One of the odder bits of Mormon interpretation is the strange life of â€œhot drinks.â€? These are the actual beverages forbidden by the Word of Wisdom. As we all know they have come to mean coffee and tea with hot chocolate and Diet Coke forming border cases for some, and no one really objecting to herb tea or hot cider. What is going on here?
Who knows. Here is my theory. I think that the original concern with hot drinks had to do with essentially pre-modern notions of disease. Until about the mid-19th century the dominant theory of disease in the west revolved around the idea of humors. Enshrined in a Roman medical text by an man named Galen, which continued in use for a millennia and a half, the theory of humors claimed that the body was regulated by the balance of various fluids (humors) such as blood, bile, etc. When these humors got out of balance disease resulted. One cured disease by restoring the balance medically, for example with leeches. A key part of the humor theory of disease was the concept of temperature. When humors got too cold or too hot disease could result. Hence, it was important not to get â€œover heatedâ€? because of the effect that it could have on the humors.
My grasp of medical history is exceedingly tenuous, but my understanding is that in the 1830s the humor theory was enjoying its final happy hours of dominance, to be replaced in the next two generations by the germ theory of disease. If this is right, then the prohibition on â€œhot drinksâ€? would have made sense in terms of Galenâ€™s categories of humors and balance. Note, the medical danger here was the temperature of the drinks themselves.
So where did our concern with caffeine come from? My theory is that John A. Widstoe was responsible. Trained as a chemist and familiar with modern theories of medicine, he reinterpreted the Word of Wisdom in modern scientific terms. Hence, the problem with hot drinks was shifted from their baneful effect on the humors to the baneful effects of caffeine. Widstoe was studying chemistry in Germany about the time that caffeine was first synthetically produced in Berlin. It made a bit of a splash in academic chemistry at the time and Widstoe would certainly have followed the issue.)= Hence, when Widstoe and his wife published The Word of Wisdom: A Modern Interpretation they provided a litany of contemporary medical evidence against chemical stimulants. Thus, â€œhot drinksâ€? became â€œcoffee and teaâ€? not â€“ as is sometimes asserted in Sunday School and Seminary â€“ because that was the â€œoriginal understandingâ€? of the term, but because this rather narrow definition fitted the ratio juris posited by Widstoe.
Today, Widstoeâ€™s interpretation has not been entirely triumphant. While caffeine is universally identified as the culprit in coffee and tea it has never been consistently and rigorously applied in interpreting the meaning of â€œhot drinks.â€? To continue the legal analogy we have a rule that is both over and underinlusive when framed in terms of caffeine, but which becomes largely incoherent when framed in terms of its original meaning.
The persistence of the â€œhot drinksâ€? prohibition neatly illustrates Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jrâ€™s theory of legal development. According to Holmes, rules of law are the product of historical development. They arise in one context, based on one set of justifications. With a change in the â€œfelt necessities of the times,â€? the original justification for a rule fades away. Rules survive or fall into desuetude based on their ability to find new justifications. Thus, Holmes argued that the origin of the strange rule of admiralty law that a ship was held liable for debts as though it were a person originally sprang from the belief that ships had souls. The rule thus was analogous to the rule of deodad under which a weapon that killed a man must be destroyed. (Because, says Holmes, the weapon was animate and responsible in part for the death.) Deodad has fallen by the wayside of the law, but the in rem limitation in admiralty has survived, not because we still think that ships have souls but weapons do not, but because the rule found a new justification in arguments about the commercial usefulness of limited liability. By the same token, the prohibition on â€œhot drinksâ€? survives because of its ability to be reinterpreted in light of the felt necessities of a new time.
It would seem that the life of revelation has also not been logic but experience.