Adherence to the Word of Wisdom may be the defining characteristic of Latter-day Saints for most of the world. Ask someone who is not a member of the Church about Mormons, and they are likely to mention, before almost anything else, that we do not smoke or drink alcohol.
Most of us are pretty familiar with the history of the Word of Wisdom. Received in 1883 in response to tobacco use in the School of the Prophets, it was not observed as a commandment until 1851. Even before that, however, it was a centerpiece of Mormon culture.
For most of the past 50 years, the Word of Wisdom has been riding high. The wisdom of the Word of Wisdom was reaffirmed time and again, as study after scientific study confirmed the health benefits of abstaining from tobacco, alcohol, red meat, etc. Mormons told themselves that this was evidence of Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling. After all, how could he have known back in 1833 what science would demonstrate over a century later?
But science isn’t always backing up the Word of Wisdom these days. The health benefits of red wine, and now coffee, are being touted. I am often surprised to hear less committed and even fully active members of the Church ask if I think the Word of Wisdom will be relaxed in light of recent scientific findings.
I think the Word of Wisdom is about health. But I do not think it is only about health. I think it is about obedience and commitment. I think it about wisdom, both in avoiding unhealthy and problematic practices, and in gaining spiritual knowledge. But I think one of its most important purposes is the one I mentioned at the beginning of this post- - the indelible imprint it has made on Mormon culture. Observing the Word of Wisdom gives members of the Church a common life experience that is very powerful. It bonds us together and sets us apart from the rest of the world. Maybe it bonds us together by setting us apart. It is one of the central ways that you know that you are a Mormon, and that the Mormons around you are part of your group. It is one of the things that makes us a people.
So, what do you think of the Word of Wisdom? What, if anything, does recent health science data say about it? What does it do for you? For your family? For the Church? Is it important, or overemphasized? Why?