strictly, they often referred to Brigham Young declaring it to be a commandment.[6] Most frequently, a general conference in 1851 has been referenced for this. According to the record of this meeting:

The Patriarch [John Smith] again rose to speak on the Word of Wisdom, and urging on the brethren to leave off using tobacco, &c.

President Young rose to put the motion and called on all the sisters who will leave off the use of tea, coffee, &c., to manifest it by raising the right hand; seconded and carried.

And then put the following motion; calling on all the boys who were under ninety years of age who would covenant to leave off the use of tobacco, whisky, and all things mentioned in the Word of Wisdom, to manifest it in the same manner, which was carried unanimously. …

President Young amongst other things said he knew the goodness of the people, and the Lord bears with our weakness; we must serve the Lord, and those who go with me will keep the Word of Wisdom, and if the High Priests, the Seventies, the Elders, and others will not serve the Lord, we will sever them from the Church. I will draw the line, and know who is for the Lord and who is not, and those who will not keep the Word of Wisdom, I will cut off from the Church; I throw out a challenge to all men and women.[7]

It is plausible that this was a vote by the Church to accept the Word of Wisdom as a commandment. President Young’s remarks do seem to support the idea, which is why many general authorities and Church publications referred to this as the time it became a commandment throughout the 20th century.[8]

There are complications here with regarding 1851 as the commandment-making moment. Much like his predecessor, Brigham Young didn’t use Church discipline to enforce the Word of Wisdom, even after declaring it a requirement for Church callings or membership. When President Young encouraged the Saints to follow the Word of Wisdom, he based his logic either on economics (the money can be used better elsewhere) or on the idea that following directions from God leads to eternal life and not following them leads to spiritual darkness.[9] One would think that if he though the 1851 vote made it binding as a commandment, he would have referred to it in subsequent years instead. Further, the event happened nearly 70 years before the Church consistently began to enforce the principle, weakening its stance as the moment it became a commandment. Hence, other times have been suggested for the moment the Word of Wisdom became a commandment.

The next most common date suggested is the October 1908 general conference. Joseph Fielding Smith claimed that Brigham Young had led the Latter-day Saints to accept the Word of Wisdom as a divine commandment in 1851 and that President Joseph F. Smith reiterated this exact same vote in 1908.[10] Likewise, Boyd K. Packer claims that “in 1908 in a general conference … a vote to accept it [the Word of Wisdom] as binding upon the members of the Church was unanimously passed.”[11] The problem is that the 1908 vote wasn’t to accept the Word of Wisdom as a commandment. In the conference report, we read:

Believing in the words and teachings of President Joseph F. Smith as set forth this morning on the subject of temperance, it is proposed, therefore, that all officers and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will do all in their power, that can properly be done, with lawmakers generally to have such laws enacted by our legislature, soon to be elected, as may be necessary to close saloons, otherwise decrease the sale of liquor and enact what is known as the “Sunday Law.” On motion, the immense congregation voted in favor of the resolution submitted, proclaiming “aye” in a unanimous shout.[12]

Although President Smith had spoken that morning about how Latter-day Saints needed to follow the Word of Wisdom as a commandment (because Brigham Young had declared it “to be in force as a commandment thereafter to the Latter-day Saints”), the actual vote was to support laws that banned liquor and sabbath-breaking, not to accept the Word of Wisdom as a binding commandment. Thus, 1908 should probably not be referenced as a time when Latter-day Saints voted to accept the Word of Wisdom as a divine commandment.

The Word of Wisdom ultimately began to be treated as a commandment when it began to be enforced. Somewhere between 1919 and 1921, the First Presidency made adherence to the Word of Wisdom a requirement to attend the temple.[13] As historian Thomas G. Alexander has pointed out, there is not evidence to indicate that there is a specific revelation (or vote, for that matter) backing up this change—only references to statements by earlier authorities, most notably President Brigham Young.[14] From what I have seen, they felt that they were merely giving teeth to something that had already been upgraded to a commandment by President Young. A desire to use the Word of Wisdom as boundary maintenance in the post-polygamy era or to gain respect from Evangelical Protestant Christians that were campaigning for temperance and prohibition may have also played into the decision to make the Word of Wisdom a requirement for attending the temple. For most Latter-day Saints, this was the time at which the Word of Wisdom really began to be treated as a commandment.

These are some of the narratives that have been suggested for how the Word of Wisdom became a commandment. My own perspective is that early Church leaders, including Joseph Smith, Hyrum Smith and Brigham Young, believed that the revelation was the word of God and should be followed (even if they failed to do so personally or bent the requirements for medical purposes). Because of this belief, they attempted to enforce the Word of Wisdom from time to time but failed to successfully implement it on a church-wide level. Later Church leaders remembered these efforts and felt their predecessors had elevated the Word of Wisdom to a commandment. These later leaders then found ways to enforce the principle more fully. Regardless of how it became a commandment for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Word of Wisdom is treated as a test of full membership in the Church today and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future.



[1] “Minutes, 20 February 1834,” p. 40, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed September 27, 2019, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/minutes-20-february-1834/2. When Church leaders in Missouri were brought up for trial, one of the main accusations made against them was a failure to observe the Word of Wisdom. Note, however, that Joseph and Emma Smith didn’t always strictly observe the Word of Wisdom themselves, which may have undermined this decision.

[2] See “Demoniac in Kirtland”, The Zerah Pulsipher Project, accessed 9/23/2019 https://sites.google.com/site/thezerapulsipherproject/contexts/demoniac-in-kirtland?authuser=0. See also W. Paul Reeve, “‘As Ugly as Evil’ and ‘As Wicked as Hell’: Gadianton Robbers and the Legend Process among the Mormons.” Journal of Mormon History Vol. 27, No. 2 (2001): 125-149.

[3] Paul Y. Hoskisson, “The Word of Wisdom in Its First Decade,” Journal of Mormon History 38 no.1 (2012), 131-200. https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1068&context=mormonhistory

[4] See historical introduction at “Revelation, 27 February 1833 [D&C 89],” p. [113], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed September 23, 2019, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-27-february-1833-dc-89/1

[5] Brigham Young, for example, said in 1869: “I know that some say the revelations upon these points are not given by way of commandment. Very well, but we are commanded to observe every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (JD 13:3, https://jod.mrm.org/13/1).

Hyrum Smith stated in 1842 that: “God only is acquainted with the fountain of action, and the main springs of human events; he knows where disease is seated, and what is the cause of it. … He knows what course to pursue to restore mankind to their pristine excellency and primitive vigour, and health; and he has appointed the word of wisdom as one of the engines to bring about this thing. … We are told by some that circumstances alter the revelations of God—tell me what circumstances would alter the ten commandments? they were given by revelation—given as a law to the children of Israel;—who has a right to alter them? They are too small for us to notice, they are not too small for God to notice, and have we got so high, so bloated out, that we cannot condescend to notice things that God has ordained for our benefit? or have we got so weak that we are not fit to be called saints? for the word of wisdom is adapted to the capacity of all that ‘(are) or (can be called saints).’ Listen not to the teaching of any man, or any elder who says the word of wisdom is of no moment; for such a man will eventually be overthrown.” (see Times and Seasons, Vol. 3, No. 15, pp. 799-801).

[6] For example, in April 1908 President Francis M. Lyman of the Quorum of the Twelve stated that: “In the beginning, [the Word of Wisdom] was not laid down as a strict commandment. I do not know whether or not the Lord took into account the fact that our forefathers, and our fathers, had been so used to many things forbidden in the Word of Wisdom that it might be difficult for them to order their lives in harmony with those requirements: so we were given . . . years of training and experience before the Lord announced, through His servant the Prophet Brigham Young, that the Word of Wisdom has now become a commandment of the Lord. President Young laid it down very strictly and exactly from this stand that from that time henceforth the Word of Wisdom is a commandment from the Lord, and all Latter-day Saints are required to observe it.” (Francis M. Lyman, CR, April 1908.)

[7]  “Minutes of the General Conference”, Tuesday, Sep. 9, 1851, afternoon session; Millennial Star, 1 February 1852, vol. 14, p. 35.

[8] See, for example, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/manual/doctrine-and-covenants-student-manual/section-89-the-word-of-wisdom?lang=eng and https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/doctrine-and-covenants-student-manual-2017/chapter-35-doctrine-and-covenants-89-92?lang=eng.

[9] See Brigham Young and John A. Widtsoe (ed.) Discourses of Brigham Young (SLC: Deseret Book Company, 1977), 182-187.

[10] Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, 1:196.

[11] Boyd K. Packer, “The Spirit of the Tabernacle,” Ensign, May 2007.

[12] Conference Report, October 1908, pp. 64-65.

[13] See Thomas G. Alexander, Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930, 3rd ed. (SLC: Greg Kofford Books, 2012), 279. Alexander dates the temple requirement in 1921. The most recent Doctrine and Covenants Institute Student Manual puts the date at 1919 (https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/doctrine-and-covenants-student-manual-2017/chapter-35-doctrine-and-covenants-89-92?lang=eng).

[14] Thomas G. Alexander, Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930, 3rd ed. (SLC: Greg Kofford Books, 2012), 282.

14 comments for “A Word of Wisdom or a Commandment?

  1. I wonder why this article does not cite Samuel Dodge’s article on the subject “A Forced Abstinence” in the 2018 edition of the Journal of Mormon History. Dodge explores how factionalism within the Mormon Church, informed by regional temperance activities, contributed to the evolution of the Word of Wisdom as a commandment. Dodge’s article also considers how different interpretations of the Word of Wisdom allowed early saints to exercise a variety of behaviors in regards to alcohol, tobacco, tea and coffee with each person still claiming to be keeping it fully. The ambiguity of the revelation’s language is key to the kaleidoscope of Word of Wisdom interpretations. Nielsen’s overlooking of Dodge’s work is unfortunate and leaves some obvious holes in his analysis.

  2. Please read the new book “The True History and Prophetic fulfillments of Joseph Smith” available on Lulu.com now and soon everywhere digital books are sold.

  3. The interesting aspect of all of this is the underlying assumption that it is not a commandment until it is being enforced as a commandment.

    I’ve been a member for a long time and I don’t recall ever being in a temple recommend interview or other setting where the church was attempting to enforce the commandments “loving the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind” or “loving thy neighbor as thyself”.

    Does that mean they aren’t commandments?

  4. Steve, my reason for not including Dodge’s article is simply that I don’t have a subscription to the Journal of Mormon history yet and it takes a couple of years before they make them publicly available without a subscription. So, I just haven’t had the opportunity to read it yet, unfortunate though that might be.

    Ojisan, you do make a good point and one I considered a bit in writing. The reason I phrased things that way that I did is based more on considerations of when the Church membership as a whole felt that it was truly a commandment instead of just a word of wisdom. It is possible to believe that it became a commandment from the start or during President Brigham Young’s tenure as president.

  5. Has there been variations in what exactly was prohibited? One of the things I’ve always heard was that wine and beer (mild drinks) were specifically allowed at least in the D&C 89 but it was distilled hard alcoholic drinks that weren’t. I just wonder if in practice how that played out

  6. The interpretations of what was prohibited varied a lot during the 19th century and wasn’t really hammered out until the early 20th century. It really depended on who you asked. Some felt that beer made from barley was fine, but beer made from other grains was not (mild drinks made of barley is okay in the revelation). Other people just avoided beer altogether. Wine was allowed only when partaking of the sacrament, according to the revelation, and fermented wine was commonly used for the sacrament back then as a result. There are some funny stories from southern Utah in the mid- to late 1800s about people getting a little too eager about the sacramental wine and getting tipsy as a result. Violations of the Word of Wisdom have always been allowed for health purposes and what people thought things like alcohol or tobacco could be used for in medicine during the 1800s sometimes seems strange to us today but are a part of understanding how people approached the Word of Wisdom then. Meat came up from time to time as a possible proscription, especially pork. And that’s all not counting the people who looked at the Word of Wisdom as more guidelines than actual rules. There may be more than I know about too. My understanding is that when Joseph F. Smith and Heber J. Grant began to make it a standard requirement for temple attendance, however, they took a teetotaler approach and just went for avoiding all alcoholic beverages, including during the sacrament.

  7. On the 1919 vs. 1921 dating, the earliest indication I have found of the Word of Wisdom being required for temple recommends is a First Presidency letter, Instructions to mission presidents, October 8, 1919 (I’m told cited in James R. Clark, Messages of the First Presidency, Vol. 5, p.163.) The instructions state that when recommending someone to receive a temple recommend, “It must be known that they keep the Word of Wisdom, pay their tithing and otherwise are good members.”

  8. It’s clearly not a WOW. There is nothing particularly unhealthy about coffee or tea. And they are preferable to other caffeine-delivery systems like sodas. Moderate amounts of alcohol may have health benefits. That leaves abuse of alcohol and the prohibition against tobacco as the only health-related activities in the current interpretation of the so-called WoW. Like tithing, the prohibited items are simply a requirement for full membership in the Church.

  9. Roger Hansen,

    The studies showing health benefits vs risks change just about every year (that’s not a knock on nutrition science; it’s just notoriously difficult to get consistent results). Caffeine can have some seriously negative health consequences, and so I personally interpret the word of wisdom as prohibiting energy drinks and other potential sources of excessive caffeine. Either way, I’m not quite sure why the relative harm of coffee or tea compared to other caffeinated beverages is really relevant. Are you referring to caffeinated sodas? In that case, the primary negative harms come from sugar, which is also present in much of the coffee sold in the world (just look at the Starbucks menu).

    The latest studies (which will almost certainly flip flop several times in the next few decades) indicate that there is no amount of alcohol that has a net benefit on health.

    Taking the Word of Wisdom as a set of principles exemplified by substances in vogue at the time rather than a list of prohibitions almost certainly leads to better health. Avoid substances that create an addiction or a dependence. Eat a plant-based diet supplemented by occasional meat. Follow these principles, and you will likely be much healthier than the average American.

  10. Dsc,

    After the PBS documentary on the Mormons, the Church issued a newsrelease specifically stating that sodas are not included in the WoW. So apparently it isn’t caffeine that’s the problem with coffee and tea. In fact, at a grocery store in Provo, the Coke display has two large BYU football helmets on it along with the impression it’s the official drink of BYU athletics. So one could argue that, via BYU, the Church has endorsed Coke. And Prez Uchtdorf implied in a GC talk that he drinks caffeinated sodas.

    The problem with caffeinated soda is not only the sugar, but also the fizz. And people tend to drink 32 oz sodas, and perhaps smaller doses of coffee. So maybe the actual caffeine consumption isn’t that much different. And unless they drink diet soda, the sugar consumption is high. Which can contribute to obesity which is a much bigger problem than caffeine.

    The problem with the injunction against alcohol, is that it may encourage the use of prescription (and nonprescription) drugs as a substitute. Alcohol is probably a viable option for dealing with senility. I suffer from heart disease, and there is plenty of evidence that moderate consumption of alcohol has positive impacts.

    The WoW is a 19th-century document which either needs to be updated or abandoned.

  11. Roger,

    I think your view of the Word of Wisdom is far too shallow. Part of the problem with coffee can be the caffeine without tainting everything with caffeine as forbidden. Sodas have far less caffeine than coffee. Having said that, I don’t think that makes all sodas ok under the principles of the word of wisdom; it’s just not something the Church is going to draw a bright line around.

    You can compare the healthiest coffee habits to the least healthy soda habits, but it’s clear you’re stacking the comparison to get to a specific result. There is no good evidence that the carbonation alone is a problem with soda, and as I’ve mentioned before, the current best evidence does not support the idea that alcohol has any net benefits; the studies showing a heart benefit have been criticized for bad methodologies that end up comparing people who have always drunk a moderate amount of alcohol with people who had to give up alcohol for health reasons, which produces skewed results. I know of no evidence that shows that abstinence from alcohol has any correlation to abuse of prescription drugs. Your arguments are based on conjecture and supposition.

  12. Dsc, my only point was that both cola and coffee contain caffeine. You can just ingest just as much caffeine by drinking larger quantities of cola and smaller quantities of coffee. If caffeine isn’t the problem, then we need someone to explain why coffee and tea are forbidden.

  13. Posted earlier:

    September 18, 2019 at 1:43 pm
    I work in drug rehab in the Midwest and recommend my clients drink two cups of black coffee and two cups of green tea each day, both for the huge load of natural antioxidants each contain, and the associated salutary effect they have on liver healing and function. There is copious and ever increasing research that attests to the positive potency of both, and they are primary healing modalities in my facility. “Black and green both have different types of antioxidants than fruits and vegetables. Thearubigins, epicatechins, and catechins are among those listed in a USDA chart.” (WebMD). The health research regarding coffee is astonishing. See https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/coffee-worlds-biggest-source-of-antioxidants#benefits for a quick if informal summary. Will also say that we discourage soda drinking here, and not because of the caffeine but the simple carbs, which is what does the primary dietary damage to the American population.

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