Friday, June 12, 2009

Gospel Doctrine Lesson 22: The Word of Wisdom

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?


  1. i have a very strong testimony of the word of wisdom. it's not only about not drinking alcohol, coffe, tobacco, etc. i also feel that it is about eating too much of anything: sugar, food, soda, etc. everything in moderation. i teach my children that Heavenly Father created us and knows what's best for us. perhaps Joseph Smith saw the abuse with alcohol,etc. in our time, perhaps he didn't.....but our Heavenly Father did.

  2. Michelle: Thanks for the comment. I think moderation is an important principle and certainly within the spirit of the WOW. I think it is interesting that a lot of the WOW is clearly about moderation (meat sparingly, fruits in their season, etc.), but some is (or, has become, anyway) about total abstinence. I think the reasons for that can make for a good class discussion.

    Another thought: Does the food industry's agressive advertising and marketing, and exapnding portion sizes, qualify as "evil designs" in the "hearts of conspiring men [and women]"? Hmmm.

  3. The Word of Wisdom has an important economic element as well. For my lesson, I want to spend time providing historical context to this important guidance from the Lord. Read this facinating article, published in BYU Studies (1959) by Leonard J. Arrington: "An Economic Interpretation of the Word of Wisdom" ( It provides great anecdotal reference for the gradual adoption of the WoW as a spiritual marker for Latter-day Saints from the 1830s to the mid-1950s.

    Today, the application of principles found in the WoW can have tremendous economic impact both locally and globally. For example, if Americans reduced consumption of red meats, grains feed to beef cattle become more readily available to the poor and starving populations elsewhere in the world. This factor has been identified as a chief cause of the global food crisis.

  4. I'm not sure the beating the Word of Wisdom has taken from science is as serious as you imply. Sure, various studies suggest health benefits from drinking wine, tea, and coffee, but no one would dispute that it is more beneficial to be free from addition. Part of the wisdom that underpins the Word of Wisdom is avoiding addictive foods and substances. I don't think I've ever heard anyone seriously wonder if the Word of Wisdom would be relaxed -- in fact it almost seems like the Word of Wisdom is being retrenched. The attack on caffiene is pretty fierce right now. I wouldn't be surprised if the First Presidency eventually made an official "ruling" on caffiene, removing it from doctrinal gray area the same way they did R-rated films and multiple body peircings.

  5. "it was not observed as a commandment until 1851"

    A small part of my lesson was spent disabusing classmembers of this claim. This has been a popular claim among various General Authorities, given a speech by BY in 1851 that seems to support it, but it is misleading -- real compliance in the modern sense doesn't start until the turn of the Century, and it isn't really a "commandment" in the modern sense until after 1920.

    "After all, how could he have known back in 1833 what science would demonstrate over a century later?"

    Easily. By listening to the huge numbers of health reformers in his day who were claiming the very same things he was. Seriously, this is a canard that is ubiquitous in the church today. Joseph Smith was not ahead of his time by giving us the WofW. The WofW is not a health anachronism in 1830s New England. This doesn't mean we can't still see the Prophet as in some sense "inspired," but as a church, we really need to drop this whole line of argument.

    "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 agree with your comments as to what the WofW is "about," but I wonder why this surprises you so. Given that we love to defend the WofW in scientific terms, it should hardly be surprising that many of us follow our typical argumentation to its logical conclusion. I agree with you that these folks miss the boat, but if we want them to stop missing it, we need to move further and further away from silly ideas about supposed health coincidences with science, and just focus on other rationales for our health practices, including some of the ones you mentioned.

    Aaron B


  6. Chadd: I think the Church has been pretty careful NOT to make an offical pronouncement on caffeine (although there are many, many unofiicial pronouncements as you suggest). My point, really, is that we often talk about how the WOW is about moderation, but with excpetion of the "meat sparingly" thing, I don't really see moderation in the text. I see a discussion of what is good and should be eaten, and what is bad and should not be consumed. And we are never told that those things should be consumed in moderation, we are told to wholly abstain.

    All this said, I am fine with the WOW as understood and practiced today, because I think it provides the Church and it members with a lot of benefits in addtion to, or beyond, health.

  7. Aaron: Thanks for the discussion of the 1851 commandment issue. I have always understood that the current, strict interpretation of the WOW was a 20th century development, but have not seen hard information on that - - mostly anecdotal stuff from journals and biographies of earlier saints. Then, I did see this week the discussion of the 1851 "codification" and thought, well, maybe I was wrong. I am glad to see I wasn't!

    And, I guess my surprise about some members' view of the WOW is precisely that they rely so heavily on specific health claims on it s value and validity. I fully expect that health claims will come and go in the future, variously weakening and strengthening the argument as the WISDOM in the WOW. I do not think, however, that the other benefits will ever lose their force, and the WOW (gratefully) will be with us for a long, long time.

  8. Aaron or Teacher,

    Can you point me to any material on the lateness of the following of the WOW by the church. Planning on teaching the lesson this Sunday.


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