The Unauthorized Investigator's Guide to
The Church of JESUS CHRIST of Latter-day Saints

Lesson 4

Obey the Word of Wisdom

The Missionaries Will Teach...

Heavenly Father revealed to the prophet Joseph Smith a law of health called "The Word of Wisdom".  Heavenly Father promised us that if we obey this health code, we will have health, physical strength, protection against evil, and wisdom.

The Word of Wisdom teaches us to avoid alcohol, tobacco, tea, and coffee.  You should also avoid harmful drugs.  You must give up these substances before you can be baptized.  Our bodies are temples of the spirit and must be treated with respect.

Some Additional Thoughts...

Two Words of Wisdom

In reality there are two Words of Wisdom. One is the health code that is enforced upon members of the contemporary Mormon Church. The other is the revelation Joseph Smith recorded in 1833. The two are only loosely related. Here is a comparison of the similarities and major differences:

The revelation explicitly says it isn’t a commandment: "To be sent by greeting; not by commandment or constraint, but by revelation and the word of wisdom…" (D&C 89:2) On the other hand, the health code of the church is a commandment: "Among his commandments is a law of health known as the Word of Wisdom." (Discussion 4, Principle 7, Paragraph 2).

Both the revelation and the health code agree that we should abstain from tobacco.

The health code says we should abstain from alcohol. The revelation makes a distinction among alcoholic beverages, and recommends that some be used and others not be used. In general, alcoholic beverages can be broken into two types—those that are fermented juices or brews such as wine and beer, and those that are distilled alcohol, such as whiskey and rum. Because the D&C distinguishes between "strong drinks" and wine, it is safe to infer that strong drinks refers to distilled alcohol. Strong drinks are prohibited by the revelation, but wine is permitted for the sacrament if it is homemade and pure" (this does not imply that it is non-alcoholic). Also, "mild drinks" made of barley are recommended in verse 17. The barley drinks of Joseph Smith’s day were beer (5.5% alcohol) and "small beer" (1% alcohol).

Coffee and Tea
The health code says abstain from coffee and tea. In comparison, the revelation says abstain from "hot drinks". Mormons sometimes argue that "hot drinks" means coffee and tea because they were the hot drinks that existed in Joseph Smith’s day. Thus, iced coffee is a hot drink while hot chocolate isn’t a hot drink. It’s possible that by hot drinks Joseph Smith meant coffee and tea, but it is more likely that he was talking about drinks served at hot temperature. I base that assertion on a couple of things: first, that is what the text says. Second, it was the common belief of the day that drinks served at high temperatures were injurious to health. As we will see, in most respects the revelation reflects the common wisdom of the 1830’s. Thus it is most reasonable to assume that the common wisdom of the day is what he meant on this point as well.

Harmful drugs
The health code says abstain from harmful drugs while the revelation makes no mention of them.

Specific Substances In Your Culture
Preach My Gospel instructs the missionaries, "Your Mission President will answer questions about whether other specific substances in your culture are included in the Word of Wisdom."  (page 78) It's ironic that it says this a few pages after it says, "Truth is the same in every age and culture." 

Prophetic Nature of Word of Wisdom

Jeff Lindsay said,

[The Word of Wisdom] outlines principles of healthy living that go far beyond the scientific knowledge of the 1800s and much of this century…The 1833 dietary guidelines sound much like the recommended "food pyramid" produced by federally-funded research in the past decade.

His point is that this revelation is strong evidence that Joseph Smith was a real prophet—how else could he have known things in the 1830’s that weren’t scientifically verified until the latter part of the 20th century?

Perhaps the Word of Wisdom is even more prophetic than Lindsay is giving it credit for—the Word of Wisdom says that tobacco was created for all sick cattle—that is an insight on tobacco that modern science hasn’t picked up on yet.

The truth is, talking about the "scientific knowledge" of the 1800’s in this context is a misnomer—scientific medicine really didn’t come into being until late in that century. In the 1830’s there were "regular" or "orthodox" physicians who were trained in medical schools, and it was they who were most analogous to twentieth-century physicians. Although there was some disagreement among this group about what was and wasn’t healthy, most of the suggestions in the Word of Wisdom were in fact the most agreed upon guidelines for health among the medical elite that existed at the time. And these views weren’t limited to these doctors, but were also recommended in various popular forms of folk medicine.

The notable exception to that was tobacco. A few people believed that tobacco was bad for you, but it was more common to believe that tobacco was great for all sorts of ailments, from treating cholera to extending life. But, tobacco was at least beginning to fall into disfavor by doctors when the Word of Wisdom was recorded. Regardless of the doctors’ opinions of tobacco, it should be remembered that Emma Smith’s views on tobacco were the catalyst for the revelation in the first place: she complained about the spit-covered floors that she had to clean up after the early leaders of the church met in her home.

Considering Emma’s complaints about tobacco and the temperance movement that was sweeping the nation, the word of wisdom appears to be the common views of health of the time more than a prophetic utterance of undiscovered health secrets.

When considering this, another thing to think about is the things that the Word of Wisdom doesn’t contain. Many Mormons died during the 19th century due to diphtheria and typhoid fever. Many lives would have been saved had the Word of Wisdom would had told the saints to keep their hands clean, boil their water that wasn’t pure, and eat enough foods containing citric acid to prevent scurvy.

One other thing that Lindsay states is

The revelation also says that the health principles in it were given to warn us and protect us from the ‘evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days.’ I see that as a prophetic statement of the terribly evil role that the U.S. tobacco industry continues to play.

I disagree with this interpretation as well. I believe this statement about conspiracy is referring to the fear Joseph Smith had that his enemies would try to poison the Saints through the wine they would sell them. This is the same fear that is alluded to in Section 27.

Economic Motivation of the Word of Wisdom

My first question regarding the Word of Wisdom is this: why is abstaining from 4 or 5 specific things the only part of the Word of Wisdom that is enforced, when most of those 4 or 5 specific things aren’t even prohibited in the revelation? The second question is: how did a "not by commandment" revelation turn into a commandment?

The most satisfactory answer to these questions is Economics. A major goal of Brigham Young was Economic self-sufficiency--he wanted his people to thrive independently of the rest of the nation. He didn’t want the Saint’s scarce and hard-earned dollars leaving the territory of Utah to import the unneeded luxuries of alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea. Thus, more and more emphasis was placed on abstaining from these things as time went on. Brigham Young said:

How much do you suppose goes annually from this Territory, and has for ten or twelve years past, in gold and silver, to supply the people with tobacco? I will say $60,000. Brother William H. Hooper, our Delegate in Congress, came here in 1849, and during about eight years he was selling goods his sales for tobacco alone amounted to over $28,000 a year. At the same time there were other stores that sold their share and drew their share of the money expended yearly, besides what has been brought in by the keg and by the half keg. The traders and passing emigration have sold tons of tobacco, besides what is sold here regularly. I say that $60,000 annually is the smallest figure I can estimate the sales at. Tobacco can be raised here as well as it can be raised in any other place. It wants attention and care. If we use it, let us raise it here. I recommend for some man to go to raising tobacco. One man, who came here last fall, is going to do so; and if he is diligent, he will raise quite a quantity. I want to see some man go to and make a business of raising tobacco and stop sending money out of the Territory for that article. (Journal of Discourses, Vol.9, p.35, Brigham Young, April 7, 1861)

After Utah and the Mormons began to integrate with the rest of society, the economic motivation of enforcement of this interpretation of the Word of Wisdom disappeared. But the self-identity of Mormonism had already been ingrained by this list of things of which Mormons don’t partake. As medical science began to prove that the councils of the Word of Wisdom are in general quite good, the habit was reinforced among the membership and the leadership saw that it was a very positive trademark for the Saints.

"An Economic Interpretation of the Word of Wisdom" by Leonard J. Arrington, Published in BYU Studies 1959, Vol. 1, No. 1, p.37.

"The Word of Wisdom in Early Nineteenth-Century Perspective" by Lester E. Bush in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Autumn 1981.

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