Cores and Corollaries of the Word of Wisdom

The Church recently published some clarifications on issues related to our health code in the New Era magazine and gave them official status in a statement a few weeks later.[1] Essentially, vaping or e-cigarettes, marijuana and opioids, green and iced tea, and coffee-based products are officially prohibited. While we look to the 1833 revelation of Joseph Smith as the basis of that health code, the Church has been selective in enforcing it. In general, prohibition of alcohol, coffee, tea, and tobacco has been treated as the consistent core of the Word of Wisdom while other parts or potential additions have usually been treated as peripheral issues. Other additions are usually connected to this core in one way or another.

The original revelation known as “A Word of Wisdom” was recorded on 27 February 1833. It contains both proscriptions and recommendations for consumption and use, as shown in Table 1. During the remainder of Joseph Smith’s lifetime, the proscriptions were discussed most often as alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea.[2] Very little else seems to have been discussed with any frequency, including the recommendations. On rare occasions, restricting meat consumption came up. For example, during one sermon in the 1840s, Hyrum Smith suggested that that Saints should “be sparing of the life of animals” (adding that they could be used “in times … of famine” because they would die anyway “and may as well be made use of by man, as not”).[3] Otherwise, the core emphasis of the Word of Wisdom had been established, though not strongly enforced after the majority of Latter-day Saints left Kirtland, Ohio.

Table 1.  Recommendations given in the original revelation known as the Word of Wisdom (D&C 89).[4]

Proscriptions Recommendations
Wine or strong drink All wholesome herbs
Tobacco Fruit in the season thereof
Hot drinks Meat (sparingly)
  Grain
  Fruit of the vine (above or below ground)
  Mild drinks made of barley

 

During the remainder of the 1800s, the Word of Wisdom was only sporadically discussed, often with the idea of economic self-sufficiency in mind. President Brigham Young pushed a “grow your own or do without” mentality and suggested (starting in 1867) to use “the money generally paid out for tea and coffee, liquor, tobacco, etc.” to help “the poor” emigrate to Utah Territory.[5] There were also some other suggestions made about the Mormon health code, though none were considered binding. President Brigham Young made suggestions like not eating or drinking too much of anything, resting rather than using stimulants, and cutting down on rich foods like pies and meats.[6] Some took the proscription for “hot drinks” in the original revelation at face value rather than limiting it to coffee and tea, such as when President George Q. Cannon’s stated that “hot drinks—tea, coffee, chocolate, cocoa, and all drinks of this kind are not good for man” and that “hot drinks, or hot soups” shouldn’t be fed to children.[7] Drawing on the Jewish health code in the Torah, several Church leaders also believed that the Saints should avoid pig meat as a religious principle.[8] These were things that could be interpreted as parts of the Word of Wisdom, but only the original core emphasis associated with the Word of Wisdom (avoiding coffee, tea, alcohol and tobacco) received any sort of strong emphasis or pledges to observe during the mid- to late nineteenth century.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the Word of Wisdom began to be emphasized more strongly. Historian Thomas G. Alexander has suggested that this may be due both to second generation Church leaders coming to the fore that had grown up hearing Brigham Young’s admonitions to follow the Word of Wisdom and the need for a new form of boundary maintenance since polygamy was being renounced.[9] At first, however, there wasn’t a strong consensus of what that meant. For example, during a meeting of the Quorum of the Twelve and the First Presidency on 5 May 1898, the thing they agreed on was that they should teach members to refrain from eating meat. Lorenzo Snow particularly emphasized this, while Wilford Woodruff felt that eating pork was more serious than drinking tea or coffee. Not every church leader observed or understood the Word of Wisdom the same way, though—some felt that beer made from barley was fine, but beer made from other grains was not. Some drank wine, beer, coffee, or tea and felt the revelation was more a guideline than an actual rule (a few J. Golden Kimball stories about coffee come to mind here). Some felt it was a commandment that should be observed strictly, at least the part that involved avoiding alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea. Joseph F. Smith and Heber J. Grant were of the latter-category and succeeded in making observance of the Word of Wisdom a requisite to temple recommends and Church callings by the late 1920s.[10]

Since then, the prohibition against these four items has continued to be the part of the Word of Wisdom that is enforced. The only official addition outside of these has been that: “Members should not use any substances that contains illegal drugs. Nor should members use harmful or habit-forming substances except under the care of a competent physician”.[11] Even this can be taken as being rooted in the long-standing core of the Word of Wisdom. The rational used to support the proscriptions (especially for coffee and tea) was that, in the words of President Heber J. Grant, “The Lord does not want you to use any drug that creates an appetite for itself.”[12] His statement was specifically meant for caffeine, but the logic applies just as well to other drugs, particularly those that are known to be harmful. While discussions about caffeinated sodas, meat, and other issues related to diet have occurred in the Church during the last century, the Church has generally only offered soft advice rather than made any firm policy on them, even if they are part of Section 89. For better or worse, the occasional exceptions of general authorities pushing hard for one or another issue outside the main core are usually treated, as Bruce R. McConkie put in his eloquent way, “unstable people” who have become “cranks” about the health code.[13]

The recent clarifications are merely extensions of the parts of the health code that have been treated as commandments into potential grey areas. E-cigarettes are associated with traditional tobacco (both in mode of consumption and the fact that they often include nicotine) and contain harmful chemicals. Coffee flavorings or coffee-based beverages are still made from the same coffee as coffee itself, and if coffee is prohibited, it makes sense for that they would be too. The same logic is applied to green tea and iced tea in the New Era article: “Green tea and black tea are both made from the leaves of the exact same tea plant.” Marijuana and opioids, though the former is becoming increasingly legal, fall under the most recent addition to the Word of Wisdom—harmful or habit-forming substances that should only be used with competent medical advice.[14] Some of the logic given for including these in the Word of Wisdom may have interesting ramifications for an area that has long been debated as a potentially logical extension of the long-standing core of the Word of Wisdom—caffeinated soda drinks—but that is a discussion for another day.

 

[1] “Vaping, Coffee, Tea, and Marijuana”, New Era August 2019, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/new-era/2019/08/vaping-coffee-tea-and-marijuana?lang=eng. “Statement on the Word of Wisdom”, Newsroom 15 August 2019, https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/statement-word-of-wisdom-august-2019.

[2] See “Historical Introduction at “Revelation, 27 February 1833 [D&C 89],” p. [113], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed August 20, 2019, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-27-february-1833-dc-89/1

[3] Times and Seasons, Vol. 3, No. 15, pp. 799-801.

[4] “Revelation, 27 February 1833 [D&C 89],” p. [113], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed August 20, 2019, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-27-february-1833-dc-89/1

[5] See Leonard J. Arrington, Great Basin Kingdom: An Economic History of the Latter-day Saints 1830-1900, (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1958), 250.

[6] Brigham Young and John A. Widtsoe (ed.), Discourses of Brigham Young (SLC: Deseret Book Company, 1977), 182-190.

[7] George Q. Cannon, 7 April 1868, Journal of Discourses 12:221-223.

[8] George Q. Cannon, 7 April 1868; Journal of Discourses 12:221-223, Discourses of Brigham Young, 189; Thomas G. Alexander Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930, 3rd ed. (SLC, Greg Kofford Books, 2012), 275.

[9] Alexander, Mormonism in Transition, 273, 276.

[10] Alexander, Mormonism in Transition, 273-280.

[11] Handbook 2, 21.3.11.

[12] Conference Report, April 1922, 165.

[13] Bruce R. McConkie, “Word of Wisdom,” in Mormon Doctrine, 2nd edition, (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 845–846.

[14] “Vaping, Coffee, Tea, and Marijuana”, New Era August 2019, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/new-era/2019/08/vaping-coffee-tea-and-marijuana?lang=eng. “Statement on the Word of Wisdom”, Newsroom 15 August 2019, https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/statement-word-of-wisdom-august-2019.

10 comments for “Cores and Corollaries of the Word of Wisdom

  1. The Other Clark
    September 3, 2019 at 6:42 pm

    I’m waiting for some GA to drop a truth bomb and ban refined sugar. It’s addictive, habit forming, and far more destructive to health than tea and coffee. Considering its association to obesity and diabetes, its perhaps more damaging to long-term heath than alcohol and tobacco.

    Widtsoe and Merrill tried to make the argument in the ’30s. I’m not sure that as a people, we’d be humble and submissive enough to heed that sort of call.

  2. Left Field
    September 3, 2019 at 7:56 pm

    I’m not sure from a chemical, agricultural, or culinary standpoint how one would define “refined sugar,” but it would be difficult to get that prohibition from Section 89. From a practical standpoint, it would be very difficult to avoid sugar the same way we avoid coffee, unless we do all our own cooking strictly from raw ingredients. Lots of menu items in a restaurant include sugar. The same is true for prepared or preserved foods from the supermarket. I’m a diabetic and pay attention to such things, but a sugar “ban” would go far beyond the requirements of my diet. Even a loaf of bread contains sugar to feed the yeast. Kids wouldn’t be able to eat school lunch. Nobody would want to have us over for dinner. A complete prohibition of “refined sugar” would really complicate the process of eating. Eating is important. I don’t think there would be any spiritual or medical benefit to the complication of eating to that extent.

  3. Clark
    September 3, 2019 at 8:58 pm

    Other Clark when I was young there were people pushing the refined sugar line heavily, often tied to conspiracy theories of the large food companies. As I recall McConkies quote about the unstable referred to them. People do have extreme ideas at times. A roommate at BYU had been taught by his parents that vinegar was basically alcohol and was against the word of wisdom. Which wouldn’t have been more than an oddity except he was rather vocal about if. I remember enjoying eating relish in front of him.

  4. The other chad
    September 3, 2019 at 11:01 pm

    The table above could be just as accurate by moving meat to the other column and changing the parenthetical to “(with exceptions).”

  5. Chad Nielsen
    September 4, 2019 at 7:01 am

    The other chad, I agree. I spent a fair amount of time trying to decide which column to stick it in, but the fact that the original revelation starts out with a positive (“have ordained for the use of man with thanksgiving”) is what led me to put it where it is. It was a close call, though.

  6. Jimmy
    September 4, 2019 at 10:36 am

    I would agree that table sugar is not part of the “wholesome herbs” or “herbs” or “fruit” or “flesh” or “grains” that are mentioned specifically in D&C 89. Even though sugar cane and beets are plants (herbs), highly processed food is not healthy (a donut doesn’t look much like a “wholesome herb” or a “fruit” or “grains”). Oil is another example, whether made from avocado or peanuts or other vegetables or animal fat, it’s basically a junk food (100% calories from fat with very little nutrients at all). The best way I can describe the recommendations from D&C 89 is eat plants (wholesome herbs and fruits and grains), for they are “ordained for the constitution, nature, and use of man” and “staff of life” (grains)) and when there are no plants available, survive on flesh (which is “ordained for the use of man” and “only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine”). Marijuana is an herb, but not usually associated with a meal or a salad (same with poison ivy, poison oak, foxglove). Eggs and dairy are not specifically mentioned, but have nutritional profiles that are very similar to flesh (saturated fat, cholesterol, hormones, etc.). I agree that for many across the world it would be difficult if the recommendations were enforced. But for a “principle with a promise,” we “shall receive health in the navel and marrow to the bones”. The closer we get to eating more of the good stuff and less of the bad, the greater the blessings to be seen. As with many things, we are all on different levels of how important our health is to us, what level of spirituality we are at, etc. D&C Sections 89, 59 and 49 do not prohibit anyone from eating flesh at whatever amounts they see as “sparingly”, yet it does tell us “wo be unto man that sheddeth blood or that wasteth flesh and hath no need” (49:21) and both plants and animals were “made to be used, with judgment, not to excess, neither by extortion” (59:20).

  7. September 4, 2019 at 12:24 pm

    Interesting thoughts here. It’s common for people to debate what should or shouldn’t be considered a word of wisdom violation, but the plain fact is that the leaders and members of the church have always had differing opinions about how to live the word of wisdom, and I really think the best way to deal with that is to just disagree politely rather than pretend that the answers are obvious get all indignant on people who don’t share our opinions.

    One thing that worries me, though, is the whole “don’t use harmful or habit-forming substances except under the care if a competant physician” line. With that, we’re basically outsourcing our morality to the world at large, which is a huge problem in an era where the medical establishment is using mind-altering drugs to treat all sorts of conditions that weren’t considered disorders at all in our grandparents’ time.

  8. libcon
    September 4, 2019 at 1:45 pm

    BJ,
    I agree with that line being a bit of a cop out and comes from an age when you could trust doctors because there was more more consensus and the options weren’t nearly infinite.

    Now it’s not uncommon for a patient to know more about a drug and it’s interactions with other drugs, side effects, etc than the doctor who prescribed it.

    But it’s at least better then do what you think is right when dealing with an addict who can always justify what feels right.

    With regard to the WoW, I think it’s a fact that there are some principles which absolutely can be learned from and applied to our circumstances. But I don’t for a second think *all* the prescriptive advice is “for our day”.

    If anyone thinks it’s for our day, please explain when you last dealt with a famine or used tobacco on your sick cow or bruised shin.

    It says absolutely nothing about vegetables, and if we want to lump them in with fruit, well again we have to go out on an interpretive limb and even then the fruit and vegetables today are often much more sugar rich then in the past. It’s laughable that we take the term “grains” where you can imagine a small handful of grains filling your belly leaving you satisfied and now refine those grains into flour than you can knock back a pound of pasta and a whole pizza in just a few minutes.

    I’m equally inclined to believe the advice on eating meat sparingly/winter was related to the fact that if you slaughtered 300lbs of meat in the summer, you have some serious food safety storage issues on your hands and God was just giving good advice that could help prevent lots of food poisoning (or over eating of hundreds of pounds of meat before it spoils).

    So basically, in principle, be thankful and thoughtful in what you eat and try to eat food that’s closest to it’s original form. Don’t over indulge in anything.

  9. Talon
    September 6, 2019 at 3:26 pm

    I’m pretty sure frontiers people in the early 1800’s knew how to procure, store, and consume meat without additional knowledge transfer from heaven.

  10. James
    September 7, 2019 at 5:25 pm

    This website has an article that talks about lds sexuality, and the author admits he worked with a femanist anti Mormon lesbian by the name of Natasha Helfer Parker authoring it. I would readily and rather down a pint of beer, with zero guilt, than engage in the satanic sex practices a lot of members think is okay. If you don’t all repent, God will strike the Salt Lake temple with lightning to purify it.

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