What is it about famine?

Hyrum Smith, then second-in-command of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, preached in May 1842 on the Word of Wisdom. In a fascinating treatment that shares much with the contemporary physiological reformers, Hyrum visits many issues relevant to the Word of Wisdom that are worth reading at length.[1]

Toward the end of his discourse he attempts to explain why meat is to be reserved for famine. He invokes something like vegetarianism, then explains that during a famine “all domesticated animals would naturally die, and may as well be made use of by man, as not,” a view approximating a “windfall fruit”[2] version of vegetarianism.[3]

I had always assumed this disclaimer on the consumption of meat related to folk beliefs about hot and cold (or stimulating and calming) elements in food, and the body, that only when it was cold outside (winter) or when the harvest failed out-of-time (famine) could the human constitution tolerate the stimulation of meat. This sermon argues that such was not the only or most important explanation, at least for the Prophet’s older brother.

What do you all think about this? I don’t mind if people start yelling back and forth about vegetarianism, but I’m also curious how people view our relationships to animals, the relevance of the seasons and the harvest to our food ethics, and the meanings of the Word of Wisdom beyond its use as a test of piety.[4]

[1] Robert Abzug’s Cosmos Crumbling is a very readable introduction to and situation of the physiological reformers.
[2] I’m vaguely invoking a version of Jainism, one of the most extreme versions of a life-respectful diet.
[3] Omega, “The Word of Wisdom,” Times and Seasons 3, no. 15 (June 1, 1842): 801.
[4] “Piety” is liberal-speak for “worthiness.”
[5]This footnote is dedicated to Amri, testing her palate and her gullet deep in the Amazon. Happy Thanksgiving.


  1. It’s hard to consider the Word of Wisdom a serious observance when food is such a serious by-product in Utah. Not only meat, but chocolate, ice cream, soda… Many’s the member who shops in the XXL section of the clothing stores. No coffee, alcohol or cigarettes in their daily diet, but seriously… THIS is considered obedience to the Word of Wisdom?

    According to a Utah.gov site, 57% of the Utah population is overweight or obese.The population of overweight or obese Utahns exceeds the entire population of Montana. Yet they take such pride in keeping the beer alcohol level below the surrounding states’.

    I know it’s not meet (or in this case, “meat”) that we be commanded in all things, but perhaps a more punctuated word from the pulpit could help many members return to the spirit Brother Hyrum was speaking about.

  2. Jonathan Green says:

    According to this source (http://www.statehealthfacts.org/comparemaptable.jsp?ind=89&cat=2&yr=16&typ=2&o=a&sort=n), Utah’s obesity rate is the 7th most healthy of all states in the nation, and entirely in line with neighboring states. The definition and significance of obesity is a thorny issue, and undoubtedly there is room for improvement, but all those Utahns seem to be somewhat less obese than the national average.

  3. Chicken, fish, cow, buffalo, pork is to be eaten, else it wouldn’t taste so good. That’s all I have to say about that.

  4. mondo cool says:

    Gluttony is not part of the WoW; but, I’m pretty sure, is not looked favorably upon by the scriptures and is, in fact, almost always correlated with drunkeness. I can envision non-meat eating gluttons. And, I think you are right, there is a higher law than the WoW.

  5. Could you explain more who the physiological reformers were and what they did?

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    I think Hyrum’s rationale is fascinating, and I’m very glad he said it that way. My daughter is a vegetarian, and I have tremendous respect for those who eat in that fashion. All of that notwithstanding, I remain a carnivore myself.

  7. I had a professor at BYU who (tongue-in-cheek) liked to drop the first comma in D&C 89:13 so that it reads this way: “And it is pleasing unto me that they [meats] should not be used only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.”

    The nutritional advice is sound, though: easy on the meats, focus on fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, and whole grains. I still haven’t located the passage banning white sugar, though. ..bruce..

  8. Thinking about this issue, and the Word of Wisdom generally, that it is worth looking at specifically as a commandment given to rural nineteenth century Americans. As food production methods have changed, and as the church has spread, the ability to have a comprehensive reading of the Word of Wisdom seems impossible. As an example, there are places (Mongolia jumps to mind) where abstaining from meat even in the summer would be nearly impossible. The Word of Wisdom has already been adapted to our times regarding the use of narcotics unknown to the early saints: why can’t we adapt other parts of it to our own needs in our own families as well?

  9. For a little historical context of Hyrum’s WoW perspectives, vis a vis, meat, I love this little excerpt from the Office Journal of Brigham Young:

    February 24, 1860 (pg. 42)
    President Young in the course of his remarks alluded to the zeal of Hyrum Smith, brother of the Prophet, in his views of the Word of Wisdom, who prophesied that every Saint who chewed tobacco would apostatize. President Young observed, he [i.e., Hyrum] prophesied by Hyrum Smith and not by the Spirit of the Lord, and the he (Hyrum) would eat about 3 lb of fat pork in a day; and yet be so sever upon a tobacco chewer;

    Perhaps there was a naturally high pig mortality in Nauvoo.

  10. Jonathan (#2), I saw that stat, too, but it was the 57% and Montana thing that jumped out at me. The saints have less excuse to enjoy this condition because we were given a clear directive from an acknkowledged heavenly source. We know what’s right and wrong, we just choose to file it as a less serious law.

    I recently learned that my cholesterol was through the roof, largely due to genetics. I was sent to a cardiologist who said from then on I could have no meat, no dairy and no fried foods. I was allowed seafood, but only “fish with faces”. I asked him how long I had to stay on that diet, to which he responded, “How long do you want to live?” So from here on I get to turn my back on most of the foods I love for a healthier, longer life.

    The finer points of the WoW aren’t pounded on the pulpit like tithing, temple, home teaching, etc., and I think it might be because this is an area the Lord prefer we learn and govern ourselves. If we search further through the teachings of the latter-day–and even ancient– prophets we’ll find the vegetarian counsel has been around all along. As for me, the meaning of the WoW’s temporal purpose is real, and a real bummer.

  11. Norbert expressed my view in #8. The things that can be applied universally (avoidance of addictive substances pitched by those who are selling them without regard to their effects on those who consume them) have become the modern focus of the revelation, while the things that, of necessity, must be left in the hands of individual members around the world no longer are “preached” from the pulpit.

    For example, I would never argue that obesity is due exclusively to genetics and not eating habits, but any focus by the Church that even hinted that obesity was sinful or in opposition to the WofW would paint with far too broad a brush and only encourage members to condemn other members for things that, in many cases, truly are outside their control. I am perfectly content with the way that the WofW is being interpreted “officially” and “universally” right now.

  12. Marjorie Conder says:

    In my own efforts to improve my life and health I have paid particular attention to the WoW. One part that I think we are overlooking which does bear on this discussion is that “all these to be used with prudence and thanksgiving” (vs 11)–wisdom if you will. I am trying (with mixed results) to hold myself to a higher standard than just the TR question.

    Also in regards to vegetarians, there is an interesting verse in D&C 49:18 “And whoso forbiddeth to abstain from meats, that man should not eat the same, is not ordained of God.” So combining this with the better known WoW “eat meat sparingly” we get a more complex picture to wrestle with.

  13. I wasn’t suggesting that obesity should be preached as a sin over the pulpit. I was saying that switching one vice for another– namely, the excess of food, junk food, soda, etc.– defeats the temporal purpose and the lesson of the so-called “health law”. The Lord spelled out hot drinks, alcohol, tobacco and (through modern revelation) illegal drugs, and whoopee for us who eschew those. But adding on the idea of eating meat sparingly and concentrating on vegetables and grains suggests there’s more to the WoW than a laundry list of contraband. We’re responsible to conscientiously care for the bodies given to us. A daily diet of Big Gulps and Ding-Dongs isn’t going to keep someone out of the temple, but I feel it hinders their progression and suggests they don’t get the spirit of the law. But, that’s just me.

  14. To get back to your point, Sam. I’d question how universally the Saints considered the counsel on meat from the WoW. It seems that they were perpetually in a state of famine or at least hunger. You see constant mention of whiskey and tobacco in early sources, but I am unaware of any relating to meat, off hand. That Hyrum was known to be a voracious meat eater should, I honestly think, temper his discourse a bit. I don’t see his sermon as particularly shedding too much new light on early Mormon conceptions of the counsel. But perhaps he is simply admitting the inevitable, i.e., we must eat them because that is their purpose. I’m not sure that interpreting his words as indicative of “windfall fruit” perspective fits.

    Off the top of my head, it is Lorenzo Snow that I remember being a major proponent of meat moderation. I remember him in the 1883 SLC School of the Prophets only hesitantly going along with the coffee/tea/alcohol inquisition and Bitton highlights the meat emphasis during his Presidency. But I don’t remember anybody else that took the counsel to heart and regularly talking about it.

  15. When I asked my friend from Afghanistan what surprised him the most when he first arrived in the United States a year ago, he answered “There are so many fat people.”

  16. Even if you don’t go as far as only eating meat during the winter i think in general the American meat eating habits could change. If i compare an ‘American’ meal to a ‘dutch’ meal then Americans do eat a lot of meat. On average i would say that a typical dutch meal contains half the meat and double the vegetables.
    But as goes for anything in the scriptures (and as is said before) it’s easy to follow the letter of the law but not the spirit. In that we’re a lot like the pharisees.

  17. pdmallamo says:

    David T #’s 1&10: This is really the crux of the matter, and the battle here in Utah is definitely not pretty. When pressed on the issue the locals will tell you that WoW is not so much about health as obedience. Cigarettes are bad, but an ass the size of a washing machine is no problem. I’ve had a very good bishop tell me that the green tea I drink for health will keep me out of the temple, but Diet Coke, which, if I am correct, also contains caffeine, is OK. Unfortunately, there are few drinks on Planet Earth worse for you than Diet Coke. Where’s the common sense here? There is a health crisis in this state and it’s called obesity.

  18. Unfortunately, there are few drinks on Planet Earth worse for you than Diet Coke.

    pdmallamo, you might want to dial down the rhetoric a bit or at least comment on things you are sure about.

    It appears that you are fundamentally misunderstanding the WoW in Mormonism. There is the section in the Doctrine and Covenants and then there are the rules of the Church. And while the latter is based on the former, they are not the same. The rules of the Church, among other things, are a test of fellowship. You may want to disagree with that, and you will likely find plenty of historical precedent to do so; but having rules is generally viewed as acceptable.

    Of course being healthy is a good thing, and of course Mormons could do better (they however do much better than the majority of US citizens, thats for sure).

  19. Steve Evans says:

    don’t ever get into it with a food scientist about whether Diet Coke is the worst drink on earth.

    The worst drink on earth is Diet Dr. Thunder.

  20. #17 – I agree with the principle that Mormons should be even more health conscious than they are, but don’t even get your toes wet in a debate that implies Mormons have a health crisis beyond the general American population. You will lose that one every time.

    Besides, this is a thread about meat and famine. My take on the whole “sparingly” conversation is that it would be impossible for the Church to establish a reasonable standard as to what that means for individual members. Sparingly in frequency – or in size of portion at any sitting – or total consumption per day/week/month/year – or total consumption based on body weight – or some other criterion? Absolutely impossible to regulate – and I can’t even imagine the outcry that would occur if the Church tried, especially on this and other public blogs.

  21. How about this? My family lives on a budget. Purchasing meat in a socially conscious manner — buying meat that wasn’t produced via processes which I find disturbing and abhorrent — means buying less meat. It’s also healthier meat that tastes better. We eat it and we especially feed it to our kids. But we tend to treat it as a side dish. That’s all we can really afford without selling our souls in the process.

    Let’s not forget that all that “evilly-designing men” business comes from the WoW.

    My sense is that socially conscious eating in general virtually forces one to adopt dietary habits eerily consistent with the WoW (by which I meant the revelation and not the “rule of the Church”).

  22. Another thought:

    Is meat a more efficient delivery system for needed proteins and fats than other sources, and, though less desirable from the whole “unnecessary killing”/”without extortion” angle, a kind of necessary evil or emergency measure during times when low caloric intake threatens the immune functions of people (or “A People”)?

  23. Fascinating to me to see the modern reflexes of physiological metaphysics (green tea, immune-modifying meats) invoked in sorting through the meaning of the WoW. Are these parascientific food beliefs a modern version of the WoW? Is the green tea vs. diet coke debate more about body metaphysics than about ecclesiastical protest?

  24. I think a more important issue with regard to the WOW is the injunction to eat food “in the season thereof” Most of the problems with our food supply and health has to do with the processing of food to preserve it in order to be consumed year- round.

    Wheat is a good example. Consider what we call wheat. Its the white stuff that has been bleached, stripped of its bran (fiber) and germ (omega-3-fatty acids), and then supposedly re-enriched with a few vitamin chemicals that we consider essential. When we see real wheat we hardly recognize it. I bet you a majority of people if they were shown real whole wheat wouldnt recognize it. Whole wheat still isnt whole. It may have some bran added post-mordem but it still is lacking the germ or it would have to be kept in the freezer to prevent spoilage. Isn’t it ironic that we call white rice rice but the real stuff we add modifiers like long-grain wild brown unpolished, etc.

    Also, new research has shown that a critical gene which controls the amount of trace elements (Se, Mn, Cu, etc) in Wheat has been lost to current wheat varieties after these varieties were manipulated to increase yield. Scientists are only now working to replace these critical genes.

    It seems Hyrum’s explaination of meat also incorporated the concept of using it in its season.

  25. Mmmm. Ding Dongs….

  26. I’m surprised to see so much focus on the health-related consequences of eating meat, and not the morality of eating meat, which seems to by what Hyrum Smith was talking about. I think that his is an interesting explanation for why the WoW says what it does. For one of my classes (Peter Singer’s my prof, so obviously we’ve talked a lot about animal rights), I wrote a midterm paper about the morality of eating meat, and when I got to thinking about it, I realized that despite any admonition to eat meat sparingly, I don’t think I know even one LDS person who is a vegetarian. In fact, it kind of seems like most LDS people don’t really understand vegetarianism, much less have a clue what a vegan is or why someone would choose to be one. Not eating meat as part of the WoW is pretty much universally ignored, a while I wouldn’t suggest any kind of crackdown, I don’t really understand why this is.

  27. I know several LDS vegetarians. Some are vegan, some are some combo of ovo/lacto. Of course, I know many more LDS who are not vegetarian. Most of the LDS-vegs I know do it for moral reasons only vaguely (if at all) connected with the WoW. My flexatarianism (see #21) is motivated in part by reading Singer (and others including Michael Pollan and Richard Manning), and in part by the WoW.

  28. By the way, I highly, highly recommend reading both articles I linked above. Start with Manning, followed by Pollan. Should be required reading for any LDS who feel that how we treat our bodies and what we put into them are questions to be taken seriously.

  29. Marjorie Conder says:

    Megan–I think there are very few LDS vegetarians, let alone vegans because of D&C 49:18, as I quoted above. This verse seems to be warning us that radical vegetarian diets may be one sign of apostasy. However, as I also mentioned above, this does create an interesting tension with eating meat sparingly and all the various ways that may be interpreted.

    I think the Church cannot define “sparingly” as a TR question. What a quagmire it would be for bishops to try and sort all that out. I have decided for myself that we get TR for observing the minimal things requested, but we only get the promised blessings of the WoW if we are making a good faith effort at observing the whole of it–including the “prudence and thanksgiving” parts. I also think those “evil and designing men” are also behind such modern plagues as high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated fats.

  30. I know a fair number of LDS vegetarians (and was one for a time in the late 80s), so the assumption may not be entirely correct. Those who are vegetarians tend to see the proscription against forbidding eating meat to refer to religious bodies rather than individuals.

  31. J Stapley #18 re: Diet Coke : “There has, however, always been concern at the tendency [of aspartame] to break down, producing methanol, which is both toxic in its own right and which breaks down further to produce formic acid and formaldehyde; phenylalanine, another breakdown product of aspartame, is also dangerous to people with phenyketonuria, a common enzyme deficiency.

    “The 30 page aspartame report was drawn up under the auspices of America’s National Soft Drink Association (NSDA) whose governing body at the time included senior Coca Cola and Pepsi executives. It says: “We object to the approval of aspartame for unrestricted use in soft drinks.” It then lists ways in which aspartame was believed directly to affect brain chemistry, including the synthesis of vital neurotransmitters such as serotonin. (From The Light Party).

    According to your Splendid Sun bio, you work for a company called DFI. According to DFI’s website, “DFI is a is a biotechnology company using innovative electrochemistry technologies to discover and develop sweeteners for the packaged food and beverage industry.”

    Before you nail me for “rhetoric”, you might want to make an honest disclosure.

  32. #31 – I will let J. speak for himself, but you might want to re-read #18. There was no need for any “disclosure” in what he actually said. There was no explicit or implicit endorsement of Diet Coke. None.

    I hate Diet Coke, think it is a horrible drink and would never endorse it, but if you can’t name numerous drinks that are worse for you than Diet Coke . . . I’m at a loss to finish that properly.

  33. Steve Evans says:

    pdmallamo, I am laughing out loud at your insinuation that J. is in the pocket of Coca-Cola or something along those lines. It’s too farfetched to be as insulting as it is meant. Nonetheless, my advice to you is to tempt not the fates.

  34. He he he. Awesome. pdmallamo, you might be shocked to find out that there is thousands of times more methanol in apple juice than there is in diet coke. Oh the horror! Though, if I am not mistaken, this is why if Adam and Eve ate the apple, they would surely die.

    As to my graduate research, it was a new way to produce natural competitors to aspartame, (e.g., xylitol), so no need to fear.

  35. D&C 49 is saying that a church enforcement of vegetarianism is wrong, not that personally choosing a vegetarian life is wrong.

    And J. Stapley, stop filling your coffers off of the obese blood of the Diet Cola industry.

  36. Although off topic, I find that many people think that if they live the WoW that they are good members and that someone who doesn’t is in the gall of bitterness. The WoW is not the gospel and the gospel is not the WoW. That said it is an important aspect of the gospel, just not the sum total of what is righteousness.

    To the point at hand, I conjecture that as others have said that the wording is left vague because he that is required to be commanded in all things, the same is a slothful and unwise servant (or similar, too lazy to quote). We have been given our agency.

    I’ll tell you an interesting story. There was an elder in my brother’s mission in Brazil that had developed some type of food allergies (or similar) that adversely affected his body in a very negative way and his doctor said that he had to stop eating certain foods or it would kill him. Unfortunately that list included things like pizza and other such foods that he had spent his entire life learning to love. He couldn’t, or wouldn’t, stay off of the foods, and his MP counseled him to obey the doctor. He didn’t and as a result was sent home for violating the WoW.

    I believe that the WoW in general is a law of health and is usually focused only on the negative but adherents should look to the other areas as well. As far as meat goes the Lord is not anti-meat and if the Lord were, then I think that the FP would spell that out in an official pronouncement. (That’s all we’d need for being more firmly cemented as a peculiar people…) As the church has expanded beyond the mid 1800s and become a global body there is no need to make it any more specific beyond what personal revelation can bring, otherwise the Lord would have done so already. Now, if you’ll excuse me I have to set up a ribeye dinner with one of my home teaching families…

  37. I have tasted Stapley Cola. It opened the eyes of my understanding.

  38. Ugly Mahana says:

    Was it Cola or Kool-Aid?

  39. Mahana, good one. Around here, kool-aid is for closers.

  40. #36, reports like this fascinate me, in part because they represent the interactions of different metaphysics of food. The food allergy industry is a strange one, based on a few well-established conditions but expanding far beyond what is supported by any reasonable evidence. Unless that boy had gluten enteropathy, there may have been room for skepticism about the pronouncement of an doctor uncertain what s/he is dealing with. the boy may also have gone home because he was too sickly to continue his mission.

  41. The way I read the WoW, using meat sparingly is a commandment, and abstaining from meat is not; however, the latter is something pleasing unto the Lord. (V. 19 reads: “And it is pleasing unto me that they [the fleshes of beasts] should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.”)

    “It is pleasing unto me” is the phrase I try to use as my guide when making choices about meat consumption. Meat consumption is not forbidden, and using meat does not necessarily displease the Lord, but it does please Him when I choose to not use meat. I try to please Him in this way as much as possible.

    In a WoW discussion on mothering.com once upon a time, someone posted the idea that pregnancy and lactation create a state of “physiological famine” in the mother, so meat consumption during these times might be considered winter/cold/famine use.

  42. Kat, fwiw, I’ve heard the same basic argument for eating meat as a major part of a weight loss regime (“forced famine”). I think it’s interesting whenever something is taken out of its original context and extrapolated to something else. (not necessarily wrong, but interesting)

  43. I don’t each much meat for religious reasons, backed up by health reasons. The Lord said not to eat meat unless you are cold (winter) or starving (famine). I don’t “forbid” anyone to eat meat because “like should eat like.” That’s a moral\philosophical argument. It is not a sin to eat meat, but the Lord says that he is pleased when we don’t eat meat, unless you have to.

    Eat whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables. Don’t eat meat unless you have to. I don’t know why people try to make it into what it’s not.

  44. I’ve been a partial vegetarian for the last 6 years, and a few years before that. I say partial since I do eat seafood a couple times a week, though I avoid all land based meat.

    I went vegetarian for the second time after carefully reviewing a wide assortment of health studies on the subject and deciding for myself that it seemed like the more healthy choice.

    The first time I went vegetarian as a teenager with a few of my other LDS friends I did so out of a social choice, realizing that I did not like knowing of all the animals that had to die for me to continue eating meat. I made the connection when my grandparent’s slaughtered their cow that had become something like a pet to me as a younger child.

    To this day, my kid’s utterly object to the idea of us raising rabbits or chickens for meat, but have no problem with buying packaged meat from the store.

    My wife was a vegetarian off and on again for a number of years, but had to go back to eating meat when she had problems with anemia. I’ve seen a couple of other women have the same problem. Men fortunately don’t seem to have the same issues, since they don’t lose iron like women do through regular menstruation.

    So, I am the only vegetarian in my immediate family. But I am quite happy being so. I did notice a difference in my health. I rarely get sick when the rest of the family does (unlike before) and when I do, it isn’t nearly to the same degree as everyone else. I have also consistently noticed a greater sense of stamina. I noticed this difference in stamina soon after switching to my vegetarian diet, when I could compare my before and after difference. Since then I seem to be the Elder that is like the energizer bunny when helping people move and other strenuous activities.

    So, I believe the Word of Wisdom has been fulfilled in my life in the truest sense.

  45. Andrew Izatt says:


    D&C 49:18 can be a very confusing verse, and the footnote makes it even more worse. To see how the footnote significantly changes the meaning of the verse, apply it to verse 15. “And again, verily I say unto you, that whoso forbiddeth to marry is not ordained of God, for marriage is ordained of God unto man.” That makes sense. Now apply “biddeth” to “forbiddeth” in 15 like the footnote in 18 directs us and it completely changes the meaning. “Left” doesn’t mean “right” and “bid” doesn’t mean to “forbid.” “Forbidding” one to abstain from meats is not ordained of God. The interpretation you give to it, I believe, is inconsistent given all the verses which mention meat-eating in the scriptures.

    See JST Genesis 9:11 for further insight: “And surely, blood shall not be shed, only for meat, to save your lives; and the blood of every beast will I require at your hand.”

  46. Chuck McKinnon says:

    Dominion, by Matthew Scully, convinced my family to try vegetarianism for a month, and although we’re flexitarians now it’s no exaggeration to say that Scully’s writing single-handedly changed our diet.

    The basic premise of Dominion is that the proper meaning of dominion is stewardship, and where God grants stewardship He will inevitably require an accounting. Animals deserve humane treatment not because they are our equals, but precisely because they are not: we have the power to do anything we want to them, and their helplessness in the face of human power gives them a claim on our mercy: we may use them for food, but we must not treat them as mere units of production, with no inherent value.

    Scully’s arguments are far more compelling to political conservatives than those of, say, Peter Singer of Princeton, or of various animal rights groups who can be dismissed as extremists. This makes Scully’s succinct descriptions of factory farms all the more devastating, and his urging to “ask yourself why any creature of God, however humble, should be made to endure the dark, lonely, tortured existence of the factory farm, and what kind of people build their fortunes upon such misery” harder to ignore.

    The reaction of several friends to whom I’ve introduced Scully’s work via his essays reminds me of the apocryphal stories about investigators who stop the discussions because they’re afraid it might be true and don’t want to change their lifestyles. There are serious moral issues at stake and I was formerly too casual in dismissing them. Scully got me to pay attention.