What is the Word of Wisdom? From Mormon.org, we read that “our bodies are precious gifts from God. We believe He has given us guidance about how best to take care of them. He revealed a law of health, called the Word of Wisdom, to Joseph Smith in 1833. The Word of Wisdom prohibits the drinking of alcohol, coffee and tea, and the use of tobacco…” It is called a “law of health”, and is generally seen as a list of prohibitions. Since it was given in 1833, the Word of Wisdom has been reinterpreted a number of times. But this leads to a question: Is our current interpretation still true to the canonized revelation, and is it primarily “law of health” as we claim? Or are there figurative (and literal) elephants in the room that we don’t generally talk about – namely that the current interpretation is more about obedience than actual health, and that there are parts of the Word of Wisdom that we basically ignore with alarming consequences related to obesity? And if these elephants are real, should we do like the Church has done over the years and consider reinterpreting the Word of Wisdom to bring it more in line with its original intention?
The Word of Wisdom is now primarily about obedience rather than health. In the canonized version of the Word of Wisdom, we read that it was sent as a “greeting; not by commandment or constraint, but by revelation and the word of wisdom” (D&C 89:2). So, the original intent of the Word of Wisdom was to make some suggestions for health. Various church leaders have given suggestions over the years, such as avoiding R-rated movies & bikinis, getting married and having children quickly, attending Seminary & Institute, wearing white shirts, etc. Many suggestions we receive are good ideas for living a good life. The big difference, however, is that not following those suggestions won’t keep you out of the temple or from participating in other ways. Why is this? Is the Word of Wisdom “more”? Let’s examine some of the reasons:
Is the Word of Wisdom inherently an eternal law? No. Examples supporting this are easy. The first recorded miracle of Christ according to John 2 was to make wine, wine good enough to make the host wonder why it was held back. Christ accepted wine enough that He incorporated it into the sacrament – the most meaningful ordinance to remember Him. Nephites made and drank wine. Joseph Smith drank wine with others to “refresh their spirits”. There are many examples, but ultimately it is easy to see that the Word of Wisdom is not an eternal law, but just a temporary law. Even Hugh Nibley taught as much when he said that “the Word of Wisdom doesn’t belong to the order of the eternal Gospel” in his commentary on D&C 89.
So is the Word of Wisdom primarily a health law? Not really, as least as far as its current interpretation. Let’s look at the “Big Four”: Alcohol, coffee, tea and tobacco.
Tobacco is the easiest one. It was described by Joseph Smith as being for the use of cattle and not for man. And that’s proven true today as well. There’s not really any study showing that tobacco has any real benefit, in any form. So, with regard to tobacco, if we were primarily using the Word of Wisdom as a health law, we still wouldn’t use it.
Alcohol. We currently teach this as “not a drop”. Some people don’t even use it in cooking. But is alcohol bad for our health? Yes and no. Obviously, alcoholism in excess has a toll. Alcoholism, drunk driving, etc. are all ills in society that have a cost on many levels. But in moderation, a number of studies have shown that a glass of wine or two with dinner, or a beer or two each day can actually contribute to BETTER health.
Interestingly, this is how the Word of Wisdom was revealed to Joseph Smith and how he lived it himself. According to the original Word of Wisdom, we SHOULD drink beer. It states that barley is to be used “for mild drinks” (D&C 89:17), which was defined as beer in Joseph Smith’s time. Wine was also allowed for the sacrament. Given all this, the current “not a drop” interpretation of the Word of Wisdom is NOT necessarily for health reasons and is not how Joseph Smith interpreted or lived the Word of Wisdom. It received a lot of reinterpretation around the time of Prohibition, when the apostles even stopped using wine in the temple for their weekly sacrament meeting, and never went back. So, with regard to alcohol, if we were using the Word of Wisdom as a health law, beer and wine in moderation and/or for the sacrament would be fine. Strong drinks (ie. distilled spirits) would still be avoided.
Coffee and tea. This is a murky area, as the Word of Wisdom defines only “hot drinks”. But what does this really mean? Is iced tea bad? How about Diet Coke? Or hot chocolate? What about mate? What about camilla tea? How about a hot chicken broth? Green tea, white tea, rooibos tea? How about thing things made from the coffee bean and the tea plant? What about caffeine extracted from the coffee bean and put into Diet Coke? Is decaffeinated coffee still bad? Coffee flavored ice cream? Monster or Red Bull or Rockstar? Mountain Dew? How about chocolate and the caffeine in that? Heber C Kimball interpreted “hot drinks” to include hot chocolate and cocoa as things we should avoid. Was he right?
And what, if any of this, is actually based on health? Obviously, if someone drinks caffeine (or anything else) in excess it is not good for them, but what about in moderation? The fact is that 90% of the world’s population consumes caffeine in some form or another, and this would likely include a similarly high proportion among LDS members. Populations that drink tea are among some of the longest living in the world. Coffee has also been shown in a number of studies to be positively related to health when consumed in moderation. And, in reality, a cup of tea or coffee is better for you than the calories and chemicals in the soda (diet AND sugared) we currently drink as Mormons. So, with regards to coffee and tea, if we were using the Word of Wisdom as a health code, coffee and tea in moderation would be fine.
Back to Obedience
So, since the Word of Wisdom is not an eternal part of the gospel, and since it’s only loosely related to being a law of health (as least as far as the “Big Four” are concerned), what is the point? Again from Mormon.org, we read that “The Things we do and don’t consume are some of the most visible markers of our faith.” Others have previously argued that as polygamy was abolished and no longer served as a visible marker, the Word of Wisdom was reinterpreted to help serve as this marker. And ultimately, it basically comes down to obedience – just to see if we’ll do it.
Back in college, I was in a fraternity. As a pledge, there were certain things that we had to do, many of which seemed to have no logical sense whatsoever (and they still don’t). From the outside, some of the rules seemed kind of dumb, so people would ask why I did them. I explained that I wanted to be in the fraternity, and they were requirements. No one was forcing me to become a member of the fraternity, but if I wanted to join, there were certain things I had to do.
I look at things like the Word of Wisdom in a similar fashion. Do I really think that drinking a Diet Coke with all its artificial ingredients is better for me than drinking a cup of black coffee? Absolutely not. Do I really think that not having a glass of wine with dinner is better for me than having a glass of wine with dinner? Absolutely not. But I follow these rules anyway – not that I think they are for my health, but because they are part of the current requirements to “be Mormon”. The interpretations of the Word of Wisdom have changed in the past; they’ll change in the future; but since they are what they are for now, I’ll follow the current interpretation merely out of obedience.
And now to the even bigger elephant in the room, literally and figuratively – obesity. We are literally eating ourselves to death, yet we completely ignore the parts of the Word of Wisdom that address this.
For example, consider D&C 89:12-13 where we read about meat: “… flesh also of 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; and it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.” Yea, we pretty much ignore that. We don’t generally eat meat sparingly. We don’t use it only in times of winter or cold or famine. And yet because we want to eat meat, we argue about the placement of commas in what is a pretty clear statement. These verses are certainly more clear than our extrapolations of other verses.
The Word of Wisdom also talks about herbs and grains. It talks about a healthy diet. As above, this even includes using barley for “mild drinks”, which is beer. Yet we also ignore this fairly straightforward statement and currently interpret beer to be against the Word of Wisdom.
Is Obesity Really a Problem? (Or I just have fat genes)
We know that eating a well-balanced diet high in grains, fruits and vegetables, with minimal meat is healthy. It is described in the Word of Wisdom. But are we, as a people, following it? Consider the following graphs of obesity trends in the United States over the past 20 years or so. This is from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If you want to see the complete, moving trend, here is a link to the map. It’s stunning.
As clearly seen in these maps, we as a people have become obese, and it is killing us. We go from light blue, where < 10% of a given state is obese to dark red, where >30% of a given state is obese. This all occurred since I graduated from high school, so the genetics in this country haven’t really changed that much. This really represents lifestyle changes.
There are a number of arguments about WHY these trends have occurred: access to nutritious food, sedentary lifestyle, hormones in meat, pre-processed food, overconsumption of meat, etc. But whatever the cause, they trend is alarmingly real. So what is obesity doing to us as a country? Here are some facts from a recently released report by the National Institutes of Health:
- Obesity costs the United States alone $190 BILLION extra in medical costs, or 21% of all medical spending. This raises the premiums on EVERYONE to pay for the obese. We’ve shown that “second-hand smoke” has costs. So does obesity. Incidentally, this amount is also enough to solve the “uninsured” problem. We could give EVERYONE insurance in the country for $190 billion.
- We use nearly 1 BILLION more gallons of gas each year than if we made the same number of trips and weighed what we did in the 1960’s. So, obesity is increasing our dependence on some pretty despotic countries.
- Obesity increases type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, some cancers, gout and sleep apnea. It leads to arthritis, knee and hip replacement, back disease and other orthopedic problems. These have very real impacts on people’s lives in morbidity, as well as those family members who have to take care of them.
- The health care costs of obesity are higher than those of tobacco.
- 27% of the nation’s young adults aged 18-24 are ineligible to serve in the military because they weigh too much
- Obese people are, on average, less productive, have more restricted activities at work and have more work absenteeism. This accounts for an estimated $450 BILLION in indirect costs in lost efficiencies. So, obesity is robbing our employers and driving costs up as well.
There are a number of other facts in the report, but there is no denying that this is a big problem. Granted, some people have diseases or other conditions that lead to this. Other people talk about having “fat genes”. In reality, however, our genetics as a country haven’t changed significantly since the 1980’s, yet the obesity trends are alarming. It is diet and lifestyle. I don’t say all this to offend anyone, but we need to call a spade a spade. These are all facts.
Obesity and the Word of Wisdom
So, what does this have to do with the Word of Wisdom? The Word of Wisdom talks at least as much about diet, meat, grains, etc. as it does about the “Big Four”, yet we basically ignore those verses. We bill the Word of Wisdom as a “law of health”, but don’t want to talk about obesity, a very real threat to health and something specifically addressed in the Word of Wisdom. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if someone has never had a drop of alcohol – if they are 80# overweight, can they really “run and not be weary” or “walk and not faint”? Why do we ignore plain parts of the Word of Wisdom concerning diet, yet extrapolate other parts well past what science has shown is healthy. Again, are we really talking about health, or are we talking about obedience?
Granted, it is very hard to lose weight. But it is also very hard to quit smoking. We ask people to quit smoking as a part of our religion’s health law. If we’re going to be so strict on this, shouldn’t we also ask people to lose weight? Shouldn’t that also be a valid part of our religion’s health law. If we keep people out of the temple for not following one part of D&C 89, shouldn’t we keep them out for not following other parts? Does consistency matter?
So, given all this, If I Were In Charge, I Would Revisit the Word of Wisdom:
– I would truly make it focus on health. I would incorporate medical advances over the past decades and update our interpretation of D&C 89. We don’t really follow it how early Church leaders follow it anyway, so there is precedent for reinterpreting it – even without changing the actual canonized words. If we were honest, we’d admit that drinking a glass of red wine each day or coffee in moderation is not harmful, and is actually beneficial. We’d still limit tobacco, as there’s no real benefit shown to that.
– I would make it consistent. Does it really make any sense that a morbidly obese 350# man who ignores the part about eating meat sparingly can go to the temple because he feels he is following our “law of health” when a healthy person who actually follows the part about drinking a “mild barley drink” (ie. beer) cannot?
– I would once again make it a suggestion. I wouldn’t keep someone out of the temple for drinking a glass of wine, for eating too much meat, for drinking a cup of coffee, for weighing too much and not being able to run or walk, or anything else. I’d consider the Word of Wisdom a suggestion, but not a commandment.
– I would make it focus on moderation. Some food is ok, too much is bad. A glass of wine is ok, too much is bad. A sparing amount of meat is ok, too much is bad. Some coffee is ok, too much is bad.
And this is what I would do if I were in charge. These may sound like radical things, but that is only in the context of our generation. In reality, it is not really proposing anything different than how Joseph Smith lived the Word of Wisdom, and he is the one through whom the section was given. He drank wine and beer and coffee, but in moderation. He wasn’t obese. He likely ate meat sparingly. He treated this as a suggestion for healthy living, but focused on more important things.
Perhaps Joseph Smith really knew something and WE have drifted away. Perhaps God knew what he was saying when He revealed D&C 89, and we are not receiving all of the blessings possible because we’re not really following what He revealed in our canonized scriptures.
- Do you think the current interpretation of the Word of Wisdom is more about health or is it more about obedience?
- If it is about health, should we revisit the Word of Wisdom and interpret it according to actual health guidelines? Or are health studies meaningless to the Word of Wisdom? Or do we only accept the results of studies that support our current practices and reject the rest as “bad science”?
- If our goal is about health, and if the Word of Wisdom specifically talks about diet (ie. meat, grains, etc), should we start including a maximum BMI in the temple recommend interview?
- Should the Word of Wisdom be a suggestion as revealed to Joseph Smith in our canonized scripture, or should it be a requirement as interpreted by other Church leaders?
- Do you think obesity is a problem? Is diet and weight for health reasons something the Church should address? If so, how should they do that? If not, why not and how is that different than a cup of coffee or a glass of wine?
- Someday, we are told that we will drink wine with Christ (D&C 27:5 – where he said “for the hour cometh that I will drink of the fruit of the vine with you on the earth, and with Moroni…”. Wouldn’t it be strange if no Mormons would drink with Him because they “weren’t supposed to drink wine”?
NOTE: This post is one in a larger series of posts entitled “If I Were In Charge:” If this post interests you, or if you are interested in seeing any of the other posts in the series, here is an Overview and Topical Guide. For other posts, click on Mike S to the right —>