On “Hot Drinks”

I suspect that we’ll never find a definitive explanation of how the proscribed “hot drinks” in D&C 89 came to be interpreted by the church as referring purely and solely to tea and coffee. Today, of course, that is the church’s official interpretation of what “hot drinks” means, but early in the history of the D&C that wasn’t entirely obvious.

In fact, in January 1838—almost five years after Joseph’s receipt of the revelation—prominent members of the church on the high council disagreed about whether the Word of Wisdom’s invocation of “hot drinks” referred to tea and coffee. During a high council meeting, W.W. Phelps said he had not broken the Word of Wisdom. Oliver Cowdery, by contrast, said he had drunk tea three times a day during the winter as a result of his poor health. David and John Whitmer piped in that they didn’t drink tea or coffee, but also that they didn’t consider either to be hot drinks as referred to in Joseph’s revelation.

That short colloquy tells us a number of things. It tells us first that within early in the history of D&C 89, church members had interpreted hot drinks as referring to (at least) tea and coffee. But it also tells us that prominent church members nonetheless drank them and that the idea that tea and coffee were prohibited was not universally accepted.

It looks like this ambiguity about the meaning of hot drinks persisted for at least another four years. But in May 1842, Hyrum Smith discoursed on the Word of Wisdom. He dedicated two sentences to hot drinks: “And again ‘hot drinks are not for the body, or belly;’ there are many who wonder what this can mean; whether it refers to tea, or coffee, or not. I say it does refer to tea, and coffee.” While he sets the definitive foundation here for the future treatment of tea and coffee, the fact that, even a decade after Joseph’s receipt of the revelation people had questions about what “hot drinks” meant suggests that it wasn’t an obvious reference. Rather, it had to be defined.

So where did this idea of hot drinks (whatever they are) being bad come from? Seventeen years ago (man, time flies!) Nate Oman posited that it may have come from the pre-germ theory idea of humors. Others have theorized that it represented a caution against the extremes of Thompsonian medicine (which apparently liked tea a lot) or the embrace of the theories of Sylvester Graham (who eschewed coffee and tea and also almost any pleasure—he wasn’t the guy you would want choosing a restaurant).

Curious, I did what any right-thinking person on the internet would do: I did a Google Ngram search. I then clicked on the 1800-1850 results. And the results were glorious.

The most on-point was an 1850 editorial in the Millennial Star by the editor of the Deseret News. And I confess that I don’t entirely follow the editor’s reasoning, but it reflects non-Mormon reasoning that we’ll look at it a minute. But basically, the editor argues that, while coffee and tea may be “narcotic poisons,” there’s an additional reason not to drink them: because they’re “HOT.”

Yes, in 1850, a church publication argued that hot drinks literally meant hot drinks. Why? This is where I don’t follow entirely, but he says that hot water makes animal substances elastic; rawhide, leather, and meat(!), when immersed in hot water, can be bent into almost any shape. But it doesn’t have the ability to retain that shape until it cools (and perhaps dries).

Somehow, this heat-induced elasticity means that you could make a stomach into a saddle or a chain and, in any event, a stomach filled with hot water can’t do what a stomach is supposed to do. Instead, food in the stomach lies dormant, and eventually putrefies before the stomach cools off and can start digesting again. This putrefying food leads to headaches, uneasiness, fever, and, eventually, death. (Cold water, he notes, also weakens the “fluids of the system,” but it doesn’t relax the stomach in the same way hot water does. So while it’s better not to drink any water while you eat, if you’re going to drink, cold water is better than hot.)

He then launches into a metaphor of a sponge being stuck quickly into hot water and how it will absorb all of the water and lose the ability to absorb more. And while I can’t figure out how immersing a sponge in hot water differs from immersing it in cold, apparently it does.

Seriously, you need to read this piece. I’m going to give you the link again, just in case you skipped it the first time.

Now, it wasn’t just the Mormons inveighing against the problems of hot drinks; while it doesn’t appear to be universal, there was a fair amount written about the evils of drinks with a hot temperature. And the issues seem to largely fall into two categories: stomach problems and tooth problems.

In a, 1839 article in the Graham Journal of Health and Longevity, for example, we read that the stomach is a weak organ. (Seriously: apparently even “too much mental study” will mess with digestion.) Hot drinks “disturb the healthy action of the stomach, and create a diseased state of this vital organ.”

An 1829 article in the New England Medical Review and Journal came to a similar conclusion. Drinks, it says, should ideally be taken at body temperature. Hotter drinks may help people feel better temporarily, but eventually induce “an augmented suffering, by increasing the debility of the stomach, and rendering it less capable of after-digestion.” The article accepts, though, that there may be exceptions to this general rule.

The 1841 book A Treatise on Domestic Economy: For Young Ladies at Home bridges our gap between stomach and teeth. It asserts that if a person drinks hot drinks twice a day, “the teeth, throat, and stomach, are gradually debilitated.” The author believed that Americans’ habit of drinking hot drinks explained why tooth decay was more common among “American ladies” than Europeans. (Of course, these kinds of advice books could be inconsistent: in The Young Mother; or Management of Children in Regard to Health, the author acknowledges that hot drinks are bad for the stomach and cause tooth decay, but he believes that cold drinks are even more dangerous.)

And how do hot drinks damage teeth? Nature’s Own Book, written in 1835, has the answer for us. Substituting hot milk or watter for coffee or tea, it explains, is counterproductive because hot liquid is “relaxing to the solids of the body.” As best I can tell, that means that the heat makes teeth go soft, which leads to decay. And the author can prove it! Cows that ate hot still-slops lost their teeth within a couple years and could no longer eat hay.

There’s no reason, of course, that this means Joseph wasn’t influenced by Grahamism or humorosity or pure revelation. But it’s interesting to see an early 19th century discussion of hot drinks as bad by virtue of temperature itself. And that view seems to have had at least some purchase on church members.

A note before anybody comments: this post is not about whether the lived Word of Wisdom prohibits coffee and tea. It very clearly does. Rather, it’s about where the term “hot drinks” in D&C 89 comes from and what Joseph’s contemporaries were saying about hot drinks.


  1. Manboob With A Purpose says:

    My proclivity for iced coffee is VINDICATED

  2. Did hot cider or hot chocolate exist at the time? I suspect if not, hot drinks could certainly be shorthand for the two only existing hot drinks.

  3. lastlemming says:

    Maybe the term “hot drinks” comes from God and means precisely what it says, regardless of how Hyrum Smith and others understood it.


    To be clear, the linked study blames the hotness, not the teaness, of the drinks.

  4. jader3rd, a quick search tells me that hot chocolate was introduced to Europe by the 1500s. And at least one of the books I found says that replacing coffee and tea with hot milk didn’t make things better. So my guess is there were other hot drinks at the time; whether members of the young church would have been familiar with them I don’t know.

  5. Something that is too often missed in the WofW that points to the proscriptions of strong drinks, tobacco, and hot drinks being a medicinal concern rather than about consumption is that each also proscribes (or prescribes, in the case of strong drinks) the application of these for “the body”: “strong drinks are not for the belly, but *for the washing of your bodies*”; “tobacco is *not for the body*, neither for the belly” (note that it says nothing about smoking or chewing tobacco, which have traditionally been put forth as the entire basis for the WofW); and “hot drinks are *not for the body* or belly.”

    Furthermore, going along with the humor theory of medicine, hot chocolate was also included with coffee and tea as hot drinks that were commonly prescribed for medicinal use. However, hot chocolate was also a luxurious commodity, which would explain why Hyrum did not include that in his definition of hot drinks.

  6. The Other Brother Jones says:

    I remember seeing something in “Mormon Doctrine” about hot drinks. McConkie was saying something about how hot fluids cook your saliva and screw up your digestion process. Anyone else remember that? I am remembering through decades, so. . .

  7. One reason I’m skeptical that it’s based (fully or significantly) on the humor theory of disease is that, based on my quick internet research, that theory wouldn’t have prohibited hot drinks. Rather, heat helped with certain humors and damaged others. Rather than a general list of things to eat and things to avoid, humor-oriented medicine prescribe individualized diets. (I also read that initially they didn’t know what to do with coffee and chocolate, since those weren’t mentioned specifically by Galen, but they seemed to get over that issue).

    And again, I’m not trying to lay out what the Word of Wisdom (as opposed to D&C 89) means (though bad news Manboob: if I’m right about the derivation, they were equally–or perhaps more–opposed to cold drinks; the ideal was drinks at body temperature) so much as seeing what the contemporary chatter about “hot drinks” might have been.

  8. LaJean Carruth says:

    Brigham Young defined hot drinks were tea and coffee in 1867, because that is what they drank hot when the Word of Wisdom was received. He spoke extensively on the Word of Wisdom in 1867 and 1868, and said it was time for the saints to live it. Here is the link to that sermon https://catalog.churchofjesuschrist.org/assets/cd3d13ac-569a-4202-9be4-05db97a60262/0/0 and here is the link to it in parallel columns with the Journal of Discourses. https://catalog.churchofjesuschrist.org/assets/81d34393-be27-425a-a879-13e61e596c41/0/0

  9. According to Smithsonian Magazine, while hot drinks (coffee, tea, chocolate) were not necessarily part of the humor theory, they were very much a part of the debate surrounding the humor theory in the 17th through 19th centuries. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-coffee-chocolate-and-tea-overturned-1500-year-old-medical-mindset-180963339/

    So whether or not the hot drink proscription was directly tied to humor theory, the debate surrounding hot drinks (as well as tobacco and strong drinks) was clearly a medicinal concern and not one of regular or ordinary consumption. (Looking at things more, it is likely more related to the heroic theory of medicine, which focuses more on purging, bloodletting, and extreme temperatures).

    That JS’s concern in the WofW for these things was medicinal is easy to understand given his own experience as a child and even more so in that Alvin likely died as a result of poor medical practices.

  10. Loyd, I think that’s probably right: the concern about hot drinks, etc., reflected general health concerns which had their roots in, among other things, the humor theory of disease, heroic medicine, Grahamism, and all sorts of other things swirling around. But I found it interesting that “hot drinks” was one of those things swirling around and, as early as 1850, you saw church members adopting specifically these concerns.

  11. I like Greg Prince’s take on the Word of Wisdom. He said he has a shelf full of publications from the temperance societies of the early 1800s. They are in harmony with the Word of Wisdom. Prince says, wisely, that if the Lord really wanted to give the Saints good health advice, he would have told them to boil their water, since that’s where most of their illnesses originated.

  12. It really goes to show just how foreign early 19th-century America, especially on the frontier, was, and how removed we are from it–as well as how much of modern Mormonism is a result of interpreting early Mormonism through a 20th-century lens.

  13. lastlemming says:

    Another theory I have seen propagated in the Bloggernacle is that “hot drinks” was interpreted as tea and coffee specifically to extend the reach of the WoW to women, who generally refrained from tobacco and alcohol anyway.

  14. I wonder if there is any modern research on health and the temperatures of liquids. Who knows, maybe room temp drinks are technically better for you?

  15. Heber C. Kimball on hot chocolate: “None of us [missionaries] drank any kind of spirits, porter, small beer, or even wine, neither did we drink tea, coffee or chocolate.” I think I recall William Clayton similarly saying hot chocolate was out of bounds, but I can’t find the reference.

  16. Truckers Atlas says:

    Nice try, Sam, but despite these (interesting) arguments, I’m still sticking with avoiding coffee and non-herbal tea!

  17. Another Jonathan says:

    I suspect economics contributed. Leonard Arrington’s Great Basin Kingdom relates how Brigham Young, et al, discouraged early Mormon settlers in Utah from purchasing tea, coffee, tobacco, and alcohol to help preserve the scarce, crucial supply of currency. These products had to be imported and paid for in cash, leaving less available for other imports like machinery, tools, glass, metal, paper, etc.

    “Grow your own or do without” was the Church’s teaching for a while, but was ultimately reduced to “do without” alcohol, coffee, tea, and tobacco.

    This also explains why Mormons continue to eat so much meat: it did not have to be imported. Saints raised large herds of cattle, sheep, and goats, which can graze in dry climates and produce more food than farming when land is abundant but labor is not.

    Interpretation of the Word of Wisdom did sometimes involve economic sacrifice, however. Great Basin Kingdom also reports how, on Brigham Young’s orders, Mormon settlers in St. George destroyed their very profitable vineyards.

  18. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    The humoral theory was really concerned with balancing the humors. This balance relied on moderation, which can clearly be seen as an influence on the Word of Wisdom. Hot drinks upset this balance, as do cold drinks. I have often assumed that if refrigeration was widely available at the time (there was the use of ice for storage or perishables, but it was still a luxury), and people could readily grab a cold or chilled beverage, cold drinks would have also been included, and restricted. At the time, it was easy to make something hot (coffee/tea/etc.), but they couldn’t have imagined the ability to make things cold. And it’s quite possible that the humoral theorists wouldn’t have looked kindly on sitting in an air-conditioned home, either.

  19. Fascinating that there may have been some preference for body-temperature drinks, as opposed to either hot or cold, in light of Revelation 3:16. Granted this is Revelation and thus full of symbolism, but as other recent posts here have argued, metaphorical readings don’t work unless the plain reading makes sense too.

    Rev 3:16: “So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of my mouth.”

  20. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    Kate Holbrook and Sam Brown presented a very good discussion of some the history behind hot drinks, and other aspects of the WOW, a couple of weeks ago. Hope this link comes through: https://www.widtsoefoundation.org/#comp-kpplzvzb

  21. “Hot drinks” refers to hard alcohol or “strong drink” meaning whiskey, bourbon, etc. (called “fire water” by Native Americans).
    When you take bourbon, or hard liquor, and you drink it, it burns your throat.
    If you were to give strong alcohol to a child, the child’s reaction would be to call it “hot”– because that is the normal first reaction.
    It doesn’t refer to coffee or tea. Pioneers were expected to include coffee and tea in their supplies. Even handcarts had space for hauling coffee and tea.

  22. arelius11, as documented in the OP, “hot drinks” meant drinks that were hot. There was some debate over whether they referred exclusively to tea and coffee but, within a handful of years of the receipt of D&C 89, it was clear that at least some authoritative voices in Mormonism believed that’s what it meant. You’ll note that the revelation separately and explicitly refers to “strong drink.”

    That pioneers took coffee and tea with them doesn’t tell us that the “strong drinks” didn’t mean coffee. It tells us that the Word of Wisdom played a different role in Mormonism in its early decades than it does today.

  23. Last Lemming, I heard the same theory: If the men couldn’t use their tobacco, then the women couldn’t use their tea and coffee. I think I read this in the book, Emma Smith, Mormon Enigma. I remember correctly, this was the claim of William McClelland, or one of the apostles, as to why tea and coffee were included.

  24. Roger Hansen says:

    The reasons for hot drinks being defined as coffee and tea are widely varied: nutritional beliefs in the 19th century; need for importation (economic); and as a concession to male members who had to give up tobacco (something for women to give up). Unfortunately, the WoW is billed as a health code. But nobody can determine what the health concerns are with coffee and tea. And there are far worse foods that people consume. Think sugar with obesity being a far worse problem than caffeine.

  25. It’s obvious that today we need a revelation on cold drinks. There’s absolutely nothing good for you in Diet Coke.

  26. p, I beg to differ! Diet sodas are 99% water, which is unquestionably good for you.

  27. I think when the WoW talks about “hot drinks” it means “modest drinks”, because we all know “modest is hottest.”

  28. I would like Heavenly Father a lot more if His response to Joseph’s inquiry was “stop making your wife clean up after you, she’s not your slave.” But that apparently never crossed His mind.

  29. Health concerns are relative. If you’re a person with acid reflux, like myself, it’s fairly sensible to avoid coffee and tea in addition to alcohol and tobacco, and that’s what I plan to do (regardless of future LDS observances/activity). But yes–there are certainly more pressing health concerns for most people.

  30. Drink coffee for health’s sake. 2 – 3 cups a day = longer life. How does that stack up against the intent of the WoW?

  31. I’ll admit that I’m not super-interested in debating the health merits of the Word of Wisdom. And I get how strange that sounds–when we talk about it we talk about it as a health law. But (for the most part) health is much more complicated than eat-this-and-don’t-eat-that. And we’re not good at that, not just as Mormons, but as Americans in general, as we get conflicting stories about the benefits and detriments of, say, red wine.

    But the Word of Wisdom is much more a covenantal law, a symbolic setting-ourselves-apart kind of thing. I think we’d do better if we though about it that way. But since it’s framed as a law of health, it’s kind of awesome (I say as the son of a dentist) that hot drinks ruin our teeth by making them soft!

    Also, JLM, I have no idea how you got where you did but I kind of love it.

  32. This post reminded me of this Ensign article from 1992. In it, a dentist identifies tobacco, alcohol and hot drinks as causing cancer and other mouth disorders. These days more attention is being given to HPV as a leading cause for throat cancer. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/new-era/1992/07/not-for-the-body?lang=eng

  33. Is it possible that JSJ was referring to alcoholic drinks that were served warm–wassail, mulled beer, grog–that were not necessarily considered “strong drinks” due to low alcohol content?

  34. Is vegetable soup a hot drink?

  35. purple_flurp says:

    The discussion about the influence of humorism and medical beliefs at the time is interesting, but if that’s the case, how do we square that with the idea that the D&C is a series of direct revelations from Jesus Christ to JS? Seems odd that Christ would mandate something that happens to sound like some of larger cultural beliefs at the time which would eventually be shown to be not a huge deal a century later.

    There’s the argument that things like this (and prohibitions on pork and random animals in the OT) were meant to make God’s people culturally distinct, but I’ve never really liked that argument. Seems kind of at odds with the modern mission of the church trying preach the gospel to every land, kindred, and tongue, or whatever.

  36. purple_flurp, that’s a fair question that deserves greater airing than what I can do in a blog comment. But in short, I’d disagree with the assumption that the D&C is the literal words of Jesus Christ as dictated through Joseph Smith and written by a scribe. There’s plenty of attestation, for instance, that Joseph felt able to edit the revelations after reading them. It’s also pretty clear that they largely came from questions Joseph and his followers asked and the received revelations were filtered through his understanding and worldview. So the idea that his revelations would reflect questions and ideas swirling around the early Saints strikes me as both plausible and, more than that, accurate.

  37. Growing up, I’d heard the anecdote of British bodies being found with tanned (leather) stomachs because of constantly drinking tea. History is so quirky, seeing all the different opinions everony, high and low, had about their interpretation of scripture and revelation.

    To me, the revelation is a template for personal revelation, a chance for people to look inside themselves and see if they, themselves, needed to make a change. Instead, more often, it’s used as a barbed whip to punish those who don’t see it the same as you do.

  38. A very recent study (apology for no source) concluded that it’s the temperature.

  39. George Q. Cannon seemed to define “hot drinks” based on temperature in 1868. The Journal of Discourses has Cannon saying this:

    “Almost every elder who has spoken from this stand has felt the necessity and importance of calling the attention of the people to this subject [the word of wisdom]. We are told, and very plainly too, that hot drinks—tea, coffee, chocolate, cocoa and all drinks of this kind are not good for man. We are also told that alcoholic drinks are not good, and that tobacco when either smoked or chewed is an evil.” (JoD, 12:221)


  40. Doug Williams says:

    All of your comments are interesting, so I would invite all of you to look up the Noah Webster first 1828 dictionary, Heat, Hot, Coffee, Wisdom, Drink, etc. and when the word of wisdom get to the grains, “Barley is for the brewing of mild drinks”! (D&C 89)…. then you will know what Hot, Drink, means to them. then go to the health benefits of coffee and tea, (pro and con).. Because this horse is beat to death.

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