The Word of Wisdom

Check this link out for a great website that covers the development of the Word of Wisdom.

Ever wonder about the Word of Wisdom? This is a thought-provoking post on the subject from the Feminist Mormon Housewives website:

The Word of Wisdom in Context

One of the things I always loved about the Word of Wisdom was how prophetic and progressive I considered it to be.

From what I can tell, I’m not alone. I believed we only recently concluded tobacco reaps hell on the body. Pair that with the idea that most understand the potential implications of drinking and recent recognition regarding the wonders of whole grains and less meat, and you have a logical testimony of the Word of Wisdom. I wondered about those pesky “hot drinks” most of my member life, but the idea that we continue to understand the effects of various substances gave me hope one day the world would come to its senses about coffee and tea. Anyone else?

Some browsing around the internet a few weeks ago brought me news that challenged my theory. I learned our preoccupation with health isn’t as recent as I believed. The most recent “cycle” was that of the 1980s, but how many of us know of a temperance and “clean living movement” of the 1830s, the same decade the Lord revealed the Word of Wisdom?

In case some readers are unaware, I’ll offer a quick “official” background on what led the Prophet to what is now Doctrine and Covenants 89.

“’The first [thing] 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’ (Journal of Discourses, 12:158). After finding himself in clouds of tobacco smoke and hearing the complaints of his wife at having to clean the filthy floor, the Prophet Joseph asked the Lord about the proper conduct for members of the Church. He was told that “tobacco is not for the body, neither for the belly, and is not good for man’ (D&C 89:8)” – Brigham Young as quoted in the September 1995 New Era article, “Hooked!” See also “The Teachings of the Prophets: Joseph Smith” p. 263.

Michael De Groote of MormonTimes writes of the many health concerns of the 1830s. Alcohol, tobacco, hot drinks (both discussed in the word of wisdom and not), meat, water, standard 19th century medical procedure, fruits and vegetables, hygiene, clothing, exercise, and yes, even thinking.

This is not to discredit the Word of Wisdom – in fact, De Groote dismisses the easily concluded notion of D&C 89 as mere reflection of 19th century society and credits the Lord’s propensity to prepare his people for a commandment – read: the temperance and “clean living” movement. It’s much akin to those who attribute the Civil Rights Movement as the Lord preparing His church for blacks to receive the priesthood.

Because the temple recommend question asks if we follow the Word of Wisdom, we often ask ourselves to what extent we must follow to be worthy of the temple. I’d like to go one step further: to what extent does context matter? Because they apply most, I’d like to focus on the drinks mentioned therein.


“Behold, verily, thus saith the Lord unto you: In consequence of evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days, I have warned you, and forewarn you, by giving unto you this word of wisdom by revelation – ” (v. 5)

We could easily cross reference this verse with D&C 27:2-4. In these verses, the Lord tells Joseph it doesn’t matter what we use for the sacrament and issued this command: “…you shall not purchase wine neither strong drink of your enemies.”

We cite D&C 27:2 when people ask why we use water instead of wine – after all, wine is mentioned in the sacramental prayer written in Moroni 5. But surely the waitress at the local Italian restaurant is not our enemy. Perhaps our “enemy” today is Satan playing with our temptations instead. Hm. There’s a lot of fear instilled here. Some would call it wisdom. I think it’s both.

Now consider D&C 27:4, received August 1830: “Wherefore, you shall partake of none except it is made new among you; yea, in this my Father’s kingdom which shall be built up on the earth.”

Cross reference this with Section 89 verse 5 and 6:

“That inasmuch as any man drinketh wine or strong drink among you, behold it is not good, neither meet in the sight of your Father, only in assembling yourselves together to offer up your sacraments before him. And behold this should be wine, yea, pure wine of the grape of the vine, of your own make.”

I suppose we could make our own wine, but with the stigma established I don’t imagine the Church would sanction such activity, though it may interest many to remember the Dixie Wine Vineyards. I also wonder as scripture remains straightforward. We could use wine for our sacraments if we so desired, we’d just have to do it the right way. Of course, we stopped using wine for our sacraments when members abused the privilege (see above article) – but that discussion could be an entirely separate (though interesting) entry.

While consequences abound in drinking alcohol, there are also benefits. 1 Timothy 5:23 states “Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake and thine often infirmities.” Experts increasingly believe a little daily red wine is good for the body. One will find a little alcohol in some of their medicines. On a side note, there’s alcohol in our pure vanilla, coconut, almond, etc extracts used for baking.

But verse 17 recently caught my attention:

“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, and for mild drinks, as also other grain.”

Now a few people like to hop up and down and insist “He meant this barley drink people back then used to drink to detox their bodies!”

Perhaps, but many disagree. As some know, barley is used in the production of beer. Reports argue the early Saints liked their beer. It wouldn’t be a leap to justify their activity with this verse, though others cite the “guideline” that was the Word of Wisdom in the 1800s as opposed to the commandment it is today. The question remains: could we consider beer a “mild drink” as opposed to “strong drinks” such as rum, whiskey, or vodka? I think so, absolutely. Should we is a different question entirely.

Hot Drinks

Coffee and Tea. As a new member, I trusted the WoW explicitly prohibited “coffee and tea.” I hadn’t bothered checking for myself as I felt my institute classes, new member discussions and Sunday School classes covered it well. Was I surprised!

On a slightly related note, I also thought “caffeine” must be mentioned here the way some of my friends acted, avoiding caffeinated sodas like the plague. It’s a widely adopted notion even among members that the reason we avoid coffee and tea is because of the caffeine. Perhaps, but if we’re avoiding caffeine we should also avoid chocolate.

Not enough in it, you say? Decaf coffee has about the same amount, if not much less.

We have to assume coffee and tea is mentioned here for some other reason. Perhaps there’s something inherent in the coffee beans or the tea leaves (some cite tannic acid), though it’s difficult to find much argument to that regard. Perhaps it has everything to do with its addictive qualities. Others contend it may not be a health issue but a test of obedience. As the Word of Wisdom is touted as a matter of health, I wonder about that. We need to say we just don’t really know. That’s where faith comes in for some; for others, deference coupled with hope.

Hot Chocolate and other “hot” drinks. When I first read this verse I thought “This can’t mean hot chocolate!” I love my hot chocolate. Given the plain scripture I found it odd hot chocolate wasn’t interpreted as included, but oh well, right?

But seriously, why would the Lord use the term “hot drinks” instead of specifying coffee and tea as Brigham Young later did? Elder Harold G. Hillam of the Seventy writes in the October 2001 Ensign article entitled “Not for the Body,”

“Tea and coffee were discussed, not only because of their adverse chemical effects on the body, but also because of the temperature of the drinks. The drinks were often taken so hot that, without realizing it, many individuals were drinking liquids close to the boiling temperature. Those detrimental effects were observed.”

I hardly think anyone enjoys pouring anything boiling down their throats, though we’ve all done it. I’ve ordered hot chocolate at a cafĂ© before and about lost all my taste buds due to the temperature. Heck no, I let that stuff cool down now.

But with that in mind, why aren’t things such as herbal tea (often very hot) and hot chocolate forbidden – or at the very least, discouraged?


I imagine I could live according to the letter and still get my recommend – perhaps have a beer and attribute verse 17 to my bishop (don’t worry, beer has never tempted me), or perhaps make my own wine? Anyone think that would fly? Would I be as worthy if my lips neglected whole grains? Ate more meat than is necessary? As some remain adamant about this being a matter of avoiding addiction, of living to the spirit rather than the letter, where does one stop - a prohibition of sugar, salt, etc?

It seems so straight forward at first, but after a little serious study the Word of Wisdom strikes as guidance still – pliable, given to context. I understand Brigham Young and his successors have stated otherwise and their reasons for doing so, but scripture remains the same. We just don’t discuss its comprehensive history.

And so the eternal question remains: Just where do we draw the line and why?


  1. Thanks so much for you insight on this topic. I am studying the Book of Mormon and this issue bothers me, as I love my coffee. I had to laugh at your photo, thinking but surely, the Lord wouldn't ban me from heaven for a cup of coffee? ;)

    My issue with all this is that soda, including caffeinated sodas, are allowed, but coffee and tea are not. I am very well-read in matters of health--healthy eating and living--and recent studies have come to show that there are health benefits to coffee and tea--balances blood sugar level, helps diabetes, etc. However, there are many medical studies not only proving soda as nutritionally devoid, but the components actually leech minerals from the bones.

    Yet, the image evoked when you described these meetings of people spitting tobacco in the room as they illustrates how these guidelines came to be at the times. I was actually surprised to learn that it suggests no meat except in winter. Interesting.

    I appreciate your perspective on the topic.

    1. The underlying principle that we have to remember. If you study any of the sacred texts. People were commanded to do things and not do thing whether they understood them or not. As much as I really do want to understand the purpose of everything, my obedience to the Lords commandments isn't conditional. If the Lord decided to add apples as something prohibited to eat in the Word of Wisdom. I would stop eating it. Sure it is healthy for me, but obedience to the Lord will carry me further than that apple will. 1Nephi 2:20

  2. So is it just HOT coffee and tea?
    What about Iced Tea or Iced Coffee or Frappacinos?! What about coffee flavored ice cream, which my sisters love but later decided it must not be "good" because it is still "coffee".

    Coffee has shown in study after study to be FAR healthier than man caffeinated sodas, so is it the HOT aspect or the "coffee" aspect? What is it about "coffee and tea" that has Mormons scared? I just do NOT understand?

    What about hot cider? Back in that day and age hot cider was a good drink - aka wassail! Back then there were a lot of hot alcoholic drinks too, did "hot drinks" just mean that? Did "hot" mean "burning" as in what alcohol does? Drinking some alcohol makes it feel like your throat and mouth are on fire!

    OMG what we wouldn't give to have Joseph's Myth just comeback for one day to ask him WTF he meant!