Gospel Doctrine Lesson 22, The Word of Wisdom: “A Principle with Promise”

Barley for what?

Barley for what?

The following is some contextual material related to the Word of Wisdom, Doctrine & Covenants 89, Revelation, February 27, 1833. As current Mormons, however, I think that it is worth noting that there are many Words of Wisdom. There is the revelation text, there is the Temple Recommend rule and then there are personal rules by which we live. E.g., the text allows for mild barley drinks, and the Temple recommend rules allow for Diet Coke. I have friends who are vegetarian because of this revelation. The Word of Wisdom is many things and they are not all the same. [UPDATE] Also check out Jed’s article just published at the Church’s Revelations in Context.

Debates around dietary guidelines were prominent in the United States during this time. For example, Samuel Underhill, a prominent member of the Owenite community (a communitarian group related to the Morley family communal farm) preached around Kirtland before JS arrived. One tract that he wrote in 1829 included the following text:

Now it came to pass that the sons of men found in the land a certain plant having broad leaves and an acrid taste and it stupified the people.

2. And some burned it and drew the smoke thereof into their mouths & some put it in their mouths and spit forth the juice thereof for it was much & many made it very fine and drew it into their noses…[H]earken unto wisdom & be ye saved.

6. Strong drink is ruin; much wine is an evil, tea is a curse, coffee is injurious, tobacooes disgustful and poisonous and altogther are a great damnation.

6. [sic] Drink water alone, live on simple diet take due exercise and ye shall be happy. [n1]

The Morley family farm community apparently didn’t eat pork until JS came and said it was okay. [n2] The Shakers also had a dietary code. Moreover, the Temperance movement was by the early 1830s making significant ground, including in Kirtland; for example a whiskey distillery nearby was burned down. [n3] Later that decade Sylvester Graham (of cracker fame, and who also taught against alcohol, tobacco, coffee and tea) made significant inroads across America as part of his health reform movement.

Additional important context is the early Latter-day Saint affinity for Thomsonian, or botanic, medicine [n4] and their rejection of traditional allopathic medicine until it became clinically viable at the end of the nineteenth century. Frederick G. Williams of the First Presidency was a prominent Thomsonian physician in the area when this revelation was dictated by JS.

This revelation was first published on a broadsheet during the winter of 1833-34. It was included in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants. Frederick G. Williams copied the earliest extant text into RB2.

In 1876 Orson Pratt moved verses 1-3 from the heading to the body of the section. The comma following “used” in verse 13 was added in the 1921 Doctrine and Covenants, and was perhaps a printing error. It was retained in the 2013 edition.

2. not by commandment or constraint. See following discussing of the history of the Word of Wisdom’s implementation.

3. adapted to the capacity of the weak. Does the Lord do this often?

4. conspiring men. Does this relate to the revelation on Sacramental beverages?

5. only in assembling your sacraments before him. Remember the description of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper at the School of the Prophets. Look forward to the dedication of the Kirtland Temple.

6. of your own make. Bishop Whitney owned a significant tract of red currents, which he and his wife used for wine production and supplied the Latter-day Saints for most of the early Kirtland period.

7. washing of your bodies. This was a common medical treatment (remember that not only had the weekly bath not yet been invented, but also the winter bath was uncommon). This is an antecedent to the Kirtland Temple liturgy as well.

8. used with judgement and skill. Tobacco was commonly employed for medical purposes during this period.

9. hot drinks. This has been controversial since it was first dictated. Not all of the earliest Saints thought it applied to coffee and tea, though by Nauvoo it was clear that this was the subject. Some early Saints thought that any hot beverage was to be avoided. Though various church leaders have commented about the relationship of caffeine to the Word of Wisdom, presently there is no Church position regarding caffeinated beverages; though all habit forming substances are discouraged.

10. wholesome herbs. Early Saints viewed this to support Thomsonian medicine.

12. used sparingly. How are we doing there?

13. not be used, only. Does that comma make a difference? Clearly folks like Lorenzo Snow took this seriously.

15. these. I.e., the beasts, fowls and animals of vs. 14.

17. Note that rye is not great for fowls. This verse should not be read as prescriptive.

17. What “mild drinks” are made from barley and other grain?

18-21. Like other aspects of the School of the Prophets, this revelation should be viewed as a step toward the temple.

The following are articles dealing with how the Word of Wisdom was employed in our history.

Thomas G. Alexander, Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890–1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986), 258-272. [not available online]

Thomas G. Alexander, “The Word of Wisdom: From Principle to Requirement,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 14 (Autumn, 1981): 78-88.

Lester E. Bush Jr., Health and Medicine among the Latter-day Saints: Science, Sense, and Scripture (New York: Crossroad, 1993), esp. 48-59. [not available online]

Edward L. Kimball, “The History of LDS Temple Admission Standards,” Journal of Mormon History 24 (Spring, 1998): 135–176.

Paul H. Peterson and Ronald W. Walker, “Brigham Young’s Word of Wisdom Legacy,” BYU Studies 42, no. 3 & 4 (2003), 29-64.

Paul H. Peterson “An Historical Analysis of the Word of Wisdom” (MA thesis, Brigham Young University, 1972).


  1. Samuel Underhill, “Chronicles, Notes, and Mixims of Dr. Samuel Underhill,” quoted in Staker, Hearken O Ye People, 110.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid., 270, 402, and 406.
  4. See Jonathan A. Stapley and Kristine Wright, “The Forms and the Power: The Development of Mormon Ritual Healing to 1847,” Journal of Mormon History 37 (Summer, 2009): 70-71.


  1. What I would like to share when it comes to the Word of Wisdom is this, I used to drink a can a day of Diet Coke but I could tell every time I would drink one I would start getting light headed. I stopped drinking all “soft drinks” on February 11th this year and I can honestly say I feel so much better since then. I don’t get light headed anymore, and I have lost 7 pounds since then too.

    We all have to navigate the Word of Wisdom on our own but I can guartantee you that if you drop the Coke, Pepsi, Mt. Dew and Dr. Pepper your body will thank you.

  2. Sorry, I didn’t mean to derail the conversation right from the begining with my own Word of Wisdom experience.

    Thanks for your hard work on this post.

    I like how you said “The Word of Wisdom is many things and they are not all the same.” That’s very true.

  3. The Other Brother Jones says:

    Hot drinks is officially interpreted as Coffee and Tea. But I don’t know of any definition of Tea. In french, there are two words for tea, making a distinction between (black)tea and herbal tea. And I once saw packets of herbal tea available in a temple cafeteria.

    I think the word of wisdom generally is a great priciple inwhich to apply the “teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves” philosophy.

  4. The Other Brother Jones says:

    excuse my spelling. it’s monday

  5. Well done J. Thanks.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    Other Brother Jones, I interpret “tea” to mean drinks derived from the tea plant, Camellia sinensis, and not herb teas. I think that’s a pretty commun understanding in the Church.

  7. The Other Brother Jones says:

    Kevin. That definition of tea is technically true. But how many times have you heard the words Camelia sinsensis in Sunday School? I am not a big herbal tea drinker, but I had never heard an official distinction until I went on my mission and learned french. I am pretty sure that I had the opinion that herbal tea was OK before then, but I had no doctrinal, intellectual or rational basis for it.

    I just find it interesting that the caffeine/Coke issue is such a big deal, but different definitions of tea are never heard.

  8. J. Stapley says:

    TOBJ, I imagine that your experiences are nested in a particular region where there happens to be no such discussion. I’ve lived in a number of places and the distinctions were present in all of them.

  9. The big deal with WoW is selective emphasis, which is obviously influenced by American culture. At one time, for instance, coffee was associated with cigarette smoking, and suffered guilt by association – i.e, could not be simply ignored by Saints like meat eating is today. Now, with a large percentage of Americans and Mormons obese, one would think that animal flesh would suffer under the same onus, being (directly) associated with all manner of evil. Unfortunately it’s just the opposite, since elephantine has become the new normal. Leadership and a majority of members have decided (or decided not to decide) that weight, and all the disease that goes with it, is a PERSONAL issue and not germane to interviews in which a recommend holder is queried about … his health habits!!! When’s the last time the stake president asked, during a recommend interview, why you weigh 300 lbs? This kind of insanity weakens the entire statute or makes it seem antiquated and ridiculous, especially to those of us in the health professions.

    Thanks, J Stapley, for beginning a discussion re: a “teaching” desperately in need of revision.

    Lots of new research on coffee and tea, both green & black. Here’s an eye-opener (no pun intended: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/06/this-is-your-brain-on-coffee/?emc=eta1

  10. J., although I had come across the printing error involving the comma I had not heard about Orson Pratt’s alterations to the text. Would you mind reflecting a little more on where that historical context originated from and why Pratt decided to move into the text itself? I ask because I know it has been very influential on my readings of the section as a whole.

  11. J. Stapley says:

    Aaron, The 1835 D&C had the verses as part of the introduction, which followed the 1834 broadside. However, RB2, the earliest extant copy does not set off the text at all. I don’t know if the WW book of commandments version does or not. I don’t know why Pratt moved the text, but it is possible that he was making it more in line with the ms (I should, but I don’t know whether Pratt was influenced by the mss). It is an interesting shift, but one that I think makes sense.

  12. Pratt didn’t use the mss, mostly because of an imprint ethic at work in church publishing since the 1840s, I think. RB2 provides even less separation between the two parts. The revelation appears in BLC Bk. B, but I’m not sure if there is any difference there, I’m guessing not. It doesn’t appear in the Book of Commandments, The JSP gurus’ hypothetical “6th gathering” for the BoC only goes through 1831 revelations.

  13. Check that, the sixth gathering has a couple of revelations from Jan. 1832.

  14. Sheesh. I need to check everything. 1876 edition was in Utah. I’m taking a nap.

  15. Re: 1876. Pratt used an 1854 edition for a mark-up text. Going to sleep now.

  16. Thanks. Fascinating stuff.

  17. After listening to Eric Eliason talking about his book, “The J Golden Kimball Stories”, it sounds like the prohibition of coffee in the temple recommend didn’t start until about 1950. He talked about the word of wisdom becoming “boundary borders” that supplemented harsher requirements of plural marriage and communal living that were paramount boundary borders of the 19th century.

  18. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks, WVS. As I remember WW wrote a copy down in his Book of Commandments. I don’t know when or what text he used, though.

    Six, yeah, there was some flexibility, particularly for older folks fairly late into the 20th century.

  19. I’m a bit confused about the comment “the temple recommend rules allow for diet coke” in the first paragraph. I just renewed my recommend and was only asked if I kept the word of wisdom. There were no rules given nor any discussion. The Bishopric member was new and had his notebook open to the printed questions and was reading them exactly so I’m curious. Does your leader expound on what that means and that’s why the soda/pop comment or it is merely humor I am missing?

  20. I spoke too soon. The BLC Bk. B *does* separate the vs 1-3 material. So there’s that. Handwriting is Algernon Gilbert ~1833.

  21. J. Stapley says:

    Marcella, here is the handbook discussion of the Word of Wisdom:

    21.3.11 Word of Wisdom
    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.

    Drinking carbonated beverages that have caffeine in them will not disqualify you from receiving a temple recommend. The Church Newsroom recently wrote that “the church does not prohibit the use of caffeine.” This was later updated to say that “the Church revelation spelling out health practices (Doctrine and Covenants 89) does not mention the use of caffeine. The Church’s health guidelines prohibit alcoholic drinks, smoking or chewing of tobacco, and “hot drinks” — taught by Church leaders to refer specifically to tea and coffee.” I imagine because someone had a fit over the caffeine bit. Still it is technically true. You can read about the change here.

  22. J. Stapley says:

    That is really interesting WVS, re: BLC Bk. B.

  23. The grain thing has puzzled me a bit. The food quackery that goes down now a “science” has various branches that claim grains are “inflammatory” foods and shouldn’t be eaten. I propose an experiment. Respond to the contrafactual: Imagine the Word of Wisdom was given today. What would it say?”

  24. Thanks for trying to clarify for me J. Stapley, but caffeine has never been official doctrine so I’ve never been opposed to it in soda or chocolate, nor has it ever kept anyone out of the temple (unless a Bishop was making up his own rules somewhere). Still your answer doesn’t address it as being part of the temple recommend interview – it’s not in the current questions so I’m not sure why it was phrased that way in the posting. Oh well, just idle curiosity.

    I’ve always found it interesting that members always seem to love to focus on the “don’ts” of the WofW instead of the “do’s” and the blessings.

  25. J. Stapley says:

    marcella, my point was that there is a “Word of Wisdom” rule for the Temple Recommend, and it is not the same as the revelation text or the personal perspectives of members. However, there was a period in the mid-twentieth century when caffeine was the focus. E.g., there are several extant FP letters during that period indicating that decaf coffee was okay. And if you are looking for the dos, here is 6.1.1 from GHI Book 2:

    The Lord has commanded members to take care of their minds and bodies. They should obey the Word of Wisdom, eat nutritious food, exercise regularly, control their weight, and get adequate sleep. They should shun substances or practices that abuse their bodies or minds and that could lead to addiction. They should practice good sanitation and hygiene and obtain adequate medical and dental care. They should also strive to cultivate good relationships with family members and others.

    WVS, I imagine it would have something about fast food in moderation. Also this. I’m serious.

  26. The Other Brother Jones says:

    Marcella, re: “I’ve always found it interesting that members always seem to love to focus on the “don’ts” of the WofW instead of the “do’s” and the blessings.”
    I agree that it is interesting. I think it has a lot to do (In this case anyway) with the fact that the WofW was not initially a commandment. Later, certain aspects of it (the don’ts) became part of the standard for determining worthiness. The do’s are also great, but not required in the same sense.

    In other areas of doctrine, people still focus on the don’ts, and forget the do’s. But that is a different post altogether.

  27. K. Christensen says:

    re: 17. What “mild drinks” are made from barley and other grain?
    This from Webster’s 1828 dictionary:
    barley-water – Among the several nonalcoholic drinks made with barley in the nineteenth century was barley-water, which was made by soaking barley in warm water and saving the broth, “which is reputed soft and lubricating, and much used in medicine.”

  28. So, we can dissolve a caffeine pill in our camomile tea?

    The coffee restriction is difficult because it is generally healthful in so many ways and it is so good tasting. It is also sociable. It is very non habit forming, except that it is so pleasant and so beneficial. (Giving up caffeine makes you fall asleep and gives you headache, maybe, for a few days.)

    There are fast and slow caffeine metabolizers, according to 23andme. Common sense will dictate how much caffeine one should take depending on your metabolism.

  29. “However, there was a period in the mid-twentieth century when caffeine was the focus. E.g., there are several extant FP letters during that period indicating that decaf coffee was okay”

    Is decaf coffee ok in the current interpretation? My mission was teaching that it wasn’t ok in 2000.

  30. it's a series of tubes says:

    Roy, see the excerpt from the current CHI posted above. Unless you want to argue that decaf is not “coffee”, the answer seems pretty open and shut.

  31. J. Stapley says:

    K., I’ve been aware of that drink, but in all my reading of primary documents, I have never seen a single example of that beverage being consumed by early Mormons.

    Roy, there was a period in the mid-20th century when the focus was on caffeine, and consequently things like decaff coffee where deemed acceptable. That was only a temporary shift, however, and for the last many decades the proscription has been on coffee, decaff or not.

  32. Dale Whiting says:

    Actually, there is a significant caveat relating to verses 12 & 13. The flesh of beasts is to be used by man sparingly. The Lord would be pleased with us if this flesh was not used at all. The caveat for usage is quite limited, i.e. winter, cold and famine. So as you make plans for the Fourth of July, remember. You would be pleasing the Lord, not to mention your physician, if you fried up veggie burgers. Verse 15 readdresses this. After specifying in 14 that grains are ordained for the use of both man the beasts, i.e. our mutual staff of life, the Lord repeats in 15 “these,” meaning beasts, are for the use of man only in times of famine and excess of hunger.

    Given today’s obesity epidemic, I’d imagine that the Lord is very displeased, displeased in deed. My cardiologist has me on tilapia and salmon. And I have refried beans for lunch.

    And as a celiac, I take exception to notion in Verse 17 that wheat is for man, certainly not for all men. I have been excused from partaking of the sacrament bread. Otherwise someone would have to drive me home before the closing prayer and I’d miss work over the next three days.

    Bottom line? We ought to press our own grapes and become near vegetarians. No two ways about it. That we have been making excuses on these points for over 180 years is shameful. And today we have the scientific evidence to prove the more literal meaning of D&C 89 is correct.

    And with respect to caffeine, all you Argentinian RM’s who came home drinking ma te know how addictive it is. Is it the caffeine or the flavor that addicts us? But when I get one of those wheat gluten induced headaches, a Doctor Pepper sure helps out alot.

  33. wonderdog says:

    Nothing seems to cause the saints to be more judgemental that the Word of Wisdom. Judgemental of both gentile and saint.

    I wished people would use it as a personal yardstick and not as the bed of Procrustes.

    I once ruined a room mate’s day by proving that mate contained caffeine. I laughted because he looked down on my occasional Dr. Pepper. Judge not etc.

    I read recently that many if not most of the proscribed substances contain acetaldehyde (close chemical relative to the carcinogen formaldehyde).

  34. J. Stapley says:

    wonderdog, acetaldehyde is related to formaldehyde the same way ethanol (alcohol) is related to methanol. Acetaldehyde is produced when ethanol is metabolized in the body. It won’t kill you like methanol/formaldehyde will. It does smell funny, though.

  35. From the OP, “Clearly folks like Lorenzo Snow took this seriously.” What does this refer to?

    Also, before the comma was inserted, were there people who interpreted the verse as a command to eat meat sparingly throughout every season and without regard to food supply?

  36. Dale Whiting says:

    I hope I was not viewed as being judgemental. If any of you view me or others as having judged you, I apologize. For that matter, all commandments are personal. All of us must judge and act for ourselves, not for others. And our judgement is to be based on how we view ourselves and our relationship to our Father, not His other children. It is for each of us as individuals to put off the natural man and become saintly. What others do ought to be none of our business. Our relationship to others should be charitable and loving, never judgemental. For our judgements are imperfect at best. The true mark of a Latter-day Saint ought to be exemplified in the way we reach out to others in a Christ-like loving manner.

  37. it's a series of tubes says:

    You would be pleasing the Lord, not to mention your physician, if you fried up veggie burgers.

    Given today’s obesity epidemic, I’d imagine that the Lord is very displeased, displeased in deed.

    That we have been making excuses on these points for over 180 years is shameful.


    What others do ought to be none of our business.

    I’m sorry, Dale, but your first comment is shouting so loudly that it puts the lie to your second one.

  38. J. Stapley says:

    Steve, as I remember, Lorenzo Snow avoided eating meat. Check out Alexander’s piece linked in the end.

  39. K. Christensen says:

    According to wikipedia, much of the caffeine added to coke and other soft drinks comes from the coffee decaffeinating process so, interestingly, decaf coffee + coke = non-decaf coffee + sugar?

  40. Dale Whiting says:

    “it’s a series of tubes”

    You are sorry? Why? Apparently you have judged my second statement as a lie. Judge not, lest ye be not judged!

    I observe that the Word of Wisdom was first taken too lightly, then too seriously, and now we are taking another look at it. The “flesh of beasts of the field” as a food of last resort has been avoided from the get go. Today we Americans partake of far too much meat. I include myself in that “we.”

    Clearly the Lord had something else in mind. When we are told we will walk and not faint, in 1834 what natural man had any real idea of how nutrition effected our well being? Short of starvation, people ate what they had available. So be it. Their choices were quite limited. But not today. Now our choices are wide open. Yet we ignore the Wisdom in this word.

    It is high time we did take another look at Section 89, perhaps the most well established piece of sage advise our Father has ever given to us. And by “US” I mean me, too. You can suit yourself. Just remember, walk and not faint! Eating meat is natural for man. But we are called to but him off.

    Commandments are given by our Father for our own good, not so much His. Keeping the commandments helps up but off the natural man and become true saints like He is. The Word of Wisdom was given first as advice, sage advice. Now we treat parts of it as commandments. Yet from the first to the last verse, it’s all for our own good, whether we consider it a “commandment” or not.

  41. Dale Whiting says:

    Oops! “Put off” not “But off”. Lesson 22 covers the entire section, and that includes those parts we have ignored for 180 years.

  42. J. Stapley says:

    Just a note that I updated the post intro to include a pointer to Jed’s article on the Word of Wisdom which was just published in the Church’s Revelations and Context. Definitely worth checking out.

  43. Michael Taylor says:

    In addition to Lorenzo Snow, Joseph F. Smith and Joseph Fielding Smith also had vegetarian tendencies. And if I remember correctly in determining standards of temple worthiness after the opening of the SL Temple “temperance in meat consumption” was on the list of potential questions, but the brethren decided it was a matter of personal conscience.

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