Brigham Young on the Word of Wisdom

This post is thanks to a comment from Zander Sturgill on other social media.

An interesting quotation attributed to Brigham Young that I had never seen before: “Some of the sisters and some of the brethren will say that tea and coffee is not mentioned in the Word of Wisdom, but hot drinks. As if this doesn’t refer directly, perfectly, absolutely, definitely and truly to that which we did drink hot. What does it allude to? What did we drink hot? Tea and coffee. When we made milk porridge, it was food. We couldn’t wash it down red hot the way we drank down tea. It alludes to tea and coffee or whatever we drank. I said to the Latter-day Saints at the annual conference of 6 April that the spirit whispers to me for this people to observe the Word of Wisdom. Let the tea and coffee and tobacco alone, whether they smoke, take snuff and chew, let it alone. Those that are in the habit of drinking liquor, cease to drink liquor.” Brigham Young Tooele in 1867 (Reported by Gerrit Dirkmaat on LDS Perspectives podcast, PhD in history in 2010 from the University of Colorado. He worked as a historian/writer for the Joseph Smith Papers Project (JSP) from 2010 to 2014. He was coeditor of Documents, Volume 1 and lead editor of Documents, Volume 3. He is now an assistant professor of Church history and doctrine at BYU)

What “tea” could BY be referring to in the 19th century?  In those days, there really was only one kind of tea, and that was from the camellia sinensis plant, which produces black tea, green tea, white tea and yellow tea.

Teas that do not come from the camellia sinensis plant are presumably not part of the word of wisdom.  For example, mint tea comes from a different plant, as does chamomile tea.

(This post is not intended to tell anybody else how they should practice the Word of Wisdom.   That is between you and God.)


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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

24 thoughts on “Brigham Young on the Word of Wisdom

  1. I’ve heard beer and perhaps wine are actually the ‘mild drinks’ mentioned in the WoW, which makes sense to me. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t talking about Postum. lol

  2. Geoff, Do you have some sources about, “In those days, there really was only one kind of tea, and that was from the camellia sinensis plant, which produces black tea, green tea, white tea and yellow tea.”

  3. Technically mint, chamomile etc. are known as infusions when steeped in hot water to extract flavor and other properties, while the camilla sensis plant is known by the common nomenclature “tea” plant. A tea infusion is these tea plant leaves steeped in hot water, becoming “tea” in the process. When I drink mint, it’s not tea, it’s mint.

  4. But beer then is not what beer is now. Modern beer in America is more alcoholic than 1800s beer.

    I cultivate my own kombucha, using rooibos (aspalathus linearis) rather than tea (camellia sinensis). Given the complex taste of kombucha (akin to beer), I bought myself a hygrometer to validate that it is technically non-alcoholic (a tiny bit alcoholic, like orange juice that’s been allowed to sit out long enough to get warm). Then again, I’m lazy enough that my kombucha is basically vinegar by the time I get around to using it (added to water with sweetener to produce something similar to those Asian vinegar drinks).

    I mention kombucha because it is close to what I think home-brewed beer in the 1800s was like – a liquid that was safe from pathogens but with a low alcohol content (often as low as ~1% abv). The alcohol content of some modern beers gets up in the range of bottled whisky (40-46% abv).

    As to wine, Joseph was specifically cautioned against using wine for the sacrament, “Wherefore, a commandment I give unto you, that you shall not purchase wine neither strong drink of your enemies.” D&C 27:3. And the Word of Wisdom specifically prohibits wine as well as strong drinks (c.f., D&C 89:5).

  5. KarlS,

    Tea in the day was just camellia sinensis. This actually caused a big marketing problem for herbal infusions, because “infusion” just isn’t as catchy as “tea” as a term. It appears the marketing of herbal infusions as “tea” took off in the 1980s. This has actually caused a problem for the core tea industry. See The Tea Industry, Nick Hall, p. 68.

  6. Meg,
    That makes sense. Thanks for the information. I presume that the influence of older Asian herbal “drinks” or “teas” I’ve read about had little influence into western America at that time.

  7. My primary concern with the WoW is how it has become a litmus test for faithfulness in the gospel. I suspect there are many people who are better Christians than many Mormons are, and who would otherwise join the church, but they are excluded because of a morning cup of coffee or an evening cigarette or glass of wine. That’s a shame. Meanwhile, there are plenty of Mormons who go throughout the day practically attached to a 64 oz. plastic tub of soda. The guy who drinks a cup of coffee can’t go to the temple. The future diabetic who is trashing his body with sugar is good to go. It seems ridiculous. I’m not an advocate of adjusting the “rules” to include a disclaimer in the WoW that sugary beverages should be avoided. I’m a fan of letting adult human beings decide for themselves how to responsibly care for their bodies without the threat of revoking a temple recommend hanging over them.

  8. “The guy who drinks a cup of coffee can’t go to the temple. The future diabetic who is trashing his body with sugar is good to go.”

    The first sentence is true.

    The second is only true as long as he is worthy to carry a temple recommend. If he breaks the law of chastity, he is not ‘good to go.’

    The Word of Wisdom is a great lithmus test for faithfulness to the Lord, and an excellent guide for better physical and spiritual health. Everyone can do better, but taking something forbidden in the Word of Wisdom is currently an impediment to serving in the Temple. I can’t complain about that because it makes sense, because one cannot be perfect yet, while on somethings it is possible to be perfect in.

  9. I am really surprised at how “tea” in the US is not clearly understood. In Brazil, the portuguese manual of the Church clarifies that:

    “A única interpretação oficial de “bebidas quentes” (D&C 89:9) da Palavra de Sabedoria é a declaração feita pelos primeiros líderes da Igreja, explicando que a expressão “bebidas quentes” se refere ao chá da Índia ou chá preto (camellia sinensis) e ao café.”

    This is in the Lds App under Church Handbook of Instruction – in Portuguese, of course.

    I don’t see how there could be room for interpretation as to what “tea” means based on the above citation.

  10. Troy, I have good news for you: you get to decide whether or not you are following the word of wisdom. Remember, during the temple recommend interview the interviewers do not ask specific questions about alcohol, coffee, tea or tobacco. They ask are you following the word of wisdom? You should, in conjunction with your conscience, consult with God and if you Feel you are following the word of wisdom you should answer yes. I am 100% I’m unconcerned with whether other people are following the word of wisdom. I am only concerned as to whether I can answer the question in the affirmative when I am asked if I am following the word of wisdom.

  11. “I am 100% I’m unconcerned with whether other people are following the word of wisdom. I am only concerned as to whether I can answer the question in the affirmative when I am asked if I am following the word of wisdom.”

    This holds true for all other questions also. It is a private interview with your ecclesiastical leaders. You are on your honor.

  12. OK Lucas, let me clarify (though I think you know what point I am trying to make): all other things being equal, the guy who drinks a cup of coffee can’t go to the temple. The future diabetic who is trashing his body with sugar is good to go. It’s somewhat arbitrary. We could also be perfect in not drinking Coke, couldn’t we? In theory, that is. I don’t consume a lot of soda, but it would be hard for me to never have a drink of Coke again. So why coffee? It seems like the WoW would look very different if it were written today and that is why I don’t think we should get caught up on the specifics. The specific things that different cultures consume will vary. Heck, the things that a single culture consumes will change with time. So it seems that we’re being a bit Pharasiacal when it comes to these matters. I think Jesus himself said it best as recorded in Matthew 15:11:
    “What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.” It seems we are really missing the mark with our modern interpretation of the WoW.

  13. I had a teacher who said if the Word of Wisdom specifically excluded lemonade he would stop drinking lemonade. Dietary laws and proscriptions have varied through time but with a little research the basis of avoiding various substances is evident. While various articles appear advocating substances indicated in the Word of Wisdom ( A recent claim in a ‘health’ magazine recommended coffee to lose weight) a few years ago I looked into research on the usual foci, coffee, tea (and by extension other caffeine containing drinks), tobacco and alcohol. All have an effect on reproduction. The problems caused by fetal alcohol syndrome and the damage done by tobacco use are generally well known. Less well publicized is that caffeine affects DNA. All of us fall short of perfect health practices, but ultimately it is not health concerns that mandate keeping the basics of the Word of Wisdom.

  14. Troy, read the Word of Wisdom again when you have the time. Compare its do’s and dont’s, list its promises, and see if those promises are found elsewhere in scripture and in what context.

    The WoW is not only a health law, but also a spiritual one.

    As the WoW specifically indicates things “not for te belly”, it is reasonable for someone not to get a temple recommend if they choose not to obey that principle. The individual trashing his kidney with soda certainly needs some counseling, but he is doing what the weakest of the weak should do to serve in the temple.

  15. For an interesting read on the history of the WoW and how it has been interpreted and applied by leaders in principle and personal practice see Wikipedia (if you don’t trust Wiki’s, follow the references particularly the 1981 Dialogue article by TG Alexander)
    And a useful holistic quote from (official LDS site) “In it we’re advised to eat nutritious foods such as fruits, vegetables, and grains. We are also counseled to eat meat sparingly and to avoid addictive substances such as tobacco, alcohol, coffee, tea, and any other drinks or food containing harmful substances. Since that revelation, prophets of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have also added counsel to abstain from using illegal drugs, abusing prescription drugs, and overeating. In addition to their council, Church members are encouraged to sleep seven to eight hours a night, to exercise regularly, and to fast once a month…”

  16. “I think Jesus himself said it best as recorded in Matthew 15:11: ‘What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.’ It seems we are really missing the mark with our modern interpretation of the WoW.”

    Troy, you’ve taken that scripture out of context and applied it to a principle that didn’t yet exist until 1833. Re-read Matt 15:16-20. The Savior was chastising people who deemed eating with unwashed hands a greater sin than the many evils that proceed out of the mouths and hearts of men.

    The WoW is a commandment for this dispensation to guard against the “evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days,” and we don’t have to look far to see the evils and consequences of not following the WoW. It doesn’t matter if the WoW would look different if it was written today. It came via revelation and that should suffice us as we are asked to abstain from a few substances. And if we can’t adhere to that, regardless of whatever else is not included (e.g. sugar), then we are not temple eligible.

    However, as Geoff mentions, the WoW is between you and the Lord. A member regularly consuming large amounts of Mt. Dew is not likely keeping the WoW, nor the spirit of the law, but as one of the weakest of the Saints, he/she would still be temple eligible. I don’t have a problem with that as I’m not the one judging.

  17. Re caffeine: “pregnant mothers should be advised to limit their coffee and caffeine intake to 300 mg caffeine/day (i.e. 2-3 cups of coffee or 2.5-3 l of coke).” In animals, early exposure the caffeine can lead to a host of problems, but it isn’t entirely clear how that information applies to children.

    I’m just glad my metric is the Word of Wisdom as delineated (avoid coffee, tea, alcohol, illegal drugs, etc.) It would be bad if my metric were lack of any dust during Passover (though I’ve heard of various measures Jews take to meet that metric). And I’m really glad my metric isn’t kneeling while drinking with cupped hand from a stream without being informed ahead of time that this was the metric.

    And I’m glad I’m not in certain congregations I’ve heard of, where the Bishop actually was denying folks temple recommends if they ate anything containing sugar.

  18. Couple of items:

    1) even herbal teas are often full of diuretic tanins. Therefore I now limit my herbal tea to 1 cup a day.

    2) Meg, good you make kombucha, I make water and milk kefir.

    3) at the historic times of the wow, wine makers were adding lead acetate to their wines to make them sweeter… Yes it was toxic. Yes, people who made their own usually didn’t add this, therefore, if your own make was less toxic.

    4) the principle of the wow is to take care of yourself… Therefore, throwing yourself in front of a bus or eating toxic food is just as much a violation of the principle of the wow as doing drugs.

  19. I bet throwing oneself in front of a bus makes it hard to go to the temple (or participate in the temple recommend interview).

    There are all kinds of “natural” things that one should avoid. For example, the Word of Wisdom never specifically addressed the issue of radium, which was unknown at the time. Radium would be added to details of clock faces to make them glow, and the women doing the application would wet the radium-rich brushes with their tongues to make a fine point before applying the next set of markings. No one knew why these women were dying.

    The Word of Wisdom has been transformed into one of the tests that an individual is sufficiently committed to the gospel. One is also expected to refrain from extramarital sex, even though arguments are made that the actual act of extramarital sex is not always accompanied by conception or transmission of disease. One is expected to pay a tithe, even though . . . I can’t think of a good or valid reason to not pay a tithe.

    There’s a nice thesis written by military officers at NPS which talks about how Mormonism uses these demonstrations that we are actually committed to ensure resources are concentrated on those who will actually expend themselves for the cause. You can put “NPS” into the search bar here at M* to find my summary of that thesis and the link, if you are interested.

    In space vehicles, there is the core of the vessel, then there is the ablative coating, which is design to wear away when the vessel faces the heat and buffeting of re-entry.

    No individual is designed to fall away when the going gets tough. By our choices, we can either make ourselves part of the vital workings of the Church, or we can flirt with the edge, putting ourselves in that ablative zone, where one need not serve much nor obey much, nor even attend much. One might not even notice when one has transformed from a part of the vessel facing external heat to becoming part of the external substance subjecting the vessel to heat.

    Since all are heroes in their own minds, the journey of the ablative Mormon becomes to that individual a quest story where they have bravely faced a wrongful institution and escaped to a desirable freedom.

    Yet to the faithful and believing Mormon, their story is also a quest story, where they have bravely held the course despite the defection of false friends.

  20. I recall reading a while back that the WoW when originally laid down could also have been an economic commandment in addition to its health benefits. The main substances proscribed by the text (and leaders) were nearly all substances that were grown/produced outside the community of believers, which meant that getting them required that money leave the community. The early members of the church didn’t just make themselves sicker by using tobacco, goes the argument, they also made themselves poorer, and did so by giving money to people that hated them.

    True? False? Who can say, really. But the argument’s valid.

  21. I once had a Jewish friend ask me why I don’t drink coffee. I was about to launch into the standard Mormon spiel about the WoW and the Lord’s Law of Health, etc., but instead I felt inspired to turn it around and ask him “Why don’t you eat pork?” His answer was “because God asked me not to.”
    I wish we would adopt that answer instead of talking about Caffeine and Tanins, etc.
    Personally I sometimes think that the main reason that the Lord asked us not to drink Coffee or Alcohol may just be in order to start Missionary conversations.

  22. When we lived in Brasil, my boss invited my wife and me to dinner at their luxurious home. It was an excellent dinner. On the sidebar sat a beautiful sterling silver tea service, including teaspoons and complete with cups and saucers that were antiques and very valuable. I commented that I had never seen such a nice teapot and tea service before. He then passed me a spoon with no comment. I turned it over, and to my great surprise, there were engraved the initials of its original owner, BY, for Brigham Young. He then showed me the same initials on every piece of the tea set.

    I knew that he was a direct descendant of Brigham’s as his mother had been of the Young family, but I didn’t know that she had inherited the wonderful tea set. My boss, however, was not LDS and knew very little about the Church, but was a strong Catholic.

    The question I had was, of course, did Brigham actually use the tea set and drink tea?
    My answer: Probably. Who buys an expensive tea set and does not use it?

  23. I served a french speaking mission. I learned that black tea (thé) is different from herbal tea(tisane). In English both are called tea and so the definitions get mushy.

    On returning home I went to the temple for the first time in 2 years. I noticed packets of herbal tea for sale in the cafeteria. I thought that very interesting.

  24. Taylor…
    I would personally feel more comfortable if instead of representing the WoW as an arbitrary rule to follow, that has no health blessings on our lives, that you re-read the intro to the WoW:

    If you do so, you will find that the text of the WoW specifically says that it is “NOT to be sent by commandment or constraint.” You will further find that the Lord specifically gave it to “temporally save the saints (e.i., not spiritually).”

    Furthermore, it is scriptural to call it the Lord’s law of Health, because the text itself contains the promise, ‘ those who obey it, shall receive health and strength.’.

    It is Church Leadership and Prophets who have changed it into a test of obedience. I don’t pass judgment on that right now. But until they alter the canonized text, the purpose of the WoW is still what the scriptures say it is.

    I personally think the Lord loves us and has given us the principles of the WoW to protect and enrich our lives. It is not some random arbitrary rule to follow just to see who is obedient. Those who treat the WoW as such will reap the (minimal) reward for viewing the WoW in such a way. Those who treat the WoW as a much greater, all encompassing principle, will reap the (maximal) reward for viewing the WoW in such a way.

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