Cores and Corollaries of the Word of Wisdom

The Church recently published some clarifications on issues related to our health code in the New Era magazine and gave them official status in a statement a few weeks later.[1] Essentially, vaping or e-cigarettes, marijuana and opioids, green and iced tea, and coffee-based products are officially prohibited. While we look to the 1833 revelation of Joseph Smith as the basis of that health code, the Church has been selective in enforcing it. In general, prohibition of alcohol, coffee, tea, and tobacco has been treated as the consistent core of the Word of Wisdom while other parts or potential additions have usually been treated as peripheral issues. Other additions are usually connected to this core in one way or another.

The original revelation known as “A Word of Wisdom” was recorded on 27 February 1833. It contains both proscriptions and recommendations for consumption and use, as shown in Table 1. During the remainder of Joseph Smith’s lifetime, the proscriptions were discussed most often as alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea.[2] Very little else seems to have been discussed with any frequency, including the recommendations. On rare occasions, restricting meat consumption came up. For example, during one sermon in the 1840s, Hyrum Smith suggested that that Saints should “be sparing of the life of animals” (adding that they could be used “in times … of famine” because they would die anyway “and may as well be made use of by man, as not”).[3] Otherwise, the core emphasis of the Word of Wisdom had been established, though not strongly enforced after the majority of Latter-day Saints left Kirtland, Ohio.

Table 1.  Recommendations given in the original revelation known as the Word of Wisdom (D&C 89).[4]

Proscriptions Recommendations
Wine or strong drink All wholesome herbs
Tobacco Fruit in the season thereof
Hot drinks Meat (sparingly)
  Grain
  Fruit of the vine (above or below ground)
  Mild drinks made of barley

 

During the remainder of the 1800s, the Word of Wisdom was only sporadically discussed, often with the idea of economic self-sufficiency in mind. President Brigham Young pushed a “grow your own or do without” mentality and suggested (starting in 1867) to use “the money generally paid out for tea and coffee, liquor, tobacco, etc.” to help “the poor” emigrate to Utah Territory.[5] There were also some other suggestions made about the Mormon health code, though none were considered binding. President Brigham Young made suggestions like not eating or drinking too much of anything, resting rather than using stimulants, and cutting down on rich foods like pies and meats.[6] Some took the proscription for “hot drinks” in the original revelation at face value rather than limiting it to coffee and tea, such as when President George Q. Cannon’s stated that “hot drinks—tea, coffee, chocolate, cocoa, and all drinks of this kind are not good for man” and that “hot drinks, or hot soups” shouldn’t be fed to children.[7] Drawing on the Jewish health code in the Torah, several Church leaders also believed that the Saints should avoid pig meat as a religious principle.[8] These were things that could be interpreted as parts of the Word of Wisdom, but only the original core emphasis associated with the Word of Wisdom (avoiding coffee, tea, alcohol and tobacco) received any sort of strong emphasis or pledges to observe during the mid- to late nineteenth century.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the Word of Wisdom began to be emphasized more strongly. Historian Thomas G. Alexander has suggested that this may be due both to second generation Church leaders coming to the fore that had grown up hearing Brigham Young’s admonitions to follow the Word of Wisdom and the need for a new form of boundary maintenance since polygamy was being renounced.[9] At first, however, there wasn’t a strong consensus of what that meant. For example, during a meeting of the Quorum of the Twelve and the First Presidency on 5 May 1898, the thing they agreed on was that they should teach members to refrain from eating meat. Lorenzo Snow particularly emphasized this, while Wilford Woodruff felt that eating pork was more serious than drinking tea or coffee. Not every church leader observed or understood the Word of Wisdom the same way, though—some felt that beer made from barley was fine, but beer made from other grains was not. Some drank wine, beer, coffee, or tea and felt the revelation was more a guideline than an actual rule (a few J. Golden Kimball stories about coffee come to mind here). Some felt it was a commandment that should be observed strictly, at least the part that involved avoiding alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea. Joseph F. Smith and Heber J. Grant were of the latter-category and succeeded in making observance of the Word of Wisdom a requisite to temple recommends and Church callings by the late 1920s.[10]

Since then, the prohibition against these four items has continued to be the part of the Word of Wisdom that is enforced. The only official addition outside of these has been that: “Members should not use any substances that contains illegal drugs. Nor should members use harmful or habit-forming substances except under the care of a competent physician”.[11] Even this can be taken as being rooted in the long-standing core of the Word of Wisdom. The rational used to support the proscriptions (especially for coffee and tea) was that, in the words of President Heber J. Grant, “The Lord does not want you to use any drug that creates an appetite for itself.”[12] His statement was specifically meant for caffeine, but the logic applies just as well to other drugs, particularly those that are known to be harmful. While discussions about caffeinated sodas, meat, and other issues related to diet have occurred in the Church during the last century, the Church has generally only offered soft advice rather than made any firm policy on them, even if they are part of Section 89. For better or worse, the occasional exceptions of general authorities pushing hard for one or another issue outside the main core are usually treated, as Bruce R. McConkie put in his eloquent way, “unstable people” who have become “cranks” about the health code.[13]

The recent clarifications are merely extensions of the parts of the health code that have been treated as commandments into potential grey areas. E-cigarettes are associated with traditional tobacco (both in mode of consumption and the fact that they often include nicotine) and contain harmful chemicals. Coffee flavorings or coffee-based beverages are still made from the same coffee as coffee itself, and if coffee is prohibited, it makes sense for that they would be too. The same logic is applied to green tea and iced tea in the New Era article: “Green tea and black tea are both made from the leaves of the exact same tea plant.” Marijuana and opioids, though the former is becoming increasingly legal, fall under the most recent addition to the Word of Wisdom—harmful or habit-forming substances that should only be used with competent medical advice.[14] Some of the logic given for including these in the Word of Wisdom may have interesting ramifications for an area that has long been debated as a potentially logical extension of the long-standing core of the Word of Wisdom—caffeinated soda drinks—but that is a discussion for another day.

 

[1] “Vaping, Coffee, Tea, and Marijuana”, New Era August 2019, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/new-era/2019/08/vaping-coffee-tea-and-marijuana?lang=eng. “Statement on the Word of Wisdom”, Newsroom 15 August 2019, https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/statement-word-of-wisdom-august-2019.

[2] See “Historical Introduction at “Revelation, 27 February 1833 [D&C 89],” p. [113], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed August 20, 2019, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-27-february-1833-dc-89/1

[3] Times and Seasons, Vol. 3, No. 15, pp. 799-801.

[4] “Revelation, 27 February 1833 [D&C 89],” p. [113], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed August 20, 2019, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-27-february-1833-dc-89/1

[5] See Leonard J. Arrington, Great Basin Kingdom: An Economic History of the Latter-day Saints 1830-1900, (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1958), 250.

[6] Brigham Young and John A. Widtsoe (ed.), Discourses of Brigham Young (SLC: Deseret Book Company, 1977), 182-190.

[7] George Q. Cannon, 7 April 1868, Journal of Discourses 12:221-223.

[8] George Q. Cannon, 7 April 1868; Journal of Discourses 12:221-223, Discourses of Brigham Young, 189; Thomas G. Alexander Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930, 3rd ed. (SLC, Greg Kofford Books, 2012), 275.

[9] Alexander, Mormonism in Transition, 273, 276.

[10] Alexander, Mormonism in Transition, 273-280.

[11] Handbook 2, 21.3.11.

[12] Conference Report, April 1922, 165.

[13] Bruce R. McConkie, “Word of Wisdom,” in Mormon Doctrine, 2nd edition, (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 845–846.

[14] “Vaping, Coffee, Tea, and Marijuana”, New Era August 2019, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/new-era/2019/08/vaping-coffee-tea-and-marijuana?lang=eng. “Statement on the Word of Wisdom”, Newsroom 15 August 2019, https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/statement-word-of-wisdom-august-2019.

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