One of the things about the online Latter-day Saint community that has always surprised me is just how often people try to argue the Word of Wisdom. As someone who was born in the covenant and raised mostly in Utah with a lot of friends who shared my beliefs, I’ve never felt the desire to drink alcohol, coffee, or tea, or to do drugs. I have my fair share of other temptations, but breaking the Word of Wisdom has never been one of them. Because of that, it’s hard for me to understand the very large focus on this topic that so many people have.
We don’t abstain from coffee, tea, or alcohol because those things are inherently sinful on their own. The Savior drank wine, after all. In fact, He was even accused of being a “winebibber,” or a drunkard. Obviously, this was an exaggerated accusation by people looking for ways to discredit His teachings, but He did still occasionally partake of wine.
That would suggest that drinking small amounts of alcohol on occasion is not necessarily a sin it and of itself. It’s not like premeditated murder, which is inherently immoral even if you don’t know there’s a commandment against it. If you don’t know that there’s a commandment against drinking alcohol and you haven’t made any covenants with God, you aren’t committing an immoral act by drinking it. However, it is a commandment to avoid it, and we promised in our baptismal covenants to obey the commandments. So, if we voluntarily break that covenant and commandment, at that point we are sinning. We’re breaking our promise to God.
That’s why it can be so hard for those who convert to the Church to obey the Word of Wisdom. Until they learned it was a commandment, they didn’t know there was anything wrong in drinking those things. That would not be an easy thing to get used to, and I certainly don’t blame anyone for struggling with it. Retraining your thought processes is a difficult thing.
So, I’m not trying to criticize those who do struggle with this topic. I’m just saying that I don’t personally struggle with it, and I’m not sure why it’s such a large focus in the online LDS community.
Over the years, I’ve seen people look for loopholes, argue that we aren’t following it as written, try to invent new and bigger restrictions, use it as a weapon against those they don’t believe are following it according to their own standards, try to argue the validity of its health benefits, try to undermine the commandment because of its history, etc. It comes up constantly on Reddit and other online forums.
If you’re busy looking for loopholes, trying to justify your use of substances you promised to forgo, that means that your heart’s not really in it. That’s something you need to work through with Heavenly Father, not by rationalizing your decisions with strangers on the internet.
We don’t follow the Word of Wisdom exactly as written in the Doctrine and Covenants because we aren’t living in 1833 anymore. We have modern revelation given to us by modern prophets who help us interpret the commandments for our day and age. What’s even the point of having modern prophets if we’re just going to shun their counsel?
The Word of Wisdom covers a lot of topics and already includes a fair number of dietary restrictions we’re commanded to live by. We don’t need to add additional restrictions to it that God hasn’t seen the need to add. If someone drinks energy drinks while working the graveyard shift at work, it’s not our job to police their behavior. Or, I’ve seen people suggest that anyone who is overweight shouldn’t be allowed into the temple. There are a lot of reasons someone might be overweight. Maybe they were in an accident and attempts to exercise leave them in excruciating pain. Or maybe they have depression that caused them to gain weight, and maybe their antidepressants are preventing them from losing the weight. Maybe it’s a side effect of their birth control or other medication. Maybe they recently gave birth. Certain autoimmune disorders and thyroid problems can also lead to weight gain. Do we really want to start spiritually punishing people because they’re following the counsel of their doctors? Or because they suffered an injury, health disorder, or a mental health crisis? Unless we’re their bishop or stake president, it’s not our job to judge someone else’s spiritual worthiness to enter the temple.
If your personal interpretation of the Word of Wisdom tells you that you need to cut sugar out of your diet, for example, that’s great. Do whatever the Holy Ghost tells you that you need to do. But you also can’t expect others to follow your interpretation. Unless you’re the prophet following the revelation of the Spirit, you don’t get to set the standards of worthiness for temple attendance. All you can do is live your life according to your own personal revelation. But that revelation is personal for a reason: it only applies to your person. The Lord will not justify us in berating someone else for not following an interpretation of the law He has not given to His prophets. They are His official mouthpieces. We are not.
A lot of people will argue the health benefits of a single glass of wine with dinner, or of drinking green tea or coffee. They suggest that drinking coffee is healthier than drinking caffeinated soda. While that may be true, health is not the only reason for obeying the Word of Wisdom. Yes, it’s a law of health. But as Elder Uchtdorf pointed out, those blessings aren’t always immediate, and they aren’t solely about physical health—they’re also about spiritual health:
I remember when I was preparing to be trained as a fighter pilot. We spent a great deal of our preliminary military training in physical exercise. I’m still not exactly sure why endless running was considered such an essential preparatory part of becoming a pilot. Nevertheless, we ran and we ran and we ran some more.
As I was running I began to notice something that, frankly, troubled me. Time and again I was being passed by men who smoked, drank, and did all manner of things that were contrary to the gospel and, in particular, to the Word of Wisdom.
I remember thinking, “Wait a minute! Aren’t I supposed to be able to run and not be weary?” But I was weary, and I was overtaken by people who were definitely not following the Word of Wisdom. I confess, it troubled me at the time. I asked myself, was the promise true or was it not?
The answer didn’t come immediately. But eventually I learned that God’s promises are not always fulfilled as quickly as or in the way we might hope; they come according to His timing and in His ways. Years later I could see clear evidence of the temporal blessings that come to those who obey the Word of Wisdom—in addition to the spiritual blessings that come immediately from obedience to any of God’s laws. Looking back, I know for sure that the promises of the Lord, if perhaps not always swift, are always certain.
It’s also about obedience, and about standing apart from the rest of the world.
Remember, we’re constantly being taught to “be in the world, not of the world.” Abstaining from coffee and alcohol in particular set us apart from the rest of our society. There are entire cultures built around needing coffee before you can be considered awake and human in the morning, and in needing to have a few drinks in order to have fun at night or at social gatherings. That we don’t engage in those cultures marks us as being different. It sets us apart as being a peculiar people. This is a label that President Nelson has defined as being “a compliment of the highest order.”
The final verse of D&C 89 states that, “I, the Lord, give unto them a promise, that the destroying angel shall pass by them, as the children of Israel, and not slay them.”
This is obviously an allusion to the Passover, when the destroying angel passed by those homes marked with lamb’s blood. It was a sign of their promise to obey Jehovah, designating the children of Israel as the covenant people of God. The Word of Wisdom is meant the same way, as a mark designating us as the covenant people of God today.
And, of course, the other large objection I regularly see has to do with the history of the Word of Wisdom. This looks like it’ll be Thomas Faulk’s main objection, as well.
In studying all aspects of early Church history, I often though about the Word of Wisdom and how much the revelation means in verifying Joseph Smith’s prophetic abilities.
Okay. I can’t say I’ve ever had that particular thought, because to me, verification of Joseph Smith’s prophetic abilities can only come from the Spirit. But to each his or her own, I guess. We each find different study topics interesting for our own reasons.
However, the more I researched the historical context of Word of Wisdom the more I learned that it was not unique in its instructions for health during that period. In fact, conventional ideas, movements, and additional influences likely shaped what we have come to know as “the Lord’s law of health.”
That’s not exactly true. There were certainly things like the temperance movement at play during the time period, but there were some big differences between the literature those organizations put out and the revelation that is today’s D&C 89.
When studying any of the revelations that come from the Doctrine and Covenants, it’s useful to go to the “Revelations in Context” portion of the Church’s website. In the article for D&C 89, Jed Woodworth explains:
Latter-day Saints who learn of the American health reform movements of the 1820s and 1830s may wonder how these movements relate to the Word of Wisdom. Did Joseph Smith simply draw upon ideas already existing in his environment and put them forward as revelation?
Such concerns are unwarranted. Remember that many early Latter-day Saints who took part in temperance societies viewed the Word of Wisdom as inspired counsel, “adapted to the Capacity of the weak & the weakest of Saints who are or can be called Saints.” Moreover, the revelation has no exact analog in the literature of its day. Temperance reformers often tried to frighten their hearers by linking alcohol consumption with a host of horrific diseases or social ills. The Word of Wisdom offered no such rationale. Strong drink, the revelation says simply, is “not good.” Similarly spare explanations are given for the injunctions against tobacco and hot drinks. The revelation can be understood more as an arbiter and less as a participant in the cultural debate.
Instead of arguing from a position of fear, the Word of Wisdom argues from a position of confidence and trust. The revelation invites hearers to trust in a God who has the power to deliver great rewards, spiritual and physical, in return for obedience to divine command. Those who adhere to the Word of Wisdom, the revelation says, shall “receive health in their navel and marrow to their bones & shall find wisdom & great treasures of wisdom & knowledge even hidden treasures.” These lines link body to spirit, elevating care for the body to the level of a religious principle.
In the end, some overlap between the Word of Wisdom and the health reform movement of the 19th century is to be expected. This was a time of “refreshing” (Acts 3:19), a moment in history where light and knowledge were pouring down from heaven. On the night Joseph Smith was visited by the angel Moroni for the first time, in the fall of 1823, the angel quoted a line from the book of Joel and said it was about to be fulfilled: “I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh,” the passage read (Joel 2:28; emphasis added). Insofar as temperance reform made people less dependent on addictive substances, prompting humility and righteous action, the movement surely was inspired by God. “That which is of God inviteth and enticeth to do good continually,” the Book of Mormon stated (Moroni 7:13). Rather than concerning themselves with cultural overlap, Latter-day Saints can joyously contemplate how God’s Spirit touched so many, so widely, and with such force.
I think that last point is an especially good one. We’ve talked before about how the Lord will often prepare the world for momentous Gospel moments, important historical events, and for important revelations from Heaven.
So, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that social and health reforms were happening at the same time this revelation came forth. I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that multiple countries abolished the slave trade around the same time, or that there were numerous revolutions against tyrannical governments within a few decades of the American Revolution. God was inspiring men and women to act for the betterment of society.
Revelation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It often happens as an answer to a direction question asked of God. And why else would we ask a question unless something in our lives inspired us to ask it?
- The Word of Wisdom
The Word of Wisdom was written by Joseph Smith in Kirtland, Ohio on February 27, 1833. It is currently published in section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants.
According to the Historical Introduction at the Joseph Smith Papers Project, Joseph dictated this revelation; he did not write it. That may seem a little pedantic on my part, but Faulk is clearly trying to insinuate that this was not a revelation, but a document produced solely by Joseph Smith. I do not consider that to be an accurate statement.
- To be sent greeting; not by commandment or constraint.
- That inasmuch as any man drinketh wine or strong drink among you, behold it is not good, neither meet in the sight of your Father, only in assembling yourselves together to offer up your sacraments before him.
- And, behold, this should be wine, yea, pure wine of the grape of the vine, of your own make.
- And, again, strong drinks are not for the belly, but for the washing of your bodies.
- And again, hot drinks are not for the body or belly.
- Every herb in the season thereof, and every fruit in the season thereof; all these to be used with prudence and thanksgiving.
- Yea, flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the air, I, the Lord, have ordained for the use of man with thanksgiving; nevertheless they are to be used sparingly;
- And it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.
- wheat for man, and corn for the ox, and oats for the horse, and rye for the fowls and for swine, and for all beasts of the field, and barley for all useful animals, and for mild drinks, as also other grain.
The portions he chose to repeat and the words he chose to emphasize here are the blueprint for the rest of this section. These are the topics he’s going to bring up in more detail as we go along.
There are several things mentioned in The Word of Wisdom that aren’t commonly observed in modern LDS culture.
Yep, because interpretation of revelation is the responsibility of the prophets and apostles. If all revelation was exactly the same for every people, culture, language, time period, location, and society across history, Adam is the only prophet we ever would have needed. The Savior’s earthly ministry wouldn’t have needed to fulfill the Law of Moses, because the Law wouldn’t have changed after His crucifixion and resurrection.
But that’s clearly not true. Revelation—and its application and adaption across cultures, continents, and centuries—changes over time. That’s one of the primary reasons we have modern-day prophets, to give us revelation relevant to our day and our society.
We are a church that allows for an open canon and modern-day revelation. We shouldn’t be doing everything exactly the same way they did them 200 or 2000 years ago. That’s not a flaw, it’s literally God’s plan for us. That’s what’s supposed to happen.
The “Word of Wisdom” label covers three distinct things today: the historical revelation, the modern day commandment portion that must be strictly followed for temple worthiness, and the modern day commandment portion that is left to individual interpretation and personal revelation. They may all fall under the same umbrella title, but they are not identical.
The revelation found in D&C 89 is similar to, but not the same as, the commandment we follow today. There are portions that do not apply to us today, such as the portion about eating fruits and vegetables in season. Modern technology means that fruits and vegetables can be grown and preserved all year long, rather than in specific seasons. There are also things included in our version today that are not found in the Doctrine and Covenants, such as illegal drugs, prescription medication, and e-cigarettes.
Our modern commandment is further split into two sections: the one detailing the things we absolutely must or must not do in order to remain temple-worthy, such as abstaining from alcohol, and the one giving guidance that is open to personal interpretation. This includes things such as how to define eating meat “sparingly,” or whether or not eating mostly whole grains is wise considering your celiac or Crohn’s diseases. Our individual circumstances in life vary, so we don’t all eat an identical diet or exercise the exact same amount in the exact same way as one another.
Are some people falling short of the ideal? Of course. We will all always fall short of the standards the Lord has set for us. That’s why we need a Savior and the Atonement in the first place. That’s also why the Savior is our Judge: He knows our hearts and our minds, and He knows our individual circumstances. He knows where we fail and where we succeed.
Verse 2 – Clearly states that the Word of Wisdom is not a commandment; yet modern members are asked if they follow it during temple interviews and will not be issued a temple recommend if the interviewer feels that they do not properly adhere.
That’s because it was formally adopted as a canonized commandment by a unanimous vote during General Conference on September 9, 1851.
Initially, it was given as a way to build up to living the law. In 1830, American consumption of distilled alcohol was at the highest point in our nation’s history. Men, women, and children were drinking whiskey at every meal every single day because unpurified water was so dangerous to drink. The per capita rate of alcohol consumption is three times that of today’s rate, and that isn’t even counting things like beer or wine, just distilled spirits. That’s the entire reason why the temperance movement sprang up in the first place. People were being raised from childhood on hard liquor instead of water.
You don’t go from an entire country drinking whiskey at every meal to complete abstinence overnight. It’s something you have to work up to. Coffee was then pushed as the substitute to whiskey, and we haven’t even mentioned tobacco use yet. Each of those things were ingrained in American society in 1833.
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.
There’s also some dispute over whether or not those first three verses of D&C 89 should even be part of the revelation or not. When the revelation was first written down, those verses were included as part of the revelation. But in the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, they were given as the introduction to the revelation. It wasn’t changed until the 1876 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, under Brigham Young. Joseph Smith clearly did not feel the need to include those verses as part of the revelation itself.
All of those things means that this is a shaky point to hang your objection on.
Verse 6,7,9,17 – Makes the distinction between 4 different types of drinks: wine, strong, hot and mild. Wine = ok for the sacrament if you make it yourself. Strong drinks = not ok. Hot drinks = not ok. Mild drinks = ok.
Not exactly. “Pure wine” was unfermented grape juice:
The “pure wine” in Doctrine and Covenants 89:6 “is understood to mean new or unfermented grape juice, since the Word of Wisdom declares unequivocally against the internal use of alcohol in any form.
“This interpretation is reinforced by the fact that … water was early in the history of the Church substituted for wine, for sacramental purposes. The revelation reads:
“‘For, behold, I say unto you, that it mattereth not what ye shall eat or what ye shall drink when ye partake of the sacrament, if it so be that ye do it with an eye single to my glory—remembering unto the Father my body which was laid down for you, and my blood which was shed for the remission of your sins.’ [D&C 27:2].” (Widtsoe, Word of Wisdom, pp. 60–61.)
So, clearly, some of those verses didn’t mean what Faulk seems to think they meant.
And, again, the only interpretation of the Word of Wisdom that matters in our lives today is the one given by modern-day prophets and apostles.
Verse 9 – Mentions “hot drinks.” What exactly does “hot drinks” refer to? Apostle George Q. Cannon stated, “We are told, and very plainly too, that hot drinks – tea, coffee, chocolate, cocoa and all drinks of this kind are not good for man.… We must not permit them to drink liquor or hot drinks, or hot soups or to use tobacco or other articles that are injurious.” (George Q. Cannon, General Conference, April 7, 1868, Journal of Discourses, vol.12)
That was one man’s opinion, and not the opinion given by nearly every single other prophet and apostle over the years. Joseph and Hyrum Smith both defined “hot drinks” as coffee and tea, not cocoa, hot chocolate, or soup. That is the same definition repeated by multiple prophets and apostles ever since.
Verse 11 – Only eat produce in their proper season.
We addressed this already—it doesn’t make any sense in our day and age with modern refrigeration technology and agricultural developments.
Verse 12,13 – Meat should only be eaten in the winter or during a famine.
The Doctrine and Covenants student manual disagrees with this interpretation in today’s day and age:
This verse has caused some to ask if meat should be eaten in the summer. Meat has more calories than fruits and vegetables, which some individuals may need fewer of in summer than winter. Also, before fruits and vegetables could be preserved, people often did not have enough other food to eat in winter. Spoiled meat can be fatal if eaten, and in former times meat spoiled more readily in summer than winter. Modern methods of refrigeration now make it possible to preserve meat in any season. The key word with respect to the use of meat is sparingly.
Again, modern refrigeration technology means this section is obsolete, because we can safely keep meat fresh during the hot summer months.
Verse 17 – Mild drinks made from barley area ok. What drinks are made from barley? Beer.
Beer is not the only drink made from barley. Additionally, a popular drink in 18th and 19th Century America was something called “small beer,” which is beer with a very low alcohol content around 1-2%. That means it has about as much alcohol in it as kombucha does. This may be what was meant more than standard beer, but beer and wine also both have lower alcohol content than hard liquor does.
Either way, all alcohol is against the current Word of Wisdom.
It seems that the modern Church has settled on coffee, tea, alcohol, tobacco and illegal drugs as the new interpretation.
This is not “the new interpretation.” This has been the interpretation of the Word of Wisdom since Heber J. Grant spoke about it in 1922. That was over a century ago.
But according to the text of the Word of Wisdom, members should refrain from hot drinks of all kinds, chocolate and soups included.
That’s not what the text says at all. Can anyone find hot chocolate or soup mentioned anywhere in D&C 89?
Didn’t think so.
That was one man’s definition, and while you could probably find other leaders who agreed with him, this is not and never has been the standard definition of “hot drinks.” It has always been defined as “coffee and tea,” right from the beginning. Within just a few years of the revelation being given, both Joseph and Hyrum Smith defined the term as referring specifically to coffee and tea.
Alcohol is not outright banned, but only strong drinks (hard liquor).
In the original revelation, yes. But again, it was given in its original form as a way to ramp up to the modern form. The people had to be eased into it because otherwise, many early Saints would have been condemned. It takes time to change a society’s behavior.
In addition, according to the Word of Wisdom, all members should be vegetarian most of the year.
Nope. “Sparingly” does not mean “none at all.”
“The Word of Wisdom is not a system of vegetarianism. Clearly, meat is permitted. Naturally, that includes animal products, less subject than meat to putrefactive and other disturbances, such as eggs, milk, and cheese. These products cannot be excluded simply because they are not mentioned specifically. By that token most of our foodstuffs could not be eaten.”
And whoso forbiddeth to abstain from meats, that man should not eat the same, is not ordained of God;
For, behold, the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and that which cometh of the earth, is ordained for the use of man for food and for raiment, and that he might have in abundance.
According to the Lord Himself, a leader who tells people that they should be vegetarian is a sign that that person is not ordained of God. Animals were put on this earth for our use.
Does this mean you should go the opposite route and eat tons of meat? Also no. Unless your doctor puts you on a high-protein diet to lose weight, you should prayerfully consider what eating meat “sparingly” means in today’s society, and adjust your diet accordingly.
We still need to be good stewards of the animals under our care. Despite what the internet constantly tells us, we don’t actually need to add bacon to everything.
These parts have been reinterpreted to change the original intent.
Again, this is what is supposed to happen in a church with ongoing revelation and an open canon. This is a feature of the Church, not a bug. Why would you want to belong to a church where the leaders don’t receive revelation from God?
Now that we’re able to fully live the Word of Wisdom without condemning the bulk of the membership, that’s what we’re expected to do. It’s the difference between living the lower law and the higher law.
Remember, by obeying the Word of Wisdom as outlined by our current leaders, we’re marked as the covenant children of God. We’re set apart from the world. What the world looked in like 1833 and what it looks like today are very different. We need to adjust accordingly, and our prophets have shown us the way to do that.
Sarah Allen is relatively new in her affiliation with FAIR. By profession, she works in mortgage compliance and is a freelance copyeditor. An avid reader, she loves studying the Gospel and the history of the restored Church. After watching some of her friends lose their testimonies, she became interested in helping others through their faith crises. That’s when she began sharing what she’d learned through her studies. She’s grateful to those at FAIR who have given her the opportunity to share her testimony with a wider audience.