This video discusses how and why the Word of Wisdom revelation was ‘phased-in’ over a 100 year period. Critics use this to try and shock members through ‘presentism’ – judging the past by the standards of today. In a recent study, a surprising number of active young church members seem to be living this principle in a more casual way – possibly using this history as justification? The video concludes with why trying to live this principle may be even more important than some realize. This video was not produced by or meant to be an official representation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (known often in the past as the Mormon Church or LDS Church).
Okay, so in this video I want to talk about the Word of Wisdom and some issues that are surrounding the Word of Wisdom today that critics use. And specifically, I wanted to even mention at the beginning this study that was just done in the Jana Riess’ new book, The Next Mormons, on millennials.
One of the things that she said was the most stunning in her research in the survey was for millennials, that those that consider themselves very active had consumed coffee in the last six months there.
And I thought, “I wonder how they’re justifying that.” Maybe some of it is they study the Joseph Smith Paper projects, a lot of the Church history, going into a lot of depth. Maybe as they’re studying these things, or as critics are pointing out a lot of the things, how the Word of Wisdom was phased in, maybe they feel it’s justified.
Also critics try and shock people with some of this that they may not realize the phase-in of the Word of Wisdom over time and they hope people will use a thing called presentism, where you judge the past with today’s standards, which we certainly shouldn’t do with the Word of Wisdom.
The Church has done a great job with putting revelations in context. It’s actually on the Church website, that’s what it’s called, “Revelations in Context,” and if you look on Doctrine and Covenants 89, here’s a snippet from that.
“It required time to wind down practices that were so deeply ingrained in family tradition and culture, especially when fermented beverages of all kinds were frequently used for medicinal purposes. The term “strong drink” certainly included distilled spirits such as whiskey, which thereafter, the Latter-day Saints generally shunned. They took a more moderate approach to milder alcoholic beverages like beer and pure wine of the grape of the vine of your own make.”
“For the next two generations, Latter-day Saint leaders taught that the Word of Wisdom is a command from God, but they tolerated a variety of viewpoints on how strictly the commandment should be observed. This incubation period gave the Saints time to develop their own tradition of abstinence from habit-forming substances. By the early 20th century when scientific medicines were more widely available and temple attendance had become a more regular feature of Latter-day Saint worship, the Church was ready to accept a more exacting standard of observance that would eliminate problems like alcoholism from among the obedient. In 1921, the Lord inspired President Heber J. Grant to call on all Saints to live the Word of Wisdom to the letter by completely abstaining from all alcohol, coffee, tea, and tobacco. Today, Church members are expected to live this higher standard.”
So a little bit on the history there. We often consider the start of the Word of Wisdom with Emma complaining about cleaning up the floor in their Newel K. Whitney store room where the School of Prophets met, which was like a little MTC. In fact, recent analysis of this speech that Brigham Young gave actually was related to… It’s called Pitman shorthand, where they found that what Emma actually saying was that she couldn’t get the stains out of the floor. So not necessarily a complainer, but more of a strong cleaner, and was focused on the cleanliness of the room.
But the broader context, the social context of the Word of Wisdom came about, the temperance movement had started from after the Revolutionary War, for the 40 years up to 1830, alcohol consumption, specifically liquor, distilled spirits, had tripled, almost tripled in the United States to 1830, so it was a huge issue. A tremendous focus came about, and this temperance movement started in 1826 in Boston, the American Temperance Society.
Within five years there were 5,000 temperance societies around the country. By the mid 1830s, 1 out of 12 people in the United States was a member of a temperance society. So this was the environment that was happening. And if you think about it, this shouldn’t be an issue or concern. This is I’m sure a big part of what drove Joseph to his knees, trying to seek revelation of what to do in the midst of of this type of environment that they were in.
An interesting aspect of the temperance movement was actually coffee was focused on as a replacement for alcohol. In fact, temperance reformers were able to get Congress to remove the import duty on coffee and made it as cheap as whiskey to the people at the time. By 1833 every family virtually in the country, rich or poor, were drinking coffee on a daily consumption.
A few reformers did focus on stimulants of any kind or on hot drinks because of the focus on the body’s fluids and equilibrium, but the vast majority focused on using coffee as a replacement. Also the temperance reformers focused on fear tactics, linking alcohol with horrific diseases or social ills. If you look at the Word of Wisdom, it really just says these things are not good for man. There’s no explanation why, and instead actually there’s promises given for following these things.
Again an Evidences video on the Word of Wisdom that I just released with this as well. It’s just a great video to watch on this topic. So hot drinks, they were considered at the time, some viewed them maybe just as hot drinks, but the main idea of what that understanding was coffee and tea, by the reformers as well as Latter-day Saints, but there still was maybe some confusion here.
If you take a look at this on the screen, clarifying hot drinks, here’s Hyrum Smith, and he says here, “Again, ‘Hot drinks are not for the body, or belly.’ There are many who wonder what this can mean, whether it refers to tea or coffee, or not. I say it does refer to tea and coffee.”
And Joel Johnson, who was a member of the first School of Prophets when the revelation was received, he says, “When both Hyrum and Joseph were on 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 on the Word of Wisdom. The Lord was showing us what was good for man to eat and drink. Now what do we drink when we take our meals? Tea and coffee. Is it not? Yes, tea and coffee. Then, they are what the Lord meant when he said ‘hot drinks.'”
And Brigham Young said, “I have heard it argued that tea and coffee are not mentioned in the Word of Wisdom; that is very true; but what were the people in the habit of taking as hot drinks when the revelation was given? Tea and coffee. We were not in the habit of drinking water very hot, but tea and coffee- the beverages in common use.”
The Church Handbook today, “The only official reputation of “hot drinks” in the Word of Wisdom is the statement made by early Church leaders that the term ‘hot drinks’ means tea and coffee.”
Okay, now. The comment about strong drink was really interpreted at the time as liquor, whiskey, hard liquor, distilled spirits. That was the big issue with the temperance movement. They thought of mild drinks, really. In fact, it even talks about barley in drinks, which would be considered beer, but they thought of beer, lightly fermented wine, or cider to be part of these mild drinks.
And that was the interpretation of the time. And it was often thought of as again, not a binding commandment necessarily on them but a principle, a divine recommendation. But again, not held to the standard it is today. There were lots of problems with water. Alcohol was sometimes used to help with that, as well as medicine practices that were sometimes used as well there. And then tobacco was used also for toothaches, other medical practices.
The real problems where you have to count with tobacco, watch the Evidences video for some stunning things about the evil designing, conspiring men of the last days that were predicted, and some recent big tobacco settlements that show perfect evidence of that.
So some examples of this presentism that critics will use. Some of the best examples I can share. One is from Carthage Jail. They drank some wine in the Carthage Jail and remember, they even viewed wine sometimes as a medicine for a stimulant, to restore both mood and energy, rather than recreational use per se.
John Taylor wrote, “Sometime after dinner we sent for some wine. It has been reported by some that this was taken as a sacrament. It was no such thing. Our spirits were generally dull and heavy and it was sent to revive us. All of us felt unusually dull and languid with remarkable depression of spirits.”
Another example would be even whiskey itself used in a very, say temperate way while traveling to restore fatigue may have been allowed. Here was Joseph investigating. Here’s what Joseph said, “The company moved on to Andover where the sheriff of Lee County requested lodgings for the night for all the company. I was put up into a room and locked up with Captain Grover. It was reported to me that some of the brethren had been drinking whiskey that day in violation of the Word of Wisdom. I called the brethren in and and investigated the case. And was satisfied that no evil had been done and gave them a couple of dollars with directions to replenish the bottle to stimulate them in the fatigues of their sleepless journey.”
So again, kind of interesting, and not to judge it upon our day today, Brigham Young, in the 1850s told the brethren if they’re going to chew tobacco in the Tabernacle to bring a spittoon and hit the mark because it was making the floor dirty and the women were getting their dresses dirty from the tobacco spit.
1861, Brigham Young sent families down to Southern Utah into Utah’s Dixie land. Part of the job was to create crops. They wanted to also grow grapes for wine that was to be used in the sacrament. By the 1870s there were 3000 gallons a year being produced down there. By the turn of the century, they were ripped out from Church authorities’ requests. Also, they were spending the money on tobacco and they’re paying out to foreigners to the east. And Brigham said, “If we’re going to be spending this money,” it was 60 to $80,000 in 1861 dollars which would be couple of million today. He said, “Let’s grow it ourselves and keep the money in our local economy at faster economic growth and self-sufficiency.”
So that was part of the focus there. And then the last one, I would give an example here, Wilford Woodruff in General Conference in 1880 he talked about going to Brigham City, and they were following the United Order there and everyone was following the Word of Wisdom closely and he was drinking coffee and he says, “The idea of drinking coffee where nobody else was drinking it was a very poor example, I thought for an apostle.”
So even the leaders at a time, they needed for adjustment.
“I therefore took instead of coffee, water and milk and felt a great deal better. The promise is that those who keep the Word of Wisdom shall run and not be weary, shall walk and not faint, and I can say I have enjoyed much better health than before.”
So some interesting examples of this presentism. Now let’s talk about the timeline. I’m going to share with you this timeline, I think would be helpful. 1826 was the American Temperance Society. Now I will share a great piece for this time. Let me just mention this. This is a piece in “Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought,” I’ll link this thesis from autumn 1981 “The Word of Wisdom: From Principle to Requirement,” and Thomas Alexander does some fantastic research on the timeline here, but 1826 American Temperance Society begins in Boston. 1833, Word of Wisdom revelation is received by Joseph Smith. 1861, President Brigham Young says, “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.”
1867, Elder Ezra T. Benson, “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 a command or constraint observing that it would be pleasing in His sight for His people to obey His precepts. Ought we not to try to please our Heavenly Father?”
1898, 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.” That was in the First Presidency minutes.
1902, President 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.
1906, the First Presidency and Council of the Twelve began using water instead of wine for their sacrament meetings. And there are some interesting things I’ll link in the notes of the early Christians that did some of this too. And Joseph talked about… If you recall in 1830, when he was going to get wine, it was warned by an angel of some poisoning efforts and that it didn’t matter what they took as long as they did it for the right reasons and the right purpose of taking the sacrament there.
So again, back to this here, 1907 strong prohibition movement begins to develop in the U.S. 1912, rest of the Church follow leaders and eliminate wine use in sacrament meetings, went up until 1922 in some places. 1915, President Joseph F. Smith instructed, “Brethren were not to receive priesthood or temple attendance without adherence to the Word of Wisdom.” 1918, Heber J. Grant becomes the Prophet. 1920, federal prohibition begins in the U.S., and then 1921, President Heber J. Grant says all temple recommends to require adherence to the Word of Wisdom, but it was technically added to the General Handbook of Instructions in 1933. This was the 100th year anniversary of the revelation of the Word of Wisdom. That’s really the the incubation period the Lord allowed.
Federal prohibition ends that same year. Interesting. And in 1972, the First Presidency statement that Church has no opinion on Cola drinks, but advises avoiding habit-forming drinks. And then sometime in the 2000s, I couldn’t find the exact date, but added to the Handbook, “Members should not use any substance that contains illegal drugs. One should avoid harmful or habit-forming substances except under the care of a competent physician.”
Sometimes it’s questioned about why some things are emphasized in the Word of Wisdom for a temple recommend interview for example and not others. What’s considered obeying the Word of Wisdom in the Handbook of Instruction? I love this piece that was on Fairmormon.org. Let me share this, “With respect to the question of why we do some things (tend to eat lots of meat) but not others (don’t drink tea). The reason for that likely has much to do with the concept of following the counsel of living prophets. The current Church Handbook says “hot drinks” means tea and coffee, and it forbids the use of illegal drugs, even though neither tea nor illegal drugs are explicitly mentioned in the Word of Wisdom. Like other scriptures, we rely on guidance from living prophets to help us to know how Doctrine and Covenants Section 89 should be applied in our time. With respect to eating meat sparingly, that remains a word of wisdom, but, unlike refraining from tea, is not mentioned in the current handbook and has not been publicly mentioned by any General Authorities for many years.”
And then some recent updates. In 2012, the Church Newsroom Website posted this on the clarification of the piece in the Mormon in America broadcast on Rock Central TV Program. They said “Finally, another small correction: despite what we reported, the Church revelation spelling out health practices, (D&C 89) does not mention the use of caffeine. The Church’s health guidelines prohibit alcoholic drinks, smoking or chewing of tobacco, and hot drinks- taught by Church leaders to refer specifically to tea and coffee.”
So I will tell you in closing, a couple of key things. Sociologists… I shared this in the Polygamy Introduction video, they’ve actually found in growing religions two kind of key ingredients. One is it requires sacrifice, the religion does, and two, that there’s some modest tension with the host community that the people live in. Polygamy certainly did that, but if you look after polygamy was gone and also the gathering was not focused at coming to to Utah per se, but going out into the world. The Word of Wisdom was essentially a marker for the people, and certainly did what the sociologists talk about there.
And if you look in the past, God has has often required outward signs as a signal of His covenant people. Circumcision as an example, or Sabbath Day observance, or not eating pork. These were visible signs of acknowledgement of the covenant, sign of the covenant. And doing these things in Word of Wisdom, they’re not morally wrong. In fact, we’re told we’re going to drink wine with the Savior essentially in the millennium, fruit of the vine, but today and in consequence of what was to come, it essentially became a commandment for us, binding upon us after this hundred year phase-in process.
And in fact, Elder Packer talked about the promises at the end of the Word of Wisdom in a great talk. And I love how he talked about the last part of the Passover and the promise of avoiding this death. And he talked about a spiritual death that can come about from substances in the Word of Wisdom. So, fascinating thought.
So I love this conclusion I want to share with you from Fairmormon.org. I love the way they worded this. He says, on the website, this is how it’s worded, “It’s a common misconception among both members and nonmembers that the Word of Wisdom exists primarily or only to promote the health of the members. Health protection is an important ‘side benefit'” one might say, but arguably the most important reason for the Word of Wisdom is the promise given in the last verse of D&C 89, in which the members are told: ‘And I, the Lord, give unto to them a promise that the destroying angel shall pass by them, as the children of Israel, and not slay them.'”
“This refers to the last curse put on the Egyptians prior to the Exodus from Egypt. The Israelites were to mark their houses with lamb’s blood at the first Passover. Houses so marked were protected from the destroying angel.”
“Is lamb’s blood magic? Does it repel angels like garlic does vampires? Hardly. Rather, we understand the blood to be a symbol of the covenant between God and Israel, and Christians understood it to be a foreshadowing of the culmination of that covenant as the blood of Jesus Christ protects from sin and destruction those who enter into a covenant with Him.”
“Thus, the Word of Wisdom functions in a similar way- it marks us as people under covenant to God. Consumption of coffee and tea is a common practice in many cultures- when others notice a member of the Church abstaining, it sets them apart as willing to forgo something that is culturally popular. This reinforces our duty to keep our covenants in both our own minds and in the eyes of others.”
And then I love this conclusion, “Adherence to the Word of Wisdom is often a mark of a committed Latter-day Saint and is an outward sign of their separation from the world and their participation in the fellowship of God’s covenant people. Non-observance or observance of the Word of Wisdom often reflects one’s commitment (or lack thereof) to the covenants with God as well as a possible indicator as to how one might approach other commandments.”
I hope if you’re one of these millennials that I talked to you about at the very beginning of the video that this will provide some rational reasons and encouragement to maybe more fully embrace and live the Word of Wisdom in completeness.
Hope you enjoyed the video and check out the Evidences video on the Word of Wisdom. Fascinating studies that I share in that video. Thanks.
LDS Perspectives interview with Jed Woodworth on the Word of Wisdom https://www.ldsperspectives.com/2017/…
Church History Dept video on the development and practice of the Word of Wisdom https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_OrvO…
Latter-day Saints’ Q&A is a video series not produced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but by me, an ordinary member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, an independent voice, with a passion for studying Church history and defending the faith. In this series, I provide evidences for the restoration, and address tough questions posed by critics of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, offering faithful answers based on accurate research and historical references which will be posted at the end of each video.