Question: How was enforcement of the Word of Wisdom phased in over time?

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Question: How was enforcement of the Word of Wisdom phased in over time?

Brigham Young declined to make the Word of Wisdom a "test of fellowship"

Said Brigham Young in 1861:

Some of the brethren are very strenuous upon the "Word of Wisdom", and would like to have me preach upon it, and urge it upon the brethren, and make it a test of fellowship. I do not think I shall do so. I have never done so. [1]

Ezra T. Benson notes that observing the Word of Wisdom would be "pleasing" to our Heavenly Father

In 1867, Ezra T. Benson exhorted the Saints to live the law, but seemed to realize that not all the Saints of the time had the capacity:

Supposing he had given the Word of Wisdom as a command, how many of us would have been here? I do not know; but he gave this without command or constraint, observing that it would be pleasing in His sight for His people to obey its precepts. Ought we not to try to please our Heavenly Father? [2]

In 1870, Brigham Young left the compliance with the Word of Wisdom up to the individual

In 1870, Brigham Young again emphasized that this was a commandment of God, but that following was left, to an extent, with the people:

The observance of the Word of Wisdom, or interpretation of God's requirements on this subject, must be left, partially, with the people. We cannot make laws like the Medes and Persians. We cannot say you shall never drink a cup of tea, or you shall never taste of this, or you shall never taste of that....[3]

In 1898, the First Presidency noted that bishops should not withhold temple recommends based upon the Word of Wisdom

Just before the turn of the century, in 1898, the First Presidency and Council of the Twelve discussed the Word of Wisdom:

President Woodruff said he regarded the Word of Wisdom in its entirety as given of the Lord for the Latter-day Saints to observe, but he did not think that Bishops should withhold recommends from persons who did not adhere strictly to it. [4]

So, even by this date keeping the Word of Wisdom was not a “point of fellowship”—you could still have a temple recommend if you didn’t obey, though the leaders remained clear that it was a true doctrine from the Lord.

By 1902, temple recommends were beginning to be denied to those who did not follow the Word of Wisdom

By 1902, the Church leaders were strongly encouraging the members to keep the law, and were even beginning to deny temple recommends to those who would not. They were, however, still merciful and patient with the older members who had not been born into the system, and for whom change was presumably quite difficult:

[In 1902] Joseph F. Smith urged stake presidents and others to refuse recommends to flagrant violators but to be somewhat liberal with old men who used tobacco and old ladies who drank tea. Habitual drunkards, however, were to be denied temple recommends. [5]

By 1905, the Council of the Twelve were actively preaching that no man should hold a leadership position if he would not obey the Word of Wisdom. [6] On 5 July 1906, the First Presidency and Council of the Twelve began using water instead of wine for their sacrament meetings. [7] By 1915, President Joseph F. Smith instructed that no one was to be ordained to the priesthood or given temple recommends without adherence. [8] Heber J. Grant became President of the Church in 1918, and he continued the policy of Word of Wisdom observance; after that time temple attendance or priesthood ordination required obedience to the principle. Thus, the Church membership had eighty-five years to adapt and prepare for the full implementation of this revelation. [9] By 1933, the General Handbook of Instructions listed the Word of Wisdom as a requirement for temple worship, exactly 100 years after the receipt of the revelation by Joseph Smith. [10]

Joseph F. Smith reasoned that the long period of implementation was needed to allow people to overcome addictions

According to Joseph F. Smith, this long period of patience on the part of the Lord was necessary for all—from the newest member to even the leaders:

The reason undoubtedly why the Word of Wisdom was given—as not by 'commandment or restraint' was that at that time, at least, if it had been given as a commandment it would have brought every man, addicted to the use of these noxious things, under condemnation; so the Lord was merciful and gave them a chance to overcome, before He brought them under the law. [11]

Thus, we should not expect perfect observance of the Word of Wisdom (especially in its modern application) from early members or leaders. The Lord and the Church did not expect it of them—though the principle was taught and emphasized.


  1. Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 9:35.
  2. Ezra T. Benson, Journal of Discourses 11:367.
  3. Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 14:20.
  4. Minutes of First Presidency and Council of Twelve Meeting, Journal History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” May 5, 1898, LDS Church Archives; cited in Thomas G. Alexander, "The Word of Wisdom: From Principle to Requirement," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 14 no. 3 (Autumn 1981), 78–88. off-site
  5. Alexander, "Principle to Requirement," 79.
  6. Alexander, "Principle to Requirement," 79.
  7. This exception had been permitted by the Word of Wisdom from the beginning (see DC 89:5-6), though it was also clear that what one used for the sacramental emblems was not of primary doctrinal importance (see DC 27:).
  8. Alexander, "Principle to Requirement," 82.
  9. See discussion in Joseph Fielding McConkie and Craig J. Ostler, Revelations of the Restoration: A Commentary on the Doctrine and Covenants and Other Modern Revelations (Salt Lake: Deseret Book, 1964), Doctrine and Covenants 89:2.
  10. McConkie and Ostler, ibid.
  11. Joseph F. Smith, Conference Report (October 1913), 14.