Wednesday, January 30, 2008

"The Word of Widsom"

I give here a brief outline of the Word of Wisdom for those who would like to understand better this unique Mormon practice.

Where did it come from?

"When [the school of prophets] assembled together in this room after breakfast, the first 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. Often when the Prophet [Joseph Smith] entered the room to give the school instructions he would find himself in a cloud of tobacco smoke. This, and the complaints of his wife at having to clean so filthy a floor, made the Prophet think upon the matter, and he inquired of the Lord relating to the conduct of the Elders in using tobacco, and the revelation known as the Word of Wisdom was the result of his inquiry" (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, vol. 12, 158)

Like many revelations given in the Latter-days, this revelation came in response to a particular situation. Joseph Smith inquired of the Lord to know what to do and received what is recorded in D&C 89.

Why the Word of Wisdom?

Besides the obvious health concerns that it address, the Word of Wisdom was also given for another significant reason. "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—" (D&C 89:4). The Lord warns that there will be "evils and the hearts of conspiring men in the last days" and that is why he revealed this health code. It doesn't take much imagination to see such conspiring men in the tobacco and alcohol industries, does it? Here are groups of men getting rich of the lives, happiness, freedom, health, and families of those who consume and often are addicted to their products. The very definition, according to the Book of Mormon, of secret combinations are those who murder to get power and gain.

What about the health issues? It wasn't until over a century after the Word of Wisdom was revealed that science and society as a whole began to recognize the dangers of tobacco in particular. Medicine has also shown the benefits of avoiding alcohol, eating grains, and avoiding large quantities of meat. If this revelation were simply a product of Joseph Smith's time and environment, why has it been verified to a large extent by science only much later?

Hot Drinks

Early in the Church's history, Hyrum Smith announced that "hot drinks" meant "tea and coffee." Joseph Smith validated this interpretation. Some members of the church have interpreted that further to mean that caffeine should be avoided. However, the Church officially interprets it thus: "The only official interpretation of 'hot drinks' (D&C 89:9) in the Word of Wisdom is the statement made by early Church leaders that the term 'hot drinks' means tea and coffee" (LDS Church (2006). Church Handbook of Instructions, Book 1: Stake Presidencies and Bishoprics [Salt Lake City: LDS Church], 185). Tea has been defined as the drink that contains the actual tea plant, and not to include herbal teas.

Evolution of the Word of Wisdom

The Word of Wisdom was first understood as a guideline for members of the Church "not by commandment or constraint" (D&C 89:2) It wasn't until the early 1900's that the Word of Wisdom was reinterpreted or expanded by church leaders (particularly Pres. Heber J. Grant) to be no longer simply a guideline but a commandment from God. Since then, LDS members have been expected to live the Word of Wisdom in order to participate in temple ordinances and to advance in priesthood (for the males).

EDIT: Something else I forgot to mention. The revelation came, as I mentioned due to conspiring men that the Lord foresaw would exist in the last days. This leads me to believe that the principles of the Word of Wisdom are adapted for our time and place and we shouldn't expect to find them in the New Testament and perhaps some of the principles will change in a millennial day. The Word of Wisdom, in my mind, doesn't fall in the category of "never ending truth" but into the category of "this is best for you at this time."


chad said...

This helps a lot. Knowing the origin & background is interesting. I compare it to Moses in the OT summing up the Torah by declaring that God was giving the Hebrews the chance to choose life or death.

I have had friends who have made it their vocation to oppose Mormons and they use the word of wisdom as an example of control and legalism - (these are Evangelicals) I usually respond by asking them if the NT prohibitions against fornication, adultery, gossip, lieing, polygamy (at least for bishops, presbyters)etc...are legalistic - to which they of course say no....

As a smoker and as a severley addicted coffee drinker I would find the WoW challenging to live ~ but ultimately I think as with all other commandments God gives (though they may have health or other benefits) He is looking for willingness to obey (Isa 1:18-20, Hosea 6:6, 1 Samuel 15:22) and for actual obedience...the same things I look for in my own son...and when he doesn't obey I refer back to Hosea 6:6 and show mercy as I am shown....thanks for this post.

Andrew Miller said...


you hit it right on the head. I believe all of God's commandments first and foremost are a test of our love of God. Second, they are for our own benefit because God loves us. Simply put, commandments are God's expression of love toward us and our opportunity to express our love toward Him.

Andrew Miller said...

I might add, it appears to me (correct me if I'm wrong) that not all of the dietary restrictions of the Old Testament were done away in the new (Acts 15:29). Perhaps they were done away later (1 Cor. 8 seems to suggest that, perhaps?), but there was a period in the early Church were certain things were not to be consumed by either Jew or Gentile. Legalism? Heck if I know what is legalism and what is not. I'm pretty sure the word "legalism" doesn't appear in the Bible, does it?

chad said...

Ahh...Acts Chapter 15 - The council of Apostles says to avoid meat "polluted"(NRSV) by idols (Paul later abrogates that apparently - as you point out) or strangled meat and to avoid blood in essence kosher meat is bled dry...(plus it's from a "clean" or kosher animal)somehow a prohibition against fornication makes it way into James' dietary laundry list as well - I have often wondered about that subject ending up in a dietary rule...and I have often wondered if I am breaking #1 when I pass the giant Buddha at my favorite Chinese buffet...;) but I digress.

The other thing I find interesting in that Acts passage is verse 21 "For in every city, for generations past, Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every sabbath in the synagogues.’" It's almost as if James and the other Apostles are saying let's have the gentiles start out with the minimum requirements listed in our letter and because they will hear the law in the syngagogues (no churches yet) where they worship (some of these gentiles must have been among the "God-fearers" who worshiped with the Judeans but found circumcision to be a barbaric practice and wouldn't submit to the knife or stone-ouch!Damn those Greeks. lol) and they will pick up the rest of the law as they go along...through the hearing of the law. Just my humble thoughts but whatever.

Then there is Jesus in the NT often saying "obey my commands" if you love me will...

So this whole idea of leaglism stemming from the reformed era rebellion (rightfully so) against Roman Catholic abuses of the faithful (ie indulgence sales etc...) has become the mantra of hardcore Evangelicals who see commandment observance as works based salvation (what do they do with Philippians 2:12-13) but they are blind to subtlety of their own commandment obeying by following their moral/religious code...

Again however I digress.

chad said...

Found this interesting as pertaining to the current thread of comments...

"...[T]he Final Judgment is not just an evaluation of a sum total of good and evil acts--what we have done. It is an acknowledgment of the final effect of our acts and thoughts--what we have become. It is not enough for anyone just to go through the motions. The commandments, ordinances, and covenants of the gospel are not a list of deposits required to be made in some heavenly account. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a plan that shows us how to become what our Heavenly Father desires us to become."

Dallin H. Oaks, "The Challenge to Become", Conference Report, October 2000.

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Andrew Miller said...


That's an interesting analysis of Acts 15. It's hard to draw any certain conclusions about what was going on from our perspective nearly 2,000 years later and with limited information, but I think you did a pretty good job of synthesizing the material there. Some scholars have suggested that Peter and Paul were really at odds concerning the law of Moses and that they never reconciled completely. I have a hard time accepting that, but it is clear that Paul did not want the gentiles to be bound down by the law of Moses while the Church officially said there were certain aspects of the law that were to be retained (as mentioned in Acts 15). Either way you cut it, to say there was no "legalism" in the New Testament among Christians is historically incorrect. They had certain standards and laws that they were expected to follow in order to truly be Christians. James 2 comes to mind where James rebukes some early Christians who started to think that there was nothing to do so long as they believed.

I love the quote from Elder Oaks. Elder Oaks knows about legalism. He was on the supreme court of Utah. I think the message he is trying to convey could be put (as I've heard else where), "Thoughts become actions, actions become habits, habits become character." Ultimately what we choose to do is reflected in who we become. God judges us as a whole, who we are, and not each individual work whether good or bad apart from that. I've got a long way to go!

James said...

My understanding of the Word of Wisdom was changed dramatically after reading this article:

I of course believe that today it is a commandment to the saints, but understanding the origin and evolution of the WoW really causes one to reevaluate his/her paradigm.