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The Word of Wisdom: Is It Divine Revelation?

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The Word of Wisdom: Is It Divine Revelation?

Robert M. Bowman Jr.

Chapter 29 of the LDS manual Gospel Principles is entitled “The Lord’s Law of Health.” This chapter makes some statements with which every Christian should agree: that God “wants us to take good care of” our bodies (167), and that such care includes “nutritious meals, regular exercise, and appropriate sleep” (170). It is also true that the use of alcohol is often destructive and that tobacco products are unhealthy (167, 169).

The focus of this chapter of Gospel Principles, however, is on “the Word of Wisdom,” found in Doctrine & Covenants 89. Much could be said about this subject, but we will limit ourselves to one important question: Is the Word of Wisdom really a revelation from God?

A. Mormons View the Word of Wisdom as Divine Revelation

"As even some Mormon researchers have acknowledged, Joseph Smith gave the Word of Wisdom at the very time that the temperance movement was spreading like wildfire in the United States."

According to Gospel Principles, “Much of the information God has given us concerning good health is found in Doctrine and Covenants 89” (167). That section, which Joseph Smith first produced in 1833, explicitly claims to be a revelation from the Lord. “Behold, verily, thus saith the Lord unto you: In consequence of evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days, I have warned you, and forewarn you, by giving unto you this word of wisdom by revelation” (D&C 89:4).

D&C 89 begins with comments that were originally, in the 1835 published edition, the introduction to the revelation, not part of the revelation itself. Beginning with the 1876 edition of D&C, this introduction became verses 1-3:

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. (D&C 89:1-3)

Mormons frequently argue that the words “not by commandment or restraint” indicate that Joseph Smith did not intend for the Word of Wisdom to be treated as mandatory for all members immediately. However, “not by commandment or constraint” is contrasted with “by revelation and the word of wisdom,” indicating evidently that it is divine revelation for their good and not just an arbitrary rule to constrain or deprive them. The following year, Joseph had the LDS Church’s Council adopt a resolution that he put forward barring anyone who knowingly violated the Word of Wisdom from serving in a church office:

“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” (History of the Church, 2:35).

In the twentieth century, the LDS Church began requiring strict compliance with the Word of Wisdom as a condition for participating in the rituals of the LDS temples.

D&C 89 contains the following directives concerning food and drink:

  • No wine or strong drink, except in the sacrament, in which “pure wine of the grape of the vine, of your own make” is to be used (vv. 5-7)
  • No tobacco (v. 8)
  • No “hot drinks” (v. 9)
  • Eat “wholesome herbs” (vegetables) and “fruit” (vv. 10-11)
  • Eat the “flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the air,” though “sparingly” and ideally “only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine…only in times of famine and excess hunger” (vv. 12-13, 15)
  • “All grain” is approved for people and animals to eat, but in particular “wheat for man,” with other grains especially for domesticated animals (vv. 14, 16-17)
  • The use of “barley…for mild drinks, as also other grain,” is also approved (v. 18)

Mormons often claim that these instructions reflect knowledge about healthy and unhealthy foods that Joseph Smith could not have known by natural means in the 1830s. According to Gordon B. Hinckley, President of the LDS Church (1995-2008), Joseph’s Word of Wisdom was ahead of his time:

“I regard it as the most remarkable document on health of which I know. It came to the Prophet Joseph Smith in 1833, when relatively little was known of dietary matters. Now the greater the scientific research, the more certain becomes the proof of Word of Wisdom principles” (Ensign [conference report], May 1998, 49).

Another LDS Church President, Ezra Taft Benson, made the same point even more forcefully:

“Several years ago an investigator gave this testimonial about Joseph Smith. He said that the Word of Wisdom was the revelation that most attracted him to investigate the Church. ‘There is no possible way,’ he said, ‘that Joseph Smith could have known what we now know in the medical world about the harmful effects of tobacco, alcohol, tea, and coffee. Yet this has all been substantiated by medical science’” (Ensign [conference report], May 1986, 46).

While science has no doubt learned a great deal more since 1833 about the harmful effects of some of these substances, it does not follow that Joseph Smith’s view of these things must have come by divine revelation. Please note that it is not necessary for us to prove that they could not have been divinely revealed. Joseph Smith and the LDS Church leaders following him are the ones who are making the claim that this is and even that it must be divine revelation. The burden of proof is on those who assert that Joseph could not have gotten his ideas on this subject from natural sources. Keeping this context in mind, let us take a look at the facts concerning these prohibitions in the Word of Wisdom, focusing on the three most important substances: alcoholic beverages, tobacco, and hot drinks.


B. Alcohol, Tobacco, and Hot Drinks

1. Alcoholic beverages

The prohibition against drinking wine (“except in the sacrament”) or “strong drink,” while having some basis for claiming to be good medical advice, has the least basis for claiming to be a divine revelation. As even some Mormon researchers have acknowledged, Joseph Smith gave the Word of Wisdom at the very time that the temperance movement was spreading like wildfire in the United States. The American Society for the Promotion of Temperance was founded in Boston in 1826. By 1833 well over a million Americans were members of the thousands of local chapters of the organization, including one in Kirtland, Ohio, where Joseph Smith lived at the time. A month before Joseph gave the Word of Wisdom the local temperance society had managed to get the distillery in Kirtland to close. Claiming that in 1833 Joseph could only have gotten the idea to ban alcoholic drinks by divine revelation is a little like claiming to be able to predict the winning score in a football game—immediately after watching it on tape.

Biblically, we should make a clear distinction between the use and abuse of wine (as well as strong drink). The Bible frequently speaks of wine in a positive way as a sign of abundance and blessing (e.g., Psalm 104:15; Proverbs 3:10). Melchizedek served bread and wine to Abram (Genesis 14:18). Isaac prayed that God would bless his son with “plenty of grain and wine” (Genesis 27:28). The Nazirite vow included a temporary fast from wine and other grape products, after which he was free to drink wine (Numbers 6:3-4, 20). Moses told the Israelites that if they were faithful to the Lord, he would bless them with corn, wine, and oil, and that if they abandoned their covenant with God he would withhold these things from them (Deuteronomy 7:13; 11:14; 28:39, 51; see also Joel 2:19, 24). Jesus turned water into a wine at a wedding (John 2:1-11).

Contrary to some popular polemics, wine in these biblical passages refers to the fermented, alcoholic beverage, not simply to grape juice. That is why the Bible also warns against getting addicted to or drunk on wine (Proverbs 23:20; Isaiah 28:1; Ephesians 5:18; 1 Timothy 3:3, 8; Titus 1:7; 2:3; compare 1 Timothy 5:23). In Scripture, wine is a good thing that must not be abused, not a bad thing to be rejected. It is drunkenness and addiction that the Bible criticizes, not alcoholic drinks. Of course, the more heavily alcoholic “strong drinks” more easily produce drunkenness and addiction, which is why people should normally avoid them—but the Bible lacks any blanket condemnation even of strong drink.

The evidence of medical science supports this biblical teaching concerning the moderate use of alcoholic beverages. Studies consistently show that while excessive use is very harmful, moderate use of wine reduces the risk of heart disease and death.

Ironically, while Mormons currently interpret the Word of Wisdom to require absolute abstinence from all alcoholic beverages, this is clearly not what it says. D&C 89:5-7 explicitly allows that wine may be used in the sacrament, as long as it is pure and produced by the Saints themselves. Consistent with this policy, three years earlier Joseph had announced that the Saints were not to drink wine or strong drink produced by their enemies but wait until they could produce it themselves (D&C 27:2-4). Over 180 years later, with all its wealth and resources, the LDS Church uses water in the sacrament and chooses not to pursue the production of its own wine.

Even more of a problem for the current LDS policy is the fact that the Word of Wisdom permitted the consumption of “mild drinks” made from “barley” and other grains (D&C 89:18). In a word, it permitted the drinking of beer. Yet Mormons today view beer as just as much prohibited by the Word of Wisdom as smoking cigarettes or drinking tequila.

Judging from his behavior, Joseph Smith did not take the Word of Wisdom very seriously. The LDS official church history records several occasions in the years following the Word of Wisdom in which Joseph Smith and other leaders with him drank wine—and not as part of the sacrament (History of the Church, 2:369, 378; 4:120; 5:380; 7:101). In 1843, ten years after the Word of Wisdom, Joseph had the city council in Nauvoo authorize him to sell “spirits” (liquor, not just wine) from his home (History of the Church, 6:111). Joseph’s diaries and other papers include many more references to Joseph drinking wine in non-sacramental contexts, some of which were edited out of History of the Church.

That Joseph was violating the Word of Wisdom was understood by at least some Mormons in Joseph’s own day. For example, in 1835 one Elder Almon W. Babbitt, when charged with “not keeping the Word of Wisdom,” explained “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” (History of the Church, 2:252). Recall that the previous year Joseph himself had put forward a resolution that had been officially adopted by the Church Council barring anyone from serving in a church office who knowingly violated the Word of Wisdom. Yet Joseph himself had been doing so and continued to do so until the end of his life.

2. Tobacco

There is no question that the use of tobacco (smoking or chewing it) is extremely harmful to human beings. Most of the scientific facts about the harmful effects of tobacco use have been learned since about the middle of the twentieth century. However, already in Joseph Smith’s day smoking or chewing tobacco was widely regarded as unhealthy. “Anti-tobacco” efforts, including sporadic outright government bans on smoking tobacco, were over two centuries old. Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, published an essay in 1798 strongly criticizing the use of tobacco. Tobacco had long been regarded as a “poison” and often listed along with alcohol as a substance to be avoided. In 1828 German researchers gave pharmacological precision to this popular judgment against tobacco by isolating its nicotine and classifying it as a “dangerous poison.” The New York Anti-Tobacco Society was established in the 1830s and was issuing reports denouncing smoking of tobacco, such as J. Smyth Rogers’s book, An Essay on Tobacco (1836). In 1833, the same year as the Word of Wisdom, a Congregationalist pastor in Massachusetts named Orin Fowler published A Disquisition on the Evils of Using Tobacco.

Joseph Smith did not need divine revelation, then, to know in 1833 that the use of tobacco was harmful to one’s health.

3. “Hot drinks”

Easily the most confusing and controversial part of the Word of Wisdom concerns its prohibition of the consumption of what it calls simply “hot drinks.” The LDS Church officially defines “hot drinks” to refer specifically to coffee and tea, and by extension to prohibit any habit-forming or unhealthy beverage:

“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” (Handbook 2: Administering the Church [2010], 21.3.11).

Iced teas and iced coffees are also unacceptable, despite the fact that they are not actually hot drinks. On the other hand, hot herbal teas, hot apple cider, hot chocolate or cocoa, and other such hot beverages that are not coffees or non-herbal teas are now acceptable. These seemingly contradictory applications of what sounds like a simple prohibition of “hot drinks” leads to the obvious question of why in the current LDS policy some drinks, both hot and cold, are forbidden and other drinks, again both hot and cold, are not.

The usual explanation for the prohibition against coffee and tea is that they are stimulants. There is some historical evidence to suggest this may have been part of the reason for the prohibition: early nineteenth-century health experts often expressed concern about the stimulant properties of coffee and tea; and in 1820 and 1821 European scientists independently isolated the chemical caffeine in coffee and identified it as the active stimulant. However, the language that Joseph Smith used was inclusive of other drinks that did not contain such chemicals. “Hot drinks” in 1833 meant exactly that—hot drinks. A popular belief of many people in the nineteenth century was that drinking hot beverages was bad for one’s health simply because of their temperature. For more than a century, this was how Mormon leaders commonly interpreted the stricture against hot drinks. According to Brigham Young, “hot drinks are not good. We will use cold drinks to allay thirst and warm drinks for medicine” (Journal of Discourses 12:209). Other LDS leaders expressing the same perspective included George Q. Cannon—who included chocolate and cocoa on his list of hot drinks (Journal of Discourses 12:221), David Smith in 1930, and Joseph Merrill in 1945 (Conference Report, April 1930, 85; October 1945, 136).

As medical science refuted this once popular view of hot drinks, LDS leaders have dropped earlier objections to such fluids as cider, chocolate, and soup, and have focused primarily on coffee and tea. LDS Church publications, including its official magazine Ensign, have issued warnings about the dangers of caffeine, at least implying that caffeine is the problem with tea and coffee. Yet a 1988 article in Ensign on the dangers of caffeine suggested that drinking decaffeinated coffee was also unhealthy, though the article stopped short of forbidding its consumption. Furthermore, hot chocolate or cocoa is heavy with caffeine (and of course is literally a hot drink) but is no longer forbidden. Notoriously, Mormons have given and received mixed signals regarding the drinking of caffeinated sodas. Colas and other sodas with caffeine are not prohibited but in some instances Mormon leaders have discouraged their consumption, either directly or indirectly. An often-quoted statement from 1988 is the following:

“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” (Clifford J. Stratton, “Caffeine—The Subtle Addiction,” Ensign, June 1988, 60).

The hedging in this statement—one might even describe it as lawyerly—reflects the unsettled nature of the issue. The LDS Church does not ban all caffeinated drinks, but it does ban some of them—and the basis for banning some but not others remains unclear to this day. Neither the temperature of a beverage nor its caffeine content is the basis for determining whether it is forbidden or not. The LDS Church has no consistent criterion that explains why some drinks are prohibited and others are not. The drinks that are forbidden are forbidden because the Lord says so in the Word of Wisdom.

The complicated explanations and definitions of which drinks are forbidden and which are not are reminiscent of the rabbinical debates down through the centuries regarding what work is permissible on the Sabbath and what work is not. Such discussions continued into modern times, with pronouncements made on such questions as whether having a light come on in one’s refrigerator when the door is opened constitutes work (the rabbis concluded that it does). Instead of simply teaching its members that they should exercise sound judgment in what they drink, the LDS Church leaders have struggled to specify which beverages are permissible and which ones are not. In the process they end up with a list of prohibited drinks that has no coherent relation to the supposedly revealed statement of Joseph Smith forbidding “hot drinks.”

Not only did Joseph Smith act as if the Word of Wisdom was not divine revelation, but the LDS Church today does not treat D&C 89 as divine revelation. It certainly affirms strenuously that it is revelation, but it treats the Word of Wisdom as a wax nose to be reinterpreted constantly to fit with Mormon cultural mores and modern science. This is why recent speeches and conference addresses on the Word of Wisdom typically turn quickly from discussing tea and wine to moralistic warnings about the dangers of using illegal drugs—about which the Word of Wisdom says nothing. There is some good advice in D&C 89, along with some outmoded advice such as avoiding all hot drinks that must be creatively reinterpreted to make it relevant today. What is good in it is indeed good—but the Word of Wisdom is the time-bound opinions of a man, not the revelation of the transcendent and omniscient God.


For Further Study

Groat, Joel B. “Joseph Smith’s Uncensored Diaries.” A review of An American Prophet’s Record: The Diaries & Journals of Joseph Smith.