From Moderation to Abstinence: Evolving Applications of the Word of Wisdom

Up In Smoke: A Response to the Tanners’ Criticism of the Word of Wisdom” by Michael R. Ash provides a detailed and well documented review of the evolution of the application of the Word of Wisdom over the years. The essay takes on the anti-Mormon charges that Church leaders have been hypocritical about the Word of Wisdom.


Author: Jeff Lindsay

18 thoughts on “From Moderation to Abstinence: Evolving Applications of the Word of Wisdom

  1. Always love to read Interestingly I came accross a footnote in this article that as an ex coffee drinking convert peeked my interest:
    (135) Joseph L. Anderson, 8 January 1965, Secretary to the First Presidency wrote to one member (as directed by President David O. McKay), “I am directed to tell you that the drinking of a beverage made from the coffee bean, from which all caffeine and deleterious drugs have been removed, is not regarded as a violation of the Word of Wisdom.” (“Decaffeinated Coffee Does Not Violate Word Of Wisdom” Revelations in Addition to Those Found in the LDS Edition of the D&C [New Mormon Studies CD].)

    Does this mean I could drink decaf?

    Love being LDS but some things I do miss

    Frans VandeWetering

  2. Frans,

    You might find this article helpful.

    In my opinion, the very fact that caffeinated sodas and chocolate (which also contains caffeine) are not prohibited in spite of the fact that they contain caffeine is reason enough to suspect that the prohibition of coffee and tea isn’t necessarily because of their caffeine content. There are other chemicals in them which may also be harmful. I realize that there is counsel to avoid caffeine in any form, because it is addictive and unnecessary, but it hasn’t been entirely prohibited as coffee and tea has been. That tells me that there may possibly be other more important reasons that coffee has been prohibited besides the fact that it contains caffeine. Those reasons may even be beyond the scope of health.

    I am curious, however, about a particular phrase in the quote by Joseph L. Anderson. It says, “from which all caffeine and deleterious drugs have been removed.” What does this mean? In the process of decaffeination, are there other harmful chemicals which are removed from coffee, or is it just caffeine? If only caffeine is removed, that would lead me to believe that it wouldn’t be possible to find a decaffeinated beverage that met this requirement. This statement of permission could be a bit misleading, so I am a bit perplexed by it. According to the Ensign article I linked to above, decaffeinated coffee still contains possibly harmful chemicals. It also still contains a very minute amount of caffeine, so it also wouldn’t meet the requirement of having “all caffeine” removed from it.

    I am also aware of another letter written by the secretary of a prophet which was written presumptuously and was later retracted because it contained inaccurate information about the Church’s doctrinal stance on a particular issue. I would be careful about accepting such a statement as being completely accurate.

    In any case, I think that it would be best to be sure before giving an “okay” to decaffeinated coffee in your own life. Anyway, avoiding the appearance of evil is always a good idea. If others know you are LDS and don’t know that your coffee is decaffeinated, it might be a little uncomfortable having to explain yourself, if you even get the chance.

    Sorry if my comment has left you disappointed.

  3. “The essay takes on the anti-Mormon charges that Church leaders have been hypocritical about the Word of Wisdom.”
    And confirms it.
    Reading the “up in smoke” article, I think did more to support the Tanner’s points than dismiss them.

    The movements at the time were shown to be chiefly about temperance from alcohol, tobacco, coffee and tea. The meat and condiments were lessor.

    That the leaders ignored the WOW in the 1800s was well documented as well. Only after the territory was successful did the church leadership concentrate on the WOW. For what purpose was this change in emphasis? I will not speculate. Perhaps it was a retrenchment program, in vogue at the time.

  4. I am amazed at how many LDS faithful look to temporal, physical reasons on why certain things are prohibited and certain things are not. This leads to fanaticism…

    “Behold, I gave unto him that he should be an agent unto himself; and I gave unto him commandment, but no temporal commandment gave I unto him, for my commandments are spiritual; they are not natural nor temporal, neither carnal nor sensual.”

    I read that to mean that, via prophets, God has commanded that certain items should not be consumed, and the reason is SPIRITUAL. Sure, there may be some collateral PHYSICAL benefit…but, that’s not the point.

    Any rationale on what items are prohibited and the why they are relies on the arm of the flesh for that explanation.

  5. For what purpose was this change in emphasis?

    The establishment of the WoW as an absolute law is one of the many actions of Heber J. Grant that I cannot agree with.

  6. Perhaps it was a retrenchment program, in vogue at the time.

    If you cannot offer a sound secularist alternative that is superior to divine revelation, than your explanation is no better. Why are you asking us to place faith in your doubt? We have no rationale, no basis for such a thing.

    Sorry, man. If you’re wanting to take a sideswap, you’re going to have to try a lot harder.

  7. Gee, cigars and cigarettes are the big change. Tobacco goes from mildly addictive, hard to dissolve in your mouth’s acids to breath in deep and obtain through your lungs (they cure the tobacco differently for cigarettes and that makes a heck of a difference) — a modern development.

    About the same time the Word of Wisdom picks up emphasis.

  8. Thanks Jeff,

    I have been a member for 30 years and have heard all the stories aginst Joseph Smith, those that moved west and how the Word of Wisdom was not what it is today in the church. But until now did I get to read the evolution of how it came about and better understand it.

  9. Stephen:

    Your history is off here…cigarettes actually picked up during the 1920s with the revolution in advertising. Cigarettes were even called “torches of freedom” for women. Yes, the progressive movement probably didn’t have much kind to say about them, but progressives and Mormons never got along much anyway.


  10. Caffeine and alcohol are good when used medically. My heart meds use caffiene. When I get a cold/puenemonia I use codiene.

  11. Hayes,

    I am going to assume that your comment was directed at me and/or Frans. If I’m wrong I apologize.

    Anyway, I think that a healthy curiosity is a good thing and need not lead to fanaticism. The Lord has said that He has given us all things–meat, herbs, fruit, etc.–for our use and enjoyment. If coffee gives someone enjoyment, and they find out that decaf is okay (through proper authority) to drink and poses no adverse physical effects, then I see no reason why that person should not try to find that out.

    The Lord gives us commandments, but He doesn’t command in all things, which means that it is up to us to use our own best judgement in certain matters. Sometimes that may require us to use our own understanding, which may derive from human knowledge and understanding, as evidenced by the prophet Joseph Smith and others in the early days of the Church and their observance of the Word of Wisdom (see the article which Jeff linked to on this post).

    But your comment is specifically why I said, “Those reasons may even be beyond the scope of health.” Which means that I understand the possibility that many of the aspects, if not the primary reason for the Word of Wisdom, is for spiritual and not temporal reasons, although I think it is a healthy balance of both.

    However, I think you have misinterpreted the scripture you quoted. To say that all commandments were given for strictly spiritual purposes and that temporal benefits are only a bonus is a very narrow understanding of that particular scripture. Here is a commentary:

    “Man makes a distinction between temporal and spiritual laws, and some are very much concerned about keeping the two separate. To the Lord everything is both spiritual and temporal, and the laws He gives are consequently spiritual, because they concern spiritual beings. When He commanded Adam to eat bread in the sweat of his brow, or Moses to strike the rock that the people might drink, or the Prophet Joseph to erect the Nauvoo House, or the Saints in Utah to build fences and roads, such laws were for their spiritual welfare, as well as physical. To obey such laws, when given, is a spiritual duty. One who performs his daily labor ‘as to the Lord, and not to men’ (Eph. 6:7) derives spiritual benefit from whatever his duties are.” (Smith, Hyrum M., and Sjodahl, Janne M. Introduction to and commentary on The Doctrine and Covenants. Rev. ed. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1972, p. 156.)

    To think that God doesn’t have some practical purposes behind the commandments he gives makes no sense when you look closely at many of them. But certainly, they are all spiritually significant, regardless of their temporal nature. It should be noted that temporal can also be defined by time, as opposed to the physical. If you look at the footnote for that scripture, you will see a reference to the eternal nature of God. It could also mean that the effects of God’s commandments are of an eternal nature and hold lasting consequences for us.

    Anyway, Frans thought it looked as though a prophet had given consent to drink decaf. To receive such persmission from the prophet could hardly be considered relying on the arm of flesh.

  12. What’s the big deal about a change in emphasis? Isn’t that the point of having continuing revelation and current prophets–so we can know whether to change what we’re doing in our own time? No sensible person has EVER claimed the Word of Wisdom–as it was lived in Joseph Smith’s time or as we are asked to live it now–is an eternal, unchanging thing.

    In my opinion, it became more important to keep the prohibitions of the Word of Wisdom in President Grant’s time because alcohol was becoming a more prevalent and dangerous force, because cigarettes were doing more harm and causing more cancer and addiction than pipes and cigars had, and because the sophistication with which such addictive and deadly substances were marketed (by “conspiring men in the last days”) was on the rise.

    However, my opinion could be wrong: The simple fact is that I can’t read the mind of God and don’t know everything He reveals to his prophets, or the reasons for doing so. But I do know there’s no reason to find fault because a prophet changes the way the Church does something.

  13. Howdy all!

    Having not grown up in the Church, the WOW to me has mostly been about addiction prevention.

    That being said, I think it’s important to note the 3rd verse in D&C 89…

    “Given for a principle with promise, adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints, who are or can be called saints.”

    To me, that means the importance of the WOW is tied to the strength of the Church. The stronger members are in their faith, the less strict the principle becomes.

    There is a big difference between something that’s a temptation (“Hmm, I wonder what coffee tastes like”) and something that’s a weakness (“I find it difficult to function without my cup of coffee”).

    The more of us that grapple with weaknesses, the easier it is for us to fall into escalating addictive traps. I believe that is why the prophets have added drug use (outside of medicinal purposes) as an “understood” part of the Word of Wisdom.

    I try to live the WOW based on my understanding. I know there are things I can do better. (Not a vegetarian but I do sometimes go days without eating meat). Believe it or not, I do feel the promise… I do feel healthier.

    If people wish to call me a hypocrite because I don’t live up to some fanatically strict definition of the WOW, so be it.

    I do know the hundreds of thousands of Americans who die each year ( from smoking and alcohol related diseases could have also been blessed by following a few pages of scripture.


  14. Not a very compelling article. As stated above, the article does nothing to dispell the Tanners’ charges. Plus, the author concludes that the WoW “included only those things which we now know negatively impacts our health.” There may be perfectly good reasons for the WoW, but this statement is clearly untrue. Tea and coffee don’t fit the description at all.

    Plus, how can anyone be taken seriously when they use awful puns like “up in smoke.” Bad enough as the final line, but in the title as well? What this an assignment for his 7th grade creative writing class?

  15. Wagoneer, you’ve offered your conclusions but given no reason to agree with them. The article DOES discredit the Tanners because it shows why the evolution of the Word of Wisdom’s emphasis in the Church is reasonable and not hypocritical. Your mere saying it doesn’t dispel what the Tanners have claimed won’t suffice to convince. If you want me to agree with you then show me why you’re right. Ditto for coffee and tea not belonging on the list of substances that do harm. They’re addictive.

    Shawn, as a person with near ancestors who were alcoholics, I have long assumed I might be a latent alcoholic. But since I live the Word of Wisdom’s prohibitions, I’ll never have to find out. I consider myself one of the “weakest of the Saints” and am grateful to have been raised under a principle that protected me from the heartache my possible latent weakness might have caused. Just more food for thought on the topic of how the Word of Wisdom is adapted to the weakest among us.

  16. Shawn,

    I just thought you might find this bit of information interesting. I’ve been reading W. Cleon Skousen’s book, “The First 2,000 Years: From Adam to Abraham,” and interestingly enough, he addresses the topic of vegetarianism. I had never realized that Paul also mentions it in 1 Timothy 4:1-4. Anyway, I had always been under the impression that vegetarianism was probably a more superior form of eating habits, although I have never attempted to live such a strict diet, but have opted for trying to eat meat sparingly. But I never considered the idea that vegetarianism is an apostate belief. Here is a quote from the book:

    Second, “Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you even as the green herb have I given you all things.” For some reason or other the Lord has had to emphasize from time to time that meat is to have its proper place in the human diet. In almost every generation certain groups arise which advocate complete abstinence from the use of meat. Paul pointed out that this type of fad partakes of an apostate spirit. On occasion the Lord has warned his people against the use of certain meats (as in the case of ancient Israel) which had become “unclean” and in modern times he has warned against the excessive use of meat: “Yea, flesh also of the beasts and of the fowls of the air, I, the Lord, have ordained for the use of man with thanksgiving; nevertheless they are to be used sparingly.”

  17. Can’t agree with Zera. The mere fact that meat is allowed by God doesn’t mean it’s immoral or disobedient to refrain from eating it.

    If a person tried to preach that vegetarianism is the Lord’s revealed will for us, he would be in the wrong. But merely choosing for oneself not to eat meat is no violation of the Word of Wisdom.

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