Sanka and change

Look. I have no insight into what will be discussed in General Conference next week. Licking my finger and testing the wind, I’d say gender topics are likely on the docket. We’ll find out soon enough, regardless. But people are talking about the Word of Wisdom, which I do find interesting. I’ve met more than one church member who feels like the world of their strict upbringing, which proscribed all caffeinated beverages, is now in some way being betrayed by our casual libations. The thing is, though, these childhoods were just as much moments of transition as anything we see today.

The Word of Wisdom in practice has been well studied to the 1970s. In fact, if you are really interested, start with Jed’s Revelation in Context essay and then hit the scholarly bibliography at the end (and honestly Bush’s book is far too under-appreciated). I think most members have been brought up to speed on the most basic shape of the trajectory, and may be even aware of few bits of data like: Emma was ticked. JS had a drink in Carthage. The pioneers rationed coffee. It took a while for BY to get over his habits. Lorenzo Snow wasn’t fond of meat. Getting drunk was always bad. HJG was a prohibition zealot, and dropped the ecclesiastical hammer. The Widtsoes hated caffeine.

It is that last one that is so fascinating. I love the Widtsoes, even if I do like white bread. Plus he was a chemist. But boy did they not like caffeine, and their targeting of that one particular alkaloid changed the course of Word of Wisdom practice for a solid 40 years. They won converts among the high church leaders and the practical result was that caffeinated sodas were tacitly verboten (though it is complicated), and decaf coffee was temple-recommend approved for the bulk of the twentieth century.

The prohibition on caffeine played out most visibly in places like BYU which had a giant “Caffeine Free Coca-Cola” sponsored jumbotron in the Marriott Center (where the basketball team played). There was always a few people that thought it was sort of silly—the mission field had anecdotally always been a place of accommodation where many mission presidents apparently thought a coke was safer than the local water.


The alternative of Sanka was revolution, though. Starting in the 1940s and into the 1970s, there are very many letters from church leaders stating that decaf coffee consumption, and sometime specifically Sanka, which had 97% of the caffeine removed, was consistent with temple recommend worthiness. I’ve probably read over a dozen such letters from John A. Widtsoe, Joseph Fielding Smith, and various First Presidencies. Though in the latter years of that period there was some concomitant emphasis on avoiding the appearance of evil. In his copy of the 1968 general handbook, Spencer W. Kimball even adhered a copy of September 13, 1967 FP letter stating that decaf was okay. The thing is that these rules weren’t widely disseminated. So if you knew, good for you.

Sometime in my lifetime (I was born in the 1970s) church leaders gave up on the idea of caffeine being the bad guy. Maybe there is a correlation with tenured church leaders who knew the Widtsoes? Who knows? The shift is, however, clear. We started selling caffeinated soda at the Nauvoo Café at Temple Square, and then a couple of years later at BYU. That was a forty year period–the 1970s to the present. Forty years before the 1970s, and HJG was laying down the law and required bishops to follow the word of wisdom. Forty years before that and they still used wine in the sacrament in a few locations, and Dannish beer was apparently fair game. Forty years before that and you had a coffee ration to cross the plains, and if you were locked up in jail waiting to die, perhaps a glass of brandy wasn’t out of the question.


Here are several of the most important treatments:

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. What a summary! And I <3 the Sanka ad.

    When you say “gender topics,” what do you mean? Because my poor millennial bleeding heart can’t bear more targeting of queer folks.

  2. I worked in the summer for an LDS family owned business in the mid 70s. One of the part-time workers was an older woman who had one of those letters about decaffeinated coffee being OK. She kept it handy to show to every bishop and stake president when she was getting her recommend renewed. She showed it to me too.

  3. Without passing judgement about it being right or wrong, it seems that allowing tea and coffee would actually assist missionary work. In this day and age it must feel like, “French fries” are keeping you from baptized, to investigators.

  4. I have a slightly different take on the Widtsoes and this WOW history. I don’t think JAW harped on caffeine because he hated caffeine per se, but because finding scientific evidence supporting various aspects of the Word of Wisdom “proved the Church was true” — since God revealed to Joseph Smith that such-and-such a substance was harmful before the world understood that or why it was harmful, then that proved the revelation was true. Widtsoe zeroed in on caffeine as the reason why coffee was banned and seemed to have forgotten that neither the Word of Wisdom nor any prophetic statement (along the lines of Hyrum Smith’s identification of coffee and tea as the “hot drinks” spoken of) actually mentioned caffeine. Whether your interpretation or mine is closer to the truth, the result was the same — caffeine rather than coffee became the bugbear.

    (And for the record, I hope there is no change in our practice. There is nothing much to be gained and quite a bit to be lost, IMO, and no crying call for any adjustment.)

  5. J. Stapley says:

    Ardis, I think you are exactly right. I was just being glib.

  6. J. Stapley says:

    Leona, we’ll just have to see!

    KLC, that is cool. I love when church history intersects personally.

    cj, Jewish folks can’t eat cheeseburgers, or bacon. Talk about a hard sell!

  7. Based on what I have read, I tend to agree with Ardis’ assessment of John A. Widtsoe’s motivations vis-à-vis caffeine.

    I have serious doubts that there will be any change in the parameters of the Word of Wisdom as it relates to temple worthiness….especially from President (Dr.) Nelson, who is such an advocate and example of healthy living. Yet, in theory, you could conceive of a scenario where D&C 89 reverted to a recommendation rather than a commandment in keeping with the trend towards more autonomy with regard to personal faith. It could be framed as “teach correct principles and let them govern themselves” and get the Church out of the business of parsing and defining every substance on earth. Again, I would be stunned if it happened, but it is not inconceivable.

    And kudos to the bibliography above–all are excellent reads.

  8. I do hope they do not change the way we interpret the Word of Wisdom. I think it is a wonderful gift from God and wish we were encouraged to keep more of it, such as limiting our meat consumption and encouraging eating fruits and vegetables in season. I have spent a lifetime avoiding caffeinated soft drinks and am very grateful as I watch friends trying to conquer their caffeine addictions.

  9. Ryan Mullen says:

    “and wish we were encouraged to keep more of it” such as allowing barley drinks (i.e., beer) and homemade wine?

  10. Francine says:

    My former home teacher struggled for decades with his problems with the WOW. After he finally quit smoking he thought giving up coffee would be easy. He said it was an entirely different and more difficult struggle. Fortunately, he beat both of them. Unfortunately, not in time to stop the lung cancer that took his life last year in his mid 50s.
    Why would anyone want to lessen the powerful prohibitions contained in the WOW? They have saved so many from so much suffering. Including the problems caffeine causes in the body.

  11. I keep reading Pharisee story after Pharisee story in the NT this year. We behave more like Pharisees when we condemn people who drink tea or coffee, we’re definitely patting ourselves on the back for being righteous to an arbitrary interpretation. Caffeine in moderation is fine. Science has never said caffeine in moderation is harmful, and many say it’s beneficial for cognitive function especially in advancing years.

    My niece turns down tea invitations all the time on her mission and writes home about it. It makes me cringe every time, to hear how a family they’re teaching made a special cup for her, with special ingredients as a loving gesture- and she emphatically has to tell them, “We don’t drink that!!”

    Surely, we can let go of feeling smug because we don’t drink coffee and tea! It would be wonderful to look past a person’s innocuous drink preference and see them as an equal in God’s eyes rather piously pittying their poor lifestyle choice of coffee and tea, as if that even equates to anything of importance in the scheme of things.

    I hope it is modified. I really want to work on seeing as God sees people, and it’s hard to do when we’re focused on their unworthiness for “eating French fries” as mentioned above.

  12. How do we square the whole “it’s not what goes in the mouth that defiles man, but what comes out” words of Jesus with the Pharisaical attitude towards the WoW?

  13. Props to you as always, J. The Widtsoes (and let’s remember Leah was a driving force in all this, and she inherited a lot of ideas from her mom, but I digress) need to be better understood all around.

    I would humbly submit that it’s possible to adhere strictly to the WW, even along the current guidelines, without necessarily being Pharisaical.

    What if the “change” to the WW was an emphasis on principle rather than prohibition? And what if that principle was to avoid becoming dependent on any substance? (Recognizing that that’s not in the text of the revelation.) What would that mean for caffeine? I suspect some would eagerly take it as license to consume thing they don’t now, while others might take it reflectively as a challenge to imbibe less of things they already drink. In which case we could have equal opportunity Pharisaicalism in both directions.

  14. Billy Possum says:

    Thank you, J – I had not thought about the history of the WOW this way before. And someone needs to give you credit for the numerological implications of your 40-year iterations. That nearly knocked me down!

  15. What Ardis said. I agree entirely

  16. Mark B. says:

    If people are smug or Pharisaical about their observance of the Word of Wisdom, it’s not the fault of the Word of Wisdom. I would rather hear 20 sermons on avoiding pride and self-righteousness than one about keeping, or changing, the current practice of the Word of Wisdom.

    Actually, I also wouldn’t mind a sermon on grammar and word usage, with special opprobrium being directed at those who attempt to turn intransitive verbs (like “adhere”) into transitive verbs. :)

  17. “Why would anyone want to lessen the powerful prohibitions contained in the WOW?”

    I can think of several reasons, chief among them that church is not a health club or a doctor’s office, and strong prohibitions lead to cultural “othering” within the context of communities and institutions.

    I’m on board with (as stated earlier) going back to, you know, what the *actual* stated intent of the WOW was when revealed – a general admonishment toward physical health, with some friendly tips on moderation and avoidance in specific areas. And get it out of the temple recommend interview, as it’s not a commandment.

  18. Mark B., a counter-sermonette from Merriam Webster:

    “intransitive verb

    transitive verb
    : to cause to stick fast …”

    I don’t care much for some changes in English usage either, but my preferences won’t stop them. :)

  19. When I was Yw President a few years ago, we had a girlfriend of one of the YM visiting and learning about our beliefs. She was close to one of yw, and the girlfriend told the Yw that she could never be Mormon because she’d not be able to give up sweet tea. The Yw replied “if that’s the worse thing that you did, you’d be a great Mormon!” THAT was the response of a loving person- that made me so proud. Because if tea/coffee/an occasional drink…. is the worst- then that’s not too shabby in my opinion. Of course, it’s best to avoid (or use in moderation) anything that can be harmful and/or habit forming.

    However, I see people putting the WoW on a disturbing pedestal. And when some judges another by what they consume, that’s what I see as the mark of a “Pharisee”.

  20. We don’t have a broad system of ritual purity and impurity with concomitant ritual cleansing, which forms the matrix around Jesus’ statement. The WoW is almost completely a different thing.
    Anyone who thinks themselves morally superior for not drinking coffee does need to repent of pride, and also misunderstanding the WoW; these things are generally malum prohibitum, not malum in se.

    I’m also sensitive to implicit anti-semitism in comments about Pharisees. They’re misunderstood and misapplied. It was not necessarily their degree of detail that Jesus critiqued but their myopic focus on that degree as the source of righteousness, while ignoring other things. When he calls them hypocrites in Matt 23:23, it’s NOT because they pay tithing on their spices. Rather, it’s because while paying tithing on their spices, they forget justice, mercy, and faithfulness. His response is, “you should be doing BOTH.” I get the impression a lot of people think Jesus would have said “stop being such a pharisee and quit paying tithing on spices” but he seems to have approved that kind of zeal for the law, provided it didn’t displace or replace justice, mercy, and faith.

  21. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks, LisaT, I think you are (unsurprisingly) correct.

    Annie, lots of people have responded, and I agree with a lot of it. Jesus’ words were in regard to ritual hand washing. I imagine that if you had offered him lobster or bacon, he would have taken a very hard pass. But his warning is all extremely relevent to all that we do, including our word of wisdom practice. We should all be approaching our religious practice with humility.

    Mark B., I appreciate your adherence to all facets of our community standards.

  22. I am in favor of ditching the prohibitions against tea and coffee.
    More research is needed, but scientific studies indicate coffee consumption is associated with health benefits which include lower rates of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, Parkinson’s disease, etc.
    (There are people who should avoid caffeine—like people who experience acid reflux, heart arrhythmias, etc)

    Secondly, it is somewhat concerning when we go to underdeveloped countries and require people to give up their “hot drink” habits. Those hot drinks might be their primary source of an essential nutrient or
    clean water.

    The only person my son baptized on his mission was resisting baptism because she had been taught not only would she have to give up coffee, but all caffeinated drinks as well. Once he assured her coffee and tea were the only prohibitions, she wanted to be baptized.

    (Btw where does the church stand on opiates, medical marijuana etc? Are those parts of the WoW)?

    (FWIW, I am not a coffee drinker. I generally avoid caffeine because it makes me feel weirdly jittery at times).

  23. Dave B. says:

    So Pres. Nelson has shown that he is strongly influenced by a historical context approach to anchoring LDS doctrine. So he appeals to D&C 115 to proclaim that now, in 2019, we can’t call ourselves Mormons or even Latter-day Saints anymore, but “members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Because that’s the name of the Church spelled out in D&C 115.

    The same approach applied to D&C 89 would proclaim that the LDS Word of Wisdom (quite distinct from the text of D&C 89, but whatever) is a “principle” and “not a commandment.” And that it does not prohibit caffeine or even coffee (by name), just “hot drinks.” Now in practice, here in 2019, this has come to proscribing coffee but not hot chocolate, and to casting a shadow on decaffeinated coffee but not cola drinks or even caffeine-laced energy drinks. A twelve-year-old can see none of this makes any sense, so I’m sure Pres. Nelson can see that too. So it would certainly be consistent with his historical approach to go back to D&C 89 and reform the current understanding and enforcement of Mormon food taboos.

    If he really wants to be historically rooted, he could go back to the statement of Jesus quoted in the gospels and just chuck out the whole Mormon food taboo system. Wouldn’t that be a wake up call to Mormon pharisees!

  24. Brian F says:

    I work at the West Office Building, one of the Church office buildings downtown, and we have a mini market/convenience store in the cafeteria. About a month ago fully caffeinated drinks, and even some energy drinks, were stocked and for sale. It’s an interesting change.

  25. Dave B

    What happens when he interprets D&C 132 in a historical context? :-)

  26. Will he make Wendy leave the room when he writes that one out on his yellow legal pad?

  27. Jack Hughes says:

    We don’t need to change the WoW, but I would love to see the emphasis shift to observing the spirit of the law, instead of the letter. More emphasis on moderation, eating balanced meals, eating fruit and vegetables in their season, reducing meat consumption, getting more exercise, and making well-informed personal choices about living a healthier life. No need to get hung up on pioneer-era talk of barley drinks and tobacco for healing sick cattle and what is meant by “hot drinks”, etc. Though I don’t really care if Church leaders decide to drop the prohibition on coffee and tea, I would much rather see the GAs openly condemn unhealthy lifestyles (inactivity, overeating, prescription drug abuse, Utah’s ubiquitous custom soda kiosks, etc) as being in violation of the WoW.

  28. To me the most plausible way a change would come about would be via an overhaul of the temple recommend questions, possibly with very little fanfare. The question is whether they completely remove any questions about the Word of Wisdom question, or maybe just replace it with a narrower one regarding abstinence from tobacco and alcohol. It goes to a fundamental question about what kind of boundaries the leaders believe need to be drawn around temple participation.

  29. Troy Cline says:

    Paul says it all in Colossians 2:20-23 – “20 Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: 21 “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? 22 These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. 23 Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.”

  30. It’s stuff like this that I want in a Word of Wisdom lesson in church. I’m fine with the fact that we aren’t following it to the letter – that there has been evolution – so a lesson involving when the changes were would be great.

  31. If hot decaf coffee was okay and cold caffeine is okay then It seems that it’s the temperature of our caffeine that determines our worthiness.

    That’s more than a little messed up.

  32. J. Stapley says:

    TC, it is only messed up if you completely ignore the historical and religious context.

  33. Great post, J.

    I’ve seen a lot of speculation that if the WoW prohibitions were relaxed it would be quiet change in the TR interview process, not announced over the pulpit. But one thing I haven’t seen any attention paid to is how WoW prohibitions apply to baptismal requirements.

    While section 89 predates the temple, I think there’s at least a textual basis in the revelation for tying it to the temple. But when did it become a requirement for baptism to abstain from tea, coffee & tobacco? I’ve always assumed it was around the same time that HJG made it a condition of temple attendance, but I don’t think I’ve ever looked into that specifically. I could imagine a world where the church keeps WoW observance as a condition for temple attendance, but relaxes it as a requirement for baptism to give new converts some leeway before attending the temple.

  34. To add to J. a little: it’s also only messed up if you consider the WoW solely or principally as a health thing. And it certainly serves a health function, but it leaves us plenty of room to consume stuff that’s unhealthy, and prevents is from consuming things that likely have some health benefit.

    In fact, it serves a number of not-health purposes, from bringing banal, commonplace things (choosing what to eat and drink) into the world of the sacred, and setting boundaries that delineated who we are.

    And it’s neither necessary not sufficient to do those things. But a consistent health message is irrelevant if the fundamental purpose isn’t health.

  35. J. Stapley says:

    JKC, that is a really interesting question, and one which I don’t know the answer to. Alexander says that the coffee/tea temple-recommend rule was ca., 1921. I know by the 1950s it was most certainly a baptism requirement. I’d guess closer to 1921 than 1950s, but don’t know for sure. And that would be an really interesting position, and raises the broader question about the conflation of temple-recommend requirements with baptism and other requirements. The 2010 handbook did some of that conflation with regard to ordinance performance. But the baptism checklist currently mirrors the temple recommend checklist to a high degree.

  36. A friend of mine was a non-practicing Latter-day Saint when she married a non-observant Jew. A few years later they both experienced a religious reawakening. She went to classes at the local synagogue to learn how to prepare kosher meals and keep a kosher home. She showed up regularly at the synagogue just as her husband showed up at our chapel.
    At one point, a rabbi asked her about being a Latter-day Saint and the Word of Wisdom. “How can you practice that faith?” he asked. “It’s so restrictive.”
    She just looked him in the eye and smiled.
    After a few seconds he smiled too and said, “You’re right. Never mind.”

  37. While the health effects of coffee or tea are somewhat debatable, there is no question that the amount of sugar in soft drinks is a serious health concern in our increasingly diabetic era. Given that green tea has about as much caffeine as a Coke or Pepsi and a lot less sugar, I think there would be some “wisdom” in recalibrating how and where we choose to focus our proscriptions if health is the objective. I’m not saying soda pop should be added to the list, but rather that the ban on one set of substances often has the effect of also being a green light for everything else — kind of like rated R movies.

  38. Go to newsroom. New policy, not about WOW, but about baptism and blessing of children of LGBT members and about marriage of LGBT members no longer being considered apostasy.

%d bloggers like this: