I was discussing the Word of Wisdom with my wife Mardell, and she came up with a really good question. One of the things which surprises many members who look at all into church history is the discovery that the current Word of Wisdom was not strictly followed by early church leaders. Joseph Smith is documented (post-Word of Wisdom) to have drunk wine and beer with other church leaders and smoked pipes. He also drank coffee regularly (thus, the fight he had with Emma about his coffee). In the end, this turns out to be less shocking given the historical context; as pointed out in prior comments, the Word of Wisdom did not really achieve its current status until around the time of prohibition. It wasn’t enforced as a commandment, and early church leaders, including Joseph Smith, regularly took substances that would be banned today.
That’s not a big deal so far; it’s just a historical misunderstanding, and makes sense in context. But then, as Mardell pointed out, a new question pops up: What are we to make of the oft-told “no brandy” story? You know, child Joseph Smith had to undergo an excruciatingly painful surgery, and he refused to take brandy to dull his senses. Today, we hear that framed as some sort of implied pre-recognition of Word of Wisdom principles. But why would Joseph Smith refuse brandy as a child (pre-WoW), sensing some cosmic rule, but then go on to use alcohol, coffee, and tobacco as an adult (post-WoW)? His later alcohol use seems to cast the whole idea that we can draw principles from the no-brandy story into doubt. So what (if anything) can we take from the no-brandy story, given Joseph Smith’s subsequent behavior? I’m not sure — any ideas?