Words of Wisdom, or is it Word of Wisdoms?

There is that perennial argument about the Book of Mormon, which is usually settled by someone eventually stating emphatically that it is “copies of the Book of Mormon.” But the Word of Wisdom is somewhat different, because it is more like variant editions. I think much of the anxious hand-wringing over our dietary constraints would be sidestepped if we acknowledge that there are many Words of Wisdom.

There is the revelation text, which has an interesting context, transmission, and publication history. There is the temple recommend requirement. There is also the Word of Wisdoms that we live by. These things are not the same, but they are all intimately related. I’m a fan of contextual readings of revelations, and you can see some of that here. We can see where people in Kirtland had spoken out against tea, coffee, alcohol, and tobacco (and pork). I also spend a fare amount of time tracking church policy and belief over time (this was a fun post about Sanka). And I have a few friends that will not buy, drink, or have caffeinated sodas in their households, and others that are vegetarian—both citing the Word of Wisdom as informing their choices.

I remember visiting a relative’s home in Utah one summer as a kid. All of my extended family was from the state on both sides, and we drove 55 miles an hour to get there every year. I remember seeing a fully stocked wet-bar in the basement and thinking to myself that this was a very odd thing to have in one’s house, and not considering the possibility that my relative actually used it. Things were certainly different in rural Utah, where one’s Mormoness was inescapable. When I went to the temple the first time, this relative was the first person to embrace me, weeping, and declaring that the decades spent outside weren’t worth it. But it wasn’t just that. My grandma when she visited always went over to our Catholic neighbor’s house for a morning cup of coffee. I also knew that there was no question that she was a believer. I think this history has just inured me against Word of Wisdom anxiety.

Look, if you want to drink coffee, more power to you. I don’t think anyone believes that it would be a behavior with a moral equivalency to abuse, or any number of anti-Christian activities. But if you do choose to drink it, don’t also kavetch about temple recommend requirements, and inconsistencies with past practice or the revelation text, because you like it cold, or whatever. If you are smart enough to justify your behavior, you are smart enough to educate yourself a little.

And whether you land on Mormon Kosher (we don’t have conceptions of ritual purity like the Jewish community of Christ’s time (or of today really), so the dynamics aren’t the same, but there are some interesting cultural parallels), or strict obedience, or a health and wellness scientism, or a Pauline desire to not offend, or the Startbucks line extension du jour (or some combination), own it and then love each other. That last bit is why my uncle met me in the temple. I’m sure of it.


  1. Yes. I think it would make a lot more sense and would save a lot of trouble if we just recognized that there’s the Word of Wisdom (section 89), and then there’s the church’s prohibition on tea, coffee, alcohol, and illegal drugs, which is also called the word of wisdom, but is only loosely inspired by the Word of Wisdom and is not the same thing.

  2. I view it as a litmus test for obedience. What we do and don’t enforce is inconsistent at best. I do know the better I eat, the healthier I feel, more patience I have and better I behave. I don’t love the amount of caffeine I ingest but also don’t feel guilt. When I can get by without it I do. It’s too bad the don’t be an jerk commandment isn’t enforced with the same zealousness.

  3. My grandparent’s generation was rather lackadaisical on their interpretation of the word of wisdom. My grandmother (raised in rural Utah) was completely active, yet drank coffee and tea for medicinal purposes (coffee for migraine headaches, tea for nausea… unsurprisingly most of the family suffered from those maladies). She also was not opposed to a taste of champagne on New Year’s Eve. She served for decades as a RS President and later as a temple worker. I believe it was due to her witnessing the transition on the interpretation of the Word of Wisdom in the 1920’s and 1930’s. She recalled that beer was served at the fringes of ward parties and that during her teens (c. 1920), her Bishop kept a bottle in his desk. She also remembered women giving healing blessings and Heber J. Grant’s plural wives.

  4. kvetch

  5. Very nice, J. My own private version does much the same work, except your last paragraph is way better.

  6. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks all. Christian, always a good day when we land on a similar page.

  7. EnglishTeacher says:

    My great grandparents similarly were lax in their observance of the WOW. They had locally grown wine at their wedding reception after being sealed in the temple and after a back injury, my great grandpa brewed his own beer for pain management at the behest of his doctor—an active member. This lead to a few nasty years of alcohol abuse. And when coffee became a bugaboo that could keep one out of the temple, he asked, “What will they take next? Our soup?” By contrast, his daughter (my grandma) never touched any of the prohibited substances despite some early years being around it.

  8. I’m okay with the multiple Words of Wisdom in effect at different times and for different purposes, perhaps because I’ve never been locked into a single interpretation to be later shocked to find there are and have been different official interpretations. I suspect that someone who grew up having been taught that God had always prohibited any use of alcohol — to the point that they believed that the wine of Biblical days was non-alcoholic, and that the child Joseph Smith refused alcohol during his bone surgery because of some precocious understanding that alcohol was evil — is justified in being shocked to find frequent references to alcohol in Church history. Ditto for all other forms of black and white convictions about the Word of Wisdom that people later find are more complicated than they learned as children.

    I’m okay with all that. Curiously, to me at least, the one course that I’m NOT okay with is the possibility, slim as it is, that the Word of Wisdom, or major components of it, could be jettisoned entirely. I think we could do with more serious theological consideration of what it is and what it means, but I think it would be seriously destructive to us as a people if a church president decided that it was merely an outdated cultural artifact that could be discarded as casually as pageants and home teaching and Scouting.

  9. Ardis,
    There are real principles and promises in the Word of Wisdom.

    The same was true for many old testament health and cultural practices and those were left by the wayside for equally important reasons.

    Not arguing for anything to happen as the last thing we need is more people getting addicted to coffee, but as many have observed we almost all have addictions to sugars, carbs, etc that cause all kinds of known and unknown health and mental issues in adults and children.

    Almost nothing is off the table. The word of wisdom is less significant than consecration or temple covenants and those can be changed, removed and forgotten as needed for future generations.

  10. It would be a fascinating social science/ecclesiology experiment if we kept everything the same, all the same words in the several ways described, including the sense of commandment and the sense of inspiration, but removed the question from the temple recommend interview. Just the question.

    Maybe I should collect baseline statistics in case that ever happens.

  11. “….adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints, who are or can be called saints.” That phrase always keeps me humble.

  12. I was mildly amused when I learned that “Mormon tea,” a concoction the Saints learned to brew in the pioneer era, was full of ephedra. No wonder it was so popular. And I appreciate Greg Prince’s perspective on the Word of Wisdom revelation: it contains nothing that wasn’t being pushed by the temperance societies of Joseph Smith’s day, and if the Lord had really wanted to give a “health” code, it would have included the instruction to boil water, because most illnesses were caused by unclean water.

  13. Thanks Wally, I’ve read Greg Prince’s comments and writings but hadn’t come across his definition of an outstanding “Word of Wisdom,” i.e. boil your water! Think of all the untold sickness and deaths of the saints that would have been prevented by this simple instruction!

  14. J. Stapley says:

    See: health and wellness scientism.

  15. Wally, that wasn’t some grand historical discovery by Prince, it’s long known by historians and published k. The Church website–http://history.lds.org/article/doctrine-and-covenants-word-of-wisdom?lang=eng

  16. I am and always will be a strict observer of the prohibitions of the Word of Wisdom. My family is burying my nephew this week, his body broken early from use of those substances. I could only wish for a world wide trumpet to warn young people before they become addicted.

  17. felixfabulous says:

    Interesting post. It seems to me that people who research the WOW and know the history fall into one of two camps: 1. Some of it may be silly, but it’s still important to follow; 2. Some of it is silly and I should make my own decisions about what is healthy for me. I see this post as a well-articulated argument for camp 1. I tend to fall into camp 2. We’ve taken what was given as a health principle that was generally accepted advice at the time (not given as a commandment) and made it into a test of fellowship and tribal marker. If we can’t give millennials good reasons not to drink tea and coffee other than it’s a test of obedience, we should not expect strict compliance. I think the best we can hope for is for people to be discreet and respectful of others who feel it’s a very important commandment. I think more and more people are going to continue and start doing what they want with the WOW and we will eventually have to adjust accordingly or pretend people are strictly following it, when we know they are not (see Jana Reiss’s research).

  18. Ardis previously wrote: “I think it would be seriously destructive to us as a people if a church president decided that it was merely an outdated cultural artifact that could be discarded as casually as pageants and home teaching and Scouting”.

    Has there been any discussions about ministering vs home teaching? I’ve been terribly disappointed so far in the actual application of ministering with its lack of accountability, less home visits, and a more cavalier attitude what constitutes contact. My observation seems people are less involved to their assigned people who need help but are reluctant to make a fuss.

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