Higher Law Mormons

Mette Harrison, the author of this guest post, is a frequent contributor to BCC and the author of three books for BCC Press, most recently, The Book of Abish. She will be joining fellow BCC authors Ashley May Hoiland, Rachel Hunt Steenblik, and Keira Shae this weekend for readings at Anthony’s Antiques & Fine Art in Salt Lake City (7:00 PM on Friday, April 5) and Writ & Vision in Provo (7:00 PM on Saturday, April 6).

Since I heard from my own mother (who is ninety years old) about General Conference rumors that the Word of Wisdom would allow coffee and tea consumption, I was inspired to write this essay.

When I was a kid, my parents taught us that ingesting any caffeine was breaking the Word of Wisdom. We knew other Mormons who drank diet Coke, but we knew we were following a “higher law.” Even when a talk at General Conference said that caffeine was not the reason that coffee and tea were not allowed, my parents still followed the higher law. As I’ve watched other Mormons, I’ve found that there are a lot of “higher law” Mormons who congratulate themselves on living some other version of their religion than is required, and expecting to get more blessings than other people, because they believe they’ll be favored by God.

When I was a teenager, one of my teachers told us that she and her husband paid “double tithing” because if you paid ten percent of your income and got blessings from God, then you got twice as many blessings if you paid double tithing. She insisted she wasn’t trying to preach that everyone should do what she did, but she said that she and her family needed those extra blessings. She didn’t believe those blessings were material, either. Spiritual blessings was what she sought from God.

In more recent years, I remember a Relief Society President who challenged all of the women in the ward to go to the temple every week instead of the once a month challenge that the apostles were asking us to commit to. I never knew if she’d been personally challenged to do this by leadership above her or if it was her own commitment to temple work, but it sounded a lot like my teacher as a teenager. If you got blessings from going to the temple once a week, why not once a month? (At one point, she did admit to me that she felt like God had commanded her not to go more than once a week. She wanted to because she loved the temple so much, but she felt God was telling her that she also had a family on earth to look after, not just her ancestors in heaven.)

It’s always interesting to me to see what rules become family rules for Mormons. When I was a kid, our family rule was to wear Sunday clothes all day on Sunday, with the idea that we would only do things on Sunday that would keep our clothes clean. As a mother myself, when I reflexively tried to follow this rule, I learned its folly. My kids didn’t keep their clothes extra clean on Sunday. I just had to buy Sunday clothes more frequently until I followed my husband’s family rule: to take off your church clothes after church to treat them nicely.

When I got married, I discovered that my husband’s family followed a different set of “higher laws” than my own had. They watched all the sessions of General Conference. This might have partly been because he grew up in Utah and I grew up in New Jersey, but even when we moved to Utah, my father only required us to listen to one session the whole weekend. If we listened on Saturday morning, we were free for the rest of the weekend.

While most Mormons reject curse words, I find it amusing to see “extra” curse words that are banned from some households. When my children were younger, they went to friends’ houses where the word “hate” wasn’t allowed because it was rude, for instance.

Other higher laws I’ve seen:

  • Going to BYU
  • Exercising with garments on
  • Paying tithing on gross vs. net
  • Going to church on vacation or on business trips
  • Not going out to eat even on vacations or business trips
  • Not cooking on Sunday
  • Not playing with friends on Sunday—only family

I think this is very human. We want to get God’s approval, so we try to figure out how to do that. Sometimes we do things that make us feel close to God. For me, this is running and doing extreme endurance sports. I feel God deeply when I’m close to the edge of my endurance, when I feel like I most need divine help to keep going, when my body is at its lowest point. But I’m also very much aware that for many other people, that’s just crazy. They don’t feel any spiritual uplift by doing that to themselves. They just feel pain. And that’s fine.

My point here is less to make fun of “higher law” Mormons than to remind us all that it’s good for us to find what brings us to God as individuals and to let other people find their own way, as well—all without judgment.


  1. I married into a family that does not know what finesse, subtlety or proportion are. The unwritten family motto seems to be, “More is always better.” But more is frequently not better, you don’t get a better meal, just over salted meat and too many leftovers. You don’t get a better vacation, just exhaustion from trying to do too many things in too little time. This family also had many extreme, to me, gospel laws. I wonder which is the chicken and which is the egg. Did the higher law principle of church affect the rest of their life or vice versa? Either way it is a feedback loop that doesn’t end well.

  2. Carolyn says:

    During the years I was vegetarian, the range of reactions from Mormons really surprised me. In general order of frequency:

    “God gave me bacon and steak to enjoy it. I’ll never be a liberal hippie like you.”

    “Wow. That’s amazing. I could never give up burgers. But I really admire your commitment. I think vegetarianism might be a higher law.”

    “I’m a vegetarian too!! Don’t you agree everyone else in our ward is animal-murdering sinners?”

  3. The only way the church would say that coffee and tea are okay by the Word of Wisdom is if it switched to the temperature of the drink. Such as something like: coffee and tea are okay, so long as they’re room temperature or colder. Hot chocolate though is a hot drink and is now against the Word of Wisdom.
    I can’t see that happening.

  4. @jader3rd I mean, they could also switch the Word of Wisdom to a word of wisdom, and not by commandment or constraint, like it literally says in D&C 89.

    Anyway, my worry is that the rumors about the WoW at General Conference are true, but that it’s part of an attempt to pivot towards doubling down on the Family Proclamation as the Church’s primary cultural marker, to the further marginalization of LGBTQ+ people and alienation of women.

  5. Billy Possum says:

    Thank you, Mette. I really enjoyed reading and reflecting on this.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    When I was a boy my family (including of course myself) didn’t drink caffeinated soft drinks, although we did keep a very dusty eight pack of bottled Coke on the floor of our food storage, which was used (only very rarely, which is why the bottles were so dusty) medicinally for upset stomachs. But no caffeine was the pretty ubiquitous interpretation back then; I didn’t have any Mormon friends who drank caffeine. (Now that standard has flipped; virtually all of my Mormon friends think caffeine is fine.)

    The “higher law” I remember trying to live as a boy was not using words like gosh or darn, which my SS teacher convinced me were just lightly modified versions of actual swear words (in this case, “God” and “damn”). I kept that up for a few years, but eventually I backslid.

  7. Growing up, we did not drink any caffeine at all, and we were not allowed to play outside on Sundays. And I don’t think we thought of ourselves as particularly extreme Mormons.

  8. While reading one of the recent the Come Follow Me lessons, I remember that the part where Jesus was calling out the Pharasies for breaking “honor thy father and thy mother” for their traditions. They had allowed a certain reading of the commandments, to become a tradition, which was wrong.
    It’s made me reflect upon if I am doing anything similar in my life. I suspect that some of the higher laws mentioned, do the same.

  9. Marcella says:

    I’ve always felt that if God says it’s a higher law than it is, but if someone else decides then they are just being like the Pharisees. If it makes them feel better to not eat chocolate than great but don’t go telling people it’s a commandment for the extra faithful because it’s not. We have plenty of actual commandments and examples from Jesus Christ’s life to keep us busy we don’t need to be making up extra rules in the hopes it makes up for all the real things we’re skipping.

  10. MrShorty says:

    My question is similar to Marcella’s comment — when do these “higher law” commandments begin to violate Rev. 22:18 “to him who adds to the words of this book will be added the plagues described in this book” and/or Deut 4:2 — “Don’t add to the commandments I have given you”. We do get somewhat enamored with the idea of “higher laws” that we will grow into, but I think we sometimes forget that God seems displeased when we arbitrarily add to what He has given us

  11. I agree with the points you made in your post. However, “Paying tithing on gross vs. net” should not be considered an example of “the higher law.” The only “commandment” we have in that regard requires tithing our “increase.” The fact that my “increase” includes some funds withheld or paid for the public good (taxes) does not relieve me of the requirement to tithe that “increase” as well.

    But, more important, the whole notion of blessings/rewards for good (better) adherence to “law,” is false–though highly effective at motivating behavior (it would seem). My personal study and logic leads me to the conclusion conveyed in a fortune cookie I once opened…”In nature there are neither punishments nor rewards, only consequences.”

  12. Kevin Barney says:

    Actually, I think the tithing thing is still a good example. The Church doesn’t define “increase” but leaves it up to us, so there is still the potential to interpret that in a “higher law” sort of way. See my old blog post on tithable income: https://bycommonconsent.com/2010/09/06/tithable-income/

  13. What I find fascinating about this is not the particular higher laws that people decide they want to live, but the motivation. To the degree that people are doing this because they want to feel special, better than the people around them, that’s obviously bad. To the degree they are doing it in order to earn extra blessings, I think that’s also spiritually unhealthy. But if they’re doing it simply because they feel personally called to do it, and aren’t judging or guilt-tripping others, I think we should support and encourage people do live up to what the spirit tells them to do. I’ve known people in my own life who, from my perspective, seemed to be examples of all three.

  14. I’m a big fan of people engaging in all kinds of voluntary spiritual practices, but, if people want to do that, I don’t think it should be framed in terms of “a higher law.”

  15. Scrupulosity is a sin. And some of us think it leads to sin. And a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

    From Wikipedia (citing Bourke J. Divine madness: the dilemma of religious scruples in twentieth-century America and Britain. J Soc Hist. 2009;42(3):581–603): “Studies in the mid-20th century reported that scrupulosity was a major problem among American Catholics, with up to 25 per cent of high school students affected; commentators at the time asserted that this was an increase over previous levels.”

    I wonder how members of the Church would be viewed? In a church and a culture that seldom if ever recognizes the problem.

  16. Last Lemming says:

    Scrupulosity is OCD and no more a sin than schizophrenia.

  17. nobody, really says:

    With regard to tithing, the only statement on gross vs. net is that NOBODY is authorized to tell you that gross is the commandment -Handbook 1, 14.4.1.

    I’ve heard all sorts of ridiculous example of “higher law” – like how BYU dress code rules apply to ALL church members. Scouting is an Eternal Principle of the Gospel. If you’ve attended BYU, you are never to grow a beard.

    My absolute favorite is that we are required to have a 2 year supply of food, clothing, and household needs. Someday in the near future, we will each receive a phone call from the Stake President telling us that it is time to meet at the Stake Center, and to bring your two-year supply with you. Those who have it will be invited to join the Saints on the journey to build the temple in Jackson County. Those who do not have a two-year supply will be left behind to suffer the indignity of having been judged and been found wanting, and the plagues of the Old Testament will be poured out upon the heads of anyone who doesn’t have freeze-dried Chicken ala King to meet their nutritional needs.

    I once came up with a list of all the things we have been “commanded” to do, from grow a garden to keep your gas tank half full, on up to “If we really understood The Temple we would run, Run, to attend and do the work without stopping.” I came up with 848 items in the list.

  18. nobody, really — I would LOVE to publish said list, if you still have it somewhere.

  19. I find that ‘extra blessings through higher tithing’ thing really amusing. At the extreme other end of that spectrum is a woman I knew who told her disabled husband that they were ‘exempt’ from tithing because he was ill. I don’t believe one can buy their way into heaven. I think God blesses us per our needs and not because we’re doing things ‘the right way’. We’re human (mortal men and women) and are therefore fallen. The grace of God is what saves us, not our marching to some man made set of rules of what that person thinks God wants someone to follow. I’ve had a lot of trouble with the new rules actually. I’m left wondering at what the Prophet says because some of it (to me) seems designed to cause more trouble than not. And that leads me to question my faith. It is prophesied that many will fall away during the last days. That’s really sad, but I understand why some of them probably will. I won’t, I’ll continue to cling to my last scrape of faith because I do believe God is working in my life and I feel it’s right. But being a sheep was never my way. Maybe that makes me a ‘bad’ member of the Church.

  20. nobody, really–I just read and reread Handbook 1 14.4.1 and I can’t find anything at all about paying on gross. Can you quote what you’re referring to? Or at least indicate which paragraph you found it in?

  21. Michael H. says:

    The not-so-secret ingredient is self-righteousness. As long as someone’s sincere when they say, “This is just something that’s helpful for me, personally,” and they don’t imply they’re superior for doing it, then that’s perfectly fine. I’ve learned a lot from fellow church members who mention this is what they do when they fast, or this is what they do relative to the WoW, or this is what they do temple-wise, etc.

    What drives ME crazy is the policing that goes on in the endowment session–not by workers, but by the odd patron now and again. Usually some 70-ish guy. Somewhere along the line, he picked up an unofficial protocol, or even a whole laundry list of them (“This goes behind the ear, not behind,” “We all have to remain standing until . . .,” and so on), and they’ve become absolutely, universally official as far as he’s concerned, and he shoots you the most indignant looks when you don’t comply.

  22. Conrad Deitrick: Yes, calling it a “higher law” all by itself suggests improper reasons, imo.

  23. Jared Livesey says:

    Does a higher law exist than that which Christ gave in the Sermon on the Mount?

    Has the Sermon ever been annulled, updated, or superceded by Christ?

    Suppose someone teaches, or has taught, something which contradicts the Sermon at any point – how should a disciple of Christ respond?

    Suppose someone behaves, or has behaved, in a way which contradicts the Sermon at any point – how should a disciple of Christ respond?

  24. Polygamy was sometimes described as the “higher law” of marriage, and I kind of wonder if that phrase as applied to abstaining from all caffeine or whatever is a linguistic/cultural descendant of that.

  25. Re: Tithing – gross or net it’s up to you. . but I’m paying on gross and then not on any tax returns and eventually I won’t pay on social security either. If I paid on Net then yes on both.

    Re: Higher law – I seem to remember pregnant Catholic women in my mission (Argentina) that would promise God they would name their child Mary if they were given a healthy child.

  26. Jenny H. says:

    In response to the comments on tithing, Wendy Nelson said this in a Worldwide Devotional for Young Adults • January 10, 2016 • Brigham Young University–Hawaii.

    “When we’re desperate to be guided by heaven, we work harder than ever to tune in to heaven. When we’re desperate to be physically healthy, we eat and exercise accordingly. No excuses! When we’re desperate to have more money, we eagerly follow the Lord’s law of finances—which is, of course, tithing!

    Consider President George Q. Cannon’s approach to tithing when he was an impoverished young man. When his bishop commented on the large amount of tithing poor young George was paying, George said something like: “Oh bishop, I’m not paying tithing on what I make. I’m paying tithing on what I want to make.” And the very next year George earned exactly the amount of money he had paid tithing on the year before!”

    Now, not only is it not enough to pay tithing before you pay your bills or feed your kids, you should pay more than the requisite 10 percent, so you can be more in tune with “heaven”. This is a deplorable teaching. She is lucky I was not in attendance. I would have stood up and gave her a piece of my mind.

    As for the coffee thing, I find this blog enlightening: https://mdpodcast.org/2019/03/mormon-discussion-329-take-your-vitamin-pills-and-get-some-rest/

  27. Wendy is not sustained as a leader, and thus her her crack-pot opinion should be held as high as the homeless guy’s on the corner.

  28. I was raised by converts in California (heathens that we are) and entirely outside of the ‘Higher Law’ ideals of Mormonism. I’ve always seen it as virtue-signalling, social-crowing and superiority/competitiveness rather than having anything to do with God.

  29. Chompers says:

    In response to @jader3rd, I do recall a story from a friend where a stake leader would drink iced tea and point to the WoW and say, it says hot drinks. And apparently that was okay with the stake prez.

  30. Deborah Christensen says:

    I suspect this is more April Fools joke than a real upcoming change.

  31. The most fascinating part of this to me is seeing the difference between my own list of “higher laws” and the lists made by others. Some things on the list just seem normal to me, while others are unheard of. I suspect there are habits of mine I’ve never even questioned that others might see as horribly pharisaical. I’m so glad we believe in a God of mercy and grace.

  32. HW Hunter says:

    Vern later said, “It’s hard now to describe the feelings I had and what I went through in that experience. I, too, was young. I had caught my crook. I was going to extract the utmost penalty. But my father taught me a different way.”

    A different way? A better way? A higher way? A more excellent way? Oh, how the world could benefit from such a magnificent lesson. As Moroni declares:“Wherefore, whoso believeth in God might with surety hope for a better world, . . . In the gift of his Son hath God prepared a more excellent way.”

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