Answer: It wasn’t. The Word of Wisdom was not ahead of its time in any way whatsoever. Of course, longtime readers of the Bloggernacle already knew this (given prior discussions of the topic here and at T&S). But I’m actually not interested in revisiting this issue in excruciating historical detail. Instead, I want to point out something I learned in Church today, that came as a bit of a shock: It turns out that the title of this post is — rather than being the query of a jaded blogger, waiting to pounce on the ignorance of his co-religionists — the first "suggestion for study and discussion" at the end of Chapter 11 in the David O. McKay manual.
I found this rather surprising. Maybe it shouldn’t have been, but I’ve always assumed the writers of Church manuals bend over backwards to avoid raising “controversial” issues. And surely the claim that the Word of Wisdom was “far ahead of its time” qualifies. To put things more starkly: I am aware of no other teaching, belief or claim with such broad-based currency among modern Mormons that is as demonstrably false as this one is. Can anyone else think of one?
For those unfamiliar with this matter, let me briefly summarize things: Many members of the Church are fond of claiming that the Word of Wisdom was some sort of health anachronism in the early 19th Century. This claim can be articulated in a number of different ways. Perhaps the most common is to say that Joseph Smith gave us the Word of Wisdom at a time when modern medicine/science had no explanation for why various prohibited substances (alcohol, tobacco, etc.) were “bad” for us. The clear conclusion to be reached (sometimes implied, sometimes stated directly) is that early 19th Century American health practitioners would have been bewildered by Mormon health claims at the time, but now — 175 years later — we Mormons have been vindicated, as modern scientific authority has finally caught up with the Prophet’s prescient truth claims. True objective evidence of Joseph Smith’s prophetic powers, apparently.
But this is all patent nonsense. Early 19th Century health reformers all over the country were teaching the exact same things the Word of Wisdom teaches, and most particularly in New England. Even if one doesn’t want to use this fact as a springboard for naturalistic theories on the origins of Smith’s revelation, the fact is still there. The claim that early 19th Century medicine had no scientific explanation for the dangers of alcohol and tobacco is true only in the most technical, narrow and meaningless sense. Since there was no such thing as a “scientific explanation” of most subjects in the modern sense, of course such “explanations” didn’t exist. But Smith didn’t provide a modern, scientific explanation either. So the relevant inquiry (assuming one is interested in demonstrating Smith’s "prophetic" skills) would be to show that Smith was teaching something unusual or non-obvious to others around him that we now know to be true by independent means. Yet the Word of Wisdom reads as a codified version of the conventional health wisdom of its day. So Joseph’s giving us the Word of Wisdom clearly does not meet this standard.
In my experience, those confronted with this fact for the first time react in a number of ways. Some become dogmatic and hide behind pious pronouncements in support of their prior understandings. Others become merely disconcerted, given the clear importance (if not centrality) of this claim to their image of Joseph Smith and his prophetic abilities. Still others try to wiggle out of the claim, redefining the nature of what they are saying, so as to inoculate the claim from the indisputable historical evidence that refutes it. But these redefinitions, inevitably, render the claim completely uninteresting. If all that Church members were really trying to say was that [insert watered-down truth claim here], then there’s no reason why anyone would bother to make it. It would cease to be significant or novel in any way, and we’d all stop saying it.
Having said all this, let me return to the question I think is raised by the “suggested question” in the manual. It is often said that Church classes are not the time or place to raise controversial issues or raise the hackles of the faithful who attend Church to be spiritually nourished. And the manual’s injunction not to utilize sources outside of the approved materials, whatever else its merits or purpose, is surely designed to minimize the chance of Church classes getting out of control. But what should one do when the manual literally invites the class to discuss an issue like this? Does one pretend to be uninformed on the issue, for the sake of not ruffling feathers? Can one legitimately and honestly discuss the issue without fear of being inappropriate or causing problems? (In case you were wondering — Yes, the claim came up in both the Elders Quorum lesson and Gospel Doctrine class today — No, I didn’t say anything).
Finally, was it naive of me to be surprised this question was in the manual in the first place? The question strikes me as a real “hot potato” that Church curriculum writers would want to avoid, but maybe I’m forgetting that “hot” issues in the Bloggernacle aren’t even necessarily on the radar at CES. In other words, maybe this is only a troubling issue for boring Mormon historians, Sunstone groupies and various Mormon blog geeks.