One of the things I always loved about the Word of Wisdom was how prophetic and progressive I considered it to be.
In my experience, I’m not alone. I believed we only recently came to the conclusion about the detrimental effects of tobacco on the body. Not so. We also recognize now the wonders that are whole grains and less meat. It gave me hope that one day the world would come to its senses about coffee and tea. Anyone else?
Society goes through cycles of preoccupation with healthy living. The most recent was that of the 1980s, but I was unaware of a temperance and "clean living movement" of the 1830s, the same decade the Lord revealed the Word of Wisdom.
Just in case some readers don’t know, 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!”
Michael De Groote of MormonTimes writes of the many concerns of those in the 1830s related to health. 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.
As Section 89 is now requisite to a temple recommend, we often find ourselves asking 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? For fun 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 take 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 we’ve established I don’t imagine the Church would sanction one. Can you imagine an LDS vineyard today? Would it interest you to know we used to have them in Utah? Google it. Either way, this verse with others seems to say that we could use wine for our sacraments if we so desired. We’d just have to do it the right way.
1 Timothy 5:23 states "Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach's sake and thine often infirmities."
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 there are many who disagree. Barley, as many know, 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. Could we consider beer a “mild drink” as opposed to “strong drinks” such as rum, whiskey, or vodka? Absolutely.
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 and new member discussions and Sunday School classes covered it well enough. Was I surprised!
On a slightly related note, I also thought “caffeine” must be mentioned here as well the way some of my friends acted. It’s a widely misunderstood notion 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 tanic acid), though it's difficult to find much to that regard. Perhaps it has everything to do with its addictive qualities. Others contend it may not be a health issue at all, but a test of obedience. As the Word of Wisdom is understood as a matter of health, I wonder about that. We don’t really know. That's where faith comes in for some; for others, deference coupled with hope.
Hot Chocolate. 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?
I’m told some ensure their faithfulness and obedience by avoiding anything hot – even hot chocolate. Sound crazy? 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 any of us enjoys pouring anything boiling down our throats, though we’ve all done it. I’ve ordered hot chocolate at a café 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 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? Why is it, then, I can never have a bite of whole grains and probably get away with saying I follow the WoW – after all, it seems we’re only concerned with the drinking and smoking, correct?
It seems so straight forward at first, but after only a little serious study, the Word of Wisdom strikes as guidance still – pliable, given to historical context. I understand Brigham Young and his successors have stated otherwise, but scripture remains the same.
Just where do we draw the line and why?
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