Word of Wisdom/Brigham Young's whiskey distillery
Brigham Young built a whiskey distillery in Utah: Did this violate the Word of Wisdom?
Questions and Answers
Question: Why did Brigham Young build a whiskey distillery in Utah?
Whiskey was seen as having a medicinal use
Critic charge that this was hypocritical, thus encouraging others to violate the Word of Wisdom.The Word of Wisdom was not enforced as rigorously, or with the same requirements, in Brigham Young's day. Many speakers emphasized the Lord's patience in this matter, as applied to both leaders and members.
But, some of the events with which the critics wish to shock the modern member probably have nothing to do with the Word of Wisdom at all. They are concerned about medical practice or other legitimate uses, not the social or recreational use of substances. The choices made by the nineteenth century saints and leaders should be seen in their historical context, not ours.
Whiskey had legitimate uses—for medication, for the cleaning of wounds, and for the cleaning of the body
Critics also fail to point out that the fact that some forbidden substances were seen as having a medicinal use, for which the Saints were free to use them. Said Brigham:
When there was no whisky to be had here, and we needed it for rational purposes, I built a house to make it in. When the distillery was almost completed and in good working order, an army was heard of in our vicinity and I shut up the works I did not make a gallon of whisky at my works, because it came here in great quantities, more than was needed. I could have made thousands of dollars from my still, which has ever since been as dead property. 
Whiskey could have legitimate uses—for medication, for the cleaning of wounds, and for the cleaning of the body. Furthermore, the application of the Word of Wisdom did not necessarily require complete abstinence, as Brigham taught on another occasion:
I have no fellowship for men who are guilty of breaking the Sabbath, of drinking spirituous liquors to excess.... 
This message was echoed elsewhere:
- Brigham Young
- "You have read that piece of excellent advice called the "Word of Wisdom." I shall not say you must obey it; you can read it over again and refresh your memories, and I give the privilege to the Elders of Israel to cease using tobacco, and if they will not cease using it, then raise it; and then, also, to cease using spirituous liquors to excess....If you will cease drinking spirituous liquors you will thereby be benefited individually and benefit the community. A man who indulges in any habit that is pernicious to the general good in its example and influence, is not only an enemy to himself but to the community so far as the influence of that habit goes. A man who would not sacrifice a pernicious habit for the good it would do the community is, to say the least of it, lukewarm in his desires and wishes for public and general improvement. Tobacco is not good for man; spirituous liquor is not good for a beverage, but in many cases it is good for washing the body." 
- Heber C. Kimball
- "If any of you have been in the practice of drinking spirituous liquors to excess cease at once the wicked and destructive practice." 
- Erastus Snow
- "If a person having a strong desire for stimulants, such as spirituous liquors, tea, coffee, tobacco, opium, &c., that stimulate the nervous system to excess, and continues to gratify this appetite, will soon destroy the elasticity of his nervous system, and become like a bow that is often bent almost to breaking....We must neither indulge in excessive eating, excessive drinking, nor in excessive working, whereby to overtax our physical energies or our nervous system. 
- Joseph F. Smith
- We do not want these things here; but we are not supreme; we cannot govern as we would wish. Not that we desire to rule with an iron hand, oppressively. It would not be oppression to me, for the Proper authorities to say,—"You Shall not take intoxicating liquors; you shall neither manufacture nor drink them, for they are injurious to your body and mind," nor would it be to any Saint,—but what oppression it would be to a certain class! Yet I hope to see the day when, within the pale of the kingdom of God, no man will be allowed to take intoxicating liquor; and make—I was acing to say, a beast of himself. But I do not name it, rather to make a degraded man of himself. Beasts would not degrade themselves as men do. The habits of the brutes are decent in the eyes of God and angels when compared with the conduct of drunken, debauched men, who pollute mind and body by the commission of every species of vice and crime. I want to see the day when no man in the midst of this people will be allowed to touch intoxicating drink to become drunken.
- Do the "Mormons" drink it? Yes, to their shame, disgrace and the violation of their covenants, some of them do; and while on this subject I will say that no one supposes for a moment that a confirmed and unrepentant drunkard will ever be permitted within the gates of the celestial city. We all understand this, but I want to bear my testimony that those who prostitute mind and body by the debasing use of intoxicating drinks and the crimes and evils to which it leads will never have part in the celestial kingdom. "But," says one, "did not some of the ancients get 'boozy' once in a while?" If they did they had to repent of it. I do not excuse them any more than I would you or myself, for taking a course of this kind. Yet God sees as we cannot [p.285] see. He takes all things into consideration, He does not judge partially as we are liable to do. When He places a man in the balance He weights him righteously, but when we judge a man we are apt to judge un-righteously, because we are not omniscient. But what necessity is there for a healthy person to take intoxicating liquor? Does it ever do him any good? No, never. But does it never do any good to use liquor? I do not say that. When it is used for washing the body according to the revelations God has given, and when absolutely necessary if used with wisdom for sickness, it may do good, but when it is used to the extent that it destroys reason and judgment it is never used with impunity. All who thus use it then violate an immutable law, the penalty of which must inevitably follow the transgressor. It is against this practice that I am speaking. If there be any guilty of it here this afternoon, and I have no doubt there are, I wish them to take warning (italics added, underline is emphasis in original). 
- Franklin D. Richards
- I am not asleep to, nor unaware of the fact that many of us coming from the world have brought with us a deep craving for spirituous liquors, and for other things which are not good for us, but which we may have dabbled in to gratify a wicked appetite. Parents afflicted with these propensities ought to take warning not to breed them into the natures of their children, and if possibly they have done so, to use diligence to preserve them from being thrown in the way of temptation until they come to years of understanding, judgment and firmness of purpose, which will enable them to practice self-denial, and live as men of God. These are matters that need to be looked after. 
Brigham was prepared to produce a limited amount for such uses—the Saints were isolated in Utah and had to either produce or import everything they needed. He was not pleased, however, at the influx of whiskey and attendant over-use which accompanied the U.S. army.
To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here
- Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 10:206.
- Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 6:319.
- Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 10:202.
- Heber C. Kimball, Journal of Discourses 7:348.
- Erastus Snow, Journal of Discourses 7:353.
- Joseph F. Smith, Journal of Discourses 14:284-285.
- F.D. Richards, Journal of Discourses 24:328.