In Mormonism, the Word of Wisdom is often interpreted as a black and white revelation which simply means members shouldn’t ingest coffee, tea, or alcohol while ignoring almost all the rest of the revelation. The revelation itself also historically was interpreted as a guideline to adhere to which is certainly different from the firm requirement it is today. Multiple reasons for this have been given however it is very instructive to analyze the scriptural insights when thinking about the Word of Wisdom itself.
In the LDS Church there are few things more publicly egregious than violations of the Word of Wisdom. This is partly because it is a public action, but also because we are taught from a very young age about the dangers of partaking of the prohibited substances. This is evident in my own life. Not too long ago I brought a bottle of Kombucha, which has a small amount of natural alcohol, to a church function and gave my 2-year-old daughter a small drink. The couple sitting across from me almost had a heart attack when I did this. I could tell I immediately went into the outer darkness category as far as they were concerned.
The general church wide attitude toward the Word of Wisdom is also evident in General Conference talks from people like Elder Packer who equated following the Word of Wisdom with being redeemed from sin. He mentioned:
While the Word of Wisdom requires strict obedience, in return it promises health, great treasures of knowledge, and that redemption bought for us by the Lamb of God, who was slain that we might be redeemed.Boyd K. Packer
I will be clear that I think following a code of health in general is a good idea. Much of our food system is nutritionally compromised and of course being addicted to anything causes someone to lose freedom. Therefore, I don’t take any objections to guidelines to health. The Word of Wisdom though is far more than a guideline and now has become a literal commandment that we must follow in order to access God.
Over the years there have been many Conference talks about how sweet the smell of cigarette smoke is in a sacrament meeting because it means that someone is repenting and coming to Jesus. However, I seriously doubt anyone really means this. For instance, if an average Bishop came to church smelling of cigarettes, or was out drinking the night before, he would be released as soon as the Stake President found out.
This strict obedience is in direct opposition to the words of Christ, who himself consumed alcohol on at least a semi-regular basis to be accused of being a wine bibber. Christ, in Matthew 15, was speaking about the over reliance of the Pharisees on the traditions of their fathers. Peter asked for further clarifications about Christ’s words to the Pharisees and was rebuked by Christ. Christ told him:
Do ye not yet understand, that whatsoever entereth in at the mouth goeth into the belly, and is cast into the draught? But those things which proceed out of the mouth, come forth from the heart; and they defile the man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, … these are things which defile a man. But to eat with unwashen hands defileth not a man.Matthew 15:17-20
Christ was clear that he came to change us from the inside out and not outside in as the law of Moses did. What we eat or drink is expelled from the body, but what we think and do is a reflection of the type of person that we have become. The LDS church will let a vile disgusting person who follows the Word of Wisdom enter the temple, but a man of God that just consumed a glass of wine is denied entry.
In the Law of Moses, the temple was the most sacred part Jewish society and was to be treated with the utmost respect. It was a tangible link between them and God. Because of the sanctity of the temple, God wanted those that officiated in the temple to be sober and have a clear mind. We can read this commandment from God in Leviticus 10:
And the LORD spake unto Aaron, saying: Do not drink wine nor strong drink, thou, nor thy sons with thee, when ye go into the tabernacle of the congregation … that ye may put difference between holy and unholy, and between unclean and clean;Leviticus 10:8-11
It is important to remember that God makes no prohibitions against wine or strong drink when the priests were not officiating in the temple. God simply wanted his servants to be mentally there when they were working for him. This is exactly the same thing that is required for almost everyone else that works for an employer. Their boss wants them sober while they are working and in this case the priest’s boss was God who also wanted them sober while working.
Another example from the Law of Moses is the payment of their yearly tithing. According to Deuteronomy 10, the people were to tithe of their increase which may have included wine. However, if the distance was too far to carry their crops or livestock then they could convert it into money and then buy the items again to offer as a tithing sacrifice to God. This also could include wine according to God.
Thou shalt truly tithe all the increase of thy seed, that the field bringeth forth year by year. And thou shalt eat before the LORD thy God, in the place which he shall choose to place his name there, the tithe of thy corn, of thy wine, and of thine oil … And if the way be too long for thee, so that thou art not able to carry it; or if the place be too far from thee … then shalt thou turn it into money, … and thou shalt bestow that money for whatsoever thy soul lusteth after, for oxen, or for sheep, or for wine, or for strong drink, or for whatsoever thy soul desireth; and thou shalt eat there before the LORD thy God, and thou shalt rejoice, thou, and thine householdDeuteronomy 14:22-26
In the Old Testament there are actually many references to wine in a positive light. For instance, scriptures like Psalms 104:14-15 describes wine as “mak[ing] glad the heart of man”. That is just one scripture out of hundreds that discuss wine in some form. In the scriptures though, God is clear that drunkenness is never condoned. We can see this in Proverbs 23:
Hear thou, my son, and be wise, and guide thine heart in the way. Be not among wine bibbers; among riotous eaters of flesh; for the drunkard and the glutton shall come to poverty;Proverbs 23:19-20
God gives us many things in life however he asks that we treat them with respect and wisdom. He knows that we need to eat to survive, however he also knows that we don’t need to do it in a gluttonous way. There is nothing wrong with eating, but there is with eating to excess. This is the same as with wine. A small amount is beneficial while a large amount is detrimental.
Another simple scripture to consider is found in Ephesians 5:
See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, … And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit;Ephesians 5:15-18
This is very similar to the first scripture we looked at. God wants us to be of a sober mind when we are trying to draw closer to him. He doesn’t want us to be drunk because he knows that increases the difficulty in approaching him. However not once does God prohibit the consumption of wine or anything similar.
As we saw in the Old Testament that there were no prohibitions against drinking wine, the language in the New Testament is even more clear. Paul, when writing to the Colossians, even went so far as to condemn those that would establish arbitrary dietary requirements that individuals would then be required to adhere to. He wrote in Colossians 2:
Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day … If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.Colossians 2:16-22 (NASB)
The KJV of the scripture is not nearly as clear however it certainly is saying the exact same thing when you read it. We are told what we can eat, or drink based upon arbitrary interpretations of men. We are told today, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch” and do not eat.
Paul, in Romans 14, when writing to the members in Rome did caution against the consumption of wine or food if it would be a stumbling block to those around you. We are to be wise and not poke the bear so to speak. For instance, if your friend was an alcoholic then you certainly can drink wine in front of them however it would be terribly unwise to do so. If you respect your friend, then you would respect their boundaries and help them in their efforts to draw closer to God.
Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another. For meat destroy not the work of God. All things indeed are pure; but it is evil for that man who eateth with offense. It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor anything whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak.Romans 14:19-21
Again, Paul is not saying to not do it. He is simply saying to be wise about our actions. Our actions should show our love and respect for God and man. They shouldn’t just be an opportunity to assert our control and abilities.
In Luke 1:15, we are told that John the Baptist would be born “and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink”. This was because he spent his entire life as a consecrated Nazarite in the service of God. Many have erroneously described this as a higher law. While I agree that it was an obvious separation from society, however describing it as a “higher law” is really not semantically accurate.
Christ consumed alcohol on many occasions, so we know that the law of Christ at least includes the consumption of alcohol. Christ was our example of God in the flesh so we can look at his life as the highest law we can follow. Therefore, I struggle with the idea that we are supposed to be like Christ in general, but not like Christ in specific cases such as this. Could God condemn someone for doing something that Christ did repeatedly?
In the Doctrine and Covenants, the first reference we have to wine is found in D&C 20, which was received in April 1830. The church is plainly told to use wine in their sacrament meetings. This would certainly be inconsistent if God didn’t want his people drinking wine at all.
It is expedient that the church meet together often to partake of bread and wine in the remembrance of the Lord Jesus;D&C 20:75
It is interesting that in the scriptures, wine is equated with the blood of Christ while water is used as a cleansing agent. Today we ignore wine altogether and equate water with Christ’s blood.
In August 1830 Joseph was visited by Newel Knight and wanted to partake of the sacrament before Newel left. Joseph didn’t have any wine available, so he went to purchase some and was met by a “heavenly messenger” on the road to town. This account is canonized in D&C 27, and is widely quoted in the church however most members only use the first portion and not the second one.
For, behold, I say unto you, that it mattereth not what ye shall eat or what ye shall drink when ye partake of the sacrament, if it so be that ye do it with an eye single to my glory … Wherefore, a commandment I give unto you, that you shall not purchase wine neither strong drink of your enemies; wherefore, you shall partake of none except it is made new among you; yea, in this my Father’s kingdom which shall be built up on the earth.D&C 27:2-4
God is telling Joseph that the sacrament doesn’t have to be done with wine as it is just a symbol of Christ’s blood. However, if they wanted to do it with wine then it is not safe to use wine from their enemies. In hindsight this is pretty solid common sense. Their enemies would use this as an opportunity to poison them. The scripture though doesn’t say they can’t or shouldn’t use wine at all. It is just saying wine is not a hard requirement. After this point the church didn’t switch to water, as many believe, they continued using wine in their sacramental services well into the late 1800’s.
A Word of Wisdom
Section 89 is very familiar to most members as well as the story as to why it was received. It is interesting though that the story about Emma complaining about cleaning up after the men seems to have been an invention of Brigham Young who wasn’t even in Kirtland until almost 1834. There are no contemporaneous accounts of this event during Joseph’s life.
In order to understand the Word of Wisdom though it is very important to understand the circumstances in which it was received. In Kirtland, several high priests were chosen to participate in what was called the School of the Prophets. This was a short time of intense spiritual discussion in order to prepare those in attendance for their missions. It was during this time that the Word of Wisdom was received.
It was during this intense time of spiritual discussion that God didn’t want his future missionaries to be sidetracked with things that didn’t matter. This is exactly the same thing that God mentioned to Aaron in that he wanted Aaron to be able to focus and execute his duties clearly. When we look at the School of the Prophets though they would open each meeting with a hymn and sacramental services using wine. It wasn’t the complete prohibition that we have today.
In looking at the Word of Wisdom itself, God mentions in verse 2 that it was given “not by commandment or constraint”, however today it is a commandment and members are constrained by it. Of course, many have surmised that this is because the older members needed to die because they were addicts and God was being merciful. If this was true, then why wasn’t God merciful to the Israelites who built the golden calf and worshipped it? They had just left Egypt and were reenacting what they did there. Shouldn’t God have been merciful to them since they were addicted to idol worship?
In the church we focus almost exclusively on abstaining from tea, coffee, tobacco, and alcohol. However, we ignore all the other aspects of the Word of Wisdom. For instance, in verse 12 God clearly says that we should consume meat sparingly. In the 1828 Websters dictionary this means seldom. However today we eat meat with almost every single meal. This overindulgence of meat has given rise to incredibly disgusting factory farms where animals live in horrible conditions only to await their ultimate slaughter to then arrive on our dinner tables. I seriously doubt God is pleased with our mistreatment of his creations.
Another overlooked aspect of the Word of Wisdom is found in verse 17 which lists various grains and their uses and then states that barley is useful for “mild drinks”. Malted barley is the preferred grain in making beer. The process of malting the barley helps to change the structure of the barley to assist the yeast in breaking down the protein of the grain. Very few members ask why God would mention that barley is an acceptable mild drink, but he clearly mentions that it is acceptable. Again, if a blanket prohibition was desired by God, then verse 17 would make no sense. God uses every word for a purpose and doesn’t just say idle thoughts for his amusement.
In order to understand the Word of Wisdom it can also be helpful to look at the life of Joseph. He received the Word of Wisdom and if he felt it was a blanket prohibition then it would make sense that he would follow it as such.
On January 14th, 1836, which was about 3 years after the Word of Wisdom was received, Joseph was conducting church business and was asked to officiate at a wedding in the evening. Joseph attended and enjoyed himself. He recorded:
We then partook of some refreshment, and our hearts were made glad with the fruit of the vine. This is according to the pattern set by our Savior himself, and we feel disposed to patronize all the institutions of heaven.Joseph Smith
This of course doesn’t make sense if it was a blanket prohibition against alcohol. If Joseph can do it and still converse with God and angels, then shouldn’t we be so much better today because we follow the Word of Wisdom?
A few days after the wedding, Joseph was at another wedding in which he was asked to bless three trays of wine. His journal records the following:
It fell to my lot to attend to this duty, which I cheerfully discharged, it was then passed round in order, then the cake, in the same order, and suffice it to say our hearts were made glad, while partaking of the bounty of the earth, which was presented, until we had taken our fill, and joy filled every bosom, and the countenances of old, and young, alike, seemed to bloom with the cheerfulness and smiles of youth and an entire unison of feeling seemed to pervade the congregationJoseph Smith
Why would Joseph be blessing alcohol during a wedding if it wasn’t allowed by God? Should he not have smashed the glasses to the ground and condemned everyone for their wickedness? Of course not. In this case the people were enjoying the bounties of God and Joseph described it as a very joyous time. Today it seems that if you brought wine to a Mormon wedding then you might be assaulted.
Joseph continued to advocate for moderation and freedom, however many felt that a complete ban was the best course of action. On June 27th, 1843, which was about 1 year before Joseph’s death, some individuals were accused of Word of Wisdom violations and brought before Joseph. The journal account reads:
It was reported to me that some of the Brethren had been drinking whiskey that day in violation of the word of wisdom. I called the Brethren in, and investigated the case, and was satisfied that no evil had been done and gave them a couple of dollars, with directions to replenish the bottle, to stimulate them in the fatigues of their sleepless journey.Joseph Smith
This is remarkable because not only is whiskey a “strong drink”, but Joseph is giving them money so they can continue to drink it. Joseph knew they were using whiskey as a stimulant in order to help them make their journey easier. Small doses of alcohol will actually act as a stimulant and have been used by people for 1000’s of years as such. Joseph investigated the case and found they actually were making a wise decision. The overzealous member who reported them though was making a very poor decision.
Another useful account is from John Taylor. He wrote about the day before Joseph was killed where he mentioned how they wanted wine with their dinner. He wrote:
Some time after dinner we sent for some wine. It has been reported, by some; that this was taken as a sacrament. It was no such thing; our spirits were generally dull and heavy, and it was sent for to revive us.John Taylor
This is another prime example of using the best tool for the job. Joseph and the others were very depressed and knew something was coming. They asked for wine, which was granted, and they drank some with their dinner. I can only imagine the feeling of that night. Today if we are depressed then we are told to consume a harmful pill. However, God has already given us many natural remedies that we should use with gladness instead.
Today the Word of Wisdom is a strict commandment that we must follow in order to have full fellowship in the church and attend the temple. There is however not a single scripture establishing it as a commandment, yet today we accept it as such. This is spiritual bondage and pharisaical. There is no reason the Mormon people can’t govern themselves and learn self-control in this regard.
Of course, many people have issues with alcohol consumption however this ignores the many people who don’t. Knives are certainly dangerous however that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be able to chop our dinner anymore.
Christ was very upset at the Pharisees who created rules around the Law of Moses and then treated these rules as commandments themselves. Over time these rules would be encased in other rules which resulted in the observation of the Law of Moses becoming a very restrictive burden on the people. Today the LDS people are under the same bondage. God has a clear and simple doctrine however it has been complicated by many well-intentioned men. It is very important though to always remember that just because a person with a certain calling says something, that doesn’t make it true. Only God can establish truth.