A Word of Wisdom Primer

gfob_bfobReligious restrictions on food is not uncommon, and exists in every major faith. Both what can be eaten and and how food is prepared and served can be part of the dietary teachings. Islam, for instance, follows similar restrictions to Jewish law and includes prohibition of alcohol. Buddhism and Hinduism both avoid eating cows like Judaism and Islam are to avoid pork consumption. They also both teach not to eat meat, with Buddhism generally more vegetarian in practice. Christianity seems to be the least food conscious religion having nearly no rules other than moderation. Catholicism will have meat off the menu on Fridays, but that seems to be the extent of any rules. Perhaps Seventh Day Adventism with its adherence to Leviticus is the most stringent Christian denomination. Living in a predominantly Protestant and laissez faire Western democracy makes the very simple dietary teachings of Mormonism seem more strict than reality.

A good start to any discussion about Doctrine and Covenants 89, also known as the Word of Wisdom, is a look at Biblical dietary laws. In some ways the Word of Wisdom is a descendant of what can be found in what is known as the Law of Moses; since both are revelatory health guides.

Food in the Bible

Laws governing what Jews can eat is found in Leviticus chapter 11 as part of a larger set of rules to the Children of Israel. Meat in particular was divided between what could be consumed and those to be left out of the diet. “Whatsoever parteth the hoof, and is clovenfooted, and cheweth the cud, among the beasts, that shall ye eat” (Leviticus 11:3), but not for instance the camel, rabbit, and pig that includes one and not the others. Because most likely pagan practices no baby animal could be boiled in milk (Deuteronomy 14:21), although that isn’t a known modern cooking practice by anyone. That same verse also states not to prepare or give as food an animal that died of natural causes. Prey and Carrion eating birds were forbidden along with an assortment of water and other fowl. Poultry and some wild birds (Leviticus 11:13-19) could be eaten without ritual regulations. There is a short list of insects that were allowed for food that mostly had large hind legs for jumping, “but all other flying creeping things, which have four feet, shall be an abomination unto you.” (Leviticus 11:23). It appears that only fish from the waters could be eaten, “And all that have not fins and scales in the seas, and in the rivers, of all that move in the waters, and of any living thing which is in the waters, they shall be an abomination unto you.” (Leviticus 11:10). There is much more about not touching dead animals, draining the blood, and the care of utensils.

Some Christians and Jews point out that the time of Moses is not the first dietary rules given by God to His people. In fact, it has been argued, Genesis 7:2 reference to “Of every clean beast thou shalt take to thee by sevens, the male and his female: and of beasts that are not clean by two, the male and his female,” indicates that Moses was teaching something that had already existed. More likely it was a redaction by later editors compiling the Biblical narrative. Less easy to ignore is the suggestion that after the Fall, “God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.” (Genesis 1:29), with no mention of flesh. Later after the Flood it was expanded to “Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things,” although, “the blood thereof, shall ye not eat.” (Genesis 9:3-4). There might have been a shift from vegetarianism to omnivorous lifestyle as presented in these examples.

At least one story indicates the inspired individualization of dietary commitments. Daniel rejecting the food of King Nebuchadnezzar’s court, “that he would not defile himself with the portion of the king’s meat, nor with the wine which he drank,” (Daniel 1:8) is often pointed out as an example of following the modern Word of Wisdom. Most likely there is more going on than trying not to get drunk and overindulge. There seems to be a refusal to engage in ritual practices that defile his Jewish beliefs. Such a specific menu tied so close to the kingship probably indicates the food were religiously prepared and purposed. Instead, Daniel and his companions request, “let them give us pulse to eat, and water to drink,” with the added challenge to compare to those who eat the standard menu (Daniel 8:12). Of course, the servant is amazed after 10 days how much better health than the other court attendants. There was no blanket revelation for the whole of Israel to eat pulse (or beans) and water, and therefore this can be more a lesson on personal decision making than teetotalism and vegetarianism.

The Revelation on Health

For Latter-day Saints, the story behind the Word of Wisdom revelation is well known. It started during the School of the Prophets when the first generation Priesthood men gathered to learn gospel lessons. The most familiar telling is Brigham Young, who in 1868, explained:

When the school of the prophets was inaugurated one of the first revelations given by the Lord to His servant Joseph was the Word of Wisdom . . . I think I am as well acquainted with the circumstances which led to the giving of the Word of Wisdom as any man in the Church, although I was not present at the time to witness them. The first school of the prophets was held in a small room situated over the Prophet Joseph’s kitchen, in a house which belonged to Bishop Whitney, and which was attached to his store, which store probably might be about fifteen feet square. In the rear of this building was a kitchen, probably ten by fourteen feet, containing rooms and pantries. Over this kitchen was situated the room in which the Prophet received revelations and in which he instructed his brethren. The brethren came to that place for hundreds of miles to attend school in a little room probably no larger than eleven by fourteen. When they assembled together in this room after breakfast, the first they did was to light their pipes, and, while smoking, talk about the great things of the kingdom, and spit all over the room, and as soon as the pipe was out of their mouths a large chew of tobacco would then be taken. Often when the Prophet entered the room to give the school instructions he would find himself in a cloud of tobacco smoke. This, and the complaints of his wife at having to clean so filthy a floor, made the Prophet think upon the matter, and he inquired of the Lord relating to the conduct of the Elders in using tobacco, and the revelation known as the Word of Wisdom was the result of his inquiry. You know what it is, and can read it at your leisure” (Journal of Discourses, 12:158).

Years later Zebadee Coltrin related the response to the revelation when first given by Joseph Smith was, “out of the twenty two members that were there assembled, all used tobacco more or less, except two . . . when they heard it they all laid aside their pipes and use of tobacco.” (quoted footnote Peterson, Paul H., Thesis: An historical analysis of the Word of Wisdom., 1972. pg. 20).

Despite the description of all the men putting down pipes, the Word of Wisdom was not a requirement for at least a generation. The members of the Church more or less followed the health code according to their own dictates. This sometimes caused the leadership some concern, but they didn’t want to enforce what was not a commandment. Elder Ezra T. Benson, in an 1867 sermon, said, “Supposing he had given the Word of Wisdom as a command, how many of us would have been here? I do not know; but he gave this without command or constraint, observing that it would be pleasing in His sight for His people to obey its precepts. Ought we not to try to please our Heavenly Father?” (Journal of Discourses 11:367). Years later, after a more strict observance of the Word of Wisdom was implemented, Joseph F. Smith declared, “The reason undoubtedly why the Word of Wisdom was given—as not by ‘commandment or restraint’ was that at that time, at least, if it had been given as a commandment it would have brought every man, addicted to the use of these noxious things, under condemnation; so the Lord was merciful and gave them a chance to overcome, before He brought them under the law” (Joseph F. Smith., Conference Report., October 1913, pg 14). Not that there wasn’t any concerns before the turn of the 20th Century, because numerous sermons were given about the subject. Brigham Young constantly brought up that Mormons should follow the Word of Wisdom. They should have no excuse for not doing so, even if imperfect in the observance.

By the beginning of the 20th Century there was a quick succession of tightened requirements for at least prohibition from alcohol, tobacco, tea, and coffee. By 1902 the prophet Joseph F. Smith urged Bishops to hold back Temple recommends from the younger members who were not following the Word of Wisdom, while showing leniency to older people. The use of water instead of wine for the Sacrament came in 1906. President Joseph F. Smith in 1915 instructed that no one could be given the Priesthood or attend the Temple without strict Word of Wisdom adherence (Thomas G. Alexander, “The Word of Wisdom: From Principle to Requirement,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 14 no. 3, Autumn 1981., 78–88). Other prophets after him continued to enforce these requirements, finally codified in the 1933 General Handbook of Instructions used by LDS Church leadership as a guide. Since then illicit drug use has been added as a prohibition.

Toward a Better Diet

Most of the time the Doctrine and Covenants section 89 Word of Wisdom is thought of as a prohibition, but there is much more to it than alcohol, tobacco, tea, and coffee. In fact, not all alcohol was thought of as bad to drink. Mild drinks made from barley did not get listed as part of the “strong drink” category (vs. 17) until much later. Of course, up until recently water drinking was a health risk with alcohol killing bad bacteria. Even with the acceptance of mild alcohol, an inebriated person was considered immoral in conduct. Heavy drinking even then in conjunction with other foibles could help lose membership privileges.

The listing of all the good food to eat plentiful for a healthy diet. As already mentioned, grain is good for consumption, ” Nevertheless, wheat for man, and corn for the ox, and oats for the horse, and rye for the fowls and for swine, and for all beasts of the field, and barley for all useful animals . . .” (vs. 16-17). Herbs and fruits are to be eaten during the seasons, “with prudence and thanksgiving” (vs. 10-11). One of the most controversial listings is meat. Some have interpreted eating meat, “only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine,” (vs. 13) as an argument for vegetarianism in the modern day. Assuming this to be true, then the same could be said for grains since they were, ” made for the use of man only in times of famine and excess of hunger” (vs. 15). Taken together, it is more likely there is a caution against over indulgence leading to bad health and over harvesting. Too much of a good thing becomes a vice.

A consistent complaint has been that the prohibitions are focused on while other bad diet habits are ignored. This is partly true, but once again the full Word of Wisdom is still considered up to individual responsibility. Besides, the subject of healthy eating has not been completely forgotten. President Ezra Taft Benson in April 1983 Conference listed both what to avoid and what was good to consume:

In this revelation the Lord counsels us to use meat sparingly. I have often felt that the Lord is further counseling us in this revelation against indiscriminately killing animals, for He has said elsewhere in scripture, “Wo be unto man that sheddeth blood or that wasteth flesh and hath no need.” (D&C 49:21.)

Wheat is particularly singled out as being good for man, as is the fruit of the vine—vegetables and all fruits. This is the wisdom of the Lord on the matter of sound nutrition and diet.

The Word of Wisdom allows us to know that the Lord is vitally concerned about the health of His Saints. He has graciously given us counsel for improving our health, endurance, and resistance to many diseases.

Brigham Young was no less concerned about sugar and overeating than nutritionists are today. We read in Teachings: Brigham Young chapter 29:

When we go on a trip to the settlements and stop at the brethren’s houses, it is, “Brother Brigham, let us manifest our feelings towards you and your company.” I tell them to do so, but give me a piece of Johnny-cake [cornbread]; I would rather have it than their pies and tarts and sweet meats. Let me have something that will sustain nature and leave my stomach and whole system clear to receive the Spirit of the Lord and be free from headache and pains of every kind

He also said:

The Americans, as a nation, are killing themselves with their vices and high living. As much as a man ought to eat in half an hour they swallow in three minutes, gulping down their food like the [dog] under the table, which, when a chunk of meat is thrown down to it, swallows it before you can say “twice.” If you want a reform, carry out the advice I have just given you. Dispense with your multitudinous dishes, and, depend upon it, you will do much towards preserving your families from sickness, disease and death

Perhaps those who say Mormons reject the whole of the Word of Wisdom while focusing on only a small portion are on the right track. Certainly everyone can take care of themselves better. Regardless, the prohibitions have always been regarded as the bedrock of faithfulness to the rest. They are the more social vices that can effect the community as a whole. “There are many habit-forming, addictive things that one can drink or chew or inhale or inject which injure both body and spirit which are not mentioned in the revelation,” Pres. Boyd K. Packer said in the April 1996 Conference, ” . . . In some cultures, native drinks are claimed to be harmless because they are not specifically mentioned in the revelation. Yet they draw members, particularly men, away from their families to parties which certainly offend the principle.” To be health conscious can be spiritually minded.

The Greater Blessings

All of this talk of health and strength would be nothing without the spiritual promises included in the Word of Wisdom. Again in the April 1983 Conference, Ezra Taft Benson said:

I have always felt, however, that the greater blessing of obedience to the Word of Wisdom and all other commandments is spiritual.

Listen to the spiritual promise: “All saints who remember to keep and do these sayings, walking in obedience to the commandments, . . . shall find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures.” (D&C 89:18, 19; italics added.)

Some have thought this promise was contingent on just keeping the provisions of the Word of Wisdom. But you will notice we must walk in obedience to all the commandments. Then we shall receive specific spiritual promises. This means we must obey the law of tithing, keep the Sabbath day holy, keep morally clean and chaste, and obey all other commandments.

Brigham Young gave a similar statement, “I know that some say the revelations upon these points are not given by way of commandment. Very well, but we are commanded to observe every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Teachings: Brigham Young, chapter 29). The word of Wisdom is far more than a health code, but a way to be more in tune with Spirit.

In another post I had stated that breaking the Word of Wisdom was not itself a sin, and I stand by that statement. However, I will amend it to say there are spiritual consequences in force now that weren’t in times past. Those include lacking the spiritual maturity to embrace the full knowledge of God’s greater revelations. Hidden in the promise of, “health in their navel and marrow to their bones,” and “find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures,” is Temple blessings. Even if a person could attend the Temple while not following the Word of Wisdom, there is much they would miss that the Holy Ghost could not reveal to them. Pres. Heber J. Grant said, “No man who breaks the Word of Wisdom can gain the same amount of knowledge and intelligence in this world as the man who obeys that law. I don’t care who he is or where he comes from, his mind will not be as clear, and he cannot advance as far and as rapidly and retain his power as much as he would if he obeyed the Word of Wisdom” (Teachings: Heber J. Grant, chapter 21).

Hopefully we can all take seriously the God inspired revelation on health as more than a dietary guidance. It has spiritual promises associated with remaining in good physical condition. To focus on the Word of Wisdom as a sign of righteousness, rather than a companion to the other Commandments, has a hint of unrighteous judgmentalism. We both ignore its observation and cling to it as an outward appearance of salvation at our own spiritual peril.

6 thoughts on “A Word of Wisdom Primer

  1. I’m not sure how we define “sin.” Typically, it’s simply “the breaking of God’s laws and commandments.” However, defining laws or commandments is tough sometimes. In a civil sense, laws are legislation but in the civilian tradition, laws are also custom, the results of practice repeated for a long time and generally accepted as having the force of law. I think the WoW has taken on the definition of “commandment” by it’s longevity. Anyway, I do think we put the WoW higher on the pedestal than other clear commandments. I know too many morbidly obese Saints who say they keep the WoW in recommend interviews, but certainly can’t walk and not be weary.

  2. For someone who has taken upon themselves the baptismal covenant, I would say that violation of the Word of Wisdom is technically a “sin”, since they (presumably) understood the Word of Wisdom to be a commandment at the time of their baptism. That said, it’s not a particularly serious sin. It’s serious enough to prevent you from getting a temple recommend, but not serious enough to endanger your standing as a member.

    For non-members, not adhering to the Word of Wisdom is not a sin. They have not covenanted to keep that commandment.

    I guess this is a long way of saying that the Word of Wisdom is clearly a care of malum prohibitum, as opposed to malum in se.

  3. Oops! That’s ” walk and not faint.” You can forget completely about running.

  4. I enjoyed this essay.

    When it comes to meat and grains, I would note that those to whom this revelation was given would have known how precious meat and grains were from a resource perspective, an awareness that moderns tend to lack completely due to refridgeration and the global economy. Looking to water footprint as a measure of resource consumption, meat, grains, sugars, and caffeine are the items most likely to inflate an individuals daily consumption of the earth’s resource.

    In a more primitive time, significant consumption of meat and grain was only possible for those who were taking advantage of the labor of their lessers. Coffee was had only by means of slavery. Tea was the fruit of a foreign land dedicating resources away from local food production augmented by the cost and danger of transport on the high seas.

    In our day, these same forces are in play, though masked by slick packaging. In many of our living and eating habits, we attempt to ape the former privilege of the rich. In so doing, we do violence either to peoples or resources.

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