Word of Wisdom Vindicated! Again!

This article in the NY Times (registration required, etc., etc.) discusses the dangers of caffeine intoxication, once again permitting us to rub the world’s collective nose into our healthy, healthy lifestyle. I’ve tried not to rely on external scientfic data as an apologetic for the WoW: for every anti-tobacco study there’s some science in favor of drinking alcoholic beverages. What’s more, it sets up a dangerous pattern of obeying God’s commandments only when the outcomes are laid bare for us, which in my mind negates the role of faith.

How important are these studies, in your mind? Does it change the way you approach the WoW at all? Should we even think about using this kind of stuff as missionary tools? Will Mormons reduce their hot cocoa-swilling, chocolate-munching lifestyles accordingly?


  1. (sorry about the double post, Aaron said it better anyway.)

    D&C 89 has so many fun parts:

    v.8 – tobacco is for “bruises and all sick cattle.” huh?

    v.17 – “wheat for man, corn for the ox, oats for the horse,” etc. Should I be thinking about this verse when I’m choosing my box of Chex breakfast cereal?

  2. Aaron says: “seem to me that arguments about borderline cases would be better solved by looking at the history of the controversies of those specific borderline substances, or by coming up with specific theories about what the Word of Wisdom is “really” about.”

    I agree, I think this is pretty much what I was trying to say anyway. But the “history of the controversies” is what I don’t know.

    Let’s say a new convert is trying to decide which of the substances (diet coke? decaff coffee? green tea? “herbal” tea? tiramisu?, iced tea?) she should give up. What advice would you give her?

  3. Aaron, I didn’t say I just do what they tell me, I agree that in order to understand the word of wisdom as currently practiced, you have to go outside of the text, and put it into historical perspective. What I actually said was “I guess it’s just important that you draw the lines, then live up to what where you draw them.” My lines involve drinking diet coke, but feeling slightly guilty about it. :o) I will also eat food cooked in wine–but only if I have some knowledge of the cooking process and know that the alcohol has most likely cooked out. I don’t eat coffee flavored items because of the gross factor. I do drink hot chocolate. Those are my lines, I stick to them. (I realize that my lines are perhaps less orthodox than others’ but hey, I lived with a bunch of non-Mormons in Holland this summer who thought I was a little crazy for the no marijuana stance, so I feel pretty self righteous…) ;o)

  4. Aaron, I think you’re right and wrong about the content of the WoW. Clearly some things have been spelled out in clear letters: alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea, “harmful drugs” — the stuff in the missionary flipcharts. So there is a core of essentials that there’s no dispute about. So that’s where I think you’re off.

    You’re obviously right about the prenumbra surrounding the WoW and where it should logically take us.

  5. Aaron, you are the “liberal Mormon” par excellence.

    Bush’s articles are worth reading, I guess, but you don’t have to be an academic to see the issues at play here, and to talk in an interesting way about them: the reasons behind the WoW, the way the Lord speaks through Prophets, and how we should grind our own bread and drink malt liquor.

    In all seriousness, this WoW is a great example of a mormon discussion where expertise helps but isn’t required in order to get at the heart of issues.

  6. By the way, for those interested in reading up on these issues, or who just want ammunition to fulfill their snarky “liberal Mormon” tendencies and scare/bore/insult their fellow church members with scary data points, the must-read works on the Word of Wisdom are, in no particular order:

    (1) Thomas Alexander’s _Mormonism in Transition_.

    (2) Lester Bush’s _Health and Medicine Among the Latter-day Saints_.

    (3) A number of old Dialogue articles by Lester Bush (sorry – no references handy).

    Now — everybody go get copies of these works, read up on the issues, and promise me you’ll drop your newfound knowledge at just the right moments so as to scare at least one naive Church-goer next Sunday into running screaming from the building. We’ll compare experiences next Monday.


    Aaron B

  7. Clark, I can appreciate a Pepsi One habit. That stuff is da bomb.

    Diet Coke with Lime is the new alpha predator among sodas, however. Wow it is good, and underlines how bad D.C. with Lemon is.

    But I’m with Karen — I don’t engage in talmudic thinking about the WoW, I just follow whatever they’ve told me to do. It’s a much simpler way of living the commandment. But how far can that kind of perspective really take us?

    My Jewish friends are amazed that we haven’t thought through some of these commandments a little more; they ask me details on the WoW, what time my sabbath begins/ends, etc. It reminds me all of the very nice paper Jim Faulconer gave not too long ago about the non-doctrinal nature of our religion. Jim, if you’re out there, can you provide a URL to it??

  8. Does anyone here know anything about the background for the prohibition against “hot drinks?” I think I read somewhere that some 19th century health-nut types thought it was harmful to drink hot (temperature) beverages. Maybe this was the original meaning of the WOW…it sounds more reasonable to me than the idea that God wanted to prohibit only cofee and tea (whether served cold or hot) but couldn’t express himself clearly.

  9. Ed — The short answer to your question (and yes, there is a longer answer) is:

    (1) The short list of prohibited substances (ALL alcohol, tobacco, black tea and coffee) was finalized in the early days of Joseph F. Smith’s presidency (around the turn of the century, right after Lorenzo Snow died).

    (2) The idea of 100% abstinence from prohibited substances as a prerequisite to temple attendance dates back, I believe, to the late 19-teens, early 1920s. That is, not until the end of Joseph F. Smith’s prophetic tenure does the requirement become set in stone. Prior to that time, the Church was still making exceptions for long-time users of various substances.

    By the way, I’m not sure how this question “becomes relevant every time we argue about the borderline cases.” It seem to me that arguments about borderline cases would be better solved by looking at the history of the controversies of those specific borderline substances, or by coming up with specific theories about what the Word of Wisdom is “really” about. Those are different issues, though.

    Aaron B

  10. Ed — You’re right that early 19th Century Mormons would have understood “hot drinks” to mean hot beverages generally. Such beverages were thought to be harmful back in the day. Lester Bush has written about this issue in a variety of places.

    I have read somewhere (Lester Bush again?) that the phrase “hot drinks” was defined very shortly after the appearance of the Word of Wisdom to refer strictly to tea and coffee. I think I’ve read elsewhere that the narrow definition didn’t come until much later. I’m afraid I don’t know the right answer for certain.

    I disagree with those that think the phrase “hot drinks” is so ambiguous as to raise interesting issues about God’s clarity. You could say that about any revelation, if you wanted to nit-pick enough. There is the thorny issue of understanding words and phrases in their historical context, of course, but once again that’s true for lots of things written in the 19th Century — not just the WofW passages.

    A more interesting issue, in my view, is the question whether the specific substances that make up the Word of Wisdom were necessarily “enumerated” by God at all The Word of Wisdom looks so similar to what health reformers back in the day were teaching, that I think it’s fair to wonder if the process of particular prohibited substances “making the list,” so to speak, was more environmental than relevatory. (Note that I could turn that into a full-blown “secular” interpretation of the WofW — or not).

    I report, you decide.

    Aaron B

  11. Ed, I second your historical wanderings. I think it is a likely context.

    However, the idea that “God…couldn’t express himself clearly” is troublesome, isn’t it? First, it presumes what God meant (not an easy task), and second, it presumes limitations on His ability to communicate with us. It is perhaps insightful as to the limitations of God speaking through Prophets. Not sure where your comment can take us, though, in terms of how we’re supposed to interpret the WoW, or in terms of how we’re supposed to interpret what God tells us in any context.

  12. Kristine says:

    Ed, I think that’s actually a pretty likely historical interpretation–I’d have to actually WORK to find the sources, but I have seen them, and I agree with you that this is more likely.

  13. Ed, way to spoil our fun with real-world consequences.

    To a new convert, I would give this advice: avoid tea and coffee in all their forms, because they have been addressed specifically; avoid alcohol, except perhaps in cooking, because it too has been the subject of specific mention; avoid tobacco and illegal drugs; and use practical judgment and restraint in other foods/substances that can affect your mood, state of being, etc. If you took this path I think you’d be safely in the mainstream of mormon convention.

  14. Following up on Kristine’s comments…

    What makes the Word of Wisdom so interesting to me is that it would be virtually impossible for a person unfamiliar with modern Mormonism to deduce our modern practice by turning to the text.

    According to the text (understood in its historical context), it’s O.K. to drink alcohol, as long as it’s not too strong; one shouldn’t imbibe beverages of high temperature; one should eat meat sparingly; and all these “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” are just good ideas anyway — definitely not commandments.

    How many other features of modern Mormon life that purport to have “doctrinal” bases can you say that about?

    Aaron B

  15. FWIW, I do not live the Word of Wisdom because of its health benefits; I live it because it’s a commandment. If I am healthy because of it, bonus.

    I teach the same thought to my family.

  16. Kristine says:

    fwiw, when Pres. Benson was president of the European mission in the 60s (my dad was one of his APs), he managed to convince himself (all obvious evidence to the contrary notwithstanding) that the alcohol was cooked out of his favorite torte from the local Baeckerei (anybody know how to do an umlaut around here?). I’ve never had any qualms about small amounts of alcohol in desserts!

  17. Gigi — Many Mormon cola-drinkers assume that the “no caffeine” preoccupation of some members is just a folk belief derived from the understandable, but mistaken, inference from the “no coffee” rule that caffeine must be the ingredient that warrants the coffee prohibition. Not so. The anti-caffeine preoccupation has been a long-standing hobby horse of certain Mormon leaders, particularly John Widtsoe. Various LDS institutions, including BYU, adopted the “no caffeine” rule at Widtsoe’s urging.

    Interestingly, the Coca-Cola company actually sent representatives to meet with President Grant and they successfully convinced him NOT to back an anti-Coca Cola health campaign in Utah, back in the day.

    The 1st Presidency has issued statements refusing to extend the WofW to cola drinks. It has also issued letters saying that 97% caffeine-free coffee is O.K. to drink, which would seem to suggest that caffeine IS the prohibitive ingredient in coffee. In short, I think you’re right that the Church hasn’t sent a real consistent message on this issue. To call it a “misconception” though, is to assume there is an indubitably correct “perception” to be had. I am doubtful…

    Aaron B

  18. Gigi,

    You’re right that the caffeine thing seems to be a mixed message. But I think that’s because so many members are trying to justify why coffee/tea would be banned, rather than because the church is setting a policy.

    Individual letters from some leaders aside, the church hasn’t taken a public stance on caffeine in general. So I disagree with Aaron on this point.

    Basically, I subscribe to his “folk theory”: because the caffeine seems such an obvious reason to avoid coffee, many, many members (and some general authorities) have interpreted the ban on coffee as a wider ban on caffeine.

    So why then is there no regular Coke at BYU? I think it is a side effect of this widespread interpretation; the Church doesn’t want to embroil itself in a debate over WoW specifics, and avoids controversy (or tries to) by not taking any actions which could be misconstrued.

    Many members figure the WoW as they go along, and their testimonies come to different resting points. Colas were verboten in my house as a kid; I should tell you the story sometime of when I had my first Coke, and how I gained my WoW testimony. It involves a rodeo circus.

  19. Gigi, you are (as usual) absolutely right. There are tremendous negative implications from having these ambiguities in our doctrine, but others view this as a source of strength — I see it as a chance for us to think and act as agents for ourselves, rather than just get commanded for everything.

    I once asked a person I respect very much whether our church, given enough time, would flesh out all these ambiguities. Their response was, “I hope not — we don’t live in a rabbinical church.” That’s how I feel about it too. While it would be nice to have written answers to all our questions (my employer, for example, would appreciate an articulated sabbath policy, I’m sure), such answers would run contrary to the essence of lds belief, which I think is testimony and faith-based rather than theologically-oriented.

  20. Kristine says:

    I have no room to talk about this one–my diet Coke addiction is monumental–however, it’s worth noting that chocolate has a negligible amount of caffeine. You just can’t eat enough of it to get a real caffeine buzz without throwing up.

  21. I just stick to what’s explicitly listed in the WofW. I don’t get caught up on the caffeine thing because Excedrine is a wonder drug. I guess I’m like Karen, I do it because I’m supposed to. But I must say, I do still sometimes have to think it through when I’m at an office party/pitch-in and someone pulls out a very lovely coffee flavored cake/ice cream/candy. Do I have a piece or do I stay away? Usually when I do, someone pipes up, “hey, I thought you Mormons couldn’t drink coffee?”

  22. I remember the first time I had a flambe dessert — I thought I was going to Hell.

    Little did I know that’s where I really was going (hello, law firm!).

  23. I’d quit drinking pop entirely but then Pepsi and Apple had that free song give away last month. Further I figured out that by tipping the bottle you could read the cap and win every time. Suddenly I was back to a two bottle a day habit. Now I’m stuck making resolutions to quit again.

    On the other hand I did get some great music at iTMS.

  24. I’m obviously much less worldly than the rest of you, since I’ve never even heard of “Diet Coke with Lime.” This just confirms my spiritual superiority to my fellow bloggers, and knowing this about myself gives me warm fuzzies.

    Karen and Steve — it’s all fine and good to say that you don’t think about the WofW rationales and you “just follow whatever they’ve told me to do,” but it seems to me that many of the WofW debates that preoccupy people are about the very content of “what they’ve told us to do.”

    Aaron B

  25. I’ve been having the WoW discussion with some friends lately. I realized to what extent I don’t worry about the rationale when they caught onto the loopholes as I became a little frustrated….no hot drinks, except hot cocoa, or is it no caffeine, as I sit there drinking my diet coke (with lime, which is the best ever….especially with some fresh lime in it…) and eating chocolate. Finally I said everyone has a rationale, and I don’t really know why this is a commandment, I just obey it. One friend’s response suggested that she understands that perhaps the principle is more important than the outcome. She said “I guess it’s just important that you draw the lines, then live up to what where you draw them.” Her words were really reflecting my attitude. I guess this is one area where I really really don’t care about the rationales. Does anyone else have this reaction? Maybe I’m getting lazy with age, I think I used to care, and get rather worked up about it.

  26. It is really interesting to me to see how this thread evolves — how quickly we can go from discussing overall approaches to the WoW, to nitty-gritty details of do/do not. It speaks volumes as to the nature of LDS belief and theology, IMHO.

    Karen, I agree re: icky coffee flavor. But I love the smell, for some reason.

  27. Karen — I’m with you on the coffee-flavored items. YUCK! And I don’t even particularly care for the smell (it’s probably my advanced spirituality compared to everyone else, once again). :)

    Mat — Of course, 19th Century Mormons didn’t understand “beer” to be a “strong drink” either. Thomas Alexander has written about this. If memory serves (it may not), there were debates in the highest quorums at the turn of the century (under Lorenzo Snow) as to whether “Danish beer” was really a strong drink, etc.

    About a year ago, our neighbors offered us some homemade iced tea. We had a misunderstanding with them, and thought that it was the non-prohibited kind. We were wrong, but didn’t have enough experience drinking tea to know the difference. My wife and I drank gallons of the stuff for three days straight, until we figured out it was the prohibited kind. We stopped drinking it, but let me just say that stuff was GOOD! (much better than your average iced tea, apparently).

    Aaron B

  28. Karen, about your 2nd point, I don’t know much about it… but when I read Juanita Brooks’ biography by Levi Petersen, it quoted her and letters she wrote about her family drinking coffee and how the church leaders would sometimes try to get them to stop but the people (her family) wouldn’t do it.

    And didn’t we read in the RS/Priesthood manual about Heber J. Grant that during his presidency he gave a big push for the current interpretation (no coffee, no black tea) of the Word of Wisdom?

  29. Karen, thanks for pointing out your idea #1 above. You got to something that I was thinking but couldn’t express: that the WoW is a chance to us to watch how inspiration becomes revelation, how revelation becomes doctrine, and doctrine becomes church law. It’s an extremely interesting thing to watch.

    In other words, it’s how a bill becomes a law! Perhaps we could do a Schoolhouse Rock version?

  30. Grasshopper says:

    On the whole caffeine/decaf/cola thing, check out this thread at Sons of Mosiah:


  31. Once again, speaking as a recent convert: what’s the deal with caffeine?

    Caffeine is not specifically mentioned but alot of people seem to interpret no “hot drinks” to also mean no caffeine. If the caffeine thing is more of a social misconception, why is it places that are church-affiliated (the Polynesian Cultural Center and I’m told BYU) only serve caffeine-free Coke, thereby sanctioning the misconception.

    First, can anyone clear up these mixed messages?

    Second, if the caffeine ban is a misconception, I acknowledge that the caffeine issue is a minor issue, but in a broader sense, should the Church be taking a policy stance based on a widely-held misconception of doctrine and thus, perpetuating the misconception?

  32. Kristine says:

    So, the really important question here, obviously, is WHY IS DIET COKE WITH LIME SO MUCH BETTER THAN DIET COKE WITH LEMON?

  33. Speaking of prophets speaking as prophets, does anybody know much about how/when the current official interpretation of the WOW came about? I think it’s actually a very interesting case–in church lessons, we seem to talk as if D&C 89 is the source of the teachings, but the current missionary discussion version both adds and subtracts from this text.

    This becomes relevant every time we argue about the borderline cases (diet coke? decaff coffee? green tea? “herbal” tea? tiramisu?)

  34. Steve,

    When I was a missionary the Russian flipchart said something like alcoholic beverages under the WoW section. Many of the people I knew in Ukraine as a missionary didn’t consider beer an alcoholic beverage–and thought it was funny that I considered it alcoholic. Crazy Ukrainians!

    I have met the same response in regards to interpretation of the law as you have from some of the Jews I have spoken to about the church. The guy in the office next to mine has a plan whereby I can rationalize 0 income and thereby avoid tithing entirely. He has walked me through it at least twice. Then again, he didn’t know that animal sacrifice occurred in the Old Testament so I can’t vouch for his devoutness to his own religion–let alone his understanding of mine;) He reads our blog occassionally.

  35. Steve, you’re right, it’s troublesome. An orthodox position is that the WOW is the direct words from the Lord’s mouth. But then you do have to wonder why it isn’t more clear. So then you start thinking about the influence of the human prophet, and you start getting into naturalistic and historical-contextual explanations, and before you know it you’r one of those liberal mormons that Nate Oman finds tiresome.

    To get even more controversial, how about the use of barley for “mild drinks.” One could certainly be forgiven for thinking this refers to beer. (Being an originalist when reading the WOW can be perilous!)

  36. There’s another good online source. Mike Ash’s “Up in Smoke” traces the evolution of the WoW in an apologetic vein (e.g. responding to the Tanners labling them “hypocrites” for not following the modern interpretation.)

    My personal favorite is the First Presidency recommending that James E Talmage take up casual cigar smoking for his nerves, which he did:)

  37. your twisted sister says:

    this makes me think of a particularly memorable lesson on the WoW that centered around the scripture in 2 nephi 2 about God creating all things–“both things to act and things to be acted upon.” the teacher’s basic point was that God wants us to be the former, and that intake or use of certain substances turns us into the latter. i found that take very interesting, and i wonder if maybe that’s partly why caffeine has been on the chopping block, then–i know plenty of people who substitute either a few cups of coffee or a few diet cokes for a good night’s sleep and a healthy diet. at some point, they don’t “feel like themselves” without it. of course, being only a “social drinker” of caffeine, i don’t have that problem… :)

  38. Two points for my favorite liberals in all the world.

    1. I find it fascinating that this is a “safe” topic in which to discuss the “when a prophet is speaking as a prophet” issue and to explore the margins of a doctrine. I think that is because, to make a sweeping, but I think accurate, generalization–mainstream *faithful* Mormons don’t have WoW problems. This is the one that we find pretty easy to live. If we were talking about pride, chastity, gossip :o), visiting teaching, magnifying callings, etc., I think the discourse would get mired down in a lot of defensiveness and over-sensitivity. We’re not getting fussed over coffee because we don’t so much care. It is safely in the realm of the hypothetical, and happily it there remains.

    2. I’m pretty sure that the Word of Wisdom was “codified” as part of the temple recommend interview after the Utah Saints voted against the prophet in ending prohibition. So, eek, 1929 I think? (Before that, I think, it was more like a “have a two year supply of food storage” kind of commandment.) I don’t have anything with me to cross check that (and maybe I’m just fueling a Mormon-rumor–hooray for me), but I’m sure that the history buffs will be quick to correct me. :o)

  39. Kristine says:

    Well Steve, “mild drinks made with barley” sure as heck isn’t Postum. It’s quite likely, in fact, that it is beer, and there’s at least one documented instance of Joseph drinking beer post W of W. I don’t think it’s relevant now, since we have official and binding prohibition of beer, but that prohibition is pretty clearly NOT part of the original wording of the W of W.

  40. Well, Ed, I guess we get around Nate’s mitch & bone by asking ourselves about the practical impact of such speculations. I’m not going to jump onto your mild drink bandwagon, but I do really ask myself about the nature of revelation and the human filters that it passes through. I think it’s a monumental, crucial part of our gospel.

    Where it leaves me: wondering when a Prophet is speaking as a Prophet.

  41. When I refer to misconception, I suppose I’m referring to the mainstream perspective, that is, a lot of non-Mormons think “Mormons cannot have anything with caffeine.” So even though we recognize an ambiguity, there is a misconception in that non-Mormons are not aware that ambiguity exists.

    Also, sure the whole caffeine thing is minor and I can understand the Church wanting to avoid a debate on the specifics. At the same time, I wonder if avoiding controversy should be a good enough reason for allowing the “folk theory” to continue?

    In general, I have issues with these various “folk theories” that spring up. It’s as if people want to fill in the ambiguity with their own rationale, which could be good for someone at a personal level, but could have negative implications from a doctrinal perspective.

  42. You’re right about chocolate — believe me, I’ve tried. But like you, I also like D.C., and I’m unrepentant, especially now that Diet Coke with Lime is on the scene.

    This gets at the heart of one of the big WoW controversies — is caffeine a part of the Word of Wisdom? What’s “hot drinks” all about, anyways? It’s frustrating to think that caffeine is taboo because of our over-thinking the rationales behind the Wow, and yet it’s as plausible a reason as any other.