The "Word of Wisdom" is the common name of an 1833 section of the Doctrine and Covenants, a book considered by many churches within the Latter Day Saint movement to consist of revelations from God. It is also the name of a health code based on this scripture, practiced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) and Mormon fundamentalists, and to a lesser extent, some other Latter Day Saint denominations. In the LDS Church, compliance with the Word of Wisdom is currently a prerequisite for baptism, service in full-time missionary work, attendance at church schools, and entry into the church's temples; however, violation of the code is not considered to be grounds for withdrawal of membership or other disciplinary action.
The text discourages "strong drink" and wine (in some cases this includes sacramental wine, which has been replaced with sacramental water in some sects), the non-medicinal use of tobacco, "hot drinks", and meat used more than "sparingly". The scripture also recommends the consumption of herbs, fruits, and grains, as well as grain-based "mild drinks". As practiced by the LDS Church, there is no firm restriction relating to meat consumption, but all alcoholic beverages are forbidden, including beer. The LDS Church interprets "hot drinks" to mean coffee and tea.
Origin and publicationEdit
According to Joseph Smith, the founder of the Latter Day Saint movement, the Word of Wisdom was received in 1833 as a revelation from God. After Smith's death, Brigham Young stated that the revelation was given in response to problems encountered while conducting meetings in the Smith family home:
When they assembled together in this room after breakfast, the first they did was to light their pipes, and, while smoking, talk about the great things of the kingdom, and spit all over the room, and as soon as the pipe was out of their mouths a large chew of tobacco would then be taken. Often when the Prophet [Joseph Smith] entered the room to give the school instructions he would find himself in a cloud of tobacco smoke. This, and the complaints of his wife at having to clean so filthy a floor, made the Prophet think upon the matter, and he inquired of the Lord relating to the conduct of the Elders in using tobacco, and the revelation known as the Word of Wisdom was the result of his inquiry.
Word of Wisdom revelationEdit
The revelation contains four parts:
- an introduction;
- a list of substances that should not be ingested, including wine, strong drink, tobacco and "hot drinks";
- a list of foods that should be used, some with certain limitations; and
- a divine promise to those who follow the guidelines.
The introduction and explanation as presented by Smith is:
A Word of Wisdom, for the benefit of the council of high priests, assembled in Kirtland, and the church, and also the saints in Zion— To be sent greeting; not by commandment or constraint, but by revelation and the word of wisdom, showing forth the order and will of God in the temporal salvation of all saints in the last days— Given for a principle with a promise, adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints, who are or can be called saints.
Among the substances which the revelation indicates should not be ingested, the first is "wine or strong drink", which the revelation says should not be drunk. (An exception is allowed for the use of "pure wine of your own make" as part of the sacrament ordinance, though the LDS Church today uses water in place of wine.) The revelation also advises against the consumption of tobacco and "hot drinks".
The Word of Wisdom revelation also suggests proper uses for some prohibited substances. While "strong drinks" are not to be ingested, they are appropriate when used "for the washing of your bodies"; likewise, while human ingestion of tobacco is forbidden, tobacco is said to be "an herb for bruises and all sick cattle, to be used with judgment and skill".
The list of foods and substances which the revelation encourages includes "wholesome herbs [and] every fruit in the season thereof" and "that which yieldeth fruit, whether in the ground or above the ground". It also prescribes the use of "all grain", which is described as "the staff of life, not only for man but for the beasts of the field". Barley and other grains are recommended for use in making "mild drinks".
The "beasts of the field, and the fowls of heaven, and all wild animals that run or creep on the earth" may be used as food "sparingly" and "with thanksgiving".
The Word of Wisdom states that it comprises a "principle with promise". The promise given to those who followed the advice of the word of wisdom is as follows:
And all saints who remember to keep and do these sayings, walking in obedience to the commandments, shall receive health in their navel and marrow to their bones; and shall find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures; and shall run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint. And 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.
Application by Joseph SmithEdit
Although it was first only a recommendation, it was made a commandment later on. This gave the saints time to adjust to the new principles. Originally, abiding by the recommendations and prohibitions of the Word of Wisdom was not considered mandatory: it explicitly declares itself to be "not by commandment or constraint". In February 1834, however, Joseph Smith proposed a resolution before the high council of the church that stated, "No official member in this Church is worthy to hold an office after having the word of wisdom properly taught him; and he, the official member, neglecting to comply with and obey it." This resolution was accepted unanimously by the council.
And 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.
According to a book written by LDS missionary and hymnographer Joel H. Johnson in 1881, Joseph Smith shared Hyrum's interpretation:
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 of the Word of Wisdom .... Tea and coffee ... are what the Lord meant when He said "hot drinks".
The charge of "not observing the Word of Wisdom" was one of five leveled against David Whitmer on April 13, 1838, which led to his excommunication. Nevertheless, contemporary records indicate that Joseph Smith was not, himself, a strict observer. Smith is recorded at various times as drinking tea, beer, and wine. There is a report he also smoked tobacco: according to Amasa Lyman, a member of the First Presidency under Smith, Smith once finished preaching a sermon on the Word of Wisdom and immediately afterward rode through the streets smoking a cigar. According to Lyman, this was just one of many instances in which Smith "tried the faith of the Saints ... by his peculiarities". (One modern commentator has suggested that this may have been done by Smith to ensure that his followers' faith was based on the Latter Day Saint religion and not on Smith's personality or leadership.)
On August 19, 1835, Almon W. Babbitt was brought before the church's high council on three charges. On the charge of "not keeping the Word of Wisdom", Babbitt stated "that he had taken the liberty to break the Word of Wisdom, from the example of President Joseph Smith, Jun., and others, but acknowledged that it was wrong."
In 1838, Smith was operating a hotel/tavern in Far West, Missouri. In June 1838, the high council of Far West felt compelled to remind Smith's family that there was a ban on the sale and consumption of "ardent spirits in the place".
Interpretation by leaders of the LDS ChurchEdit
Emphasized by Brigham YoungEdit
After Smith's death, several factions emerged from the Latter Day Saint movement. The largest of these groups, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), was led by Brigham Young. At a general conference of the church held on September 9, 1851, Young called on the attendees to "leave off the use of" items mentioned in the Word of Wisdom:
The Patriarch [John Smith] again rose to speak on the Word of Wisdom, and urging on the brethren to leave off using tobacco, &c.
President Young rose to put the motion and called on all the sisters who will leave off the use of tea, coffee, &c., to manifest it by raising the right hand; seconded and carried.
And then put the following motion; calling on all the boys [sic] who were under ninety years of age who would covenant to leave off the use of tobacco, whisky, and all things mentioned in the Word of Wisdom, to manifest it in the same manner, which was carried unanimously."
The Patriarch then said, may the Lord bless you and help you to keep all your covenants. Amen.
President Young amongst other things said he knew the goodness of the people, and the Lord bears with our weakness; we must serve the Lord, and those who go with me will keep the Word of Wisdom, and if the High Priests, the Seventies, the Elders, and others will not serve the Lord, we will sever them from the Church. I will draw the line, and know who is for the Lord and who is not, and those who will not keep the Word of Wisdom, I will cut off from the Church; I throw out a challenge to all men and women.
Though Young encouraged Mormons to follow the Word of Wisdom code, the church was tolerant of those who did not follow it. In 1860, he counseled those chewing tobacco in church meetings to at least be discreet and not excessive, but did not charge users with sin. By 1870, however, he ended the practice of chewing and spitting tobacco in the Salt Lake Tabernacle.
Young also recognized a separation between using tobacco (which was discouraged), and selling it to non-Mormons as a business (which was encouraged). He also owned and maintained a bar in Salt Lake City for the sale of alcoholic beverages to non-Mormon travelers, on the theory that it was better for LDS Church authorities to run such establishments than for outsiders.
The Word of Wisdom states that "flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the air ... are to be used sparingly", and that "it is pleasing unto [God] that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine." Unlike the injunctions against tobacco, alcohol, and hot drinks, however, compliance with this injunction has never been made mandatory.
Many LDS Church leaders have expressed their views on the subject of meat. In 1868, church president Brigham Young counseled, "Flesh should be used sparingly, in famine and in cold." In 1868, apostle George Q. Cannon said, "We are told that flesh of any kind is not suitable to man in the summer time, and ought to be eaten sparingly in the winter." From 1897 to 1901, apostle and then church president Lorenzo Snow repeatedly emphasized the importance of eating meat sparingly, teaching that church members should refrain from eating meat except in case of dire necessity, and that this should be seen in light of Smith's teaching that animals have spirits. In 1895, Snow stated, "Unless famine or extreme cold is upon us we should refrain from the use of meat." Apostle George Teasdale taught the same thing, and held that eating pork was a more serious breach of the Word of Wisdom than drinking tea or coffee. When Joseph F. Smith succeeded Snow as president of the church in 1901, he preached regularly against the "unnecessary destruction of life", and emphasized kindness to animals and the important stewardship humans have toward them .
Despite these statements, restricting meat consumption was not made an explicit requirement for worthiness in the LDS Church as the standards for obedience to the Word of Wisdom were made increasingly central to LDS Church doctrine and practice in the early 20th century. The increased emphasis on the Word of Wisdom took place during the presidency of Heber J. Grant, a long-time enthusiastic promoter of the Word of Wisdom. Although Grant did not make restricting meat consumption an explicit part of the standard, he continued to interpret it as part of the counsel in the Word of Wisdom. In the 1937 General Conference, at 80 years old, Grant said he worked long hours "without fatigue and without feeling the least injury". He attributed his excellent health, in part, to eating very little meat.
Since Grant's presidency, the emphasis on limiting the consumption of meat has lessened, but there have been some church leaders who have taught on the subject. In a 1948 LDS general conference address, apostle Joseph F. Merrill emphasized the importance of not eating meat as "freely as many Americans are doing". In 1950, apostle and plant scientist John A. Widtsoe wrote, in relation to meat consumption, "they who wish to be well and gain the promised reward stated in the Word of Wisdom must obey all of the law, not just part of it as suits their whim or their appetite, or their notion of its meaning." As recently as 2012, official church spokesperson Michael Otterson stated "the church has also encouraged limiting meat consumption in favor of grains, fruits and vegetables. To this day, the LDS Church's hymnal includes a hymn with the following lyrics:
That the children may live long / And be beautiful and strong, / Tea and coffee and tobacco they despise, / Drink no liquor, and they eat / But a very little meat; / They are seeking to be great and good and wise.
A student manual published by the church has suggested that the suggestion that the consumption of meat be limited to wintertime may to some degree be a historical relic of the time in which the "Word of Wisdom" was delivered by Smith:
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.
The Word of Wisdom states in part,
16. All grain is good for the food of man; as also the fruit of the vine; that which yieldeth fruit, whether in the ground or above the ground—
17. Nevertheless, 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 revelation suggests that barley-based mild drinks (such as beer) may be permissible. As recently as 1901, apostles Brigham Young, Jr. and John Henry Smith argued that the revelation did not prohibit beer. However, LDS Church leaders now teach that consumption of any form of alcohol, including beer, violates the Word of Wisdom.
Refined grain productsEdit
In a pamphlet written in 1930 called The Word of Wisdom, apostle John A. Widtsoe taught that refined flour was contrary to the Word of Wisdom. The church, however, has never prohibited the use of refined flour.
Standards of adherenceEdit
Adherence to the proscriptions of the Word of Wisdom was not made a requirement for entry into LDS Church temples until 1902. However, even then, church president Joseph F. Smith encouraged stake presidents to be liberal with old men who used tobacco and old ladies who drank tea. Of those who violated the revelation, it was mainly habitual drunkards that were excluded from the temple. Around the turn of the century, the proscriptions of the Word of Wisdom were not strictly adhered to by such notable church leaders. Anthon H. Lund, a First Counselor in the First Presidency, drank beer and wine; apostle Matthias F. Cowley drank beer and wine; Charles W. Penrose, who also served as a First Counselor in the First Presidency, drank wine; Relief Society general president Emmeline B. Wells drank coffee; and church president George Albert Smith drank brandy for medicinal purposes. In 1921, church president Heber J. Grant made adherence to the proscriptions of the Word of Wisdom an absolute requirement for entering the temple.
Today, adherence to the proscriptions of the Word of Wisdom is required for baptism and for entry into temples of the LDS Church. BYU historian Thomas G. Alexander points out that while the original Word of Wisdom as a "principle with promise" was given by revelation, there is no evidence that any church leader has claimed a separate new revelation, or even a spiritual confirmation, of changing the Word of Wisdom from "a principle with promise" to a commandment.
Official modern interpretationEdit
The church's official statement on the interpretation of the Word of Wisdom is short: it reaffirms the long-standing meaning of "hot drinks" and extends the substances covered by prohibition:
The only official interpretation of "hot drinks" (D&C 89:9) in the Word of Wisdom is the statement made by early Church leaders that the term "hot drinks" means tea and coffee.
Members should not use any substance that contains illegal drugs. Nor should members use harmful or habit-forming substances except under the care of a competent physician.
Although avoiding the prohibitions of the Word of Wisdom is a requirement for admission to LDS Church temples, violation of the Word of Wisdom no longer results in church discipline, as it once did; the church instructs its leaders that church discipline "should not be [used] to discipline or threaten members who do not comply with the Word of Wisdom".
LDS Church leaders have counseled church members that they should not have personal interpretations of, or become extreme in their observance of the Word of Wisdom. One church leader specifically warned that adding additional unauthorized requirements, emphasizing it with excess zeal, or making it a "gospel hobby" is a sign of spiritual immaturity and sometimes apostasy.
A 2019 study of attitudes among Mormons within the U.S. said that a quarter to a half of such individuals interpret the Word of Wisdom in variance with the official interpretation by the LDS Church in some manner.
The prohibition of "wine or strong drink" is widely interpreted as a blanket prohibition of all alcoholic beverages, regardless of the level of alcoholic content of the drink.
Generally, members of the LDS Church view the prohibition on "hot drinks" as covering coffee and tea, whether or not the drinks are hot. There is generally thought to be no prohibition against drinking hot water, herbal tea, hot chocolate, coffee substitutes such as Postum or malt drinks such as Ovaltine or Milo. Other members choose to prohibit themselves from drinking any beverage that contains caffeine.
Cola and other caffeinated beveragesEdit
A longstanding issue among members of the LDS Church is whether it is permissible to ingest drinks containing caffeine that are not coffee or tea. In 1918, Frederick J. Pack, a Mormon professor at the University of Utah, published an article in an official church magazine in which he reasoned that because Coca-Cola contained caffeine, which is also present in tea and coffee, Mormons should abstain from Coca-Cola in the same way that they abstain from the Word of Wisdom "hot drinks". Since Pack's article, many Mormons have come to believe that the reason tea and coffee are proscribed is the presence of caffeine in the drinks. However, the church has never stated that this is the reason for the prohibition.
The church does not have an official position on the consumption of caffeinated beverages, apart from the general statement that the Word of Wisdom does not specifically mention it. In 2012, in response to a report on Mormonism on NBC’s Rock Center with Brian Williams, which claimed that LDS faithful were prohibited from drinking caffeine, the church wrote:
Despite what was reported, the Church revelation spelling out health practices (Doctrine and Covenants 89) does not mention the use of caffeine. The Church’s health guidelines prohibits alcoholic drinks, smoking or chewing of tobacco, and "hot drinks"—taught by Church leaders to refer specifically to tea and coffee.
In the past, a number of church leaders have discouraged the use of such products. For example, in 1922, church president Heber J. Grant counseled the Latter-day Saints:
I am not going to give any command, but I will ask it as a personal, individual favor to me, to let coca-cola [sic] alone. There are plenty of other things you can get at the soda fountains without drinking that which is injurious. The Lord does not want you to use any drug that creates an appetite for itself.
Two years after making this statement, Grant met with a representative of The Coca-Cola Company to discuss the church's position on Coca-Cola; at the conclusion of their second meeting, Grant stated that he was "sure I have not the slightest desire to recommend that the people leave Coca-Cola alone if th[e] amount [of caffeine in Coca-Cola] is absolutely harmless, which they claim it is." Grant never again spoke out against the use of cola drinks.
Approximately fifty years later, the church issued an official statement which stated:
With reference to cola drinks, the Church has never officially taken a position on this matter, but the leaders of the Church have advised, and we do now specifically advise, against the use of any drink containing harmful habit-forming drugs under circumstances that would result in acquiring the habit. Any beverage that contains ingredients harmful to the body should be avoided.
Because of such statements, some adherents believe that caffeine is officially prohibited under the Word of Wisdom. In the mid-1950s, the director of the food services for Brigham Young University, a college owned by the LDS Church, decided not to sell caffeine on campus. This changed in September 2017 when the director of BYU Dining Services announced that caffeinated beverages would be sold on campus. Wright said this was the result of a change in customer preferences. Official church publications have occasionally published articles by medical practitioners that warn of the health risks of consuming caffeine. However, in November 2010, the Salt Lake Tribune noted that in the 2010 church Handbook, which sets out the official position of the church on health and social issues, no position on drinking Coca-Cola or caffeinated drinks is included. The Salt Lake Tribune concluded that the church "takes no official position on caffeine".
Health studies regarding MormonsEdit
A 14-year selective study conducted by UCLA epidemiologist James E. Enstrom tracked the health of 10,000 moderately active LDS Church members in California and ended in 1987. Of these non-smoking, monogamous non-drinkers, Enstrom concluded from the study "that LDS Church members who follow religious mandates barring smoking and drinking have one of the lowest death rates from cancer and cardiovascular diseases—about half that of the general population. ... Moreover, the healthiest LDS Church members enjoy a life expectancy eight to eleven years longer than that of the general white population in the United States." The standardized mortality ratios (SMRs) for whites in the general population is defined as 100. For males in the study, the SMRs "are 47 for all cancers, 52 for cardiovascular diseases, and 47 for all causes; the SMRs for females are 72 for all cancers, 64 for cardiovascular diseases, and 66 for all causes". For LDS high priests who exercised, had proper sleep, and never smoked cigarettes, the mortality rate was less. The results were largely duplicated in a separate study of an LDS-like subgroup of white non-smoking churchgoers in Alameda County, California.
- In the edition published by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it is Section 89. In the edition published by the Community of Christ, it is section 86. In older editions which are used by some other Latter Day Saint denominations, it is section 81.
- "When a Membership Council Is Not Normally Necessary", General Handbook (LDS Church, 2020) § 32.6.4.
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- Smith, Joseph Fielding, ed. (1938). Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book. p. 117, n. 9.
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- Diary of Abraham H. Cannon, vol. 19 (October 1895 entry); cited in Gary Dean Guthrie, Joseph Smith As An Administrator, M.A. thesis, Brigham Young University, May 1969, p. 161.
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- "In Our Lovely Deseret", Hymns, no. 307.
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- "To this day those regulations [of the Word of Wisdom] apply to every member and to everyone who seeks to join the Church. They are so compelling that no one is to be baptized into the Church without first agreeing to live by them.": Boyd K. Packer, "The Word of Wisdom: The Principle and the Promises", Ensign, May 1996, p. 17.
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