Q. It seems confusing that Mormons won’t drink caffeinated beverages like coffee and tea, but many have no problem with eating chocolate, drinking hot chocolate, colas, and other sources of caffeine. Can you explain the apparent hypocrisy?
A. (by Suzanne Armitage) Section 89 of the Doctrine & Covenants (D&C), also known as the Word of Wisdom, is a revelation appertaining to the health and strength of our physical bodies. The focus relative to this question is ‘hot drinks’ and caffeine, two separate items which, when lumped together as one, result in misconceptions concerning the Word of Wisdom.
And again, hot drinks are not for the body or belly. (D&C 89:9)
As noted in the question, the confusion occurs when one misunderstands the Word of Wisdom. Some members of the Church as well as many non-members understand the Word of Wisdom, specifically the definition of ‘hot drinks’ mentioned in verse nine, this way:
Hot drinks = coffee and tea. Coffee and tea have relatively high levels of caffeine, therefore the reason LDS abstain from coffee and tea is because of the caffeine, therefore LDS abstain from all products containing caffeine, true?
False, actually. This presents a logical error, known as a fallacy of definition, because the definition is too broad. The official and correct definition of ‘hot drinks’1 as found in the Word of Wisdom is simply this:
Hot drinks = coffee and tea.
The Word of Wisdom2 is a basic law of health, in other words, it is a good starting point. Add to this the “body is a temple” scripture3 found in the Bible and we begin to have a clearer understanding of the Church’s emphasis on being vigilant of what we ingest and on the wellbeing of our bodies. The standard works4 have many scriptures admonishing us not to defile the mind or the body. “The promises associated with the Word of Wisdom are considered both temporal and spiritual. The temporal promise has been interpreted as better health, and the spiritual promise as a closer relationship to God.”5
Latter-day Saints, with the Word of Wisdom as a foundation and mindful of both the scriptures and the counsel of a living prophet, are encouraged to personalize their health regimen and-just like anyone else who chooses to live a healthy lifestyle-quickly realize that there are many paths and options. At this juncture, members of the Church decide for themselves if they will follow the basic parameters of the Word of Wisdom (that is, to simply abstain from coffee, tea, alcohol and tobacco), or if they will go the extra mile, for example by not drinking any caffeinated drinks or eating any caffeinated products whatsoever. In the Church, we refer to this as living according to what the Holy Spirit has revealed to each of us, or in this instance, living according to the spirit of the Word of Wisdom.6
The Word of Wisdom contains two kinds of instructions: (1) prohibitions, and (2) counsel. The prohibitions are binding upon the Saints; the counsel, precisely because it is counsel, is up to each of us as individuals. The prohibition in question is against ‘hot drinks.’ The Church has, as a body, accepted that the hot drinks in question are coffee and tea. The high caffeine content of these drinks has been widely discussed, and is generally accepted, as a likely explanation for the prohibition; but this explanation has, of itself, no binding doctrinal force.7
A personalized interpretation of the Word of Wisdom oftentimes adds to the confusion of “what is the Word of Wisdom.” Our personal interpretation should not be forced on other members, nor should it be promoted as THE Word of Wisdom.8 It isn’t THE Word of Wisdom; it is YOUR personalized version that you view as consonant with the spirit of the Word of Wisdom. Keeping this in mind, when someone informs us that “THE Word of Wisdom says don’t drink caffeinated beverages,” he/she is incorrect.
“But,” some may ask, “what about what President Hinckley said on the ‘Larry King Show’ and ’60 Minutes’?” President Hinckley’s acknowledgement of his interviewer’s leading questions is not indicative of a shift in formal Church policy. It doesn’t work that way. If the President of the Church ever wants to formally include caffeine in the Word of Wisdom, he will do so through established Church channels, not by a media interview.
Other Relevant Information
“Pop Quiz: Coke is OK” (Boston Globe): A brief article about Governor Mitt Romney drinking Vanilla Coke, this article highlights the confusion that often occurs vis-à-vis Mormonism and cola beverages.
Have the Saints always given as much emphasis to the Word of Wisdom as they do today? (Leonard J. Arrington)
Word of Wisdom, Mormonism 201, Chapter 14 (Lance Starr)
Silly Premises Lead to Silly Conclusions (Cooper Johnson)
1 Source: Joseph Smith “defined ‘hot drinks’ as tea and coffee, the two common household beverages of the day. Joel H. Johnson, with whose family the Prophet was intimate, relates that on a Sabbath day in July (1833) following the giving of the “Word of Wisdom,” when both Joseph and Hyrum Smith were in the stand, the Prophet said to the Saints: “I understand that some of the people are excusing themselves in using tea and coffee, because the Lord only said ‘hot drinks’ in the revelation of the Word of Wisdom. Tea and coffee are what the Lord meant when he said ‘hot drinks.’ ” [John A. Widtsoe and Leah D. Widtsoe, The Word of Wisdom: A Modern Interpretation (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1937), 85-87.]
2 Called “a Word of Wisdom” in the introduction, the revelation was given to Joseph Smith at Kirtland, Ohio, on February 27, 1833, when the School of the Prophets was meeting at his home in the Whitney Store. It came in response to the Prophet’s inquiry about tobacco, which was being used by some of the men attending the school. The revelation states that it is specifically for the latter days because of “evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men” (D&C 89:4). The Word of Wisdom limited alcohol use to wine for the Sacrament and hard liquor for washing the body. It noted tobacco as useful only for treating bruises and sick cattle. Hot drinks (later defined as coffee and tea) were not for “the body or belly” (D&C 89:9). Additional advice was given permitting the use of meat, but suggesting that it be restricted to winter or times of famine (D&C 89:12-13). The revelation places strong emphasis on the use of grains, particularly wheat, as the staple of the human diet (D&C 89:14, 16-17), and upon fruits and vegetables (“herbs” verse 11; cf. 59:17-18) in season. The Word of Wisdom also states that some “herbs” are present on the earth for the healing of human ailments (D&C 89:8-11). Church members should not consume alcohol, tobacco, tea, or coffee and should use moderation in eating other foods. [Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 1-4 vols., edited by Daniel H. Ludlow (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 1584.]
3 “What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)
4 The ‘standard works’ refers to the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price.
5 Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 1-4 vols., edited by Daniel H. Ludlow (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 1585.
6 There are few gospel principles which are in greater tension than the spirit of the law and the letter of the law, and resolving this tension is by no means an easy task. [Spencer J. Condie, In Perfect Balance (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1993), 96.]
7 Russell McGregor, “Zion’s Lighthouse” message board, 2/2/03.
8 Certain members have wanted to add substantially to various doctrines. An example might be when one advocates additions to the Word of Wisdom that are not authorized by the Brethren and proselytes others to adopt these interpretations. [Quentin L. Cook, “Looking beyond the Mark,” Ensign (March 2003): 42.]